Turning 80 and Revisiting History
Allison Shapira is coordinator of the Wexner Israel Fellowship Program based at the Harvard Kennedy School in Cambridge, MA. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
It is 5 minutes before 8 AM on a dark morning in Rehovot, Israel. As if on cue, 5 silver cars pull silently up to the curb outside a small house that is covered in ivy. Like clowns in a circus, people start piling out of the cars; they tiptoe around the curb and greet each other with silent hugs and knowing smiles. Aged 3 to 55, they wear identical white T- shirts. They approach the house and quietly go through the front gate, lining up outside the front door.
At precisely 8 AM, the door opens, and Saba Gershon Ben-Yehuda walks out as we sing “Happy Birthday.” He freezes in shock, his eyes taking in the 20 people lined up before him. He slowly looks from one to the other: his three children and their families, their children and their own families. His eyes widen incredulously when he sees my husband and me, surprises from America. He sinks to his knees in tears, asking “Ma Zeh?” – “What is this?”
After slowly regaining his composure, he asks innocently, “Are we going out for breakfast?” “No, Saba,” we tell him. “We are going on a trip up north.”
“Will we be back in time for my afternoon nap?” He asks. “No, Saba, we won’t.”
Thus began our 36-hour family reunion celebrating Saba (Grandpa) Gershon’s 80th birthday, which we called “Shmonim al Galgalim” (80 on wheels). We piled back into our 5 cars and took off. The storm clouds which let forth a ray of sunshine during our operation finally gave way to thunderous rain which fell on our caravan as we drove north on the highway.
Saba Gershon Ben-Yehuda was born Gershon Pelta in Pabianice, Poland, in 1929. As a teenager, he lost his entire family in the Holocaust. After moving from one concentration camp to another, he was finally liberated in Gunskirchen, Austria by the US Army’s 71st Infantry Division on May 4, 1945. He spent a year in a rehabilitation camp called Villa Bencista in Italy, before the Jewish Agency brought him to Palestine on the “Wedgewood” ship with 150 other illegal immigrants. He was 17 years old.
Our first stop was Atlit, a British detention camp that originally held Italian soldiers during the second World War. The British also used it to intern illegal Jewish immigrants to Palestine; those were the lucky prisoners who weren’t returned to Europe.
We wandered around the detention camp in the rain, marveling how much it resembled a concentration camp – thick barbed wire, narrow barracks where people slept, and a large “disinfecting shower” that was the center of the camp. Imagine starved and shocked Holocaust survivors arriving in Israel only to be separated from each other and directed to a massive shower. Only this was a real shower and the detainees would be fed and cared for.
We ate lunch inside the makeshift visitor center, feasting on cold cuts, pita and jachnun, drinking mint tea among hand-drawn depictions of German death camps on the walls. After lunch, we watched a presentation about the Jewish refugees interned at Atlit, and suddenly we saw Saba’s handsome young face in an old photo. We crowded around the screen as Saba started pointing out one friend after another, all familiar names from his past. We saw another picture, then another. He was everywhere.
As we left Atlit, the clouds parted and sunlight shone down on our departing cars. It was short-lived; the rain returned as we got onto the highway and continued north.
Our next stop was Kibbut Alonim in the Galilee. Standing atop a small hill on the outskirts of the kibbutz, we huddled under umbrellas and listened to Saba describe how the Jewish Agency transferred him to this kibbutz in an open-aired truck. We then went to Kiryat Amal, where Saba had been adopted by a local family to work in their fields.
That night, we celebrated our journey with a massive dinner at the Arbeli Olive Press near the Kineret. It was like being inside a Moroccan tent, with the warm glow of candles dancing on the many jeweled mobiles hanging from the ceiling. We said kiddush and sat down to a feast of Israeli salads, soup, fish, meat, and the most incredible chocolate brownies with home-made caramel icing. Every dish was made from scratch by Yaffa and Ron Kobi, down to the olive oil which they pressed themselves.
After eating more than we should have, we closed the night with a PowerPoint presentation which we prepared about the life of Saba. Through pictures, we watched Saba move from his childhood home in Pabianice to Kaluszyn to Chelmno, where his father and 7-year-old sister were killed. Chelmno didn’t have gas chambers, so the Nazis simply hooked the gas chambers up to car exhausts and killed everyone with carbon monoxide. In 1944, Saba was sent to Auschwitz, where the rest of his sisters and his brother were killed. In 1945 he was sent to Gunskirchen.
From pictures of a DP camp in Italy to the British camp at Atlit, we accompanied Saba on his journey. We saw his first girlfriend Shoshana Shuster and watched a video greeting she herself had prepared in honor of Saba’s 80th birthday. We saw pictures of his marriage to (Safta) Matilde Nachman, a red- headed Jerusalemite whose family had fled the Spanish Inquisition. Picture after picture showed Saba’s children, grandchildren and great grandchild, showing us how from one young life came 20 priceless more. Our dinner was an endless celebration of life and liberty, of family and friends.
The next morning, we repeated our feast with an amazing Israeli breakfast of homemade cheese, zaatar, breads, omelets, and every kind of jam imaginable. The night’s endless thunder storm once again gave way to rays of sunlight piercing the dark sky.
We continued our trip to Kibbutz Kineret, where Saba and Safta spent their honeymoon. The rain returned, and we huddled under a tin roof to hear Saba and Safta tell us about their honeymoon. We then travelled to Naharayim, on the border with Jordan. We drove through the Jordan valley, surrounded by lush hills, dark clouds, and barbed wire separating the Israeli and Jordanian flags.
We stopped at Tel Or in Naharayim, where the Hagana sent Saba to guard a hydro-electric station built in the 30s in cooperation between the British, the Jordanians, and a Russian Jew named Pinchas Rutenberg. Saba spent 6 months guarding the plant (he even held a Jordanian passport), until the War of Independence broke out and the Jordanians and Iraqis destroyed the station.
After touring Tel Or, we returned south through the pouring rain to our final stop, the family’s favorite restaurant outside the entrance to Rehovot. Surrounded by endless Israeli salads, hummus with mushrooms, and skewers of tender chicken, Saba recounted his experience as a soldier in Israel’s War of Independence and how he met and married Safta, the matriarch of the family. They had three children, and when the oldest was married, Saba used the in Auschwitz to build a house for the young family. That house is where my husband grew up and where his parents continue to live today.
Saba Gershon Pelta Ben-Yehuda, through the force of his self-preservation and the tenacity of his spirit, brought into being 4 generations of Israelis. Over the span of 36 hours, we relived his history and celebrated his unwillingness to surrender. As we left the restaurant, our 5 cars finally split up to head to our respective houses. Had night not fallen, I’m sure we would have seen another ray of sunshine welcoming us home.
To see pictures from our journey, click on this link: