Just over a year ago, in 2012, my father and I had an extremely moving trip to Krakow and Auschwitz in Poland, combined with tracing our family history to Kiev and Chernigov in the Ukraine. We travelled with World Jewish Relief; a charity that support Jewish communities around the world – particularly in Eastern Europe.
During this trip we tried to imagine the terror and horror of the concentration camps; and the less well known ditches of bodies that have just been buried over with no suitable memorial. These ditches exist in every town around these areas where between 50-80% of the population was Jewish before the war only to be completely wiped out throughout the Shoah. This was contrasted with today’s Jewish life, where communities (albeit much smaller) sing and dance together in the Heseds (Jewish Community Centres).
I cannot express how valuable this trip was to me and how much it gave me a deeper perspective on life. Reading about the Holocaust and hearing stories is nothing compared to actually visiting. Many friends won’t visit these areas because they have a fear of being upset. This is a sad excuse; I believe you grow stronger emotionally when put in these circumstances. Also these trips needs to be done to remember the 6,000,000+ Jews who perished in the Shoah. To not visit is close to forgetting, and it was only 60 odd years ago now… I have a resolution for this year to get as many people as I can on at least a day trip to understand.
However seeing the current lives that are thriving in a Jewish community is a moving contrast.
My father and I both made an observation that the people supported by the charity need to be supported in more than just a “give presents to” kind of way. Instead: Teach a man to fish… etc… WJR agreed with this aspect and Dad has therefore committed funds for 3 years for a project that we both have input into.
There is no better way to check on a project (whether a business investment or charitable donation) than seeing it in action; so we made a similar trip this year to the Ukraine for this WJR project. Combined with this we went on to Belarus where Dad has supported an orphanage that he hadn’t visited.
First we visited Lviv, which is again another lovely European city much like Krakow – despite the poor attitude from the locals because perhaps we were Jewish? Or just foreign? I don’t know.
We visited the “warm home” aspect of the WJR project where the pensioners of the community would now meet together, instead of having one on one chats with councillors once a week, taking it in turns to make cakes/food and host their apartment to these gatherings. A small amount of funds would be given to contribute to the refreshments; but it gives all the participants something to look forward to, and something to be proud of when others come to their home. The group we visited were a lively bunch with different backgrounds. Some had recent hardships with partners passing away but they were part of this support group where they could meet their friends and new people.
The Hesed community centres are a hugely important part of the work done here. Acting as a place for people to meet, to sing together, to talk, to laugh. We saw a fantastic group of singers who were a mix of a young and an old generation, singing and playing music all together. This was extremely touching to see and fantastic to be part of making it happen from a funding point of view.
A lot of the funding for these projects comes from the German reparations which are sadly diminishing as the Holocaust generation are passing away. Supporting causes like WJR will help to ensure that these communities can stay together. The staff there were absolutely incredible and I would like to thank all of those involved in these great projects.
On to Belarus where, through a chain of coincidences Dad had met the Rabbi of Great Portland Street Shul, Rabbi Barry Marcus. Rabbi Marcus has run over 140 trips to concentration camps and had met Rabbi Moshe Fhima in Eastern Europe years ago. Rabbi Marcus immediately recognised his brilliance. Having grown up in Manchester and moved to Israel, Rabbi Fhima had gone on a trip to the Ukraine and stayed. He has fallen in love with helping the communities (not just Jewish) out there, as well as, in his spare time, building a property business to support his charitable work.
The country itself is essentially a dictatorship, but it seems to work. Living standards are good, streets are clean, transport is good, people seem very happy. We felt very safe there, almost like a smaller up and coming America with wide streets and modern buildings and shops.
Rabbi Fhima runs several orphanages where he and his wife are a fantastic team look after 150 children at once who have 1 or fewer parent (either because they have passed away, are in prison or have serious anti-social issues like alcoholism or drug abuse). The schools he runs are beautifully clean, the library was immaculate, the students very well behaved and they are all happy enjoying a great life that they were not naturally born into.
Rabbi Fhima managed to take Steve Ballmer (the CEO of Microsoft) around the area to recognise his family heritage. Ralph Lauren and Kirk Douglas also originated from this area and we hope to get them involved in this work.
The children all look up to the Rabbi and love him. He loves all the kids right back and you can see the joy in his eyes when around his children. He has some incredible stories of saving children from their parent and helping the parent to sort out their drug/drink problem.
He is a true inspiration and the work he does is incredible. I feel privileged to have met him and glad to be part of supporting his cause.
As my Dad says: “we are very lucky they [his grandparents] left, and even more that they went left instead of right”.