A Lesson in Hope
It has been an eventful few months for The Joint Australia with a number of updates to share with you, our supporters.
As many of you now know, we recently held our Annual Spring Speaking Tour with gifted guest speaker, Asher Ostrin, a veteran of The Joint. Asher began his tour in Melbourne and addressed nearly 200 people across multiple venues.
Our sincere thanks go to hosts, Dina and Rodney Goldbloom, Erica and Harry Frydenberg, Roslyn and Richard Rogers, Rebecca and Michael Kahane and Mervyn and Dianne Cass for hosting us in their homes.
Sadly, on the eve of the Sydney leg of Asher’s tour, he received the devastating news that his brother-in-law, Dr Gerry Rabinowitz was one of the victims of the heinous attack in Pittsburgh and he left to join his mourning family soon after. We are grateful for the short time Asher was able to be with us in Australia and wish him and his family long life.
We wish to thank Yvonne and Peter Hallas, Vera and Alex Boyarsky, Shelly and Kevin Kalinko, Loren and Lance Kalish, Clive Levinthal, Josh Bolot and Lauren and Simon Briggs – all of who were set to host Asher in their homes before the tragic shooting.
This month we also sadly farewell our national director, Caryn Farber, with whom I have worked extremely closely over the last seven years to launch The Joint in Australia. Caryn has not only been my partner in crime in this epic adventure to bring The Joint to Australia but has also become a close personal friend; we are all very sad to see her go.
We wish Caryn every success in her new position and are delighted that she’ll remain connected to our cause in a lay capacity.
Finally, it’s my honour to be able to share this piece that I was inspired to write after visiting the incredible Szarvas Summer Jewish Youth Camp this European Summer. I’ve called it, A Lesson in Hope, because this is what it was for me and I trust it will be for you too.
A Lesson in Hope
by Eva Fischl
(An excerpt of this article was featured in the Australian Jewish News on 9th November 2018)
Like many Hungarian Jews in Australia, my memories of Budapest are a tale of two cities – one majestic with its grand architecture and the echo of opera reverberating across the square, and the other tragic, the Danube running red with the blood of my father—and half a million other Jews who were murdered in concentration camps.
Although I was only four when I left Hungary, hurtling over the border to Austria with my mother who had survived Auschwitz, it would surely have been inconceivable to her then, that the child in her arms, would one day return to Hungary as a board member of the organisation that would go on to save our shattered lives. That organisation was The Joint.
That this same ‘Joint’ (short for The Joint Distribution Committee), which orchestrated safe passage to Australia for me—and 25,000 other Holocaust survivors—could still be a beacon for Jews in need around the world today, is in my eyes, a modern-day miracle. That The Joint is also near-singlehandedly revitalising Jewish life in places where Judaism was nearly eradicated or simply in danger of dying out, is something that needs to be seen to be believed.
Fortunately, I was recently given that opportunity when I was invited by The Joint to visit Szarvas last month. Although I had heard and read about Szarvas, seeing the ‘revival of Jewish life’ being played out in real time before my own eyes, was a sight for which nobody could have prepared me.
Szarvas is an international Jewish summer camp located a two-hour drive southeast of Budapest on a 17-acre patch of land in the sleepy Hungarian countryside. Built in 1990 by The Joint—in partnership with the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation— Szarvas has come to be known as the fountain of future Jewry; a place where young people enter disconnected and leave understanding that they are members of a proud and vibrant nation living across many borders.
Each summer, over 1,600 campers aged 7-19 descend on Szarvas from Europe, the post-communist world, and other countries, to spend 12 days exploring Jewish culture, customs and history, all while playing sports, gathering around bonfires, and raiding the canteen for candy and ice cream. This year was no exception.
“Many didn’t even know they were Jewish until their parents told them they were going to Szarvas,” Karolina, a former camper from Poland and now counsellor, explained to me as we entered through a big main gate to a huge welcome banner. I would later learn that because the majority of kids come from Central and Eastern Europe, most come from families where being Jewish felt dangerous or taboo and so they have very little understanding of their Jewish heritage.
But you would never know it.
When we arrived at the camp, it was already midday, and as we approached the massive dining hall, I could see the silhouette of hundreds of kids standing on tables and could hear them singing – in Hebrew. Karolina, who had obviously seen this reaction from visitors before, smiled as we walked closer to the hall before leaning in and whispering, “For most of these kids, this is the one and only place where they can learn what it means to be Jewish and meet other kids who are Jewish too,” she said. “Here, we not only make sure that they have three meals a day but we also make them proud Jews and lead them back to the Jewish world.”
As we entered the crammed, cavernous wood-panelled cafeteria, which is strung with numerous flags but dominated by the blue and white, the campers were already well into a traditional rendition of Am Yisrael Chai. A little boy of about 10, who was wearing a tie-died shirt that he had clearly made at camp with the words, “I’m Jewish and I’m from Latvia,” happened to be standing right near the door as we entered. He smiled at me from his perch at the very end of a long table, dangerously close to the edge, and began to sing louder. Each time I smiled back at him, he sang even louder.
When the campers were finally seated, kids with birthdays were called forward and presented with gifts and serenaded with ‘happy birthday’ in several languages. I’d been at Szarvas for barely thirty minutes, but watching the children eagerly reach for their birthday present, I became completely overcome with emotion that such a place could exist, and even more so, in the place where hundreds of thousands of our fellow Jews, had been sent to their slaughter. It seemed counterintuitive that such a vast and vibrant Jewish experience could be happening in the long shadow of Nazism and Communism—and of my own personal tragedy.
After taking a few moments outside to recover from the emotion of it all, Karolina and I joined a table of teenagers mostly from Bulgaria, Romania and two younger girls from Ukraine. With the help of those who spoke some English, and even a little Hebrew, we managed to chat intensely for almost an hour about their lives back home and what it meant for them to be able to come to Szarvas each year.
I learned that most of them came from single-parent families with only one Jewish parent or grandparent. Almost all of them were returning for the fourth or fifth time, except for one of the Ukrainian girls, Ina, who was new. “My grandmother on my mother’s side, who was a Holocaust survivor, lived with us while I was young. But growing up, I wasn’t really aware that I was Jewish, because it wasn’t something we ever mentioned in our home,” she said.
When I asked Ina how she found out about Szarvas, she explained that her mother had epilepsy and received a monthly delivery of life-saving medication from The Joint in her home city of Kharkov. “One of the case workers mentioned Szarvas to my mother.” She added that she already couldn’t wait to come back and that she would count the days until the following summer.
Karolina explained that many parents don’t have enough money to make ends meet, let alone for luxuries like ‘summer camp’ so most kids are sponsored by Jewish philanthropists around the world including from Australia. I knew this was true just by watching the way the teens demolished the food on their plates and went back for seconds.
I also knew that each of these young people would be forever connected with their lost Jewish heritage and that the continuity of Jewish life in this dark part of the world was being safeguarded right there at the table.
As if reading my mind, Karolina echoed that each of these young people would go back to their community and become a leader, a teacher and one-day a Jewish parent and through them, Jewish life was being rebuilt one person at a time. This dynamic, which begins at Szarvas, she said, has been playing out across the world each year for the last 28 years, from Moscow to Mumbai, with Szarvas alumni driving a whole new generation of Jewish resilience and Jewish revival.
After lunch we toured more of the campsite where I saw young kids doing arts and crafts, learning about Jewish holidays, Israeli dancing and making Challah. I saw older kids sitting in small groups under the shade of trees, deep in discussion with their counsellors about issues like anti-Semitism, the Law of Return and even Jewish divorce. Some kids were in the gymnasium others in the pool and others could be found just laughing and chatting together.
Before we left, we visited the charming synagogue with its brightly coloured Torah covers where a group of boys and girls were celebrating joint Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. There I also met some kids from the United States, Canada and the UK who had decided to spend their own summer at Szarvas and I made a silent commitment to myself that Australians would be among them in the years to come.
At around midnight, Karolina walked me back to the small room they had arranged for me on the campsite. I was exhausted from the wild emotional ride of the day. Karolina must have noticed because the last thing she said to me before we said goodnight was, “I know, there are no words, right?” There aren’t.
Karolina had clearly seen it before. She knew that I was deep inside my own head wondering how I would share what I had seen with my family, friends and my community—especially with those who believed that Jewish life could or even should never bloom in the face of pervasive anti-Semitism on the ashes of six million Jews.
But what I saw cannot be unseen and it cannot be ignored, and it is at the heart of The Joint’s work then and now. Something magical happens to people when they finally learn they are Jewish. It transcends the intellect and makes a beeline for the heart and it turns every “no” into a resounding “yes.” Defying the impossible.
The very last thing I heard that night before I closed my eyes, were the voices of two Hungarian teenage boys chatting and laughing outside their cabin. As I lay there in darkness, understanding every word of Hungarian, I finally surrendered to the strangeness of the day.
I thought of my mother and the hundreds of thousands of people who had been rescued by The Joint back then, and I thought of all the kids I had met at Szarvas that The Joint was helping today. And I realised that whether its arranging emigration visas in 1945 or running a Jewish summer camp in 2018, The Joint has always understood that its mandate to “save Jewish lives and build Jewish life” is meticulous, patient and delicate work – and that it happens one person at a time.
Yes, I had begun my life in Hungary as a hidden Jewish child but thanks to The Joint, I was safely settled in Sydney, Australia and part of a thriving Jewish community. And thanks to The Joint, Jewish children were no longer hiding in this part of the world. They were singing Jewish songs and dancing on tables with Stars of David around their necks and Jewish connection in their hearts. No, they were definitely not hiding. They were doing the very opposite of hiding. They were living as Jews, proud and out loud.
Eva Fischl OAM
About The Joint
The Joint Australia works locally on behalf of The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). JDC is the world’s leading Jewish humanitarian assistance organization. JDC works in more than 70 countries and in Israel to alleviate hunger and hardship, rescue Jews in danger, create lasting connections to Jewish life, and provide immediate relief and long-term development support for victims of natural and man-made disasters.