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Holocaust survivor finds haven as Muslim in Israel

Holocaust survivor finds haven as Muslim in Israel

For more than five decades, Leila Jabarin hid her secret from her Muslim children and grandchildren — that she was a Jewish Holocaust survivor born in Auschwitz concentration camp.

Although her family knew she was a Jewish convert, none of them knew of her brutal past.

It was only in the past week that Jabarin, who was born Helen Brashatsky, finally sat down and told them the story of how she was born inside Auschwitz, the most notorious symbol of Nazi Germany’s wartime campaign of genocide against Europe’s Jews.

In an interview with AFP to mark Holocaust Memorial Day which begins at sundown on Wednesday, Jabarin, now 70, chuckles as she talks about what to call her.

Her Muslim name is Leila, but in this Arab town in northern Israel where she has lived for the past 52 years, most people call her Umm Raja, Arabic for “Raja’s mother” after her first-born son.

Like most Jewish children, she also has a Hebrew name — Leah — but she just likes to be called Helen.

She was six when she came to live in Mandate Palestine with her parents, just months before the State of Israel was declared in May 1948.

They arrived in a ship carrying Jewish immigrants from the former Yugoslavia, which was forced to anchor off the coast of Haifa for a week due to a heavy British bombardment of the northern port city, she says.

Despite the war which broke out as soon as the British pulled out, it was a far cry from the savage reality the family had witnessed inside Auschwitz, says Jabarin who is dressed in a hijab and long robes, but whose pale skin and blue eyes belie her Eastern European parentage.

Her mother, who was from Hungary, and her father, who was of Russian descent, were living in Yugoslavia when they were sent to the Auschwitz with their two young sons in 1941.

Her mother worked as a maid at the doctor’s home, while her father was the gardener.

She also speaks Hungarian, a little Yiddish and some Russian.

The family were finally freed when the camp was liberated in 1945 and left for Mandate Palestine three years later.

At first, the new immigrants were put in camps at Atlit, some 20 kilometres (12 miles) south of Haifa, but two years later, they moved further south to Holon and then to Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

Ten years later, when she was 17, Helen Brashatsky eloped with a young Arab man called Ahmed Jabarin, and they moved to live in Umm al-Fahm, which caused a huge split with her family.

Initially, her family did not speak to her for two years, but later they were reconciled.

In the end, it was her mother who suggested she convert to Islam when her eldest son turned 18 and was asked to do his compulsory military service.

So she converted.

But she never told her family the full extent of her history.

The moment came several days ago when a man turned up from the Israeli social services and got talking to her about her past, just days before the annual ceremonies remembering the Holocaust.

For her family, the revelation was a huge shock — but it answered a lot of questions, admits her 33-year-old son Nader Jabarin.

But by telling her long-kept secret, it had brought release to both her and her family, he said.

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