Israelis remember Holocaust victims

Holocaust survivor Raul Teitelbaum, 77, speaks at a ceremony on Israel's annual Holocaust Heroes and Martyrs Remembrance Day, on the outskirts of Jerusalem. Sixty-three years and five days after he stumbled sick and starving from a Nazi transport train, Teitelbaum and other Israelis stood motionless as sirens wailed across Israel in tribute to victims of the Holocaust.Sebastian Scheiner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Sixty-three years and five days after he stumbled sick and starving from a Nazi transport train and was freed by Russian cavalrymen, Raul Teitelbaum stood motionless Thursday as sirens wailed across Israel in tribute to victims of the Holocaust.

Drivers shut off their engines and pedestrians halted on sidewalks for a two-minute ritual marking the country's official memorial day for the 6 million Jews, among them Teitelbaum's father, killed by the Nazis.

Movie houses, theaters and other places of entertainment shut down at sundown Wednesday, when the observance officially began, and local radio and television stations shifted to programming focused on the Holocaust.

The day has special significance for the quarter-million Israelis who are Holocaust survivors like Teitelbaum, 77, a grandfather who was wearing leather loafers and a spotless blue blazer on the memorial day. When the siren sounded, he was on his way to deliver a lecture to a group of young female soldiers in a rural community outside Jerusalem.

A day of remembrance
The taxi he was in pulled over, and Teitelbaum got out to stand at the side of a country road looking resolutely ahead, displaying no emotion.

In 1944, when he was 13, the Nazis began shipping off the Jews in his family's home in Kosovo, then a part of German-occupied Yugoslavia.

He remembers seeing blue skies and fir trees through openings in the railroad car he was put in with his parents. Their destination was the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

In the beginning, the daily bread ration was one slice an inch thick. As the German armies began losing ground in Europe to the Allies that year, the ration shrank to a piece the size of a matchbox.

"My dilemma was whether to finish it all in one bite and be hungry for the rest of the day, or to try to spread it out in small bites," he said.

It was common to wake up in the barracks next to a prisoner who had died overnight, Teitelbaum said — they knew because huge numbers of lice could be seen abandoning the body as it went cold.

Anne Frank was at the same camp
Anne Frank, whose diary made her name known around the world after the war, was at the camp at the same time, but Teitelbaum never met the girl who was only two years older than him.

Frank died of typhus shortly before Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops. She was one of an estimated 50,000 people who died there. Another was Teitelbaum's father, Joseph, who succumbed to hunger, disease and exhaustion.

In April 1945, with the end of the war in Europe only weeks away, the Germans loaded 2,500 Jews, including Teitelbaum, on a train and sent them on a 10-day journey. The inmates jettisoned the bodies of hundreds of captives who died along the way.

One day the train came to a halt in a field. The inmates realized the Nazi guards had fled, and when they forced open the doors, they met mounted scouts riding ahead of the victorious Red Army. Their ordeal had ended.

Teitelbaum moved to Israel four years later, believing that a Jewish state was the central lesson Jews needed to learn from the Holocaust.

"We need to have a place," he said. "We learned the hard way what it means to be a Jew."

In Poland, Israel's military chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, led an annual march of 10,000 young Jews, Poles and survivors at the former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Some survivors feel abandoned
Discussions of the Holocaust among Israelis in recent years have increasingly centered on needy survivors and a perceived abandonment of them by Israel's government and other bodies meant to aid them.

Zeev Factor, chairman of a commission working for survivor benefits, said many survivors live in poverty. Despite Israeli government promises to increase their support payments, "nothing has been implemented yet," he complained.

In a speech Wednesday at Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert admitted that "we have not always paid our debt to the survivors."

But for Teitelbaum, the real story of Israel's Holocaust survivors is one that should evoke admiration rather than pity — the heroism of people who fled the horrors of the past, came to a fledgling Jewish country, fought in its wars, recreated families and built new lives.

"This is perhaps the most incredible thing that happened to us," he said.