A Divine Appointment in the Holy Land
Having arrived at the Tel Aviv airport eight hours before my flight, I was the only one at the gate, the last gate in the international terminal, of course! A big screen TV broadcast a FIFA tournament soccer game, but I was too far away to even see who was playing. I had better things to do…I finally had the time I needed to begin to sort through and share some of the hundreds of photos I had taken during my ten days in the Holy Land.
I had joined the three-day pre-Gafcon tour led by Dr. Peter Walker for the 65 members of the Anglican Kenyan delegation. Then, I had attended Gafcon, the five-day Global Anglican Future Conference held every five years. I concluded the trip by joining another of Dr. Walker’s short tours, this time with a mostly British group from Gafcon. Two things I had not been able to do were to visit the Dead Sea and the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. “Oh, well,” I thought, “Next time!”
Before I had posted one image, a young airport employee appeared who was helping an elderly woman get to the gate, using just her little walker. He looked at me as if to say, “She’s all yours now!” I told him I would be happy to assist her and to sit her down next to me. She and I introduced ourselves. Her name was Helen Herman and she was a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor with whom I had the pleasure of spending the next 16 hours on our journey back to the States.
We started chatting and she was soon sharing the story of when her Jewish parents, six other siblings, a sister-in-law and a niece and nephew were forced from their homes in Czechoslovakia, marched with hundreds of other Jews for two days, then loaded onto “cattle car” trains bound for who knew where! Her father owned his own business making and selling shoes. She was 18. When the train stopped, her dad circled up his family members and prayed their traditional evening prayer. That was the last thing she ever heard her father say. When the doors of the train flew open, the family was separated.
She found out later that her parents were killed very soon after that. Two of her brothers died of starvation, and her sister-in-law and her young niece and nephew were killed as well. Miraculously, Helen and her two sisters survived three death camps: Auschwitz in Poland, Weiswasser, and Bergen-Belsen in Germany. Only two of her brothers survived, so only 5 of her 12 family members survived the Holocaust. One of her sisters is also still living and that was whom she was visiting in Israel.
I commented that she seemed to be in pretty good health for her age and all that she had been through. She agreed, but said she had some sort of tumor on her neck. I could see the bulge myself and I asked her if I could pray for Jesus to heal her neck. She said, “Yes, why not?!” so I laid my hand on her neck and asked God to release his healing power on this precious woman. She was grateful for the prayer, but nothing seemed to happen.
Still waiting for our flight, she asked me if I would help her to the ladies’ room. We inched down the concourse using her walker. On the way, we encountered a middle-aged mom who had twisted her ankle at the wailing wall and was limping in pain. I asked if I could pray for her ankle. She also allowed me to get down on the bathroom floor and pray for healing of her ankle in Jesus’ Name.
Upon returning to the gate area, Helen asked if the El Al Airlines would change my seat to the one next to hers so I could continue to help her during the long flight. They scurried around and within minutes, we were being given VIP treatment, alas not First Class upgrades, but we could continue our conversation during the flight! A Holocaust survivor in Israel is more respected than any celebrity, as she or he should be!
I told her I was a Christian, and executive director of a mission-mobilizing non-profit and was in Jerusalem to attend an Anglican conference. She told me that when they were living in Czechoslovakia, her best friend was the daughter of a priest next door! When news began to spread that the Germans were rounding up the Jews, the priest father came to her father and told him they would hide them, smuggle them out to safety, do anything they needed to do to save Helen’s family. Helen’s father thanked him profusely, but said he could not and would not also endanger the lives of the priest and his family.
A short while after that conversation, Helen’s family was marched for two days under armed guards to the train. After being separated, Helen and her two sisters were taken to Auschwitz. In Auschwitz, there were 1,000 women in her barrack, and there were 30 such barracks.
She was there for four months before being transferred to the German camp of Weiswasser for factory work for five months. There, they made bulbs for German aircraft and the shifts were 14 hours long. The Jewish work ethic is well-known, and Helen had to finish all the bulbs that the previous prisoner had started. One day, she asked her, “Why are you working so hard to help the Germans fly their planes so they can bomb our people? We should be sabotaging their efforts.”
So, Helen led the rebellion among her fellow workers to deliberately, but clandestinely make bulbs that would quickly fail. When the German female SS guard caught wind of what Helen was doing, she announced that Helen would be hanged. But, somehow the factory boss who was a local citizen came to Helen’s defense and ran the SS guard off! Helen said, “Through it all, God was my helper!”
Then, they marched her along with thousands of Jewish and other prisoners to the Bergen-Belsen death camp where 20,000 Soviet prisoners of war and 50,000 Jewish inmates had already died. Overcrowding, lack of food, and poor sanitary conditions caused outbreaks of typhus, tuberculosis, typhoid fever and dysentery, leading to the deaths of more than 35,000 people in the first few months of 1945.
Helen survived until the camp was liberated by the British 11th Armored Division on April 15, 1945. Her fellow inmate Anne Frank did not. The soldiers discovered approximately 60,000 other prisoners “living” inside, most of them half-starved and seriously ill, and another 10,000 corpses lying around the camp unburied. The British soldiers made the German SS guards bury the dead bodies in mass graves.
Helen also recalled the incident in 1939, when the luxury liner called St. Louis, sailing from Europe loaded with 900 Jewish refugees, tried to dock in Florida after being denied port in Cuba. The U.S. authorities refused them the right to dock despite direct appeals to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. He was worried about the potential flood of immigrants. The St. Louis sailed back to Europe where 254 of the 900 passengers where later killed when the Nazis swept across Europe.
Through the sharing of all these stories, Helen’s countenance radiated light. She had made peace with her past. She was a genuinely joyful person, lovely inside and out. I asked her, “What happened after the war? How did you go on after experiencing something so horrific?” She said, “I clung to my faith in God,” something she has continued to do and inspired her family to do to this day.
Shortly after the war, she married a fellow Czech Holocaust survivor. She said, “We had literally nothing to restart our lives with except the clothes on our backs!” After six years of marriage, they moved to Queens, New York, where they raised their three children. She lost her dear husband six years ago after 66 years of marriage. She now has 15 grandchildren and 50 great-grandchildren! That’s 68 offspring that would not have been born had she died in the Holocaust!
Though she never lost her thick Czech accent, Helen Herman is American through and through. She is very interested in politics. Some of her views might actually surprise you though she was quick to state, “I’m not prejudiced because I know first-hand the danger of racism.” The activities of her large family keep her busy, but she is still terribly grieved by her beloved husband’s passing. He was ten years her senior so he lived to be 96!
We actually did catch some shut-eye during the flight. When we landed, Helen turned her head to me in the middle seat and said, “I don’t know what I would have done without your help…Hey, my neck is better. Feel this – there is no lump on my neck now!” I had been continually praying that God would show her the healing power of Jeshua, the Messiah, in a tangible way. “Praise Jesus!” I said, as we slowly made our way to the jet bridge together.
As we stepped off the plane, the lady with the twisted ankle was standing there. I was surprised to see her and said, “Hey, there! How’s your ankle doing after 11 hours on the flight? Mine are swollen just from sitting.” She said, “Actually, it’s really better. Thank you!”
Wow! God seemed to have done a double healing during the night flight. Seeds that point to Jeshua as our living Savior were planted during our brief divine appointments. Glory be to Jesus!
I stayed with Helen until we retrieved our luggage. We did not want to part ways, but she had reached her final destination in NYC and I had to catch my final flight home. I will never forget my divine encounter with Helen. Our connection was instant, deep, mutually edifying and full of joy. I captured her sweet spirit on a short video I took in the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. At the end, we both spoke out a blessing of “God bless you!” Indeed, He blessed us both!
Jenny Noyes is the Executive Director of New Wineskins Missionary Network. She is a passionate speaker, networker, and evangelist. For fun, Jenny can be found riding ElliptiGOs with her husband Larry, playing tennis, and spending time with her family. You can contact Jenny here.