April 18, 2012 (AFP)
April 18, 2012 (AFP)
For more than five decades, Leila Jabarin hid her secret from her Muslim children and grandchildren that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor born in Auschwitz concentration camp.
Although her family knew she was a Jewish convert, none of them knew of her brutal past.
It was only in the past week that Jabarin, who was born Helen Brashatsky, finally sat down and told them the story of how she was born inside Auschwitz, the most notorious symbol of Nazi Germany’s wartime campaign of genocide against Europe’s Jews.
In an interview with AFP to mark Holocaust Memorial Day which begins at sundown on Wednesday, Jabarin, now 70, chuckles as she talks about what to call her.
Her Muslim name is Leila, but in this Arab town in northern Israel where she has lived for the past 52 years, most people call her Umm Raja, Arabic for “Raja’s mother” after her first-born son.
Like most Jewish children, she also has a Hebrew name — Leah — but she just likes to be called Helen.
She was six when she came to live in Mandate Palestine with her parents, just months before the State of Israel was declared in May 1948.
They arrived in a ship carrying Jewish immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, which was forced to anchor off the coast of Haifa for a week due to a heavy British bombardment of the northern port city, she says.
Despite the war which broke out as soon as the British pulled out, it was a far cry from the savage reality the family had witnessed inside Auschwitz, says Jabarin who is dressed in a hijab and long robes, but whose pale skin and blue eyes belie her Eastern European parentage.
Her mother, who was from Hungary, and her father, who was of Russian descent, were living in Yugoslavia when they were sent to the Auschwitz with their two young sons in 1941.
“When they took them to Auschwitz, she was pregnant with me, and when she gave birth, the Christian doctor at Auschwitz hid me in bath towels,” she says, explaining how the doctor hid the family for three years under the floor of his house inside the camp.
Her mother worked as a maid at the doctor’s home, while her father was the gardener.
“They used to come back at night and sleep under the floor and my mother used to tell us how the Nazis were killing children, but that this doctor saved us,” she says, recalling how her mother used to feed them on dry bread soaked in hot water with salt.
“I still remember the black and white striped pyjamas and remember terrible beatings in the camp. If I was healthy enough, I would have gone back to see it but I have already had four heart attacks.
“It is scary and very, very difficult to remember that place where so many people suffered,” she admits, speaking in a mix of Hebrew and accented Arabic.
She also speaks Hungarian, a little Yiddish and some Russian.
The family were finally freed when the camp was liberated in 1945 and left for Mandate Palestine three years later.
At first, the new immigrants were put in camps at Atlit, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Haifa, but two years later, they moved further south to Holon and then to Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.
Ten years later, when she was 17, Helen Brashatsky eloped with a young Arab man called Ahmed Jabarin, and they moved to live in Umm al-Fahm, which caused a huge split with her family.
“She ran away with me and she was 17 when we got married,” her husband says. “The Israeli authorities used to come to Umm al-Fahm and take her back to her family in Ramat Gan, then she would come straight back here.”
Initially, her family did not speak to her for two years, but later they were reconciled.
In the end, it was her mother who suggested she convert to Islam when her eldest son turned 18 and was asked to do his compulsory military service.
“My mother advised me not to send my son to do military service because if he did, my daughter would also have to do it.
“She said I should convert to Islam to save my daughter from serving in the army because Muslims would not let a girl live away from home on an army camp.”
So she converted.
But she never told her family the full extent of her history.
“I hid my pain for 52 years and the truth about my past from my eight children and my 31 grandchildren. I hid the fact that I was born in Auschwitz and what that painful past means.
“I was just waiting for the right moment to tell them.”
The moment came several days ago when a man turned up from the Israeli social services and got talking to her about her past, just days before the annual ceremonies remembering the Holocaust.
“Whenever it is Holocaust Memorial Day, I cry alone. There are no words to describe the pain that I feel. How can children eat dry bread soaked in water? If this happened to my children, I don’t know what would become of me.”
For her family, the revelation was a huge shock — but it answered a lot of questions, admits her 33-year-old son Nader Jabarin.
“Mum used to cry on Holocaust Memorial Day watching all the ceremonies on Israeli television. We never understood why. We all used to get out of the way and leave her alone in the house,” he told AFP.
But by telling her long-kept secret, it had brought release to both her and her family, he said.
“We understand her a bit more now.”