Holocaust Survivors – Christian Arabs from Palestine/Land of Israel as well?
This time the Machaseh team and a group of Holocaust survivors went by bus from Jerusalem to a German Christian Community Center in Latrun to spend some time together. The setting and the location of the gathering in itself broke the stereotypes of history, but they broke even more when an Arab Christian Believer from Haifa, Albert Yacoub, started to tell about his grandfather, Saliba Said Saliba Watfa, who came from a small village called Jedeidah, east of Acko, and who was a Holocaust Survivor as well.
Saliba Said Saliba was born in 1911, while the Ottoman Empire still ruled over most of the Middle East, including over the Land of Israel. The parents of Saliba Said died when he was only 4, so he was raised by his older sister Sarah that was 18 by that time. Another sister of Saliba Said was kidnapped by Moslems when she was 14. The fear that the same could happen to Saliba's third sister must have been considerable because she was sent to a monastery at the age of 13 – as a protection against a kidnapping!
At the age of 18 Saliba Said joined the British Army, since the Land by that time already was the British Mandate of Palestine. In 1943 the unit of Saliba Said was sent to Poland to fight the Nazis, and he left his wife Nasra and their three children, Said, Elias and Samira at home. The unit was parachuted in Poland and severely hurt by the Nazis. An SS officer went with a pistol to make sure that all the soldiers from the British unit were dead. Saliba Said hid under the corpse of one of those already dead. The SS officer realized Saliba was still alive and tried to shoot him, but a British officer, called "Albert" jumped in front of him and received the bullet. Saliba Said gave the dying Albert a hug and promised him that if he would return home in peace and get another son, he would be called Albert.
The Germans realized that Saliba Said was circumcised, as is the tradition in the Melkite Church, so they thought Saliba Said was a Jew and sent him to a concentration camp, possibly Auschwitz. Saliba Said later told his daughter Samira about his experiences in the concentration camp, and Samira told her son Albert Yacoub about the gas chambers, the screams, and the smell of fire, the work of taking away corpses, the hunger, the illnesses, the suffering, the crowdedness, the slavery, and the humiliation. Saliba Said took part in digging graves and ditches. After people were killed, the survivors had to bury them.
Saliba Said managed to flee together with a group of soldiers and survivors. It took him three more years to come back home to the Land. At home, his daughter Samira, the mother of Albert, didn't recognize her father. Compared to earlier photos, he had changed a lot because of all his sufferings. In the village of Jedeidah they made a big celebration for him when he came back, but they didn't believe in his stories. His daughter Samira though sat by her father and listened to all his experiences, and was amazed. How could all this happen?
Saliba Said and his wife had three more daughters, but no more sons. In 1959 Saliba was hospitalized in the hospital of Tel HaShomer, suffering from pneumonia. His daughter Samira used to visit him often, and before Saliba Said died, he got the promise of his daughter that if she got a son, he had to be called "Albert".
Saliba Said died 48 years old, and since his illness was severe, it was difficult for his daughter Samira to identify the body of her father at the morgue, but she managed because of the number impressed on his arm by the Nazis. Albert's grandfather was buried in the village of Jedeidah.
The grandson of Saliba Said, Albert Yacoub, who bears the name of the British officer who rescued his grandfather from the bullet of the SS officer, today works with distributing audio versions of the Bible in many different languages all over the world. Albert is a leading elder in the Arabic speaking Brethren congregation of Haifa as well. He is dedicated to serve the Lord through spreading the Scriptures and helping the needy wherever the possibilities are found.
It's difficult to prove and verify that Saliba Said experienced all what he told his daughter. In the archives of the Kibbutz Lochame HaGeta'ot (the survivors of the Ghetto Fighters in Warsaw) outside Nahariya, it's not known about Arab British Soldiers from Palestine who fought in Poland. In the museum of Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, they deal only with the Jewish Holocaust survivors. But recently there has emerged information about other British soldiers of Arab origin that fought for the Britons in Poland. And most of all, it's next to impossible that Samira, the mother of Albert, could have invented all these details without access to internet and without having books dealing with the topic of Holocaust. Samira didn't even know how to read until her 52 age. When she learned Hebrew and started to be able to write short notes in feeble Hebrew. But she lived with all of these stories since her childhood.
It was strange to sit there on the Machaseh gathering at a place in Israel, owned by Germans together with Jewish Holocaust survivors from the Former Soviet Union, and listen to the family history of a Christian Arab family. The stereotypes of suffering break down. There was a sense that after all, that we as human beings belong to each other. Just to listen to the story brings some sort of healing to the wounds of history.
My prayer after listening to Albert is that this remarkable family story can serve the glory of God, as it is written: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord." (Rom 8:28-39).