Eighty-two year-old Árpád Herczeg introduces himself as Árpi, and adds, in Hebrew, "But in Israel, I am Meir."
Árpi is unusual; not only because he worked for the UN in the USSR; not only because for some of that time, he was stationed in Mongolia; but because, the Intergeneration program through which he recently visited Israel, usually only offers their Taglit-Birthright style trip to Hungarian Jews who have never been to the Jewish state, and Árpi lived here from 1945 to 1950.
Intergeneration, now in its sixth year, was established by The Jewish Agency for Israel together with the American Joint Distribution Committee, and now operates with additional cooperation from the Claims Conference and a generous gift from the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater. The program is unique, because, in addition to bringing young adults to Israel, it also brings Holocaust survivors who have never visited Israel.
As they age, many survivors wish to remember more and connect others to their stories. When they do discuss the Holocaust they are often disheartened since they perceive the second generation as uninterested. However, they find an ability to profoundly impact the identities of the younger generations. Engaging with third-generation youths both empowers them and facilitates personal healing. By providing a joint Israeli experience for survivors and members of the third generation, Intergeneration fosters a deep sense of shared destiny between two generations decades removed.
Andrea Szőnyi, the program coordinator, says that despite Hungarian Jewry's complex history entangled in the Holocaust and Soviet Communism, the younger generation "is starting to find its own way and clarify its identity," and is seeking out programs like Intergeneration which both honors the past and looks to the future.
Árpi represents living history, which is vital to the foundation of Jewish peoplehood.
During World War II, his family was dispersed—his father shot, and he, himself, was taken to a concentration camp across the border in Austria.
In May 1945, Árpi returned to an empty place that was no longer home. So, at age 13, he came to British-Mandate Palestine.
As he had no papers, his first address in his new country would be the Atlit detainee camp. He later went to the Ben Shemen Youth Village, where he learned Hebrew, met David Ben Gurion, and heard the declaration of The State of Israel. Árpi joined the Hagana Leumi in fighting to defend Israel's newly created independence.
He returned to Budapest in 1950 after discovering that his mother had survived Dachau. He gained two degrees, built a career and a family. And, until the Intergeneration trip, never came back to Israel.
Árpi's Intergeneration group spent eight days travelling around Israel, from north to south—including Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea and a kibbutz on the Kinneret settled by Hungarians. A difficult and moving day was spent at Yad Vashem and the Western Wall.
The journey, in fact, started eight months earlier. After an intensive selection process, the group began to meet in February. They gathered once a month to share their stories. The younger participants were required to research and present an aspect of Israel that interested them. Later, each participant was paired with an elderly Holocaust survivor.
Árpi paired with Balázs Várnai, a 32 year-old architect who chose to come on the Intergeneration trip because he is making decisions regarding his future, and felt that in order to do so, he needed to understand his ancestral past.
What touched Balázs most about the program was the way in which the survivors "opened their stories” to the younger participants. Sometimes, these were stories the survivors had never told, and they were being heard by members of a younger generation, some of whom had never known their own grandparents.
Before they left Budapest, the participants were asked if there was anything they feared about their upcoming trip. In fact, one survivor said she feared that she would see something that would make her regret not having come many, many years ago to help build Israel.
Árpi could describe to the group how Israel had been built by those who chose to make their homes here. The tour culminated in Jaffa, his last address in Israel in 1950. He was visibly awed by how much Israel had developed in the intervening years, describing the ration of quinine they were given with each meal to prevent malaria, and the wild animals which roamed outside their windows. He said that Balázs's generation "could not imagine what Israel looked like then"—a desert of uncultivated terrains.
As a result of the process enabled by the Intergeneration Program, Fruzsi and Mate, two participants who met on the program, have decided to be a part of the development of the country. They made Aliyah and start a degree in Holocaust Studies at the University of Haifa.
L'dor va'dor - from generation to generation.