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The miracle of the maroon handkerchief

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Seventy-eight years ago, a Jewish man gave his 17-year-old daughter a maroon handkerchief as a way to remember him. She never saw him again – he died in the Holocaust. But she survived, went to America, and recorded her testimony in 1984.

Fast forward to 2020, and 14-year-old King David Linksfield pupil Noa Nerwich is asked to write a poem for a competition based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony. She came across Ruth Halbreich’s recording, which includes mention of the handkerchief. Nerwich wrote a poem about the handkerchief and won the competition.

A year later, Halbreich passed away. Shortly thereafter, her grandson, Reg Tigerman, came across the poem in a newsletter he received, and realised it was about his grandmother. But that’s not all: soon after that, he also found the maroon handkerchief. He made contact with Nerwich [who is now 15], bringing a story that has spanned generations and continents full circle.

Speaking to the SA Jewish Report from Los Angeles, Tigerman says, “When I discovered the poem, I was shocked. Ruth, who we affectionately called Nanny, had just passed away a few months ago. The maroon handkerchief had been a topic of conversation within our family because my wife and I revisited her testimony right after she died and talked about trying to find it.

“My mom, who was going through Nanny’s things, did end up finding it. So, not only did Noa write a poem inspired by my grandmother’s testimony, which is an honour in and of itself, but she picked up on an item she mentioned at the very end of her testimony (proving that Noa was paying very close attention), and it was something that a lot of time and attention had been spent on recently. It was a series of dayenus [it would have been enough]. A true miracle. It felt like the world was telling us how important Ruth and her story is, and how important it is to continue to share her story.”

According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Halbreich was born in 1926 in Warsaw to a well-to-do family of three sisters and one brother. In 1939, their father fled with them to the Russian part of Poland, where he continued his work in the paper business. She, her father, and one sister crossed back into Warsaw, but her mother and two other siblings were sent to Siberia.

Halbreich and her family moved into the Warsaw ghetto in 1940. When the Germans started sending people from the ghetto to the camps, she and her sister were sent outside the ghetto to live in a convent. After the Warsaw ghetto uprising, Halbreich and her sister were sent to a slave labour camp in a small town in Germany. They were liberated in April 1945. She found out that her father had died in the ghetto in 1943, fighting in the underground. She met her husband, a fellow Holocaust survivor, at a displaced-persons camp. She also found out that her mother and two siblings had survived in Siberia.

In her testimony, Halbreich says, “The uprising was in April 1943. My father had left the ghetto in the trucks carrying merchandise. I met him in his office. He gave me a handkerchief of his to remember him by. My father’s biggest wish was to be able to save his children, and he was able to do this. He went back into the ghetto, and no one really knows what might have happened to him.”

A million miles away from that time and place, Nerwich entered the 21st Annual Holocaust Art & Writing Contest run annually by Chapman University and The 1939 Society (a community of Holocaust survivors, descendants, and friends). “The brief was for a piece of creative writing based on the testimony of a Holocaust survivor,” she told the SA Jewish Report.

The poem describes the handkerchief as the only thing Halbreich has left from her father as her world is destroyed, and how it symbolises the flames of destruction and her father’s deep love.

“Hearing her story and writing the piece itself was an enriching experience,” says Nerwich. “I was thrilled when I was awarded first place, a first for King David High School. I always smile just thinking about my poem. However, a small part of me always wished that Ruth would be able to read the poem and know that her story is being shared, that she is being heard.”

So, when she received the email from Tigerman on 15 July, “it changed my life. I read it and re-read it because I was sure my eyes were deceiving me,” says Nerwich.

She was shaking as she read the email. “I felt a deep sense of loss to learn that Ruth had passed away, but I was also deeply moved to learn that her family had the gift of this poem and that Ruth’s story continues to be told. Seeing the actual picture of the maroon hankie – the last memory that Ruth had of her father, the piece of fabric that guided her throughout the horrors she endured – is an image that will be permanently engraved in my mind.”

She says she chose to reflect on this story in her poem “because I could relate to Ruth. I’m a very sentimental person. Just like Ruth’s dad gave her a red handkerchief, my dad made me red roses out of Lego, which I keep in my room. So, the fact that she mentioned the maroon handkerchief that her dad gave her really resonated with me. It made it so much more real. It’s a symbol of her story, and what she and so many others went through.”

Her mother, Daniella Nerwich, says she felt breathless when she read Tigerman’s email. “All this really shows the value of Jewish education. We are so fortunate that King David creates opportunities like this [to enter the poetry contest]. This just shows how it can be so far-reaching. So huge credit must go to King David for creating this opportunity. It has been life changing.”

Because of the pandemic, Nerwich was unable to travel to the United States to collect her prize, but Tigerman’s message has made up for that disappointment. They hope to meet in person one day, and possibly even work together to share the story of the maroon handkerchief as a form of Holocaust education.

Says Tigerman, “While my grandmother didn’t often share her story (she would if you asked, but she wasn’t very proactive about it), my grandfather [Siegfried Halbreich] was a regular speaker. He was a survivor of multiple concentration camps over the course of five and a half years. He served as president of The 1939 Society, the organisation that published Noa’s poem, and was a founder of the Los Angeles Holocaust Museum. Everyone’s story is worth telling and remembering, which has made the oral histories and recorded testimonies so important.”

A maroon hankie

“Cleanly pressed and folded it was placed into my hand

A last token of a soon to be memory

I received a maroon hankie

I didn’t know the value of objects, until I had one

I didn’t know the value of people, until I had none.

But my one object carried all the worth in the world

A maroon hankie

I don’t know what happened to him

All I know is the walls were rising

And there were bombs, more people dying

and Warsaw was in flames: Red, licking flames

Like the colour of my maroon hankie

We watched from the window, havoc unleashed on our home

Yet we were the opportune, we were on the right side of the window pane

The side where we still wore silky dresses made by the sisters.

the same silk of my maroon hankie

I was lucky

not because I was saved

But because I learned the true meaning of love

His love was sewn into my heart

The same way I held the hankie so tight at night

That its fibers have sewn into the fibers of my skin

Because of my father’s honour I survived

Because of his love for us he died

He sacrificed it all so we could breathe the air of freedom

To the man who gave to me

The thing that has carried all of my tears

A maroon hankie

His maroon hankie”

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Communal organisations help make Rosh Hashanah special

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With Rosh Hashanah upon us, communal organisations are hard-pressed to make sure that every community member is looked after, but the number of people needing help has spiked since the onset of the pandemic.

The Chevrah Kadisha – which looks after the lion’s share of those in need – has recorded a 35% increase in the amount of financial assistance that it gives families towards living costs. In the Western Cape, Jewish Community Services Cape Town (JCS) recipients have increased more than 100%.

The Jewish Women’s Benevolent Society (JWBS) has also noticed an increase in the number of people in need over the past few years. “With COVID-19, it’s especially hard,” said Maureen Disler, the co-chairperson of the organisation which has survived for more than 127 years. “People have lost their jobs, and some people ask for food vouchers. They haven’t got enough to feed their children.”

The Chevrah Kadisha gives special yom tov meals to the 850 elderly and physically or mentally challenged people living in its residential facilities. However, its wider reach extends to nearly 11 000 people, helping them with living costs, food, healthcare, education, accommodation, and social services throughout the year.

“The Chev is unique in the sheer volume of people it helps, the duration of time that it helps them for, and the diverse range of its activities from cradle to grave,” said Saul Tomson, the chief executive of the largest Jewish welfare organisation on the African continent.

The organisation distributes R5 million every month to families in the community, totalling R60 million for the year. This is a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. It’s also involved in education, with nearly R1 million a month going towards 279 children in Jewish schools and remedial schools, as well as 130 university students who are being educated through the Chev’s interest-free student-loan programme.

“Particularly now leading up to Rosh Hashanah, a lot of assistance is being distributed through our COVID-19 emergency release fund,” Tomson said.

Smaller organisations like Yad Aharon & Michael have also been inundated with new requests over the past two years.

“Whereas the number of families who receive weekly food parcels from us stands at about 700, families who aren’t in a position to provide festive meals for Rosh Hashanah through to Sukkot apply for food parcels, which we gladly provide, thereby increasing the number of parcels packed by anything between 20 to 30 plentiful yom tov hampers,” said Alice Friedman, the chief executive of the organisation founded more than 23 years ago.

Ingrid Koor, the chairperson of the Union of Jewish Women (UJW), which assists just more than 100 people over Rosh Hashanah, said, “There are many more people in need as many families have emigrated, leaving elderly people. The economic downturn and COVID-19 have made things more difficult. With, unfortunately, many more elderly passing, our numbers have remained the same for a few years.”

The UJW’s flagship project, Kosher Mobile Meals (KMM), will supply festive cooked kosher Rosh Hashanah meals, plus honey for a hopefully sweeter year. “We will also distribute yom tom joy parcels supplied by the HOD [Hebrew Order of David] consisting of treats and non-perishable food to recipients,” said Koor. “KMM distributes kosher cooked meals to those Jewish elderly over 75 who are unable to cook for themselves.”

For Rosh Hashanah, Yad Aharon & Michael is handing out double portions of seasonal fruit, apples and vegetables, supplemented by meat, chicken, fish, eggs, and dairy products. Its dry goods hampers include honey, grape juice, challahs, and honey cakes in addition to all the basic requirements needed to prepare yom tov meals and usher in a happy and sweet new year.

“I’m confident our families won’t need to shop for extra food for two days of yom tov,” said Friedman. “Our aim is to enable them to enjoy plentiful meals free from worry and anxiety. This is made possible by the community’s renowned generosity.”

JWBS is giving money to its recipients to sweeten their Rosh Hashanah. It also recently gave out activity packs. “People are lonely and isolated, so we’ve given them each an activity pack. They really look forward to it,” said Disler.

This Rosh Hashanah, the JCS’s hampers include round challot, ready-made vegetable soup, roast chicken, pumpkin pie, vegetables, salads, and strawberries.

“Of course, we add in the apples, honey, grape juice, and candles,” said Lauren Cohn, the chairperson of the JCS Tikvah Foodbank Committee. “In addition, we include a Tupperware container filled with teiglach, meringues, dried fruit, and Sparkles. Every food hamper has a special Rosh Hashanah card handmade by children in our local Jewish schools. These food hampers are well thought out, meticulously planned, and beautifully presented with the love, dignity, and respect that we all deserve.”

The JCS is raising funds through the Rosh Hashanah Appeal, which entails sending out e-cards on behalf of the Tikvah Foodbank’s donors. The organisation also relies on volunteers.

“Our Rosh Hashanah and Pesach [fundraising] campaigns are the biggest,” said Friedman. “We have a Rosh Hashanah campaign running at the moment. It’s widely posted on social media, advertised on street poles in suburbs known to be frequented by the Jewish community, and in the SA Jewish Report. We’re also selling beautiful yom tov gifts at various points in Joburg, which is a successful initiative.”

The JWBS phones people to ask for donations as COVID-19 restrictions prevent it from running traditional functions such as theatre shows and golf tournaments.

Since many of the UJW’s recipients don’t have family nearby or the funds to pay for their meals, KMM is run mostly on donations. “We launched a fundraising campaign on social media and via our databases to raise money,” said Koor. “We also phoned people to ask for donations.”

Although the UJW’s principal need is donations, it also needs volunteers to chat to its isolated elderly when it’s safer to do so. “KMM recipients are more isolated since COVID-19,” said Koor. “We used to host elderly people to a Wednesday lunch at our UJW house. These people are sorely missing the social interaction.”

Asked what advice she has for those wanting to help others on Rosh Hashanah, Friedman said, “Teshuvah, tefillah, and tzedakah are the three elements which Hashem takes into account when finalising our verdict for the coming year. I’m fully cognisant that everybody is financially stretched, but helping those in our midst who cannot celebrate Rosh Hashanah and the chaggim without our assistance is a communal responsibility. Treating the needy with sensitivity, kindness, and empathy underpins Yad Aharon’s brand of chesed, and addressing the harsh reality of hunger and destitution in our midst forms an integral part of our mission.”

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Hudaco-ORT helps disabled entrepreneurs

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ORT South Africa hosted a ceremony on 12 August for 10 entrepreneurs who it assisted to obtained SETA qualifications to help them start their own businesses.

The potential and existing entrepreneurs were assisted by Hudaco-ORT to obtain National Qualifications Framework (NQF) level 2 new venture creation qualifications, assisting them to start and grow their business ventures.

Hudaco-ORT helps people with disabilities by facilitating their completion of the NQF level 2 qualifications, which equips them to capitalise on opportunities. The beneficiaries received their Sector Education Training Authority (SETA) certificates at the ceremony.

“We often unintentionally consume ourselves with what’s considered the norm rather than focusing on our own uniqueness,” Hudaco-ORT said. “People with disabilities are the epitome of uniqueness, forming a vital part of society and reminding us to value our own strengths and weaknesses.”

Said, beneficiary Mncedisi Bengu, “It was a surprise. I was fairly happy and shocked at the same time. I didn’t think I would be successful. My teacher, Sarah Malape, gave me an experience that I had never had in my life. She taught me to respect myself and other people, and to be myself.”

On receiving his certificate, he said, “I’m excited. At my home, they gonna [sic] be happy for me, and say, ‘Wow you did it.’”

Said another beneficiary, Sthembile Gumede, “I’m so happy, and my grandmother is happy for me. I wish I learnt more because I like books.”

ORT SA wishes all the beneficiaries of the Hudaco-ORT Project well in their future endeavours, and is grateful to Hudaco for partnering with it to make a difference in people’s lives.

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Rabbi and craftsman perfect the art of charity

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Two people from two different backgrounds – Rabbi David Masinter and artist Leonard Nyathi – have come together with the goals of teaching, educating, uplifting, and spreading the message about the need for charity around the globe.

Masinter, the rabbi of Chabad House in Johannesburg and the founder of the fundraiser Miracle Drive, was looking for a good craftsman who could also teach in the most destitute areas.

He came across Nyathi, a master craftsman whose business struggled before Miracle Drive recognised his talents and commissioned custom artworks.

Masinter told Nyathi, “Let’s identify the artists, bring them together, train them, and I will buy in a whole bunch.”

Encouraged, Nyathi started working with Masinter. “We worked as a team, an unusual team,” says Masinter. “The only thing we have in common is that we both like to teach.”

They started hiring and training underprivileged people. “We normally hire street kids and people with disabilities,” says Nyathi. “We also give training to people that don’t have an education. The rabbi and I decided to employ people so that they could make a living.”

Masinter says they found underprivileged artists in the most remote areas, and improved their skills. “When you find a skill within a person, you improve not only that skill but every other aspect as well,” he says.

Nyathi and the other artists are turning Jewish objects into what Masinter calls “African art”. All the artworks are handcrafted and hand painted – from ceramic mezuzah cases and ceramic dreidels to ceramic arks and a set of three ceramic grating plates (meat, parev, and dairy). It can all be purchased on the online Gallery of Goodness and Kindness, set up due to COVID-19. According to Masinter, they also “have a whole bunch” of non-Jewish products.

“The gallery online is only the beginning,” says Masinter. “We are building a proper gallery like the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art – a proper beautiful online gallery to promote South African art, underprivileged and other artists, one that can bring a smile to people’s faces.”

Asked if they have a marketing and sales strategy, Masinter says, “A hundred percent. That’s why this thing is going global. We also doing displays in different shopping centres, and we are taking it overseas.”

Nyathi is thankful for Masinter’s help. Now, he and the other artists can afford to pay their rent and support their families. “If it wasn’t for Shabbat, we were going to close this business,” Nyathi says.

When people praise his artwork, Nyathi says he feels “over the moon” and “recognised” in his heart.

Asked where the funding comes from for the materials, Masinter says, “Where required, I will do the funding, but the idea is to make it self-sustainable. This thing is global. We have already got orders from overseas. We are changing our world for good. Everyone should be energised by this. We can do much more.”

Masinter believes every Jew is obligated to uplift the spiritual and material welfare not only of every Jew, but also non-Jews as well.

“Therefore, we cannot live as South Africans only focusing on Jewish things when we have a fortune of programmes, from kids programmes to teenage programmes, to senior-citizen feeding programmes. We have to worry about everybody. You can’t live in a country where millions of people are living in squalor and say, ‘It’s not our problem’. The way to [help] is through job creation, and this project is helping with that. We have 21 libraries in the city in underprivileged areas. We have the whole learning programme for primary school children. We have a job-creation programme, and now during COVID-19, we went into this programme, which is self-explanatory. A rabbi and an artist have come together to turn the world upside down for good, with one thing in common, a passion for art and education.”

Masinter’s charitable work is based on two philosophies, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime” and “You don’t have to stay down, you can uplift everybody.”

Asked how long he has been doing his charitable work, he says, “I’m a Chabad rabbi. Every Chabad rabbi does charitable work. We don’t talk about the past. It’s about what we could be doing. You must energise people to copy what we are doing. We can’t sit here with millions of people living in squalor. We should all be asking what are we doing to assist welfare in this country, Jewish and non-Jewish.”•            The Gallery of Goodness and Kindness can be found at: https://www.chabadsouthafrica.org/templates/articlecco

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