I've worked at Yad Vashem for almost 30 years. During that time, there have been many occasions when I have been surprised, touched or moved to tears – usually in the course of a special event or occasion, be it a unique reunion of the Kindertransport, the inauguration of Block 27 at Auschwitz, or listening to a musician at a concert play a violin that survived the Holocaust. But sometimes, it doesn't take a major event to give me goosebumps. Sometimes things just come together, present and past collide, the stars are aligned, whatever you want to call it, and I had one of those magical moments this week.
My mother lives in sheltered accommodation for the elderly in Jerusalem. I visit her several times a week but, on this occasion, I was scheduled to interview a possible candidate to become her caregiver. The young woman in question was running late, so I sat outside the building on a bench and waited. After a few minutes, and as I really started to feel the cold Jerusalem air seeping into my bones, a lady came outside, one of the residents of the building, and joined me on the bench. She had a wise, friendly face, and I did what I always do in these situations - I started up a conversation with her. Turns out that although I'd never seen her before, she's been living in the same building as my mum for several years, and even remembered my beloved father, who passed away a couple of years ago.
As always seems to happen when I start talking to an elderly person who mentions that they are from Europe, the topic invariably turns to the Holocaust. I asked her where she was during the war, and she replied: "I was in a ghetto for three years, but not one of the famous ones." "I work at Yad Vashem," I replied, "Try me". Having established that I'd heard of the ghetto, I pressed her to tell me more, and she said that from there she was deported to the Grünberg labor camp. As it happens, Grünberg had come up in an online exhibition I had worked on several years ago, about the death march to Volary, an infamous march that 1,000 women had been forced on in late 1944. "There was a famous death march from Grünberg," I said conversationally, as you do. "I was on that march," she answered, "I escaped from that march." By now of course the hairs were standing up on my arms, and it had nothing to do with the brisk evening air.
The exhibition about the march to Volary is pretty ingrained in my memory, as the details were fairly harrowing, and I had been particularly invested in light of the fact that the exhibition curator's mother had also been on the march, as had the wife of a lovely old man whom I had befriended at some point during my years at Yad Vashem. And yes, this sweet little lady, who by now I had learned was called Kala Selzer, indeed knew my friend's mother, as well as other women, whose names I recalled and asked her about. By this point I was close to tears and desperately wanted to carry on the conversation but life got in the way, in the form of various caregivers, present and prospective. I promised her that I would come to visit her soon, which she seemed pretty excited about. For myself, I was walking on air for the rest of the evening – I had met a survivor of the death march to Volary!! Turns out she has already celebrated her 100th birthday, and is still as clear as a bell. I immediately contacted my friend the exhibition curator, who has since retired, and sent her a long, involved message about my magical encounter with Kala. That's the end of part one.
Part two was the next morning. I came to work as usual, and during the morning, turned my attention to a new online exhibition I'm translating, about weddings before, during and after the Holocaust. I opened the relevant computer file, and was astounded to see that my next text was entitled: Noach and Kala Selzer. No way!!! I thought. I quickly scanned the text, and what do you know? It's the same Kala I'd met just the previous evening. Goosebumps again. What were the chances??? I sent another message to my friend the curator, who immediately wrote back, with the wise words that "There is no such thing as coincidence". She also alerted me to the fact that the glove Kala knitted in Grünberg is on display in the Holocaust History Museum in the section on Volary.
I couldn't keep all this to myself, and ran to tell the story to a colleague from the same department. When I got to the part about the glove, her expression changed. Now she was the one with goosebumps. "You're not going to believe this," she said, moving her computer screen so that I could see it too. "I'm just working on updating one of our website pages featuring different Holocaust artifacts and…." You guessed it. Staring back at me from the screen, was a photograph of Kala's glove. Talk about the stars being aligned!!! My cup runneth over. This is what makes working at Yad Vashem so special. Moments like these when everything seems to come together, and you feel as though you are part of something much bigger than yourself. Especially now, when everything is so uncertain, unpredictable, painful and sad, a moment like this truly feels like a gift.