by Susan Heagy, President of AHI
As we progress through our 15th year in Israel serving the Holocaust Survivors, I want to share the personal side of what it is like to spend time with these amazing people. The main purpose of AHI is to assist Holocaust Survivors however we can. Renovations, birthday flowers, errands, advocates for doctor appointments, music, events and small gifts. But the most important is giving them unconditional love and honor.
So how did all this affect me personally? Who am I in the midst of it all?
When I arrived in Israel in January 2004, I was angry. I did not want to be here. In addition, I did not want to work with old people! I knew God sent me here for the Survivors and they were among the oldest in the world. I was not happy. But I knew I was to come, and I did. I began visiting Survivors of the Holocaust, beginning in The Negev. My first encounter with a Survivor, hearing her story as she shook and wept, changed my life. With a literal electric jolt, I realized these Survivors were the purpose for which God created me.
On meeting Evgenia I received a heart transplant from God. I fell in love with her, the Survivors, and old people in general. It was such a dramatic change for me- I even have to restrain myself in airports not to go up and squeeze the cheeks of little old ladies and men.
But why Israel? Wouldn’t it be better (translate ‘easier’) if I did the same thing in the USA? God’s ways are not our ways and He knows best. I came to Israel out of obedience. God said to come, I came. I believed in His Authority and Sovereignty. Not mine to question, but my decision to obey. So, here I was. But I did ask God, “Now what?!” He was faithful to guide me from that first encounter to where we are today.
I began by visiting 38 Survivors in one city. Today we have contact with approximately 1500 Survivors all over Israel; anywhere from regular visitation to sending birthday cards. In the beginning I had no idea what I was doing. I was completely, 100%, waiting on the Lord to tell me how to move forward. This was a good thing, though some days were very difficult.
I would visit Survivors with a volunteer translator. He had a job so timing of visits was in relation to his schedule. In the beginning we visited, they told what they wanted of their life, and I went to the next Survivor. Soon, however, I got the idea I could visit without a translator. I simply wanted to convey that God loved them and I did too. I figured that could be done without words.
As I visited, spent half an hour watching Russian TV with them, they talked non-stop, and I smiled, held hands and hugged them- with no idea of what was said. It was the beginning of true friendship. They recognized the love of HaShem. As I have consistently asked the Lord, “Please let them see You and not me,” He answered that prayer. I grew to love these precious people.
In my first six months in Israel, listening to and writing down the horrors of Survivors’ dialogues created a bond between us that still exists today. When any one of those first Survivor- friends passes away, it is like my own father or mother or grandparent is gone. I cry and I grieve. Imagine when you lose a loved one. In this position, I mourn again and again and again as these friends pass away. I miss them and cry when I see their pictures. Compassion for others develops a bond that is not easily broken.
Even with this love I had for them, it took me two years of going back and forth between Israel and the USA to finally understand God wanted me here, in Israel. When it finally sank in, and I chose to stay, I came to realize this was not an easy task but it was possible only through HaShem.
After those two years in the south the Lord sent me north to the city of Akko, a 5000+ year old city along the Mediterranean Sea. I established a house called Beit Shalom (House of Peace) where over the years we have hosted guests, volunteers, new immigrants, leaders and friends, both new and old.
On my initial visit to Akko I was quite nervous. The woman I was to stay with spoke only Hungarian and Hebrew. I spoke neither. But we found the Lord gave us each an understanding of what the other was saying. We even did Bible study together: Her with her Hungarian Bible and Hungarian-Hebrew dictionary while I had my English Bible and a Hebrew-English dictionary. It was a new step of faith for me in this foreign country and now in my new city.
I discovered there was no Survivor Association in Akko and all the registered lists of Survivors were at least 10 years old with no updates. Our work was cut out for us. After combining all the lists we began knocking on doors. Working one street and going down the next, asking neighbors for help and returning repeatedly until we had an answer. This initial updating procedure took us two years with volunteers from various countries giving assistance. Days of exhaustion and seemingly endless walking gave me a complete understanding of the layout of Akko. But it gave me something else…
One day we arrived at an address looking for a Survivor named Shlomo. The door to the apartment was open and many people dressed up were going in and out. One spoke English and asked what we wanted. I explained who we were and were looking for Shlomo, to give him honor and let him know we loved him. The woman stared at me, then silently took my hand and led me into the house. She spoke to one woman in Hebrew repeating what I had said. The woman before me looked at me with compassion and said,
“We have just come back from burying Shlomo, my husband. He died this morning.”
It was like I had been punched in the chest. We had just missed Shlomo by less than 12 hours. We were too late to let him know we honored and loved him. His widow put her arms around me and thanked me for caring. As I left all those around her touched my arm and thanked me for being there. I left the apartment, went down the stairs, and sat on the curb weeping. Too late!! We were too late!
That day instilled in me an urgency to reach every Survivor we possibly can. It is a feeling I live with day and night. Even now as I write this I am crying as I remember the despair I felt at missing the opportunity to meet Shlomo.
God has placed me on this journey and I know my DNA matches this mission to bring love and honor to the Holocaust Survivors. But I also know I am not to do it alone. It is vital that others come alongside.
I have seen how the Survivors love meeting people from all over the world. They respond to their gentle hands and soft words. They will respond to yours as well.
The God of Israel is the Shomer for His People. But He calls us to be His hands and feet. Please hear my heart’s cry for the Shoah Survivors.
Come bless them through our hands and feet if you can come. If you cannot, please enable others to do so through your donations.