Stefan Weiss remembers the last three days of World War II perfectly. For nearly a year, he had been assigned to hard labor at one of the satellite camps of Dachau, having been brought in a transport of Jews to that hellish place after six equally horrific weeks in Auschwitz. As Allied troops made headway across Germany and Heinrich Himmler began ordering all evidence of Nazi atrocities be burned to the ground, Weiss was sent out of the camp and on a death march with hundreds of fellow prisoners.
Deep in the Bavarian forest, the road they marched along was hit by an Allied bombardment, and the German guards in charge of the prisoners fled. Left to his own devices, Weiss knew he would have to be creative to survive. He slept in a caravan meant for animals and salvaged bread from a train car abandoned by the SS. Together with two other prisoners, he then gambled on fate and trekked toward to a nearby village, where the goodhearted German mayor of the town allowed him to sleep in a cowshed and showed him where to hide should SS officers come snooping around.
Three days later, Germany had surrendered and Weiss was free.
But for Weiss, a native of Transylvania who adores opera and theater, the hardships were just beginning. He made it back to his hometown and, despite the terrors of Communism and anti-Semitism, spent two more decades in Europe, attempting to forget his ghosts. He carved out a career for himself as a respected stage actor. He never married, preferring life as a bachelor.
In 1963, however, he decided the time had come to live freely as a Jew, and he made aliyah to Israel. But work was hard to come by. He soon slipped into deep poverty. Were it not for Reuth, the nonprofit social welfare organization that for decades has subsidized his little Tel Aviv apartment, he would find it difficult to pay his rent.
There are some 200,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel today, and a full one-quarter of them live, like Weiss, below the poverty line.
Weiss lives today in a tidy two-room apartment in south Tel Aviv, tucked into a row of similar units on the top floor of Reuth’s Community Housing complex in the city’s Yad Eliyahu neighborhood. Here, some 200 residents, half of whom came out of the horrors of the Nazi genocide to start new lives in Israel, enjoy heavily subsidized rent, community holiday celebrations, cultural outings and a general sense of dignity that would otherwise be out of their grasp because of costs they could never afford.
Taken together, this little cluster of quaint, shady buildings in a residential corner of Tel Aviv represents an outstanding compilation of Holocaust memory. Now, 70 years since the liberation of Auschwitz and as the world commemorates International Holocaust Remembrance Day this week, Reuth’s Tel Aviv campus is one of the densest concentrations of Holocaust survivors in the world. Just across the road, at Reut’s Beit Jenny Breuer, a senior living home that offers nursing care, catered meals, and a chock-full calendar of lectures, games and social events, about half of the residents are also Holocaust survivors. Deeper on the same campus, in the geriatric unit of the sprawling Reuth Medical Center, some 20 percent of patients in hospital beds are also World War II survivors.
“I really love it here. It’s quiet, it’s clean. I am satisfied, thank God,” says Weiss.
He has lived in the same tiny unit for 37 years, paying a nominal fee of a few hundred shekels a month for rent and cooking most of his own meals on a compact two-burner stove that sits in his entryway. Today, he is warming up leftovers of tomato soup that he cooked two days ago. It’s delicious, he says. Come see the black-and-white framed photographs of his glory days on the stage, he adds. The staff at Reuth, he says with a grin, is the best in the world.
Reuth was started in 1937, before the churning gears of the Holocaust death machine even really got going, and has since grown into one of the largest healthcare and social welfare organizations in Israel. Today, Reuth encompasses a massive hospital complex specializing in long-term rehabilitative care; three seniors’ homes and three community centers, several donor outreach groups across the globe, and the community housing complex where Weiss cooks his humble meals and neatly folds the hospital corners of his bed each morning.
Rather than trying to forget the horrors they experienced in Germany, however, survivors at Reuth are offered a chance to come to terms with their past. In 2013, Weiss traveled with several Reuth residents, staff members and staff members’ spouses to Auschwitz, and together with his friends he hoisted up the Israeli flag on the same spot of earth from where he was separated from his mother so many years ago.
Together, Reuth’s elderly residents offer each other the kind of support and empathy that can only come from having shared an unspeakable experience. The Tel Aviv cluster consists of the hospital, the community housing and one senior living home (two others are in Jerusalem and central Tel Aviv, respectively). At one time, the community housing was almost exclusively filled by Holocaust survivors. But as the years tick by and the numbers of survivors in the world dwindles, more and more units have become available to other senior citizens in Israel who are deeply in need of affordable housing.
There are some 200,000 Holocaust survivors in Israel today, and a full one-quarter of them live below the poverty line
Among the many volunteers who spend time at Reuth are groups of German teens, 18- and 19-year-olds who are devoting their gap years between high school and college to volunteer work in Israel. They come from a variety of German volunteer organizations, including Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ASF) and the German-Israeli Youth Exchange, and all have the same goal – get to know Israel, bring light and love to the survivors of the Nazi Holocaust, and further cement the modern bond shared between Germany and the Jewish State.
Jana Smela, a native of Hanover, Germany, is one of those volunteers. At 19, this is her first time in Israel, and she is living in south Tel Aviv and spending a few hours each day chatting with Reuth residents and practicing her fledgling Hebrew. When I meet her, she is seated in the light-washed solarium of Beit Jenny Breuer, playing Rummikub and being gently teased by one of the residents.
‘When I meet Holocaust survivors and tell them I am German, they are really open and friendly’
“Because of the history of Germany and Israel, it felt really important for me to come here,” she says. “Most of the time, when I meet Holocaust survivors and tell them I am German, they are really open and friendly. It’s amazing. I think I can learn so much from these people, how they behave toward me,” she says.
One of those residents is Sylvia Sicherman, who was born in what was once Czechoslavakia and is now Ukraine. Sicherman survived the war in a labor camp on the border of Germany and Poland, and lost her entire family. She returned to her hometown to find everyone she loved had died, but she pushed forward, getting married and eventually moving to America with her young husband.
Today, she has four children, 11 grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. She and her husband decided to move to Israel after their children were grown, and two years after they arrived, her husband died. Three months ago, she moved into Reuth’s senior home, and despite struggling to pick up Hebrew, she says she is adjusting well.
“Am I happy in this place? Yes, I am. Nothing to complain about,” she says.
What matters to her now, she says, as she gets older and the numbers of Holocaust survivors around the world continue to fall, is her legacy. She survived, and she brought up children and grandchildren. That is all that matters.
“It was a very hard life,” she says of the horrors of World War II. “It’s hard to describe unless, God forbid, you lived it. Many of us survived because we risked our lives. The ones of us who made it, we made an effort, we risked our lives.”