November 01, 2011
By Halina Yasharoff Peabody
Luckily, I have had more than one happy day in my life. One such day was when I visited Israel for the first time. I was excited and apprehensive about the trip because I knew so little about Israel. I wondered what the country looked like and how it would make me feel.
At the time of my first visit to Israel, I lived in England. I had lived through the Holocaust in Poland and through the horrendous times of World War II. Moving to England had not been easy for me. At the time, I did not speak English nor know any British customs, which were so different from what I was used to. What helped me adjust to life in England was joining Maccabi Youth Club and playing table tennis. Eventually I became quite good at table tennis and when the 1953 Maccabiah Games came around I was chosen to be part of the team representing England and I earned my trip to Israel. These games take place every four years like the Olympics, except that the Maccabiah are for Jewish athletes from all over the world.
The trip to Israel took seven days by train and sea, and I had a chance to get to know athletes from other countries who were traveling on the same ship. I soon discovered that many of the participants were of Polish origin and had settled in different countries after the war. Most of the Polish athletes were Holocaust survivors like me, so we had a lot in common and we spent the whole voyage exchanging stories.
On the last leg of the voyage, as we approached Israel, I stood on the ship all night to catch my first glimpse of Haifa. I knew that Haifa was built on a mountain and when the first glittering lights began to come into view, it looked like Naples all lit up. By the time we docked in Haifa, it was morning and the sun was shining brightly.
Sylvia, my childhood friend, met me at the port. She had settled in Israel after the war, but our families had known each other well before the war and her family used to visit us every summer. My mother told me that Sylvia, who was a few years older than me, threw me out of my pram once, and we used to joke about that. She drove from the dockside up to the Hadar, a neighborhood in the middle of Haifa hillside, and then to the Carmel, which is at the top of the city. As we continued upward, I observed the surroundings with great curiosity. I noticed that as we climbed, the buildings ranged from typical stone structures to more modern apartment houses. There were a lot of small shops and kiosks that sold drinks and watermelon. As the road wound around the mountain, the view of the town and bay below became more and more beautiful. The brightly shining sun enhanced the view, a wonderful antidote to the gloomy English weather I had left behind.
I was overwhelmed by a feeling of coming home. I couldn’t understand how this was possible on my first day in a strange country, one with a different language, and yet that is how it felt to me.
I wondered if it was because everyone was Jewish and here in Israel I wasn’t a foreigner anymore. In England I was made to feel like a refugee. The English accepted us and gave us citizenship, but they never really made us feel at home. Here, I suddenly felt that this country was mine even if I didn’t know it yet. My “Jewishness” became a source of pride rather than a source of embarrassment. When we arrived at my friend’s apartment we were welcomed warmly by her two grandmothers. The two of them cooked us a marvelous meal and we sat and ate on the balcony, which surrounded the apartment. As I was looking down on Haifa Bay, I remember that I turned to my friend and said, “What? We only have three ships?” I meant the Israeli navy, but I had referred to it as belonging to me also. When I realized what I had just said “we,” I realized it meant that I belonged here.
My experience in Israel continued wonderfully for the whole two months I was there. I didn’t win a gold medal but I did win a bronze in singles and a silver in mixed and ladies’ doubles in the Maccabiah Games.
After the Games were over, I got to know my three cousins and my aunt and uncle who had immigrated to Israel in the 1930s. Everybody I met there seemed to become my friend, and everybody seemed to want to do something for me. When I traveled by bus alone in town, I would have the destination written on a piece of paper in Hebrew to show the driver so he could tell me when to get off. The whole bus would get involved and make sure to let me know. Everybody also had a “boy” for me, one who owned a refrigerator yet! In the early 1950s a refrigerator was a sign of wealth in Israel.
I was having such a good time that I really didn’t want to return to England. But I knew that my mother was looking forward to my return. After all we had been through together during the war, I knew I had to return home, but I never stopped thinking and dreaming about going back to Israel. Sadly, my mother succumbed to cancer and passed away in 1956. And then I got another chance to represent England in the 1957 Maccabiah. I planned to stay in Israel for one year, but it turned out to be a happy 11 years.
I consider the first day I arrived in Israel to be one of the happiest days of my life and also one of the most pivotal.
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