Hana’s Story - From Czechoslovakia to England to Israeli kibbutz
I watch Hana Raz taking in the view from Belvoir.
More than 900 years ago, the Crusaders built this aptly named fortress atop a hill in Israel. It offers spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee and the land of Jordan in the distance, and it was supposed to protect the eastern route to Jerusalem. But, less than 40 years later, the Knights surrendered to Saladin forces and the Holy Land was lost.
Belvoir is still an impressive structure, and while much of it lies in ruins, many of the original stone walls remain. The innate strength of the structure is clear, and I find myself comparing this building with the little woman who has brought us to see it. Now 88 years old, Hana may falter a little in her steps, but her underlying strength is indomitable. It has had to be.
For more than 60 years, Hana has lived and worked on K’Far Ruppin, an Israeli kibbutz on the border with Jordan, not far from this fortress. And like its history, hers, too, began in Europe – in Czechoslovakia.
In 1938, 11-year-old Hana was growing up in relative affluence in Prague. “We were fairly assimilated so I never thought about religion,” she recalls. “Then, suddenly, being Jewish was bad. One of my best friends referred to another girl as a dirty Jew. I was so indignant, I told her, ‘I’m Jewish!’ We never talked again.”
Kindertransport to safety
But it was a sign of the times. The winds of war were blowing, and a remarkable English humanitarian, Nicholas Winton, realized the danger. He began gathering Jewish children into trains to bring them to England. Hana was one of the 669 Czech children taken to safety on what became known as the Kindertransport.
My mother made it out to be a great adventure,” she recalls. “She told me what fun I would have and all the new friends I would make. She was very brave.”
The details of the journey are etched in her memory: guards who woke them hourly to count them; a sister consoling her weeping younger brother; a lovely feast of food for the hungry waifs at a farm in Holland; and finally, the daunting darkness of Liverpool Street train station in London.
Here, Hana first met Sylvia Nicholson. “She was tall, and very kind. She took my hand and spoke gently,” she remembers. “She put me in a big car, and got into the driver›s seat herself. I had never seen a woman drive before!”
When they arrived at Russetings, Sinclair and Sylvia Nicholson’s large home in Surrey, Hana was overwhelmed, “It was like a castle. I couldn’t believe I was going to stay in such a large house.
Hana quickly became one of the family, the Nicholsons’ five grown children adding a new, younger sister to the clan. She attended Eothan, a private girls school. “They were so kind to me, I worked hard to make them proud, and I won a scholarship for the following year,” recalls Hana. “But I was shocked to find they were still paying my fees. I wanted so much to contribute, but was told, ‘Hana, my dear, there are others who need it more."
Devastated at war’s end
With the end of the war, a devastated Hana learned that her own parents, along with so many others, had perished in an extermination camp. The Nicholsons became ‘mum’ and ‘dad’, sending their bright daughter on to Oxford where she studied English literature.
After graduation, newly married, Hana and her husband made a decision. They would emigrate to Israel; they wanted to contribute to the fledgling country. In a letter she still treasures, ‘mum’ wrote: Hana dear, I am so glad that you found your religion!
In 1954, Hana fi rst came to this small kibbutz. Building a thriving community in this dry land was hard. And to add to that hardship, in the early years the children slept in a bunker to keep them safe from the occasional bombs tossed across the border from Jordan. But Hana was committed to staying and making their little cooperative a success.
She taught here as well as at the university. She learned Hebrew and became a translator. And she had two children about whom Sylvia wrote: I always think of them as belonging to me, as their “granny”.
And now, here in Israel, we’re remembering granny. I’m visiting Hana with one of Sylvia’s many grandsons, Ed Snell. His mother, Elizabeth, and Hana were ‘sisters’ and remained in close correspondence until Elizabeth’s passing four years ago. As a young man on his ‘round-the-world’ trip, Ed came to Israel to see his ‘aunt’. He stayed seven months, volunteering on the kibbutz.
Ed and Hana became close and have visited one another through the years. Well aware that this may be the one of the last times they might see one another, we make the trip to Israel to see his aunt Hana once more.
Exploring this part of Israel with this feisty octogenarian is a revelation
In Tiberius, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, we dine on St. Peter’s fish caught in its waters. The restaurant, Galilei Gil, has been built around an enormous old tree. Astoundingly, the walls have actually been cut to accommodate its solid branches. It might be a metaphor for Hana’s own grit and determination, to carve out life regardless of obstacles.
In nearby Beit She’an, I walk the carefully laid out boulevards of what was once a grand Roman city, treading on mosaics some meticulous mason laboriously crafted centuries ago. Little remains of that powerful nation, which once dominated this part of the world. And it occurs to me that sites like this one aren’t simply a chronicle of the history of Israel, but that of Western civilization.
At nearby Beit Alfa, we visit an excavated 5th century synagogue with a remarkable mosaic fl oor. An Aramaic inscription states that it was laid at the time of the emperor Justin I (who ruled 518-527 AD). Two of the three panels depict the Holy Ark and the story of the attempted sacrifi ce of Isaac by Abraham.
So you don’t forget
But what is unique is the large central panel with the Zodiac, its 12 signs in Hebrew. At its centre is an image of the sungod, Helios, and an inscription in Greek names the Jewish artists. Hana talks about the antiquity of Jewish history, and buys me a post-card folder of the site, “so you don’t forget.”
Later, in her tiny house, Hana brings out precious, scarred photos, tattered letters and carefully pasted scrapbooks to share with us, and I realize how important this injunction is – to preserve the past and to remember.
It becomes apparent to me that in Israel, there are many like Hana. Having lost everything during their lives, they have begun again to re-amass their personal histories. And any relic from their early, lost days is beyond value
Hana takes us to a large stone memorial in the cemetery in K’Far Ruppin. On it are the names of those whom kibbutz members lost during the war. Hana points to the names of her parents, etched in Hebrew. It’s another way to remember.
Undoubtedly fortresses like Belvoir remind us that even the strongest, grandest structures –and their creators – eventually crumble. But when I compared her strength to that of the fortress, Hana was indignant, “Don’t compare me to Crusaders, they were not kind to Jews!”
Nonetheless, Hana’s story contrasts the evils of empires against the goodness of a few individuals. Despite its might, the impressive Crusader fortress only lasted 40 years while this frail woman has already withstood more than 60 here. And from her, I have learned the importance of remembering.