Yad Vashem & the Pomegranates of Rosh Hashana

The place:Liberated Theresienstadt. Date: May 1945. Hanna, a survivor, recalls:

“I thought to myself: ‘I am now free. I am actually free to do whatever I want.’ But I had nowhere to go. I had no one. Where could I go? There was no one to guide me. I was completely detached. I belonged to no one. I had just turned 13. At that moment I decided to come to Eretz Israel. I wrote to the uncle, Yitzhak Rosner, who had come on aliya before the War, asking if he would take me in, as my family no longer existed. I wanted to belong to someone. I wanted to belong to my nation.”

These words were narrated by Hanna Rosner Bar-Yesha in a new film that can be purchased online in Hebrew or English from Yad Vashem (by contacting Naama Shik [email protected] tel.011-972-2-6443654).
I saw a preview of “She Was There and She Told Me:the Story of Hanna Bar-Yesha” at a summer study session initiated by the Zachor Holocaust Education Center of the Michlala, in Bayit vGan, under the direction of historian Esther Farbstein and coordinated with Yad Vashem International School head Shulamit Imber.

Hanna came to pre-State Israel on the rickety aliya bet ship, the Amiran Shochet, commanded by Yonatan Kinnereti that brought her and 182 other “illegal” immigrants here. Narrowly escaping British Mandate patrols, they arrived on a Friday in the summer of 1946 to the Caesaria beach and were hidden in the religious moshav Kfar HaRoeh, not far from Kiryat Sanz, Netanya, where I live. Hanna described to me her first Shabbat in Eretz Israel, when I interviewed her in her home in the south of Israel:

“I stood mesmerized next to Rabbi Moshe Zvi Neria who was explaining the symbolism of the pomegranates growing in his garden. They would be eaten on Rosh Hashana and hung from the walls as Succot decorations.”

It goes without saying there were no pomegranates in Auschwitz, but even during Hanna’s childhood in Slovakia/Ukraine/Hungary, a pomegranate was something she could only read about in the Bible or hear tinkling from silver Torah ornaments, rimonim or pomegranates. But until that Shabbat, she never actually had gotten to see this rosy red fruit and eat its juicy seeds. (Last week I went out to Kfar Haroeh and found that the same tree Hanna remembers so vividly from 62 years ago in R. Neria’s yard. I photographed it, pregnant with plump pomegranates, for my article “From Starvation in Auschwitz to Pomegranates in Kfar Haroeh” which in the Jerusalem Post internet and printed editions.)
What impresses me most is Hanna’s deep religious faith before, during and after the Holocaust, and her commitment, along with that of her late husband Chaim Weltfreud Bar-Yesha (a longtime yeshiva administrator) to religious education. I subsequently met with Hanna in her home in Merkaz Shapira and wrote an article which you can read on the internet in the Jerusalem Post’s Rosh Hashana supplement (Google “From Starvation in Auschwitz to Pomegranates in Kfar Haroeh.”)

The Yad Vashem staff has shown increased sensitivity to conveying the story of religious survivors such as Hanna. From the first minutes of the movie we get a glimpse of traditional life for Hanna’s family in Ungvar.

“My family would have Friday night dinner at home.Then we and all my relatives – cousins, aunts, uncles – would converge at my grandparents, where we would sing zmirot and recite birkat hamazon after dessert.”

Yad Vashem is pioneering a new series where the survivors are filmed in their hometowns and in the various ghettos and concentration camps where they were imprisoned. Hanna takes us (on film) to Budapest where her family vacationed summers before the War and where her father took her to see the majestic Neolog Doheny synagogue, (second largest in the world), explaining that while the Rosners davened in an Orthodox shul, she should be aware of the institutions of all the Jewish people.

Her happy childhood was halted as the family was rounded up in the spring of 1944. They were first sent to the Ungvar ghetto in a brick factory, and then to concentration camps. At 12, she was taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In the film, she stands next to the slats she slept on in her barracks, and recalls with emotion:

“I was six or seven months in Birkenau with my mother. I was terrified that we would be separated, and suddenly my mother was gone. I’ll never forget that small door through which my mother passed the last time I saw her.”

The only remembrance was a small towel her mother had embroidered. But she had to relinquish even that token momento after the War when all their ragtag luggage had to be thrown overboard the aliyah bet ship, the Amiram Shochet, in order to make room for more “illegal” immigrants.

Clips from the hour-long film can be seen on Yad Vashem’s website by going to their “search” Then in Hebrew letters type “Hanna Bar Yesha” into the search. You will get 10 results. Click on the 10th link which says : “hee hayta sham v’hee sipra lee” and you will get the site with the clips, enabling you to see a few minutes of the hour-long DVD. Soon the clips will have English subtitles. The full-length DVD contains some very rare historic footage, e.g. the actual deportations from Hungary.

Again I have to say that Yad Vashem should be commended for increasing their coverage of religious Jewish life and for this innovative documentary, of which the one on Hanna Bar-Yesha is the second in the series.

For Hanna Rosner Bar-Yesha herself, the pomegranate is not just a succulent symbol
of the New Year, but an edible reminder of a new start in life.

Shira Schmidt

Shira Leibowitz Schmidt was raised in an assimilated Jewish home in New York, and became observant while studying at Stanford University in California. In June 1967 she told her engineering school professor she would miss the final exam because she was going to Israel to volunteer during the Six Day War. “That’s the most original excuse I have ever been offered,” he responded. She arrived during the war and stayed, receiving her BSc in absentia. She subsequently met and married the late Elhanan Leibowitz, and they raised their six children in Beersheba. Mrs. Leibowitz acquired a Masters in Urban & Regional Planning from the Technion, and an MSc in Civil Engineering from University of Waterloo. Today she lives with her husband, Dr. Baruch Schmidt, in Netanya. She co-authored, with Nobel prize-winning chemist Roald Hoffmann, Old Wine New Flasks. She has co-translated from Hebrew to English (with Jessica Setbon) From the Depths (the autobiography of Rabbi Israel Meir Lau); The Forgotten Memoirs (memoirs of Rabbis who survived the Shoah, edited by Esther Farbstein); and Rest of the Dove (Parashat Hashavua by Rabbi Haim Sabato). She and her husband appear in the documentary film about the Sanz-Klausenberger Rebbe, “Hidden Face.” She is available to lecture in Israel and in the US and can be contacted via www.cross-currents.com.

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5 Responses

  1. LOberstein says:

    Those survivors still among us were teenagers during the Holocaust.Many have written books, some self published .In some, there is less sanatizing of the truth.For example I just finished one by Abe Zuckerman of NJ. He describes in his 1991 book that right after the war , he wasn’t observant,but after a while he came back to it. Would a day school let that book in because he admits that though he is frum, he still has questions how it could happen. Does the genre of religious survivor tales have room for the doubts, the bitterness, the survivor guilt, all the emotions that are real. Most of the books that I have seen portray frum people who never doubted for a moment .How real is that.
    When I was in Yad Vashem I was impressed by one of the videos where a survivor tells that he stole another person’s cap in the middle of the night. Not to have a cap at “appel” was a death sentence. Someone stole his and he stole someone else’s. He recounts his guilt many years later. That is more how it really was. How many people really lit chanukah candles in Aushwitz?
    I am inspirred by this article but hope that we tell our story in its entirety, not just the sanitized version, which is really a falsification of history. Many of my friends tell me that truth is irrelevant, all we need is musar seforim, not true history.

  2. Ori says:

    LOberstein: I am inspirred by this article but hope that we tell our story in its entirety, not just the sanitized version, which is really a falsification of history. Many of my friends tell me that truth is irrelevant, all we need is musar seforim, not true history.

    Ori: This attitude seems to flow logically from Orthodoxy.

    Books are written as carriers of useful information. If you don’t know what is the best thing to do in various circumstances, then it makes sense to preserve history as objectively as possible so that readers will be able to draw their own conclusions.

    But if you do already know which conclusion are right(1), then preserving actual history in all its confusing details is counter-productive. People are all too likely to come to the wrong conclusions. It’s better to present an idealized version of history, which will teach them what they need to learn. Of course, you believe a sufficiently intelligent and open-minded person would draw the right conclusions anyway – but experience has taught us that not all people are smart and open-minded.

    If you believe you know what is the proper behavior (Maimonides 8th principle – at least for things specified in the Torah or the sages of the age), then you don’t need history to teach you. What you need is not facts so you can conclude what you already know, but musar to hammer it into your head.

    (1) Or think you do. This choice depends on your subjective level of certainty, rather than objective truth.

  3. cvmay says:

    Thank you for this timely article, I will tell over Hanna’s story at the Yom Tov table as we eat the not so juicy New York pomegranates.

  4. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    Query for Rabbi Oberstein: How in the world do you know that the hat episode related at Yad Vashem is more “real” than the many stories of spiritual heroism: to bake matzos, blow shofar, daven from a siddur? I also found the hat story extraordinarily powerful (and have written about it elsewhere), but I do not imagine that it typified life in the camp more than stories of spiritual heroism. And I do not see how you know differently.

    As to whether anyone ever mentions the doubts of survivors, in my biography of Mike Tress, I quote one survivor who told me that almost everyone experienced doubts about whether to go on with religious observance after the war, and that many who would one day return to full observance did abandon it for a period of time.

  5. BH says:

    On the topic of “realism” in Holocaust stories, this week’s Mishpacha had a feature on Chaim Shapiro, author of “Go My Son”, a lengthy memoir of a Lithuanian yeshiva student who spent the war years throughout Russia.

    On the one hand, Shapiro’s accounts of Divine providence, and skills which he enabled him to survive does not seem typical, so the story might not seem realistic. Yet, he portrays situations of enduring human interest and relevance, such as the contrast of his sublime Yom Kippur prayers and thoughts of far-off family abruptly switching to a mundane conversation with a Tatar girl who approaches him with questions about evolution and the like, or the description of his ability to get along with, and be accepted by, Kazakh tribes people and others of very different cultures than that which he grew up in Eastern Europe.

    Related to the last point, although Shapiro criticizes European nations strongly for indifference or collaboration during the war, he had a very positive view of individuals in umos h’alaom, as his son mentions in the Mishpacha article.

    The following is a link to a review:

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