Personal Journeys: A Child of the Holocaust


Personal Journeys: A Child of the Holocaust

The Hall of Names at Yad VaShem in Jerusalem. Photo by David Shankbone.

Jerusalem Israel

April 15, 2010

Dozens of eyes silently follow the slender man on the speaker's dais. The only sound in the hall is his voice, which captivates the audience. World War II, Nazism, Auschwitz, the yellow patch—images of a frightening past come to life as he speaks of his journey. 

Once a week, Efraim makes the trip from his house in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem to Yad V’Shem, Israel’s Holocaust museum at Mount Hertzel and back. Again and again, he tells the story of Freddy Moll, a child survivor of the Holocaust, today a Chabad Chasid. His listeners include teenagers, soldiers, tourists and even Catholic priests. No matter his audience, his message is the same: the endurance of the Jewish faith.

"People ask me: As a Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family, how can you be so devout in your mitzvah observance and so unshakable in your faith?” Efraim says. 

These are questions that Efraim would once have concurred with. Although he grew up in a loving, devoted adoptive family, young Freddy was plagued by fear, uncertainty and a sense of rootlessness. As he got older, he began to feel anger toward G-d because of the Holocaust and the deaths of his parents. 

But Efraim now sees things differently. “In Judaism I find the antidote to all the wrongs, I find the antidote to the concealment of the Divine in the world.”

As for existential questions, Efraim, who was raised secular, casts his lot with the believers. “One who believes, has no questions; one who doesn't, has no answers.” 

Farewell Forever

"I was born in 1938 in Brussels, Belgium, an only son to Polish parents. My parents’ families came from Warsaw in the twenties, running away from Communism, which was spreading throughout Eastern Europe. They settled in Belgium and began a new life.”

In 1942, when the Germans invaded Belgium, Efraim's parents tried to flee to Switzerland, but they were stopped at the border by the Gestapo. "My parents were taken to a military base, while I was sent to a convent. Although I was less then five years old at the time, I vividly remember our last moments together. Two pictures hastily placed in my hands, one of my father and one of my mother, a last hug and hot tears. I never saw them again.”

At the convent, Freddy met other Jewish children who were brought there from various places. After two weeks he was sent to a Jewish orphanage in Paris. “I still remember the yellow patch which the staff and administration wore, a decree the Nazi occupiers imposed on the Jews.” After three weeks, Freddy was adopted by a Jewish family.

They were a French Jewish couple who had a fifteen-year-old daughter, and had decided to adopt another child. His new parents were very devoted and cared for Freddy like a son. "My father had a friend who was a policeman. This friend would tip him off about impending searches, and our neighbors, an elderly Gentile couple, would hide me in their home until the danger passed. This happened quite often."

Freddy's adoptive family was thoroughly assimilated and he was sent to a Catholic school. His new parents raised him as a Frenchman in every way, even celebrating Xmas together as a family. 

“I was told to lie and say that I was less then six years old, so that I would not have to wear the yellow patch. As seen through the eyes of a child, the world was confused and senseless, a place of gnawing aimlessness and unanswered questions. But still, I knew I was a Jew.” 

Then the ax came down on the Jews of France. Freddy’s adoptive family was forced to pack up and run. A righteous gentile woman, a friend of the family’s, allowed the parents and older daughter to hide in her small apartment, while she took young Freddy with her to a distant location in the suburbs.

"For six months we hid. The woman played with me and tried to make life as pleasant as possible under the circumstances,” Efraim relates. "I remember feeling very out of place. Who was I? What was I? I had no idea. I knew that my real parents were gone forever. In school I was a gentile who was hit and cursed for being a Jew. I saw my Jewishness as a type of birth defect, something that makes you suffer and prevents you from getting ahead in life. Some nights I dreamed that Daddy and Mommy returned to take me, but that never happened.”

When the war came to an end, Freddy was reunited with his adoptive family. Life, it seemed, went back to normal. Freddy graduated elementary school and then high school. His devoted and caring adoptive parents, whom he called “uncle” and “aunt,” gave him everything he needed – everything, he says, but Judaism.

"Somewhere in a corner of my mind I always knew that Judaism is truer then Christianity, but I was reluctant to follow this up. If there was a G-d, I had some very serious complaints against him, and I preferred to skirt the issue. When I did think about religion, I viewed it as a hassle, the cause of my pain and suffering since childhood. I wanted to live a good and free life, like my friends, without a yellow patch, real or figurative, hanging over my head. I just wanted to be an ordinary French citizen.” 

An Eye-Opener

In 1956 the headlines in the French press reported that Israel was at war in Sinai. Newspaper stands on every corner displayed pictures of Jewish soldiers, sand dunes, and piles of shoes of Egyptian soldiers who had fled before the approaching Israeli army. For Freddy this was a sensational revelation. 

"For the first time in my life I heard about the state of Israel, about proud Jews fighting and winning,” he recalls. "Long ago I read in the Scriptures that one day the Jewish people would return to the Land of the Jews, and it seemed that this ancient promise had been fulfilled. Proud Jews – not like me, ashamed and hiding – living in their own country, speaking their own language and fighting courageously against their enemies. To me, this was a real eye-opener.”

He was 16 at the time, mature enough to think and to continue searching. Freddy began attending lectures about Israel and began reading up on Judaism and Zionism. His adoptive parents were not enamored of his new interests.

"They said: ‘We are French! True, we support Israel, but that’s it.’” 

To them, the fledgling Jewish state was a “ghetto” for refugees who had nowhere to go after the war. “But we have a place, here in France,” they insisted, hoping they might shake him loose of his interest in Israel. 

During his days of exploration, Freddy met the surviving members of his birth family. His adoptive parents had put his name on lists published by the Joint, and one morning Freddy’s paternal grandmother, her sister and husband, and an aunt showed up at his doorstep. 

Freddy spent time with his newly discovered family, visiting with them during school vacations. "My relatives introduced me to Jewish concepts, like gefilte fish and borscht,” he smiles. "They were ardent Zionists, but not religious.”

When he was 17, Freddy decided to visit Israel. Again, his adoptive family tried to dissuade him, but he was adamant. A large black kippah now graced his head during meals. "I read somewhere that a Jew covers his head while eating, so I began wearing the Yarmulka while eating . . . non-kosher food."

His adoptive sister's husband, hoping that seeing the primitive “desert country” of Israel first-hand paid would cure Freddy of his new-found love, paid his ticket. 

"I boarded the plane, and for the first time in my life I heard Hebrew being spoken all around me,” he reminisces. "I stared at the Hebrew letters on my ticket, and pressed it to my heart. The entire staff consisted of Israeli Jews. To me it was an inspiring and wonderful experience.”

Efraim can still feel the blast of heat that greeted him at his destination. A cousin who had made Aliyah some years before took the visitor to his Ramat Gan home, where he stayed for three weeks. Of all the sights and sounds of the country Efraim especially remembers Beer Sheva: "A city in the desert which boasted only one long street, sandwiched between the sand dunes of the Negev.”

"When we visited the Bedouin Market (Shuk), I saw a Kibbutznik buying camels and counting the animals in Yiddish. I was stunned. To me, Yiddish was a Golus- language, symbolic of Nazis trampling Jews, and here in Israel it was being used to count animals . . . For me this was an epiphany, something that defied logic. I felt that Biblical prophecies were coming true right in front of my eyes, and that I was witnessing, first hand, a Divine revelation.” 

First Prayer

"I returned home and informed my parents that I was moving to Israel,” Efraim continues. "They hit the roof. 'We rescued you, raised you, protected you – and this is your thank you?’ I felt I was being ungrateful, so I put my aliyah on hold.”

Back then, military service was compulsory in France, and Freddy soon found himself fighting Algeria as part of a transport unit.

As a commander of a fleet of military trucks, he delivered weapons and ammo to French forces on the French-Algerian border, with shells crashing and exploding all around him. When his time in the army was up, he was given a job in an armory, where his work was easier and safer. His new job also allowed him time to read about Judaism.

"The more I read and understood, the more I realized that Jewish identity was synonymous with mitzvah observance,” he says. “I began wondering if there was a Jewish community and synagogue in the small village where I worked. After making some inquiries, I walked into a small shul, just in time for minchah. This was the first time in my life that I prayed.

"Everyone 'fought' over me, a Jewish soldier, and wanted to invite me home. In the end the president of the congregation prevailed and took me to his house. I ended up visiting him often, and so experienced my first true Shabbos.

In his host's home Efraim found hospitality and a listening ear. When his host heard about Efraim's desire to move to Israel and his parent's opposition, he told him the story of Abraham, who was commanded by G-d to “go forth from his father’s house . . .” 

These words freed the young man's heart, and Efraim's plans for the future became clear to him.

"After finishing my time in the army I returned home. I told my parents that now that I had risked my life for France and fulfilled my duty as a citizen and as a patriot, I was going to make aliyah. They were silent. Even when they heard that I was volunteering on a kibbutz, they thought it was insane.”

They had the same response to his decision to become a practicing Jew. But Efraim was young, enthusiastic and determined: no one was going to stop him now. He registered with the Jewish Agency, listed his preferences, and ended up joining a Bnei Akiva group that was leaving France to settle in S'deh Eliyahu, a religious kibbutz located in the Bet She-an valley.

"So began the best years of my life,” Efraim says with a smile. "At long last, I felt that I was in control of my future, living according to my wishes and beliefs. I discovered G-d, studied Torah and Ivrit, and worked long hours under the hot Israeli sun. As soon as I arrived at the kibbutz someone gave me a large knitted kippah, which never left my head, even in the shower. By the time I remembered that I had it on - it was already soaked.”

Whenever he passed the small cemetery near the kibbutz, Efraim Moll felt that he was going to stay here for the rest of his life and beyond. A deep, serious and joyous connection to the Land resonated in his heart. Freddy Moll had found his place. 

Chassidus by Mail

About a year later Efraim was drafted into the IDF. After completing basic training he was taught how to lay down mines using a tractor, and he joined a company of military engineers based in Givat Olgah. His fellow soldiers were members of the notoriously anti-religious HaShomer HaTzair. One soldier, however, was very different: Rabbi Yitzchak Yadger, principal of the Chabad school in Taanach.

"Yitzchak, with his long black beard, radiated warmth and joy. Once I shared guard duty with him, and we spoke all night long.”

Efraim had already heard about the Tanya—the foundational text of Chabad Chasidic thought—from a friend in S'deh Eliyahu, and he was receptive to the Chasidic values Rabbi Yadger shared with him. Soon he subscribed to the weekly Sichat ha-Shavua of the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

"Every Thursday this weekly was in my mailbox. I would sit down with my wife (we married during my stint in the army) and we would study it in depth. Chabad was a good fit for us, and after six years we left S'deh Eliyahu and settled in Jerusalem.” 

Efraim traces his involvement with Yad V’Shem back to when he was working in a motor factory in Bet Shemesh. One day, he related his life story to a French co-worker. “You have to write your story down, for your children and for posterity. A story like yours should not be lost!" his friend told him.

When Efraim heard that Yad V'Shem was looking for people to share their stories with groups of visitors, he contacted the museum and enrolled in a two-week course to learn the rudiments of public speaking and responding to questions. Since then he tells his tale to visitors every week, in Hebrew, English and French. He concludes his talk with his personal message, as an observant Jew.

Efraim recalls addressing a group of Polish priests. He spoke about the seven Noahide Laws and stressed the fact that G-d expects every human being to live a moral life, guard the sanctity of the family unit and respect the dignity one’s fellow human beings. 

"When I finished my talk, one of the priests stood up and blessed me," he says. Efraim also recalls speaking to a group of English priests. His talk made a favorable impression on the visitors, and Efraim believes that “upon returning home they became better ambassadors for Israel and the Jewish people.”

Efraim keeps in touch with his adoptive family by mail. The gentile woman who hid him during the war received a ticket to Israel, courtesy of Yad V'Shem, where she recorded her testimony and was formally declared a Righteous Gentile. 

After the fall of Communism, lists of murdered Jews were made public, and Efraim learned that his mother was taken to Auschwitz on the eve of Yom Kippur and died on Hoshana Rabbah. "Since then I have a Yartzeit on which I pray for her soul,” he says with pain in his voice. But to this day Efraim has no idea what happened to his father.

Today, Efraim is the proud patriarch of a large Chasidic family that spans four generations and includes several Chabad representatives. His family and friends enjoy hearing his story over and over again.

When his grandchildren and great-grandchildren share with him what they learn in cheder, Efraim is filled with joy. His children, he says, are proof that while Hitler may have succeeded in destroying Jewish bodies, he could not extinguish the Jewish soul. 

"This,” he says, "is my real revenge."  

Based on the Hebrew language feature that appeared in the Kfar Chabad magazine. Translated by Rabbi Eli Friedman

           

 

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