HAIFA, Israel — One recent morning, Dr. Maher Haddad discussed dentures with 88-year-old Moshe Bar Haim; sprinkled in the Hebrew conversation were words and phrases in Romanian.
Bar Haim, a resident of the Haifa Home for Holocaust Survivors, was born in Romania and survived the Holocaust with his mother in hiding. All he remembers is the hunger and the fear of being discovered by the Nazis and their Romanian collaborators, said Bar Haim, who today is a tall, burly man.
For the past six years, Haddad, who studied dentistry in Romania, has volunteered with Yad Ezer L’Haver three times a week, providing free dental care to the most needy Holocaust survivors at the Haifa Home, making the two-hour round trip each time from his home in Ma’alot-Tarshiha.
He could definitely use those hours to build up his own private practice, but he said his Catholic upbringing — which emphasized the importance of helping the most needy — led him to respond to a newspaper ad asking for a volunteer dentist years ago.
“When you grow up in a home that teaches you about God, you don’t put religion first — you put the needs of people first,” said Haddad.
Many of the survivors suffer from acute dental problems today because of the poor dental hygiene they had during the Holocaust, he said.
“When I help someone, I don’t look at a person’s race or religion or politics,” said Haddad, who brings his own mobile dental equipment. “Working with the survivors is sometimes heartbreaking. After what they have gone through, these people should not have gotten to an economic situation where they need someone like me to help them.”
Israel marks its national Holocaust Memorial Day April 8. An estimated 180,000 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, with approximately one-third living in poverty. Some 13,000 die every year. As they age, many of them are reliving their childhood traumas and need more specific attention, said Shimon Sabag, founder and director of Yad Ezer L’Haver.
During World War II, some Catholics were involved in rescuing Jews, said Sabag. He said that in Israel, with today’s political realities, the volunteer work Haddad does as a Catholic Arab citizen of Israel is not to be taken lightly.
“There can be many reasons for Dr. Haddad not to help (the Holocaust survivors), but he chooses specifically to help them. That is not something to take for granted,” said Sabag, whose mother was from Greece and survived the Auschwitz concentration camp. “He is a righteous man.”
Finishing up with the dentures, Haddad gives instructions to Bar Haim and tells him he will return next week to check up on him.
“Those who live on the edges of society see those of us who are living on the edges of society. Other people don’t see us,” Bar Haim said, noting why a Catholic Arab citizen of Israel would dedicate so many hours to helping Holocaust survivors. “It makes us happy that good people come to help us.”
Haddad says that although his wife supports his volunteer work, other people tell him he is being a “freyer,” the Hebrew word for chump.
“But I listen to my conscience. I connect myself to the person, not because I have family who survived the Holocaust,” he said. “I do this because I want to help; a person’s religion or ethnicity is not important. Now I want to help even more after I have seen their conditions.”
Sometimes, he said, survivors speak to him about their experiences during the Holocaust.
“One man told me about how he watched the Nazis kills his father in front of his eyes and how he had to escape, barefoot, with his younger sister, who was about 4 years old. In the rush with other people, he lost his grip on his sister and lost her,” he said. “I just sit and take the time to listen to them. That’s the only thing I can do. Listen to them.”
Hearing about the horrors of the Holocaust has not weakened his faith, he added.
Especially as the last survivors are dying, Haddad said, it will be the responsibility of people like him to remain as witnesses to their memories. Maybe, because he is not Jewish, his witness will be even more important.
“When someone tries to deny the Holocaust happened, I stop them right away. Those people can’t lie to me,” said Haddad. “I’ve seen the survivors. I’ve seen them crying as they tell their stories.”