In September 1947, a Red Cross train left Bucharest, Romania carrying 421 children who had been gathered from all over Romania and its orphanages, accompanied by 37 counsellors and four teachers. The train reached the Netherlands via Prague, and the children were taken to the "Ilania" children's village, situated on the site of a former Jewish psychiatric hospital in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands.
In January 1943, all the patients at the hospital had been deported to Auschwitz, together with some of the staff. The idea to bring the children there was the initiative of the Jewish Agency's "Youth Aliyah", in partnership with the AJJDC (American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) and Dutch Jewish public organizations, and with the consent of the Dutch government. Several weeks later, another 32 children arrived at "Ilania", who had been living in Bernfeld and were brought from Berlin to the Netherlands. Shmuel Rat, a Gordonia counsellor at "Ilania" recalls the challenges of looking after the 6-16 year-olds:
It wasn't clear to me if we were really equipped to shoulder the educational responsibility for children who had been separated from their families and relatives, orphans who had personally experienced the horrors of the Holocaust. My fellow counsellors and I had experience in organization and explanation within the youth movement, but now a different kind of work was expected of us – to be entrusted with the children's day-to-day problems, and to be their only address, replacing their parents or relatives.
(The Jewish Agency, Ilania-Apeldoorn, p. 15)
Zehava Hellman (Goldie Kaufman) from the Agudat Israel group of children, was thirteen years old when she came to "Ilania". She recalls:
After the hell of the camps in Ukraine and the institutions in Romania, the Netherlands was like paradise for me. … I felt like the babies here at "Tipat Halav" (baby and toddler care network in Israel). They weighed us, examined us, and took care of us. ... We were not regular children, we were Holocaust refugees, plagued by fears and nightmares. At night, the children would cry and scream in their sleep. They would even wet the bed. They would go from bed to bed for fear of sleeping alone, fear of the dark, fear of just about everything. And how comforting it was to know that a night nurse was sleeping at the end of the corridor. As soon as she heard cries or screams, she would materialize like an angel and comfort us, even without knowing how to speak our language. … I developed there, and I think my sadness abated.
(Ilania-Apeldoorn, p. 57; Shimon Schechter, Ilania Children's Village – Aliyah Stories, p. 41)
The children's village was called "Ilania" (from the Hebrew word "Ilan" meaning tree) because of the grove of uncultivated trees in which it was located. The children were assigned three lodging houses from amongst the buildings spread around the grove, and they gave them the names "Zra'im" (seeds), "Shorashim" (roots) and "Nitzanim" (buds), in keeping with the tree theme. The children and counsellors were divided according to their political party-youth movement affiliation amongst the movements that made up "Ilania", each espousing different political ideologies: Gordonia, Hanoar Hazioni, Hashomer Hatzair, Agudat Israel, Bnei Akiva, Beitar, Dror Habonim Ichud and Dror Habonim Poalei Zion.
From the very beginning of the home's establishment, each youth movement had complete freedom over its internal affairs, while being considerate of others and conducting joint cultural activities such as choral and theatrical performances and publishing a newspaper. "Morning prayers were held together with Beitar's morning assembly", relates Moshe Avneri, a counsellor in Bnei Akiva, whose members shared the "Nitzanim" building with members of Beitar and Agudat Israel.
A theater hall with a stage and some five hundred seats stood at the center of "Ilania", and was used for plays, gatherings and concerts.
A school was established there, the children's different academic levels presenting a challenge to the educational staff. There were children who had not had the chance to study at all, and children who had attended school for a number of years. Some spoke only Romanian, others spoke Yiddish too, and still others who had come from Germany only spoke German. Only a few teachers and children spoke Hebrew. There were also discrepancies in the depth of Jewish knowledge amongst the children. After a general exam, the children were divided into grades 1-9. They studied in two shifts due to the shortage of teachers. The religious children had separate classes. The teaching staff came from Romania, Germany, and from Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine). The director of the children's village was Binyamin Zussman, a Yishuv emissary who also worked as a teacher there. Rubin Bernstein, a counsellor in the "Bnei Ze'ev" group of Beitar recalls:
Being a member of Beitar… I wanted my protégés to speak, think and dream in Hebrew. Therefore, I asked the teacher [Chana Eisenstein] to join our Shabbat evening parties, and to read chapters aloud from Hebrew literature. … We drank in the texts, which were accompanied by her wonderful explanations. The teacher gave us this gift lovingly and willingly, despite working three shifts during the week: morning and afternoon classes for the children, and evening classes until 11 o' clock at night for the adults.
(With all her Soul and with all her Might – in memory of our teacher Chana Eisenstein-Barzilai, p. 111)
Eretz Israel was the focus of the school's educational endeavors and the different movements' activities.
The names obligate you to do serious and important work. You bear the name Bar Kochba – one of the great historical heroes of the Jewish people. Your unit is the Bnei Masada unit. Masada is the name of a fortress where the Jews held out until their last drop of blood in their rebellion against the Romans. You will be educated in the same spirit. Eretz Israel needs comrades who will work, live and also fight. (Excerpt from the activity diary of the "Bar Kochba" group of Hashomer Hatzair, preserved in the Yad Vashem Archives)
The Dutch government allowed the children to reside within its borders for three years, but after the Declaration of Independence and the establishment of the State of Israel, the decision was made to bring the children and their caretakers to Israel.
Thirteen-year-old Yosef Wald, who lived in "Ilania", wrote in 1948:
Every people in the world has its own country, and we also have a country which we want to live in. Therefore we stayed at "Ilania" for a whole year, in order to prepare for immigration. Now the time has come to immigrate to Israel. Our Homeland awaits us, it needs young people, and we are immigrating in order to build it. We are not scared. If we need to fight for our Homeland, we'll fight. Until now, we've struggled with the hardships of life in the Diaspora. From now on, we will grapple with the hardships of our country – and that has a very different flavor. And if, God forbid, we have to lay down our lives, we will. For this purpose we are immigrating to Israel.
In October 1948, the "Ilania" children boarded the "Negba" for its maiden voyage from the Netherlands to Haifa, proudly flying the Israeli flag. A Dutch film crew documented the scene, and some of the footage is featured in this exhibition.