'I had no home and no family to go back to'

Auschwitz survivor, 92, takes over @Israel for Holocaust Remembrance Day

Foreign Ministry gives its Twitter account to Itzik Yaakobi, prisoner B-11057, to recount his experiences during the Shoah and answer questions from around the world

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Foreign Ministry's Twitter account on January 27, 2021, International Holocaust Remembrance Day (photo credit: Courtesy)
Foreign Ministry's Twitter account on January 27, 2021, International Holocaust Remembrance Day (photo credit: Courtesy)

The 663,700 followers of Israel’s official Twitter page were offered content that is markedly different than the account’s usual fare Wednesday.

The profile picture featured a 92-year-old man, with the numbers tattooed on his left arm as the background image. The name of the page is now “Itzik Yaakobi – Prisoner B.11057.”

Yaakobi, who survived Auschwitz and a death march, was the only member of his family to make it through the Holocaust.

The one-day initiative, called #HowItzikSurvived, was the work of the Foreign Ministry’s digital diplomacy section, to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Yaakobi (with some technical help) tweeted out his memories from the Holocaust and answered tweeted questions from the public.

Yaakobi was born in Debrecen, Hungary in 1929 to an ultra-Orthodox Hasidic family, and studied at a yeshiva. He was 13 when the Jews were moved to ghettos.

“The Nazis purposely fed us pork,” Yaakobi recalled in a tweet. “My mother made me eat it because we were starving. I vomited it up.”

He was transported to Auschwitz at the age of 14.  He stood by his grandfather Ze’ev’s side for one of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele’s notorious “selections.”

“I heard a voice call out ‘Ervinke’ (that was my Hungarian name) go to the right! It was my cousin Poli. My grandfather told me to listen to him. Poli saved my life. My grandfather was sent to the left. That was the last time I saw him.”

Yaakobi became close friends Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel in the “Kinder Lager” camp for children. The two studied the Talmud tractate Bava Kama together, which Yaakobi still knows by heart.

“The last thing victims who were killed in the gas chambers said to me in Yiddish was ‘Never forget, always remember,” Yaakobi told The Times of Israel. “That memory has stayed with me all these years and that’s why I am sharing my story, for them.”

Yaakobi survived a death march, an ordeal from which memories of the anti-Semitism of Polish villagers stayed with him.

“We walked in the -27°C cold, wearing only pajamas and wooden shoes, without food,” he recalled in 2018. “On our way we passed near Polish villages and begged them to give us a piece of bread because we did not receive any food. They gave us nothing. Those of us who escaped into the Polish villages – were handed over by the Polish.”

Yaakobi remembers seeing General Dwight D. Eisenhower after liberation, and greeted him though he spoke no English.

But liberation from the horrors of the Holocaust was not an opportunity for rejoicing. Yaakobi discovered that his entire family had been murdered.

After World War II, Yaakobi immigrated to Israel, and was wounded in the June 1948 Battle of Negba against Egyptian forces.

He eventually rose to become an aide to legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, and deputy director of the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Along with his wife Leah, Yaakobi raised two children, has three grandchildren, and is awaiting the arrival of his first great-grandchild.

This is the second year that Foreign Ministry has given its official Twitter account over to a Holocaust survivor, said Tamar Schwarzbard, the ministry’s Head of New Media. In 2020, the hashtag #HowMikiSurvived allowed Auschwitz survivor Miki Goldman to tell his story in a similar fashion.

Schwarzbard, who came up with the initiative, called the feedback “overwhelming.”

“You can see that people are trying to hold on to these stories because they can feel the lives of survivors slipping away,” she told The Times of Israel.

Many of those who asked questions are being introduced to Holocaust stories for the first time, according to Schwarzbard. Questions came from across the globe, including Iran and Pakistan.

“I know this will be an odd question and probably one very hard to answer, but were there any ‘Good’ Nazis there,” asked one Twitter user with the handle @SoulReaper1252.

“No,” was Yaakobi’s blunt answer. “I did not meet one kind Nazi during all of my time in the Holocaust. They were the wicked of the wicked.”

Twitter being Twitter — an ADL report this week gave the platform a “C” for its efforts to address Holocaust denial — anti-Semitism did creep into the conversation.

“They are the ones who ensure that we will keep doing as many of these projects as we can and will never stop sharing the stories of those who endured one of the greatest human injustices,” pledged Schwarzbard.

An obligation “to give a voice”

The idea to use Israel’s official Twitter account to tell the story of a particular Holocaust survivor came to Schwarzbard when she was scrolling through Twitter last year before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Foreign Ministry Head of New Media Tamar Schwarzbard (courtesy)

“When we talk about 6 million people who were killed in the Holocaust,” Schwarzbard told The Times of Israel, “we’re talking about 6 million men, women and children, each with their own stories.”

“As a Jewish state, it’s up to us to keep the legacy and memory of those murdered in the Holocaust alive, especially with younger audiences who may have never met a survivor or even heard of the Holocaust. Twitter has allowed us to create digital interactions between Holocaust survivors and those who may never have the privilege of talking face to face with survivors.”

All of Schwarzbard’s grandparents survived the Holocaust, including her grandmother, who survived Auschwitz. “She spent her whole life reliving the horrors that she experienced,” Schwarzbard recounted, “and as her granddaughter, I feel obligated to give a voice to the millions of Holocaust victims who can no longer speak.”

Schwarzbard’s grandmother Yente — her “role model” — passed away two and a half years ago.

Survivors, 75 years on

At the end of 2020, there were 179,600 people defined as Holocaust survivors living in Israel. An additional 3,000 people were recognized as survivors in 2020, while 17,000 died, including the 900 virus victims.

Today’s survivors are all over 75 — World War II ended 75 years ago — and around 17% of them are over the age of 90.

Started by the United Nations in 2005, International Holocaust Remembrance Day marks the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau — the largest of Nazi Germany’s death camps — was liberated by the Soviet army on January 27, 1945. One million Jews from all over Europe were murdered in gas chambers there, in addition to 100,000 victims from Poland, Russia and elsewhere.

This week, for the first time, the United Nations and UNESCO will jointly organize a series of events for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, including a social media campaign — #ProtectTheFacts — to make people aware of “the dangers of Holocaust denial and distortion.”

According to statistics released by UNESCO, 47% of Germans surveyed in 2020 responded that Germany was “not particularly guilty” for the Holocaust. Two-thirds of young Americans do not know how many people were murdered in the genocide and — in Sweden — more than one-third of social media statements referencing Jews contain anti-Semitic stereotypes or violence-laden comments.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres, UNESCO Director-General Audrey Azoulay and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were scheduled to pay tribute to victims of Nazi persecution in a ceremony Wednesday, followed by an online panel on Holocaust denial and distortion with historian Deborah Lipstadt.

“By transmitting the history of this event, we uphold the principles of justice by refusing the hateful logic of National Socialism, and by challenging those who deny the Holocaust or relativize the crimes committed against Jews and other persecuted groups, because they seek to perpetuate the racism and anti-Semitism that caused the genocide,” said Azoulay.

Matt Lebovic contributed to this report. 

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