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The Story of a Holocaust Survivor

Leila Jabarin looked every inch the matriarch of the Muslim family that surrounded her on a recent morning, encircled by some of her 36 grandchildren in a living room rich with Arabic chatter and the scent of cardamom-
flavored coffee.

But Jabarin, her hair covered with a brown headscarf, was talking to visitors in Hebrew, not Arabic, and telling a story that not even her seven children knew until they were grown. She was born not Leila Jabarin, but Helene Berschatzky, not a Muslim but a Jew. Her history began not in this Arab community where she has made her life with the Palestinian man she fell in love with six decades ago, but in a Nazi concentration camp where her Jewish parents had to hide their newborn from the Nazis.

As world leaders — including U.S. Vice President Pence — gather in Jerusalem this week to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Jabarin was sharing a survivor’s memory unlike any other, a history of love and hate that exposes not just the power of transformation, but also the blindness of prejudice.

“First I was persecuted because I was a Jew, and now I am persecuted because I am a Muslim,” said Jabarin, who has watched the recent rise of both anti-Semitism and Islamophobia with alarm.

Jabarin took note of the massacre of 11 worshipers at a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 and another 51 last year at mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. She attributed to both killers the same motivation, a hatred of the other, and is telling her story to show that love for the other is possible as well.

“When I was in school, they taught us that Arabs had tails,” she said, looking around at her Arab husband and her Arab family, as the Muslim call to prayer sounded across the neighborhood outside. “Everyone should know what happened to the Jews because it could happen to the Arabs.”

Among those listening in her living room was Erez Kaganovitz, a Tel Aviv photographer who is crisscrossing Israel to document as many such stories and images he can from the rapidly dwindling number of living Holocaust survivors. Through histories like Jabarin’s, he hopes to keep the knowledge of those horrors from disappearing with those who endured them.

“Ten years from now, what will be the memory of the Holocaust when the last survivor is no longer with us?” asked Kaganovitz. “If well tell the human stories, not just what happened in the camps but how they lived after, they appeal to humans in the way that numbers cannot. Six million Jews killed; it’s too big.”

The grandchildren of Yosef Diamant, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, show the tattoos that they had done on their arms as a tribute to him. (Erez Kaganovitz/Humans of the Holocaust)
The grandchildren of Yosef Diamant, a survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, show the tattoos that they had done on their arms as a tribute to him. (Erez Kaganovitz/Humans of the Holocaust)

Kaganovitz launched his project, Humans of the Holocaust, last year in light of research showing Holocaust awareness declining among young people in many countries even as anti-Semitic violence and neo-Nazi movements are on the rise. In the United States, 66 percent of millennials had never heard of Auschwitz, according to a 2019 survey by the Claims Conference, an international survivors advocacy group, and a third of Americans cite the number of Holocaust victims at 2 million, not 6 million.

Racing against mortality, Kaganovitz has interviewed and photographed 25 survivors to date, mostly in their 90s, including a kindergarten teacher who wrote children’s books about the camps and an artist who portrays her lost family in puppets. A traveling exhibit based on the project will begin in Pittsburgh next year.

The trends that motivated Kaganovitz also prompted officials to locate this year’s World Holocaust Forum at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and research center, and to focus the event on confronting the ballooning incidents of hatred against Jews.

“We need a moral majority of leaders to come to Jerusalem and say that it is enough and now is the time to stand together and fight anti-Semitism,” said organizer Moshe Kantor, head of the World Holocaust Forum Foundation and the European Jewish Congress.

A sense of urgency is infusing what will be one of the largest international gatherings ever hosted by Israel. Almost 50 delegations will attend, including world leaders like Pence, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Israeli puppeteer Dana Gur Zeev created dolls based on faded photos of family members she lost in the Holocaust. (Erez Kaganovitz/Humans of the Holocaust)
Israeli puppeteer Dana Gur Zeev created dolls based on faded photos of family members she lost in the Holocaust. (Erez Kaganovitz/Humans of the Holocaust)

For Jabarin, it was decades before she was willing to speak of her own memories: the dark hiding, the “striped pajamas,” the scattered round objects that seemed like balls in her toddler’s recollection but now loom as skulls.

Her welcoming neighbors knew she was Jewish when she arrived in 1960 as a new bride in this Arab city of 55,000 located in Israel, just south of Nazareth, she said. But only her husband, Mohammed, knew of her Holocaust origins. Her six sons and a daughter didn’t understand for decades why she was fascinated by the televised documentaries on the Holocaust, a subject they learned little about in their Arab schools.

“I decided to let the pain stay in my head,” she said, a serene figure on a brocade couch, eyes bright behind heavy glasses, weathered hands folded over the crook of a walking stick. “It’s still difficult. I see the scenes in my head, like a film.”

But in 2012, at a town meeting for pensioners on Israeli insurance benefits, a government staffer heard Jabarin interpreting his Hebrew for her seatmates. He asked her a few questions, was surprised to learn she was raised Jewish and, further, that she was a Holocaust survivor. Eventually, he helped her navigate the bureaucracy that saw her case investigated and registered with Israel’s survivor’s program.

And only then did she tell her children how she came to be their mother.

“It was very difficult to hear her story,” said her son Nadar. “I asked her many questions about the war and about the Holocaust.”

Leila Jabarin, 78, and her husband, Ahmed Jabarin, pose for a photograph at their home. (David Vaaknin for The Washington Post)
Leila Jabarin, 78, and her husband, Ahmed Jabarin, pose for a photograph at their home. (David Vaaknin for The Washington Post)

She was born to a Jewish Hungarian mother and Jewish Russian father in a Nazi concentration camp in either Hungary or Austria in either 1942 or 1943. (Her parents didn’t like to talk about their time in the camp, and the family’s archival file at Yad Vashem, reviewed by The Washington Post, is unclear on key points). The camp doctor her mother worked for hid her family in the cellar of his house, she said, and she was outside very little until the camp was liberated in 1945.

With thousands of others, they stayed in a transit camp in Yugoslavia until boarding a ship for Israel in 1948. “They told us it was a Jewish country,” she said.

They landed in Haifa, eventually settled in Tel Aviv, and Helene, as she was known then, had become a teenager when a young construction laborer working near her house caught her eye.

“He was working hard,” she said. “I gave him a lot of water.”

Mohammed Jabarin remembers the kindness still. “She was only a girl,” he said.

When Helene told her father she wanted to marry Mohammed, he was furious. They were not religious, but he wanted her to marry a Jew. “If you go with him, it will be like going back to Hitler,” she recalled her father saying. But she was determined, and in 1960 they wed.

“Wherever fate takes a person, that is where you have to go,” Jabarin said.

She settled easily into her new home, becoming known as Leila and adding Arabic to the Russian, Hungarian and Hebrew she already knew. She reconciled with her father and remained close to her mother. But in almost every way, she was the mother of a booming Arab family.

It was only after her children were born that she converted to Islam in 1973, but for reasons more practical than spiritual. With a Jewish mother, her sons would be considered Jewish by the government, and they would eventually be required to serve in the Israeli military.

Jabarin decided she had lived with enough war in her life.

(Source: The Washington Post)

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