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Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Survivor

The survivor

“How sweet, thank you so much.”, said Rivka quietly.

Her old, wrinkled hands touched the box with food ware that we just put on her table. Over twenty pounds of vegetables, fruit, meat, bread, sweets and beverages. Now that it is clear that the Israeli government, between criminal investigations by the police and state commissions of inquiry, will have no time to run our country and certainly will not lend a hand to end the poverty of the Holocaust survivors, we the people, decided to step in.

In our town of Haifa we are pretty occupied with the Holocaust. Students, in their last year at high school, go to Poland to visit some of the worst death camps. A survivor, who tells the story of his of her life, joins them. We also send our children to visit the survivors living in our city. This enabled us to, without much effort, collect all the addresses of those who survived and live in dreadful circumstances.

Rivka is 84 years old.

At seventeen, she was caught by surprise by the war and was sent to a concentration camp within a few months. The infamous Mengele chose her for his horrific experiments, which resulted in her inability to give birth. After surviving six camps, she was smuggled to Israel, only to be arrested by English soldiers who sent her to another camp, this time in Cyprus. By the time she finally arrived in Israel, the Jewish State was a few weeks old.

She worked as a cleaner until her retirement in 1998, fifty years after arriving in Israel. As our pension plan is not really helping much, Rivka receives around two hundred and fifty dollars per month, which is called welfare. The Israeli government also negotiated compensation from the German authorities for her. She gets around one hundred dollars for her suffering in the Nazi camps.

Rivka never complained.

“We were ashamed to tell about what happened to us in the camps. People here blamed us for letting the Nazi’s do this to us without us fighting back. In the summer I used to go around in long sleeves, so no-one could see the number on my arm.”, she told me.

She has a one-room apartment, Rivka. It was probably painted fifty years ago for the last time. She rents it from some government cooperation that never promised maintenance. The stairways are clean, but broken and are dangerous for anyone, let alone someone of her age. Her apartment is clean, but a mess. When we met her for the first time last winter, her water supply was off. She could not remember for how long. She got a bucket of water each day from her neighbor. That served her for washing, drinking and toilet.

We send a class to her home. They worked for two months in shifts and fixed the apartment. Her water was running within five minutes and her toilet was back in service one hour later. The flat was painted, repaired, people brought second hand furniture and we even found a refrigerator and a small stove for her. The first days Rivka stared quietly at all the commotion, but after some days she started to smile and we heard her humming a song. The youngsters asked her to teach them the song and after a few days children from Haifa, Jewish, Christian, Druze and Muslim children, were all singing a Polish song during their labor.

Rivka got light and our power company came up with a special plan for Holocaust survivors, which turned out to be a symbolic amount of a few dollars per month. Rivka got clothes and a dentist volunteered to arrange her teeth. Suddenly everyone woke up and the few hundred Holocaust survivors in our city saw a change in their lives. Because we, the people, can do things that politicians refuse to do.

“Hunger was never a problem”, Rivka told me. “I have gone through famine and I can handle that. And the cold in the winter I can handle. Maybe here the winter is less cold than in Europe, but it is mean. And the state of my house… oh well…I have known worse in my life. I can survive anything.”

Suddenly I saw tears in her eyes.

I waited patiently.

“But what I got never used to is the shame. Not because of being a survivor, but because I was treated like a dog in our own country, Israel. For years, no one helped us."

I did not have a reply.

“And now look: I got all this!” She pointed at the box with goodies and at her freshly painted apartment. “And you tell me that I will get a box like this every week and that my pension plan will improve?”

I nodded.

“Can’t wait.”, she said quietly while taking an orange out of the box. She smelled at it.

“Could not afford one of those for years.”, she whispered.

Just a few days later I was called at work. Rivka had passed away in her sleep. A clerk who was going to explain her new income to her found her. She died peacefully, he said, with a smile on her face and an orange in her hand.

Rivka had no family. The same class that fixed her apartment came to her funeral. Together they all sang once more the song Rivka taught them just weeks before.

Just about forty people gave Rivka her last honors.

Because we cannot and will not forget her and all the Holocaust survivors.

© Simon Soesan

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