The Holocaust deprived them of celebrating an important Jewish milestone, but on Monday, 45 survivors finally celebrated their bar and bat mitzva ceremonies for the first time, at a communal event at the Western Wall.

The participants are all Israeli citizens who emigrated from the former Soviet Union.

“We ran away with nothing but the clothes we had on us,” recalled Aspir Ravicher, 89, who was 11-years-old when World War II broke out. Her family fled from their homes in Ukraine to Russia. “We had nothing, we were hungry all the time, we lived in a crowded place. I remember that it was mostly cold and I was very hungry. A bat mitzva was not something we could have done,” she explained.

“I am so excited and happy,” said Alexander Buchnik, 87, who reached bar mitzva age immediately upon the liberation of Moscow from the Nazis. When the war ended, his family returned to the city, “but we could not celebrate my bar mitzva,” he said, because his mother “was busy surviving and keeping us alive. We could not think about it at all.”

In 1994, Buchnik immigrated to Israel with his family and said that he had long been waiting for the moment when he would celebrate his bar mitzva. “I thought about it during the course of my life, and all my life I felt that I missed it so much.”

Jews were forced to hide their religious identity not only during the war but also during the communist rule in the years that followed.

45 Holocaust Survivors Get To Celebrate Their Bnei Mitzvah For First Time at The Western Wall. (Daniel Bar On)
Semyon Liebman, 83, was a young boy in St. Petersburg when the war broke out. Along with his sister and mother, he was forced to leave his home and wander throughout the years of the war. After the war, the family returned to live in the St. Petersburg area.

“When we came back, it was forbidden to talk about Judaism or anything about the bar mitzva, so we did not talk about it at all,” he said. “I feel like a little boy today! I’ve been eagerly anticipating this day throughout my life.”

The moving ceremony was sponsored by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Israel’s Office for Social Equality and the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews (IFCJ). The survivors were joined by their families at the event, which included a tour of the tunnels under the Western Wall. The men put on tefillin and read from the Torah, while the women participated in another ceremony at the Western Wall Tunnels Hall.

The group ended the celebration dining together.

The Western Wall Heritage Foundation said that the ceremony was among the high points of the Western Wall’s history. “Light and darkness are mixed here, but hope is absolute, and there is concrete evidence of the eternity of the Jewish people,” the foundation said in a statement.

“The event leaves its mark on the participants and symbolizes revenge against the Nazi enemy in the form of a return to the Jewish tradition and proof that it is never too late.”

IFCJ’s founder and president, Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein, said: “I find it difficult to think of anything more inspiring than elderly Holocaust survivors who receive a late bar and bat mitzva celebration in the holiest place for the Jewish people, after surviving the terror of the Nazis and having their childhood stolen from them.”

Eckstein continued: “These survivors are heroes. I am so grateful to be part of this momentous experience for them. We help these survivors throughout the year and I welcome the opportunity we have been given to be part of this exciting event.”