• Nir Kafri, The Jewish Agency for Israel ©
Experience Israel

Exploring her roots in Israel

Mollie Milchberg came to Israel from Maryland for three months to join Kol Ami - The Jewish Agency's Peoplehood Acadmy. Her late grandfather was a Polish-born Holocaust survivor whose story is well known in Israel. As she explores her Jewish identity, her experience at the academy gives extra meaning to her grandfather's legacy.

“Deep in the heart of my grandfather, Ignac Milchberg of blessed memory, he would have wanted me to be here,” says Mollie, full of emotion. “Here I feel at home, as we all do, together.”

Mollie Milchberg, a young adult from Maryland, is in Israel, participating in Kol Ami: Jewish Peoplehood Academies – a Jewish Agency initiative that brings together Jewish recent high school graduates from Israel and abroad for three months of studying, volunteering, and exploring issues in Jewish and Israeli identity.

Mollie’s late grandfather, Ignac (who later changed his first name to Irving), was a Polish-born Jew who survived the Holocaust through a series of remarkable escapes and even smuggled guns into the Warsaw Ghetto to fight the Nazis. After the Second World War, he moved to Canada, where he set up a business at Niagara Falls and met his late wife, Renee, also a survivor.

For Mollie, he was an important role model, and she refers to him affectionately as “Zayde” (Yiddish for grandfather). But here in Israel, Ignac Milchberg is known for his role as a leader of a group of youths who hid their Jewish identities during the Holocaust, while trying to survive by selling cigarettes to Nazis and others in Warsaw. For many years, the book The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square, which documents their story, was required reading in Israeli high schools.

“I remember my conversations with my grandfather,” Mollie recalls. “Zayde was a person you could see living a good life, married and enjoying life – maybe because he had [previously] had such harsh experiences and difficult losses.”

Ignac passed away in 2014, at age 86. His wife, Renee, passed away during Mollie’s Kol Ami session. “Maybe it’s symbolic,” Mollie says. “But my grandmother passed away a week after my session at the Mechina [Kol Ami] began, and today my grandmother is buried next to my grandfather, Ignac (Irving) Milchberg.”

Now that Mollie is in Israel, their legacy continues to help her feel at home.

“It was easy for my parents to send me here, because my mother’s cousins are here. And friends of my grandfather of blessed memory, who survived the Holocaust, live in Israel, as do their families,” Mollie says. “When I got here, I met my grandfather’s friends, Ben-Zion who lives in Zichron Yaakov, and Rami, the son of Joseph Ziemian [the author of The Cigarette Sellers of Three Crosses Square], who lives in Haifa.”


Exploring Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Future

While Mollie’s experience in Israel is giving her a new understanding of her family’s connections to Israel, she also appreciates the sense of Jewish identity that she sees developing at Kol Ami – especially in light of the important role Jewish identity played in her upbringing.

“The Jewish identity that is fostered here at the Mechina [Kol Ami] speaks to me,” she says. “I get it from myself, from the world of ideas that I was fortunate enough to receive from my grandfather and my grandmother and my parents, and because of what I get in the Mechina.”

At the same time, Kol Ami allows her opportunities to get to better understand Israelis of her own age, who make up roughly half of the program’s participants. While Kol Ami is part of a Masa “gap year” for Mollie and the other participants from abroad, for their Israeli peers it functions as a pre-military course. After the program ends, the latter group will continue for three more months of mental and physical preparation before enlisting in the IDF.

As for Mollie’s plans after Kol Ami, she has not yet decided – but she views this experience as a helpful step in her decision-making process.

“I know that I came here before going to college in order to have fun before my next commitment,” she says. “My brother also spent time in Israel, at a farm in the south, before starting college. I don’t know today what I want to do in the future, but it’s clear to me that this place – Mechinat Kol Ami – is a place where I can think about what I want to do with my life.”


This article was originally reported by Nathan Roi and edited by Daniel Temkin.

13 Dec 2017 / 25 Kislev 5778 0
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