Lutheran nuns end Jerusalem mission to Shoah survivors
For half a century, they’ve run a gratis guesthouse for Holocaust victims. Now an era is ending, and the nuns themselves are at something of a loss
Residents of the Jerusalem’s Talpiot neighborhood who have watched nuns in their white habits go in and out of a house at 10 Ein Gedi Street for the past half century will soon notice their absence. Beit Avraham (House of Abraham), as the sisters of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary call their home, is closing down.
Since 1961 it has served as a guesthouse for Holocaust survivors. But with so few survivors still alive — and those still living too frail to come visit — the nuns have decided their work has come to an end.
“We received our mission from the Almighty. The Almighty gives and the Almighty takes away. Our job has ended,” says Sister Gratia in a conversation with The Times of Israel in Beit Avraham’s reception room. Sister Gratia, 71, arrived in 1975 from Austria to help run the guesthouse.
While the nuns’ days at Beit Avraham are now quiet, it used to be that they barely had a minute to breathe. Twice a month (and sometimes more often), groups of 10 Holocaust survivors at a time would arrive from around the country for eight days of rest and relaxation. The sisters provided their guests with room and board (kosher dairy meals prepared by the nuns themselves) and organized leisure activities and tours of Jerusalem free of charge, thanks to donations from supportive German Christians. So many survivors heard of Beit Avraham by word of mouth the nuns had waiting lists.
It didn’t, however, start out that way. “When we opened our doors in April 1961, you could hear through every open window the Eichmann trial being broadcast over the radio,” recalls Sister Gratia.
“Those were hard times. We didn’t know whether Holocaust survivors would trust us, whether they would allow us to do something for them,” she says.
The Evangelical Sisterhood of Mary is a Lutheran-based order, but operates independently. It began as a Christian organization founded in 1947 by German theologian and intellectual Dr. Klara Schlink, along with Erika Madauss. As president of the Women’s Division of the German Student Christian Movement from 1933 to 1935, Schlink refused to comply with Nazi policy barring Jewish-born students from meetings. During WWII, Schlink was summoned twice by the Gestapo because of her uncompromising stance in defense of Jews.
By 1948, Schlink and Madauss had become nuns and turned the group into a religious order. Schlink became Mother Basilea and Madauss changed her name to Mother Martyria. They established the order’s headquarters at a compound called Kanaan in Darmstadt, Germany, and today there are some 200 sisters serving at 11 branches around the world.
‘We didn’t know whether Holocaust survivors would trust us, whether they would allow us to do something for them’
The sisters had originally come to Israel in 1957 to work as nurses in Israeli hospitals as a way of doing practical repentance for not only what the Nazis had perpetrated, but also for “the 2,000 years of Jews’ suffering because of Christianity,” as Sister Gratia puts it.
“A few years later, we decided to give the maximum to Shoah survivors and opened Beit Avraham,” she continues.
“We as Christians had to do something in Israel. We couldn’t continue as though nothing happened,” says Sister Gratia.
Sister Gratia speaks proudly of instances in which Holocaust survivors began to find their way back to God, or some kind of spirituality, after spending time at Beit Avraham.
“We do not proselytize,” she emphasizes. “We sing songs and read Tehillim and Tanach with them,” she explains using the Hebrew terms for Psalms and Bible.
During the conversation, she leaves the room briefly to retrieve something. She returns with a small picture frame in her hands. In it, laid out against a black background, is a Yellow Star patch that once belonged to an Austrian survivor.
The survivor, knowing that Sister Gratia was also Austrian, gave it to her in thanks. He had been looking for the right thing to do with the patch since the war. “My life is finally starting,” he said to the nun as he presented it to her.
“This is worth more to me than gold,” says Sister Gratia with a look of extreme pride mixed with deep sorrow on her face.
Another special possession she and the Finnish Sister Yahalom take out to show are two books kept in the room serving as Beit Avraham’s office. One is a photo album with pictures of each and every group of Holocaust survivors that has stayed at the guesthouse. The other is large leather-bound ledger with the names of the guests by groups.
“Here is my handwriting,” Sister Gratia remarks as she points to a page dating to 1975. “This was the first group to come after I arrived.”
Although the sisters have kept records of all the survivors’ names, they have never ventured to count exactly how many have come through Beit Avraham. “That is not something we wanted to do,” says Sister Gratia, sensitive to the numbers tattooed on her guests’ arms.
Being around aging Holocaust survivors in recent years has been hard for the nuns. “Confrontation with the Shoah all the time is difficult,” Sister Gratia shares.
“As the survivors got older, their memories of the Shoah came back more strongly. The last two years have been so hard. It got to the point where we started to ask guests to talk just to us and not to other guests, because it was just getting too intense for everybody.”
It is unclear what Sister Gratia and the only other remaining nun at Beit Avraham, Sister Yahalom, 56, will do next. Currently they are focused on finding a buyer for their $4.5 million property, which they acquired more than 50 years ago from an elderly Jewish couple.
“Back then, the house was very close to the Jordanian border,” so not many people were interested in buying it, says Sister Gratia of the 240 square meter structure (with an additional 80 square meters of basement space) sitting on almost a dunam of land. The nuns themselves did all the original renovations on the stone house, whose four double and two single guest rooms have been kept in pristine condition. Until recently, the sisters also did all the work involved in maintaining the lush, landscaped gardens surrounding the house.
“It’s a simple house. It’s not what people are used to now,” acknowledges Sister Gratia in German-accented Hebrew of the dated décor and architectural layout. The land, more than the house itself would be the attraction to today’s real estate buyers.
“It currently has permits for being a guest house, and it could also be used as a small boutique hotel, or as a residence,” says Batya Kenanie-Bram, the real-estate agent handling the property.
‘I want to be part of the People of Israel’
With the last group of survivors last year, and Beit Avraham up for sale, one might assume that the sisters would be looking forward to returning to their order’s headquarters in Germany.
However, that is not the case — at least not for Sister Gratia, who became an Israeli citizen two years ago and has no plans to leave the Holy Land. “I want to be part of the People of Israel,” she asserts.
She is grateful to Israel and to the Holocaust survivors themselves for allowing her and her fellow sisters to do what they believe they were meant to do.
“Israel allowed us to fulfill our founding mother’s vision to give a drop of love to the survivors,” she says. “We gave our whole lives to this work, but it’s just a drop in a sea of unending suffering.”
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