A set of distinctly Eastern European eyes peers out from under the white hijab. Although the woman is Muslim, she was born in Auschwitz.
When Helen Brashatsky’s parents and two brothers arrived in Auschwitz in 1941, Helen’s mother was pregnant. Pregnant women were usually killed, but Helen’s mother was lucky. A Christian doctor hid Helen’s family under the floor of his house inside the Auschwitz compound. When she was born, he hid her in a pile of bath towels. During the day, Helen’s mother did the doctor’s housework and her father was the gardener. At night the parents would return to the doctors house and feed the children bread soaked in salt water. After WWII the family immigrated to Israel and settled in Ramat Gan.
Helen was six when her family came to Israel, a few months before statehood was declared. She grew up in Ramat Gan, but at 17 she fell in love with an Arab man. Much to her parents’ dismay she ran away to marry him and live in his village. Eventually after two years she and her family reconciled.
Even though she married an Arab man, she remained Jewish and did not convert to Islam. But when her children began approaching army age, she became concerned that her daughter would not be accepted in the community where she grew up if she had to serve in the army. By converting she could prevent her children from being drafted and so she did.
Helen never told her husband and children about her Holocaust story. For years she would cry alone on Holocaust memorial day, much to the confusion of her family. She says “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.”
She says she was waiting for the right moment. That moment came when a man from Israeli social services showed up to ask about her past. Her oldest son, now 33, says that it answered a lot of questions “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…We understand her a bit more now.”
For more about Leila’s story: Holocaust survivor finds haven as Muslim in Israel , Your Middle East (AFP), April 18, 2012.