JERUSALEM (VINnews) — In a trip to Israel organized by the Jewish Agency’s educational arm Israel Experience and France’s United Jewish Social Fund in Israel (FSJU), 80 French Holocaust survivors got the chance to do something they had not done before. Celebrate their Bar/Bat Mitzvahs.
Jacques Innedjian, a survivor in his late 80s told The Jerusalem Post that it was difficult to describe his feelings in the moment. “It’s a feeling that is shaking my entire body,” he said, showing his arm with a number tattooed on it. “This number was my mother’s number – it’s the only thing I have left of her. I tattooed her number onto my arm so that she will be with me wherever I go.”
He went on to explain that he is a victim of two genocides. “My father’s family were victims of the Armenian Genocide and my mother was murdered in the Holocaust.”
Jacques’ father lost a twin brother in the Armenian Genocide as well.
When the Holocaust began, Jacques’ mother was sent off to Auschwitz, while he was hidden. “I don’t remember where I was hidden or even where I came from… I can’t talk about this more, I don’t want to cry,” he said taerfully. “It’s all too emotional for me.”
It has always been a dream for Jacques to visit Israel, he says. “And there is a part of me that hopes while I’m here, I die here too.”
It has been difficult for Jacques to move on from his losses. “I know my mother would have wanted me to move on with my life – to study, to live and to do everything that all people do, but I was never able to move past the trauma,” he said.
Another survivor, Amar Joseph, called putting on Tefilin on his first trip to Israel a magical moment. “It’s all very overwhelming and emotional for me – I’ve come here in memory of my family, to memorialize them and the way they were murdered in the Holocaust,” he said.
Joseph said that his aunt and uncle were sent to Auschwitz “and they never came back.” Joseph remained hidden at that time, until he was eventually caught and sent to the Drancy transit camp in Paris. He was there until he was liberated 3 months later.
The survivors were brought on a tour of the underground Kotel tunnels. Afterwards, they were taken to the Kotel for their Bar/Bat Mitzvah ceremonies, and to place notes in the Kotel.
Some of the women shared their stories, while others said it was too painful to speak of their experiences.
Rose Coneon was inspired by the trip.“There is something electric in the air, you can really feel it,” she said. “Whenever there is a ceremony for France somewhere in the world, I get very emotional, and here I feel the same because I am connecting to my Judaism, my roots.”
Of her experinces during the Holocaust, Rose said she went with her parents to hide in southern France. “We traveled on foot to a small village near Toulouse,” she said. “I was hidden with my cousin and my grandparents, while my parents and my aunt and uncle hiked through the mountains into Spain and joined the resistance in Algeria.”
As a 7-year-old girl in hiding, Rose recalls barely having any food or things to entertain herself with. “There was hardly any food or games, and we couldn’t go to school,” she said, adding that the people hiding them managed to get clothes from the Red Cross for them.
Going back in her mind to that time is difficult for Rose, but she said she “feels blessed” to be at the Western Wall.
Miriam Szmuel is another survivor in her 80s, who survived the war by being hidden away.
“I was hidden away by a family – they saved me,” she said. “I’m standing here because of them.” Miriam’s family fled to Paris from Poland just before the war broke out.
Miriam related that when the war was over and she was reunited with her parents, it was difficult to connect with them because they felt like strangers to her. “I suddenly had to call them mama and papa and I didn’t know them. They were also very sad because my father lost his entire family. My mother’s sister went through Auschwitz and she lived with us, and my uncle’s wife and three children were also murdered.”
Miriam got married despite the trauma she suffered during the war. “I am a mother and grandmother,” she said proudly. “And still to this day I am working as a Yiddish teacher.”
The purpose of the Israel trip, as explained by Israel Experience director-general Amos Hermon, is to “give the participants a complete and quality vision of the country and to give them an Israeli experience worthy of the name.”
Amos added that Jewish Agency plans to continue their work by locating Holocaust survivors and their families, thereby giving their stories a chance to be heard by younger generations.
Myriam Fedida director of FSJU Israel said that “Andre Katz and his team from Passerelles, the FSJU’s department accompanying and supporting Holocaust survivors and hidden children, has realized the amazing project of bringing 80 of them to Israel,” adding that, “we worked closely with Israel Experience to ensure them an amazing experience in Israel.”