No sooner had I buttonholed Arale Wattenstein on the staircase of the West 86th Street Jewish Center than Millie Jerushalmy joined the conversation.
Mr. Wattenstein is a 31-year-old wounded Israeli war veteran; Ms. Jerushalmy is a Holocaust survivor.
“You have to understand, for a Holocaust survivor, an Israeli soldier is the embodiment of a miracle,” she explained. “He represents a sovereign state born from the ashes of the Holocaust.”
Ms. Jerushalmy shared her story: She survived because she was smuggled from France to Switzerland as an infant. Her father was killed for spying for the French Resistance.
“He was shot by a firing squad,” she said.
As Ms. Jerushalmy walked away, Mr. Wattenstein said: “They look at us as heroes. But to us they’re the heroes. They survived hell.”
That’s the way it went Friday afternoon at a lunch sponsored by Selfhelp Community Services, Inc., the largest social service organization in North America caring for Holocaust survivors.
The goal was to bring together survivors—now in their 80s and 90s—with injured Israeli soldiers, who belong to Hope for Heroism, an organization established by the soldiers to help other wounded Israeli veterans put their lives back together. Some are still in their 20s.
It was never clear who was more grateful to whom.
Mr. Wattenstein, a paratrooper, told me he’d suffered his injuries when a Molotov cocktail was thrown into a car in Nablus, on the West Bank, in 2005.
“I had grenades on me,” he remembered. “Explosives in my backpack. I decided to leave the car because of the fire.”
And he left fast.
“I jumped out. As a result of the jump, I crushed my back and spine in three different spots. I did four years of rehab.”
Mr. Wattenstein’s work with Hope for Heroism has taken him from Johannesburg, to New York, to Los Angeles, where he recalls one Holocaust survivor who wanted to hug every soldier present.
“She started crying,” Mr. Wattenstein said. “She’d never touched or seen an Israeli soldier before. She’d never been to Israel.”
It would be easy to suspect that the soldiers, if only because of the vast age difference, considered themselves on a goodwill mission for the benefit of the Holocaust survivors. But the appreciation and respect felt mutual.
Mr. Wattenstein said he spends time with Holocaust survivors out of a sense of obligation to his family, especially his grandmother, herself a survivor.
But he also attends the events out of solidarity. He sees the survivors and the soldiers as fighters for the same cause.
“In 50 years they will not be alive,” he said. “The people who will tell the survivors’ stories are the survivors of Israel.”
At the lunch, I was seated next to Alan Fisher, a 92-year-old survivor. He didn’t feel like dwelling on his own story, at least before he reached Israel in 1947.
“I went through warm and cold,” he stated. “After I survived the Holocaust, I had no home, no parents.”
He’d been a tailor before the war, but there was little use for his trade in what was then Palestine. “I couldn’t find work,” he remembered. “No demand. It’s a hot climate. They wear shorts.”
Instead, he went to work building barracks and enlisted in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War as a carpenter assigned to headquarters. But his tailoring skills were suddenly back in demand when a general had a uniform emergency.
“He’s trying to button the button and the button came off,” Mr. Fisher remembered. “I said, ‘Can I help you? I’m a tailor.’ I pull a needle from under my lapel and a thimble from my pocket.”
Mr. Fisher’s story was interrupted by the main event—Chaim Levine, an American rabbi and Hope for Heroism’s executive director, introduced some of the soldiers. But it was the survivors who told their stories, one or two overtaken by emotion. The soldiers hugged them, and then everyone sang songs together, among them “Am Yisrael Chai”—“The People of Israel are alive.”
“He goes to the head general,” Mr. Fisher said, resuming his narrative. He was referring to his commanding officer. “He said, ‘Have I got a tailor for you! Maybe you need something?’”
The general ordered a pair of pants. “They set me up in a room with a sewing machine,” Mr. Fisher said. “And I became the tailor of the headquarters, including Prime Minister Ben-Gurion.”
Mr. Fisher pulled a letter with a photograph of Ben-Gurion from a manila envelope.
“I have all his measurements to this day,” he said. “He can’t get a standard size. He was short and chubby. He had a larger head than usual.”
Oshri Azran and Dekel Darchani, two of the wounded vets, were listening to Mr. Fisher’s story, too. They assured him that the Israeli army and the Israeli people had his back. What happened to him during the Holocaust would never happen again. Not in a thousand years. They sounded pretty confident.