David Schaecter's journey to hell began in March 1940 when his father, a farmer, was arrested by the Nazis.
A year later, the 11-year-old, his older brother, two younger sisters and their mother were rounded up from their Slovakian farm, crammed into cattle cars and shipped to a labor camp. Their destination: Auschwitz, the Nazi concentration camp in occupied Poland, where his mother, 7-year-old sister Leah and 5-year-old sister Millie were shot to death upon arrival.
"All of a sudden we weren't people anymore," recalled Schaecter, the only one in his family who survived the Holocaust.
Looking back, the 88-year-old Schaecter, who now lives in Coconut Grove, is convinced that if Israel had existed back then, the Holocaust wouldn't have happened.
On Monday, Schaecter will travel to the Jewish state as part of "Israel at 70," the Greater Miami Jewish Federation's 19-bus Mega-Mission to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem to mark the country's 70th anniversary. The country was founded on May 14, 1948.
Schaecter is one of 820 people from South Florida who will make the trek to commemorate two important dates in Israel's history: Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, on April 17, andYom Ha’atzmaut, the Israeli Day of Independence, which is tied to the Hebrew calendar and this year will be celebrated at sundown Wednesday. The mission is the largest for the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, its sixth trip since 1990.
The back-to-back holidays make up one of the most significant occasions in Israel, according to Abbey Feinberg, the annual campaign director at the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. Feinberg helped plan this year’s Mega-Mission, which will be her 15th trip to Israel.
“It goes from the most solemn day of the year to the most celebratory day of the year,” said Feinberg. “One transitions into the other. A siren rings. The whole country stops.”
This year, the trip will be especially meaningful because she’ll be traveling with her parents, Linda and Michael Bittel, co-owner of Sunset Corners, the longtime liquor store on Sunset Drive and Galloway Road, and her 84-year-old grandmother, Judy Bittel.
“This is my first time in Israel with Bubby,” Feinberg said with a smile.
The group will arrive at particularly charged time for Israel.
On March 30, a protest at the border between Gaza and Israel turned violent, when Israeli forces clashed with some 30,000 Palestinians, leaving 18 dead and hundreds wounded. In the protest's aftermath, the United Nations and the European Union have demanded an independent investigation into the conflict.
Israel rejected an independent investigation on April 1 and allegations of unlawful force on April 2, claiming their response had been provoked by protesters throwing rocks and burning debris toward the border.
The following week, violence broke out again leading to the death of Palestinian journalist Yaser Murtaja, who had been at the border covering the protests. Since the protests began nearly three weeks ago, 35 Palestinians have been killed. The Palestinians are protesting Israeli's blockade of Gaza. Israel has said it has found explosives where the protests have taken place and they're defending their border.
Mega-Mission attendees likely won’t encounter the disputed boundary. Their group will tour some of the country's major religious and historical landmarks — including Yad Vashem — the Holocaust Remembrance Center, the Western Wall and the Israel Museum.
“The conflict is in the border area between the Gaza Strip and Israel,” said Lior Haiat, the Consul General of Israel in Miami. “The huge delegation from Miami is not going to visit those areas. There is no reason to do that."
Jacob Solomon, president of Miami's Jewish Federation, acknowledged the tension.
"Israel is not a perfect country. No country is, '' he said. "But I think fair and decent, objective, open-minded people can't help but be extraordinarily impressed and respectful and appreciative of what Israel has accomplished in its very brief history — especially given the number of wars it's endured and the numbers of assaults on its sovereignty."
Among those going to Israel are 24 rabbis, five Holocaust survivors, 130 children or grandchildren of survivors and 113 who have never been to Israel before.
Barbara Goldfarb, the mission chair, said the trip is "a real opportunity for our community to transform and to further the mission of the work of the greater Miami Jewish Federation, which is really the safety and the security of the Jewish people in Israel, locally and around the world."
Solomon said the trips touch people — in Israel and when they return to South Florida.
"They are deeply moved," he said. "The experience moves people to get involved in the Jewish community locally. They become leaders.''
The mission trips began in early 1990 as a way to boost the Federation. Back then, Maxine Schwartz was the Federation's first female general campaign chairman.
"And our campaign was on the downswing, not the upswing,” Schwartz said. "I thought to myself, 'I'd better find a way to turn it around or I’m going to be the first and the last woman.'”
Schwartz planned a week-long mission trip to Israel, with 744 people attending.
"It had a huge impact,” Schwartz said. “It brought forward all the leadership in the succeeding years. They almost entirely came from the mission.”
This year, Schwartz is going again — as a guest.
“I will be a bus captain, with other past presidents,” Schwartz said. “But I’m going on 80, so it’s bittersweet. This could be my last time in Israel."
Prior to making their way to Israel, a group of more than 200 adults, including Schaecter, went to Poland to take part in the March of Living, an annual trip for teenagers to experience what happened when the Nazis occupied that country.
Schaecter, who was one of the original founders of the March 30 years ago, said everything he does now is for the kinder (children.)
"No one ever says of the six million killed — that 1 1/2 million killed were children. No one remembers that," he said.
When Schaecter arrived at Auschwitz as a child, he was immediately separated from his mom and two sisters. He was kept with his brother Jacobo, who was 14. Schaecter credits his brother with saving his life.
"If it hadn't been for Jacobo, I know for sure I wouldn't be looking at you," he said.
Together the two cleaned cattle cars. In 1943, they were transported to Buchenwald, a concentration camp in Germany, where they were again tasked with cleaning the cattle cars used to transport Jews.
By June 1944, "things were really bad," he said. Schaecter said the Nazis "started to kill people without segregating" and put poison in the pipes.
"One night I saw Jacobo drink the water and he didn't boil it," he said, his voice breaking. "The next morning his stomach protruded and he had dysentery. We were marching to work and he just dropped. I couldn't save him. I couldn't pull him up."
Schaecter was soon sent to another camp in Bulgaria. On the way, the train was bombed by the United States, he said.
"They bombed the hell out of it," Schaecter recalled. "The train stopped on fire. So many people were killed."
Schaecter escaped into the nearby forest, where he survived for almost two weeks by hiding under a tree's dead leaves. He was rescued and sent to a field hospital until January 1945, when he was sent to an orphanage in Prague.
Schaecter eventually returned to his school and enrolled in an exchange program that brought him to the United States in 1950. Three years later he graduated from UCLA as an industrial engineer. Schaecter, who was married for 53 years to his late wife Marvis, moved to Miami permanently in 1955.
Today, he calls himself "a rich man" with a daughter, a son, six grandchildren and a great grandchild. He remarried a woman he met through his activism in the Jewish community, Sydney.
He spends a lot of time at the Holocaust Memorial Miami Beach, which he helped create. He spoke there Sunday on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
He also has maintained a special bond with Israel. He was on the first Miami mission trip and has visited the country many times.
He often talks to children, recounting his experiences as a child.
"I want you to hear my story,'' he tells them. "I want you to understand and remember my story. But most of all, most of all, I want you to be my mouthpiece when I am no longer."
Mission trip by the numbers
9 synagogues represented
22-94 , ages
5 Holocaust survivors, four of whom went to Poland before Israel
113 who’ve never been to Israel
460 who have never been on a Federation mission.
130 children or grandchildren of survivors
19 buses, five of which include people mainly from Latin America.
Source: Greater Miami Jewish Federation