JERUSALEM (Apr. 18)
The two men walk as one — in steady step, shoulder to shoulder, their words a torrent of Yiddish.
There is much to catch up on since the former neighbors and schoolmates last met. That was more than 60 years ago, when the transports, fear and separations that characterized Jewish life during World War II reached their Polish hometown.
Allen Greenstein, 78, is from Los Angeles; Haim Fligelman, 82, lives in Tel Aviv.
The two old friends found each other again last week as they took their seats on a tour bus in Israel. In their respective cities, they both attend Cafe Europa, a club for Holocaust survivors where members gather for concerts, lectures, conversation and coffee.
A group from the Los Angeles chapter currently is in Israel, touring the country and meeting their Tel Aviv counterparts, and members have been exchanging stories and looking for people linked to their past.
“We lived on the same street but have not seen each other since the war,” a beaming Greenstein told JTA. “So it was quite a surprise to meet him on the bus.”
The two grew up in Opatow, a town with a large Jewish population before the war. They went to the same school and the same Jewish youth group. Once the war began, many of the town’s Jewish youth, including both of them, were sent to work in munitions factories. They both spent the final months of the war in Buchenwald.
Both lost family members. Greenstein was one of 12 children, but only he and three others survived the war.
Today, Fligelman is a retired carpenter with 17 grandchildren.
“It helps relieve one’s nerves,” he said of his weekly visits to the Tel Aviv Cafe Europa.
Cafe Europa first began in Los Angeles as a project of the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles and later became the model for the club of the same name in Tel Aviv. Both are funded by the federation, which is a sister city with Tel Aviv.
At first, connections between members were forged through letter-writing. Then technology stepped in and several video conferences were held.
Last week, 14 members of the Los Angles club landed in Israel. This week, the groups are meeting face to face for the first time, traveling through the Judean Desert and the Galilee together. For this week’s commemoration of Yom Hashoah, they were slated to attend Israel’s official ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
At a Jerusalem hotel, members from both clubs met and exchanged life stories.
Sitting in chairs facing one each other, they described their homes, neighborhoods and lives before the war, remembering those they were close to during the period of the Holocaust and recalling liberation from the camps.
They each wore name tags noting their names and hometowns.
Lidia Budgor of Los Angeles — originally from Lodz, Poland — leaned toward Hinda Sobol, who came to Israel from Lithuania. Budgor told Sobol about the affluent neighborhood where she grew up and of the courtyard at the family home.
“When I came back, after the war, it looked like a garbage can,” she said, shaking her head.
Nearby, Sophie Hamburger of Los Angeles and Hella Konstabler of Tel Aviv exchanged stories. Tears filled Konstabler’s eyes as they discovered a connection: Konstabler became good friends in Israel with one of Hamburger’s cousins from Poland.
“I know her whole family,” bubbled Konstabler as the two, speaking in Yiddish, tred to trace the connection further.
They patted each other’s hands and laughed.
Rena Drexler surveyed the scene. She survived three and a half years in Auschwitz and then settled in Los Angeles, where she and her husband opened a kosher deli in North Hollywood. They worked there for 45 years and built Drexler’s Deli into a thriving business.
“Everybody has a life story here,” she said, beginning to recount her own story after the war. “I’m proud we accomplished so much,” she said.
After the war, “there was no one waiting for us. We married people, we did not know what love was, there was no romance, no graduation from school,” she said, her voice beginning to trail off.
Her arm bears the scar where she had her tattooed concentration-camp number removed.
“I did not want to see the number any more; I wanted to live a free life,” Drexler said.
Eva David, 77, also from Los Angeles, was in Israel hoping to meet a pair of sisters who she befriended as a girl in a Hungarian ghetto before her family and their family the Daskals — were deported to Auschwitz on the same cattle car.
She remembers boarding the train crammed with some 80 people and seeing a sign attached on the outer door: “Fit for eight horses.”
On the train to Auschwitz, the two families sat next to one another on the floor. One of her final memories of her father is his pulling a bag of chocolates out of his pocket and distributing them to her, her sisters and the Daskal children.
Her mother gestured for him to stop — he had his own children to feed — but he looked up and said, “But these are hungry children too.”
“This is the last recollection we have of our father,” said David, who worked as a seamstress in Los Angeles. She said the youngest of the Daskal children were gassed upon arrival to Auschwitz.
“At least they went to their deaths with the sweet taste of chocolate in their mouths,” she said.
Esther Fruchter, 81, was the only one to survive the war from her large Warsaw family, which included four siblings, parents, multiple cousins and aunts and uncles.
This was her first trip to Israel.
“You could give me a ticket to London, Rome or Paris but it is nothing to compare to being here, in Jerusalem,” she said. “Israel is our home. Thankfully, we have a country where we can stand with our heads held high.”