When the sirens wail, the Holocaust survivors stay put

With shelters often inaccessible, many of the battered south’s elderly residents are fearful to stay — but more fearful to leave

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Magda Feldmar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Magda Feldmar (photo credit: Courtesy)

As the sirens blare in an endless loop in the small southern town of Mavki’im, 90-year-old Magda Feldmar makes no move toward shelter, because the Hungarian-born Auschwitz survivor has nowhere to go.

With the nearest shelter an 8-10 minute walk away, and only a fleeting 15-second window from when the sirens sound until the rockets fall, Feldmar sits alone in her house located just 7.2 kilometers (4.4 miles) from the border of the volatile coastal enclave, fearfully waiting for yet another barrage to end.

No stranger to the front lines, Feldmar immigrated to Israel in 1948 after losing her family in the war and settled down in a town on the northern border with her late husband — but relocated eight years later when the incessant fire from Syria grew unbearable.

“They fired all the time. I told myself, I had gone through so much already, these [difficult] times. I really just want some quiet,” she says, her voice trembling, but firm.

Feldmar is one of 40-50 survivors in her town living without adequate shelter, due to government legislation that subsidizes shelters within seven kilometers of Gaza. If the town were just 200 meters closer to the Strip, it would benefit too, according to Rony Kalinsky, the director of the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel.

Magda Feldmar (photo credit: Courtesy)
Magda Feldmar (photo credit: Courtesy)

There are some 100,000 Holocaust survivors presently in the line of fire from the Gaza Strip, he estimates.

The foundation established a hotline for Operation Protective Edge, offering food packages to the survivors, moral support but not psychological services (the volunteers both answer calls and contact survivors throughout the south to offer services), and the option to find temporary housing in northern Israel until the violence subsides.

But the latter option, according to Yisraela Shwartzman, a social worker for the foundation, is very rarely utilized, and more often than not, after a placement is secured, the survivors back out.

“It’s difficult for them to leave their homes, to leave their framework,” she says. There have been a few cases where survivors have asked to be relocated and followed through, she says, but seldom can the elderly survivors uproot themselves from the comforts and familiarity of home. And if they have medical conditions, the placements are more difficult to obtain.

The problems of inadequate shelter and reluctance to evacuate also persist in the larger cities in the south — namely Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Beersheba — all of which have a sizable populations of survivors.

While the conditions are slightly better than in Mavki’im, not all apartment buildings in the southern cities have shelters, and although the Home Front Command has issued a general directive asking people to assist the elderly to the shelters, in most cases, there is simply not enough time.

Larissa Litvak grabs her chronically ill husband and wheels him into the living room when the sirens ring out in the southern city of Beersheba, because she thinks the room faces east, and assumes it’s the safest place to be. The closest shelter is across the street and with her husband incapacitated, reaching the fortified area is an impossibility.

Larissa Litvak and her husband in their Beersheba home (photo credit: Courtesy)
Larissa Litvak and her husband in their Beersheba home (photo credit: Courtesy)

In recounting her mother’s escape from Kiev, with herself – then a baby – and her older brother in tow, in hiding and on the brink of starvation, Litvak tellingly mispronounces the Red Army (haTzava haAdom) as Code Red sirens (tzeva adom).

But while her daughter has urged her mother and father to move in with them in a different section of the city and with an easily accessible shelter, Larissa demurs.

“They wanted to take us [to their house]. But I can’t, because he has a wheelchair, and a different wheelchair. And his oxygen, and also different equipment for the shower,” she says.

For some, spurning their children’s offers is matter of retaining a semblance of independence, though it means grappling with loneliness.

Zvulun Hajaz of Beersheba says he is 101, but feels like a sprightly 20-year-old. When the sirens ring out, Hajaz goes to a non-fortified room on the side of his house. “It’s not fortified, but it’s better than nothing,” he says. Last night, when two sirens rang out, Hajaz, who went blind nine years ago, hobbled to the room and stayed there until morning.

The Tunisian survivor of the Nazis, who moved to Israel in 1949 and lost a child in the Yom Kippur War, is adamant that he cannot leave his home and go north, despite the war and what he describes as the terrible loneliness.

“My children invite me [to stay with them], but I know my house, my space. I can take my cane and go to the bathroom myself, but if I went there, I would have to call someone every time I needed to go to the bathroom,” he says.

While Hajaz has a caregiver a few hours a day, the flow of volunteers from the foundation that frequent his house have not been able to arrive, the spokeswoman for the foundation says, because of the security situation.

“In ten minutes, she’s going home,” Hajaz says of his caretaker, whom he fondly refers to as his daughter. “And Saba [grandpa] Zevulun will be left alone.”

Survival instinct

Kalinsky says that due to other spates of rocket fire in the past few years, the foundation is unfortunately used to these sort of campaigns, and knows that Holocaust survivors’ struggles with the fighting differs from those of the rest of the elderly population – their fear of abandonment is more acute, and their terrors raise horrific memories. But in speaking to the survivors themselves, their past experiences seem to drive their need to prevail.

In describing the situation in the south, Feldmar abruptly changes the subject to the wave of pro-Palestinian and often anti-Semitic protests sweeping Europe. “I’m very upset that they want to annihilate us. We’ve done nothing wrong. We just want to live in our state,” she says.

“Why? What have we done? What have we done? We just want to live.”

And in Beersheba, Litvak insists: “If we survived this long, then we will survive…. We are strong — what we went through as children — and now we have a state.”

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