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30-something, Sarah, met 87-year-old Holocaust survivor, Tova, on a Federation mission to Israel during the conflict this summer. While the sirens signaled rockets from Gaza, Sarah and her travel mates – all Federation professionals – visited agencies that Federation regularly supports through contributions to the Annual Campaign. Tova lives at an Amigour residence in Tel Aviv. Amigour, which is a project of Federation partner, the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI), provides safe, affordable, and loving homes for 7,500 disadvantaged elderly residents – mainly Holocaust survivors and newer immigrants from the Former Soviet Union.
“Tova’s will to live inspires me to preserve the future of the Jewish people,” Sarah noted. Sarah learned that when Tova was 14, her family was rounded up for transport to Auschwitz – all except one of her older sisters, Yardenna, who had moved to Palestine in the early 1930s with a young Zionist group and became one of the founders of Kibbutz Ein Hashofet.
“I arrived in Auschwitz but despite being tiny and thin, I managed to avoid the crematoriums,” Tova recalled. “I was assigned to backbreaking jobs like stone quarrying and survived because of my strong will to live, as well as being smart and small. I survived in all sorts of ways – with tricks I conjured up, by foraging in trash cans for food in the middle of the night, and just surviving to the next day.
“Later on, I was sent to Dachau. Due to my nimbleness and with the help of an older German laborer who occasionally slipped me some food, I survived this too.
“When the American air strikes began, the Germans gathered the inmates and started a death march. Somehow I managed to escape and hid in an empty factory. After a time, I heard voices speaking a language that did not sound like German. Instinctively I felt I had to connect with these people. The windows were very high up. With great effort, I managed to pile up tables and chairs to reach a window. I broke it with a hammer that I succeeded in taking up with me. I saw that the people were “good” soldiers. I called out for help and they broke in and rescued me.”
In 1946, Tova set sail from the port of Antwerp with some 500 other ma’apilim (illegal immigrants to Palestine), mostly young orphans who had lost their entire families. “I met a curly-haired young man with beautiful eyes, who also hailed from Slovakia,” Tova said. Their boat was seized by the British at the Haifa port and all 500+ passengers wound up in a detainee camp.
“One day, a JAFI activist who came to help detainees at the camp saw me and noticed I bore a remarkable resemblance to a woman on his kibbutz. When he returned to the kibbutz, he told the woman there was someone in the camp who looked just like her. The woman came to the camp and identified me. It was my sister, Yardenna. She asked me to come live with her. I agreed but only if my curly-haired boy, who was now my boyfriend – and future husband – could come with me. I said I wouldn’t go anywhere without him. And thus my life in Israel began. Yardenna and I later learned our older sister and brother, Rosie and Shlomo, had also survived the Holocaust and managed to get to Israel.”
“Tova regaled us with detailed accounts,” Sarah said, “including what she did on the train bound for the port of Antwerp, when she spotted the female copo who was so brutal to her at Auschwitz. It’s a story best told in person*, but let’s just say Tova is one of the bravest and most inspiring people I have ever met.
“Tova said she is thankful for so much in her life,” Sarah added. “She is thankful that Federation supports programs like Amigour housing, where she and others can live as part of a caring and vibrant community. She is thankful that our group came to hear her story. She is thankful for the American forces that liberated victims of the Holocaust. And she is thankful for JAFI and all its supporters who have helped – and continue to help – people make good lives for themselves.
“Visiting Amigour and meeting Tova during this recent conflict really brought Federation’s whole value proposition into sharp focus for me,” Sarah concluded. “Before my trip, Federation had already ramped up the Israel Emergency Fund, and our local community was responding with a tremendous outpouring of support. Everyone in Israel was grateful for the humanitarian aid our emergency dollars were funding. And while we truly have been helping Israelis get through this crisis, the day-to-day needs in Israel go on, whether there is a war happening or not. And Federation is there – always there.
“Because of Federation’s Annual Campaign, we make sure that Holocaust survivors and other disadvantaged seniors have a place to live that is more than a roof over their heads, but a real home. We make sure that people who come to Israel to make a better life for themselves get support in becoming productive members of society. We make sure that people who suffer the long-term effects of living with the threat of terror for decades on end get the psycho-social support they need. We make sure teens and young adults who are troubled get help turning their lives around. We make sure young children with special needs are included in joyful, enriching, supportive communities. And so much more.
“As for me, I am thankful to be part of a people that care for one another. I am thankful that Jewish Federation supports partners and programs to deliver that care – in Israel, in Monmouth County, or anywhere people in our extended Jewish family need it. And I’m thankful I can help carry the message that supporting Jewish Federation’s Annual Campaign makes a life-changing difference in people’s lives. Look at Tova. From her making a life for herself in Israel as a young Holocaust refugee to her having a secure place to live in her later years, Federation – and its supporters – have been there for her. I am thankful that I can make a difference by supporting Jewish Federation. I hope you will too.