Matthew Gould, UK Ambassador to Israel
Of all the many remarkable things about Israel, I have found the most remarkable are stories I hear every day from regular Israelis, about their lives and those of their families.
Everyone in Israel seems to have extraordinary stories – of heroism, and of tragedy. And of all these stories, the most extraordinary are those of the Holocaust survivors we meet.
David Sarid, 87, lives in Tiberias, in northern Israel. David was born in Karpato in what is now Ukraine.
During the Second World War, it was annexed by Hungary and Germany. David’s parents, brother and sister perished in the Holocaust in 1941. David was captured by the Nazis and spent most of the war years in a camp in Germany.
After the war, he spent three years in a displaced persons camp in Germany where he studied Hebrew.
He was drafted into the IDF while he was there, before being sent by the Jewish Agency to Norway to tutor immigrants from Morocco ahead of their emigration to Israel.
Shlomo Adler, 87, was born in Bolechow, then in Poland but now also part of Ukraine. Bolechow was a split Russian and German town. The Russian part was invaded by the Germans in 1941. Shlomo’s parents were deported to different concentration camps and he never saw them again.
His sister was killed in the village. Jews were forced to live in a ghetto, where Shlomo worked in a barrel factory. During the third German roundup, he hid in a barn for three days and nights, which saved his life.
He spent the last 12 months of the war standing hidden between two walls of a house. In 1947, he left for Israel and now has two sons, five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
When Celia and I got to Israel, we were determined to do something to pay our respects to survivors like David and Shlomo. We sat down with the then Minister for Social Welfare, Isaac Herzog, and asked him what they most needed.
His answer was immediate and clear – the biggest problem for survivors was loneliness. We needed to set up social clubs, geared to the needs of survivors, where they could go and know that they were in a friendly and supportive environment of people who understood them.
So we made an appeal to the UK Jewish community; we raised £1.5million, thanks to its huge generosity. The support came from across the community – from the Charedim to the secular.
With the money, and with wonderful local partners, we have set up a network of 21 Café Britannias for Holocaust survivors. The clubs have gone where they were most needed, across the length and breadth of Israel, from Eshkol in the south, through Bnei Brak, to Migdal Ha’Emeq in the north.
Every week, more than 1,600 survivors go to the clubs, which serve as a cultural and social centre, offering events and activities such as lectures, tours, musical events and sports classes.
During Chanukah, I lit the first light of the menorah at a Cafe Britannia club in Holon. It was moving to share the first night of Chanukah with so many Holocaust survivors.
They told me that they were glad to have had the British Ambassador there, but the truth was that I felt very humbled to be with them. They had been through so much, and carried such a burden of memory.
They have the right to live out their lives in comfort and dignity. And we all have an obligation to make sure that happens. Holocaust Memorial Day is our chance to remember the victims of the Holocaust, like David and Shlomo and their families.
It is a moment to make sure the messages of the Holocaust are remembered and learnt and re-learnt, and that this unique evil and tragedy is never allowed to become yet another page in the textbooks of history. But for so many of us, it was never just history – it is personal.
My grandfather was from Warsaw. He was one of 10 children. He and a brother and a sister got out before the Nazis came. The others were murdered, along with all of their families.
Until the day my grandfather died, he never stopped grieving, never let go of his anger at the injustice of their deaths. Nothing could ease his grief. But by helping survivors, and by pledging never to forget, perhaps we can honour it.