Thirty people squeezed into a young couple’s Jerusalem living room Wednesday evening to hear the testimony of an 87-year-old Holocaust survivor. Some took seats on chairs, while others sat cross-legged on the floor. Still others perched atop a table pushed to the side of the room as Michael Blain recounted how several “lucky breaks” kept him alive after Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in March 1944, while most of his large family perished in Auschwitz.
Blain is the grandfather of Maayan Leshem who, together with his wife Sasha, hosted the intimate event. (Blain is also the grandfather of Times of Israel deputy editor Elie Leshem.) While Blain addressed this group, other Holocaust survivors were sharing their testimonies with more than 1,000 other similar groups throughout Israel and around the world on the eve of Holocaust Remembrance Day.
These gatherings are part of a fast-growing, volunteer-run initiative called Zikaron Basalon (Memories at Home), designed to connect predominantly young people with the last living Jews to have personally experienced the Holocaust.
These young people have grown up learning about the Holocaust and attending official Holocaust remembrance ceremonies and events. But at this point, cognizant that in a matter of years there will no longer be any more eyewitnesses to the ghettos and concentration camps, they are seeking more direct interaction with survivors.
“These gatherings are intimate and informal. People want to come hear the stories,” said Roni Hazon Weiss, Jerusalem coordinator for Zikaron Basalon.
According to Weiss, who is a high school teacher and also the general secretary of the Yerushalmim political party and social movement, the initiative started out with just a single meeting of a few friends in Tel Aviv five years ago. This year, there were some 200 salon gatherings in Jerusalem alone, with more than 800 others in various Israeli cities and towns, as well as in cities abroad, such as Berlin, Amsterdam and New York.
At the Leshems’, the crowd ranged in age from teens to retirees. In general, the Zikaron Basalon gatherings (which vary in size from 10 to 50 participants, depending on the size of the venue) attract mainly young people between high school age and late 30s. Participants are either personally invited by the host, or are directed to a gathering through the Zikaron Basalon website, where hosts, guests and speakers can all register.
Sasha Leshem said she was not surprised by the large turnout at her home on Wednesday evening.
“The traditional way of commemorating by either going to an official ceremony or watching one on TV is too passive. People are looking for a way to commemorate in a more active way,” she said.
Those in attendance agreed. Noam Yarden, a 24-year-old student, was pleased to have something different to do on Holocaust Remembrance Day this year.
‘People are looking for a way to commemorate in a more active way’
“It’s something more special, it’s more varied. And with the different generations present, it’s more family-like in atmosphere,” she said.
Zikaron Basalon provides hosts a variety of resources and suggestions for leading the evening. At the Leshem home, Blain (born Elimelech Blobstein) spoke first. After a question and answer period, the group sang some songs together. There was a break for refreshments, and those who could stay late remained for an informal group discussion.
Blain had everyone’s full attention as he laced background historical information about World War II with his personal story of survival. Born in 1928 in the small agricultural village of Selce in the Carpathian Mountains (at the time part of Czechoslovakia), Blain had left for Budapest in 1942 to learn a trade after completing elementary school.
“A Jewish organization placed me in training to design and make ladies’ handbags,” he said. “I didn’t even know what a handbag was. My mother didn’t have one.”
When Germany occupied Budapest in March 1944, Blain was assigned the job of clearing the rubble and dead bodies out of houses destroyed by Allied bombing. He lived in a Jewish children’s house, but when it was taken over by the Germans, who used it for bunking facilities, he was moved to another home at the other side of the city.
At this point, some of his friends took off for the train station, planning to return to their hometowns and villages. Blain procrastinated and didn’t go with them, which proved to be a fortunate move. His friends were arrested at the station.
In November 1944, Blain was arrested and marched to the German-Soviet border and ordered to dig trenches for the German army.
“There was shooting going on day and night. It was really horrible,” he said.
When the Germans retreated toward Budapest, Blain and the other young Jews he was with were left in a schoolhouse. Some older boys who had dressed in stolen Hungarian soldier uniforms smuggled Blain out of there to Budapest.
On December 24, he was arrested by the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) and forced with others into a death march toward Austrian work camps.
“I remember that we marched over the last remaining bridge over the Danube, and I was carrying a little kid on my shoulders,” Blain said.
‘I didn’t find any other survivors, and my [non-Jewish] neighbors weren’t too excited to see me alive’
After the Jews had crossed west over the Danube to Buda from Pest, the soldiers, realizing that the city had been surrounded by the Soviets, divided them into two groups. Blain’s group was sent back to Pest. The others were lined up along the shore of the Danube and shot dead.
The Jewish underground looked out for Blain and the others in his group, and on January 15, 1945, they were liberated by the Soviets.
As soon as the trains were running again, Blain went back to his village to look for his family. He was the first Jewish survivor to return to Selce, which was under Soviet control and became part of Ukraine.
“I didn’t find any other survivors, and my [non-Jewish] neighbors weren’t too excited to see me alive,” he said.
Blain was eventually reunited with one of his brothers, who had barely survived German labor camps. However, after several months in Selce, Blain and several of his friends decided to escape to Czechoslovakia. They hired a farmer to smuggle them out.
When they finally arrived at the border, having ridden in horse-drawn buggies through high snow, only Blain and one friend (out of five) made it over to the Czech side.
From Prague, Blain was sent to England with 736 other orphaned Jewish children.
“London was a big relief. I worked in my trade, and I studied English at night,” he said.
After waiting four years for an American visa, Blain immigrated to New York, where he continued to work and completed his high school studies.
He was drafted into the US military with the outbreak of the Korean War, after which he pursued a degree at the Rochester Institute of Technology on the GI Bill. It was in Rochester that he met his wife. Today they live in Cleveland, and have three sons, 12 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.
‘And now most of us are gone. We are an endangered species.’
When he arrived in New York, Blain was reunited with his eldest sister who had escaped Europe to the US in 1942. He also got to know several of his mother’s sisters who had immigrated to the US before the war.
Blain only started speaking about his Holocaust experiences when Claude Lanzmann’s seminal documentary “Shoah” came out in 1985.
It was when he started telling his story that he realized that he should have asked the kind of questions that the young people in his grandson’s living room on Wednesday were asking him.
“My aunts never even asked me what I had gone through during the war, and I never asked other survivors I knew about their experiences,” he said.
“And now most of us are gone. We are an endangered species.”