The six Holocaust survivors slowly made their way in wheelchairs, leaning on canes or on their children’s or grandchildren’s arms, toward the six torches set up for the official Yad Vashem ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day.
An instructor told the survivors where to stand to look out to the audience, and how to hold the unwieldy torches in their sometimes shaky hands when the time came to light the ceremonial lights Wednesday night, to mark the start of Yom Hashoah.
“What did she tell me to do?” Shmuel Naar, 96, said to his granddaughter, Geffen Naar, who accompanied him to the rehearsal and will be with him for the ceremony.
It was hard to hear, as singer David D’or and his band were rehearsing on the stage just below the torchlighters, testing sounds and amplifiers.
Naar was ready, however, to light the torch and honor his family and his former community of Thessaloniki, a center of Greek Jewry almost completely wiped out during the Holocaust.
Naar, who was the only survivor from his family, made it through Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. He returned to Greece after the war before boarding an illegal immigrant ship to pre-state Palestine. He and his wife now have 10 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
“I wasn’t interested in talking about this for many years,” said Naar. “But now people are often interested in our family and that makes me feel good. As much as I suffered in my earlier years, I have happiness in my later years.”
The Naar family traditionally gathers on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day, said Geffen Naar, Shmuel’s granddaughter. The men, including Shmuel, first go to the Hechal Yehuda Synagogue, known as Tel Aviv’s Greek synagogue, for the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony, before joining his wife, children and grandchildren for the televised Yad Vashem ceremony.
“I’m not religious but I go to offer respects to my family and to be part of this sorrow of what happened to us,” he said.
Zehava Gealel, 86, also refused to spend her life focusing on her past as a concentration camp survivor from the Netherlands. She returned home after the war with her mother and three brothers, and they didn’t speak about the Holocaust, said Gealel.
At the age of 12, Gealel and one brother immigrated to Israel, where she studied as a nurse. She retired on April 1 from Tel Hashomer Hospital after 50 years on staff.
“I learned not to talk about the Holocaust and just to continue with my life,” said Gealel.
It was her daughter, Miriam, accompanying her mother to the Yad Vashem ceremony, who first worked on bringing the conversation into the house and family, said Gealel.
Miriam said her mother downplayed her suffering during the Holocaust.
“Others had it worse than we did,” Miriam recalled was her mother’s message.
Manya Bigunov, 94, survived several forced labor camps in Ukraine, before escaping with a friend and returning home to Teplyk in Ukraine following liberation.
She reunited with her brother and sister and married, but was widowed in 1961, with one daughter.
Bigunov immigrated to Israel in 1992 with her daughter and two granddaughters and has become the unofficial documenter of the Jews of Teplyk, writing pages of testimony that were eventually transferred to Yad Vashem.
Halina Friedman, 89, said she never used to watch the Yad Vashem ceremony. “But people die, there’s no one left, and we have to be part of this.”
According to official Israeli statistics, there were 180,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel as of December, 12,000 fewer than at the start of 2020.
A native of Lodz, Poland, Friedman survived a mass shooting by the Nazis in 1942 by pretending to be dead and was later smuggled out of the Warsaw Ghetto. She eventually moved to Israel and married another Holocaust survivor, Moshe Friedman, who has since passed away.
Friedman’s son, Oded Friedman, said it wasn’t easy growing up with two parents who were Holocaust survivors.
“There was barely a night when my father wouldn’t wake up screaming,” said Friedman. “We grew up with some chaos, it was hard, but I guess we survived.”
Others had long awaited this honor as a torchlighter, lighting one of the six flames that signify the 6 million Jews who perished in the Holocaust.
“I didn’t think anyone would track me down for this honor,” said Yossi Chen, 85. He was only partly joking.
“It’s a big honor that I wanted — I don’t want to just represent myself, but all those who are not alive,” said Chen.
Chen said he would light the torch in memory of those who fought in the uprising of the Lachwa Ghetto in Poland (now Belarus), the first ghetto uprising that took place six months before the well-known Warsaw Ghetto uprising, where his mother and younger brother perished.
Chen was 6 years old at the time, the youngest survivor of the ghetto. He ran away, completely alone for the first hour, before finding his uncle and then his father.
His uncle was killed, but he and his father survived in the forest until they joined partisan forces there.
For Sara Fishman, a survivor of Auschwitz, it felt unreal to be at Yad Vashem after a year of surviving the coronavirus, when she spent much of the last 12 months at home in Tel Aviv with her caregiver, with visits from her family at the doorway.
Fishman has often shared her story of survival in Auschwitz, and her reunion with two of her sisters, the only survivors from their Hasidic family of 10 that lived in a part of Transcarpathia that was then part of Czechoslovakia.
On Tuesday night, however, Fishman was focused on being present at Yad Vashem, with one of her granddaughters.
“It’s unbelievable to be here after this year of the coronavirus,” said Fishman.
“It’s incredibly emotional to be here in this very public event.”
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