I remember when I was about ten years old, I found and read—with tears in my eyes—a report my dad wrote for the Romanian police, in which he described what he and his family went through during the pogroms and the Second World War. That was the first time I was introduced to what happened to my father during the Holocaust. I never asked him about it and he never mentioned it to me. Everything I learned I heard from my mom after he died.
My father, Sami Hirshenson, was born in Bucharest, Romania in 1923. He was 18 years old when the Romanian authorities forced Jewish people out of their jobs. He was fired from his job at a large electronic store, his parents’ house was vandalized, everything destroyed and valuables stolen by Romanian mercenaries. Not long after that he was taken to a slave labor camp in Moldova. He and the other Jews were forced to dig trenches for the Nazis. If they did not meet their quota of trenches, they were severely punished, beaten and tortured to death. My father was young and able to work, but there were older people who found it too difficult to meet their quota, so younger people like my dad helped them.
They were given very little food. Most of the time they were starving. One day someone found a way out of the camp and went to steal food from the neighboring farms. My dad and his friends soon joined him. The stolen food enabled them to endure. One of my father’s friends politely refused to join them in stealing food. He told my dad that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah and he came to the Jewish people. My dad knew he was starving like everyone else, but that his beliefs did not allow him to steal. So my dad offered him some of the food he stole himself. His friend again refused. This impressed my father. After more than a year of being in the labor camp, my dad was released. A friend of his decided to leave the country and move to Israel. Not long after his friend’s immigration to Israel, my dad heard he was killed in a mine explosion on a bridge. That put off my dad’s plans to go to Israel for a while. He moved there after he was married, when I was bat mitzvah age. My mother became a believer in Jesus when I was 16. At the age of 18 I became a believer in Jesus, too, after reading the messianic prophecies in the Hebrew Bible. My father became a believer in Jesus six months before he died of liver cancer in 1988.
Even now it is difficult for me to think about my father without being emotional, but as a child of a Holocaust survivor I feel I must talk about him and tell his story for the sake of others. It is difficult to imagine how these things were allowed to happen. Many Jewish people say, “Never again will we allow this to happen to us.” The problem is that we can’t control other people’s behavior. In fact, it can happen again. This is why we cannot rely on our own strength. We must trust the strength of God, who is able and willing to sustain us, and who never breaks his promises.
I often think about the first Jewish person who told my dad about the love of the Messiah in the middle of the terrible conditions of the labor camp. I remember my dad’s peaceful face as he was lying in the hospital bed, having finally responded to that love forty years later. One of his favorite verses in the Bible was,
“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, not 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 [Messiah] Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38).