Couples, survivors celebrate own 50ths along with Israels

"Thank God we have a state," said Ernie Hollander, who now lives in Oakland with wife Anna. I am "blessing every day [that] the state of Israel was born. It comes on my anniversary. It's a good way to think of it."

This year to celebrate their and Israel's anniversaries, the Hollanders are planning to attend the Virtual Israel Festival on Sunday. The Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, the event's sponsor, will even have a gift for them. In fact everyone celebrating a milestone birthday or anniversary this year or last will get a gift.

For many couples, Israel's 50th anniversary is interwoven with their own golden wedding anniversaries. The memory of where they were then and what the establishment of a Jewish state meant to their lives is also part of Israel's history.

Ernie Hollander estimates that, in 1947, at least one-third of those in pre-state Israel were Holocaust survivors. Resources were few, food was rationed and times were hard.

Anna, then 16, and Ernie, 20, had only $3 to finance their wedding. Yet they were able to do it and still have money left over.

"I worked in a bakery," said Ernie Hollander, who smuggled home two rolls in his pocket every day for a week. By his wedding day he had a dozen rolls — enough for each guest to have a sandwich. He borrowed a suit, his wife borrowed a dress and a friend offered the use of his building's rooftop for the ceremony. Another friend loaned the couple his gramophone and his one record.

Revelers on the street, hearing the rooftop music, assumed it was part of the partition celebration and came up to join the party. Ernie Hollander estimates the crowd grew to more than 150. He immediately cut the 12 sandwiches into sixteenths and watered down the gallon of Coke.

By the end of the day, fighting had broken out and it wasn't safe for the wedding guests to go home. So everyone returned to the Hollanders' one-room apartment for the night. A blanket was used to create a partition to give the bride and groom at least the illusion of privacy on their nuptial night.

But none of that mattered.

"We were happy, we were safe in our room. At least no one was going to kill us," said Anna Hollander, alluding to how Jews were lined up and shot during the Holocaust. "At times like this, we were happy [that] we had a state."

On their 50th, the Hollanders returned to Haifa to celebrate. On the way, they stopped in Canada and New York, where they were entertained by friends and family.

Not far from the Hollanders, Claire and Larry Zelkowitz now live in a comfortable Oakland Hills home. Potted flowers line the front steps and the living room is filled with photographs of son Fred and his wife Kim, and grandchildren Emily, 5, and Harrison, 4 months.

Claire Zelkowitz bubbles when she talks about her grandchildren. She pulls out pictures, shows off a Chanukah plate made by Emily and comments that Harrison's name is bigger than he is.

But on Aug. 31, 1947, the day the Zelkowitzes were married, they only had each other. The Czechoslovakian-born couple had survived the concentration camps only to return home and find they had been dispossessed of their property.

"After we came home from the concentration camps they wouldn't give us back our homes," says Claire Zelkowitz. "Gentiles lived in our home and we had no right to claim it back."

The Zelkowitzes were married in Czechoslovakia in a triple ceremony with Claire's two brothers, Saul and Eugene Patipa. Last year all three couples went to Israel to celebrate their 50th anniversaries.

To the Zelkowitzes, the establishment of the state of Israel meant safety and security, something they hadn't known.

"It felt great, especially for people who had no home," said Claire Zelkowitz. "Finally we have a state to call home."

Although Larry Zelkowitz wanted to move to Israel, his wife's poor health prohibited it. They moved to New York, where they had family, and Claire Zelkowitz spent the next year in a sanitarium.

"It was terribly hard for someone who didn't know the language," she said. "Most of [the patients] said, `I don't want you in my room because I can't have a conversation with you.' I felt so rejected."

While Claire was hospitalized, Larry worked as a tailor, rented a room and saved enough money to rent a two-bedroom apartment, which the sanitarium required before it was willing to release his wife.

In 1954, they moved to California.

Even though they lived safely in America, another East Bay couple was also profoundly affected by the establishment of the state of Israel.

"We were looking forward to Israel becoming a state. It gave us great pride," said Max Brown, who now lives in Moraga and spent most of his life in Oakland. He and his wife Judy celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in September.

Although Brown has long been active in local Jewish agencies, in the mid-1940s he saw many "closet Jews" around him.

"They weren't proud of being Jewish."

But the establishment of Israel changed that.

"A lot of people got very active who never would have been active," said Brown, who describes himself as being very pro-Israel from the beginning. "When Israel became a state, it gave us all a lift."