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A Bond Tragedy and Time Couldn't Break

December 29, 2004

The two sisters were inseparable.

They endured Bergen-Belsen together, and when the British liberated the concentration camp, it was Irma, herself frail, who pushed Hilde's shriveled frame in a wheelbarrow toward a neighboring village so they could recuperate together.

They came to the United States together and lived with their second husbands in adjoining apartment buildings in Washington Heights. (Their first husbands had died of typhus in the camp.) As if that were not close enough, they moved in 1967 into a single suburban ranch house in Englewood, N.J., which they continued to share after their husbands died.

Until yesterday. That was when Irma Haas, 97, and Hilde Meyer, 94, set off from Kennedy International Airport for Israel to spend the remainder of their lives in the same residence for the elderly in Jerusalem.

Irma Haas, 97, left, and her sister, Hilde Meyer, 94, arrived at Kennedy Airport yesterday for a flight to Israel. The sisters, who shared a house in New Jersey, will settle together in a residence for the elderly in Jerusalem.

After a driver mistakenly took them to Newark Liberty International Airport, they arrived in cliffhanger fashion barely 40 minutes before takeoff. With canes across their laps, they sat next to each other in wheelchairs as El Al security hurriedly examined their passports and put them through the requisite grilling about who had packed their bags and whether they had received any gifts. Much of the time, Hilde, looking frightened, clutched Irma's left arm with her right hand.

"She cannot let go of me," Irma said, mentioning their wartime terror. "She is afraid she would be brought somewhere and I would not come."

While many Diaspora Jews dream of living out their lives in the Jewish homeland, those who actually make the journey usually do so when they have plenty of years left. But the sisters make no apologies for waiting so long.

"We were very happy here," Irma explained as they packed on Monday for their last great adventure. But she said they could no longer do the things that made them love Englewood, like walking a half-mile on Saturdays to their Orthodox synagogue. And so the question became where they could live out their lives most practically.

It didn't hurt that their Jerusalem residence, Beit Barth, is near their cousins and that the building has a synagogue. But most important, they had often visited Israel on tandem vacations and had always yearned to settle down there - together, of course.

"That is where I feel at home," Irma said. "It's the only country in the world that gives Jews a home without any restriction. After the Holocaust, this is how I always viewed it."

The sisters were part of an El Al flight of more than 200 North American Jews who were being resettled in Israel by a private organization, Nefesh B'Nefesh (Soul to Soul), and the Jewish Agency for Israel, a quasi-governmental group. The agency is trying to increase Israel's population; four years of violence has dried up the sources of immigrants Israel needs for economic growth. In two and a half years, Nefesh B'Nefesh has settled 3,000 Jews, helping them find jobs and schools and slicing away bureaucratic tape in arranging driver's licenses, bank accounts and other details. The Jewish Agency pays for the flights and offers tax cuts on purchases of houses and cars.

Both sisters are slight of build and wear gray shaytls, or wigs. Irma is hardier, Hilde more easily rattled. They were born in Londorf, a town in Hessen, a German state where their family's roots stretch back hundreds of years.

Irma promised her mother that she would always take care of the more delicate Hilde. They did live apart for a time. During the Nazi era, Hilde married a Dutchman and lived in Amsterdam. Irma, a schoolteacher, visited her there, and when she returned home, the Germans gave her 10 days to leave the country.

She had to say goodbye to her fiancé, a dentist, but she was able to rejoin her sister in Amsterdam. The sisters lived in the same neighborhood as Anne Frank, whom they sometimes saw lugging her school bag and who died in Bergen-Belsen.

Irma learned that her fiancé had boarded the St. Louis, an ocean liner that was one of the few ways out of Germany, but that it was turned back first by Cuba, then by the United States. The bittersweet outcome was that he was able to rejoin Irma in the Netherlands, one of the European countries that absorbed the stranded passengers, and marry her. But after the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in May 1940, the two couples were sent to Bergen-Belsen.

After the war, Irma wanted to move to what was then Palestine, but Hilde craved security, and they settled in the United States.

There were other affinities. Hilda remarried in 1949, to a doctor named Nathan Meyer, and Irma remarried in 1956, to a picture-frame merchant whose name was also Nathan - Nathan Haas. Both lost their prime childbearing years to the war. Both took classes together in Judaism. While Irma taught kindergarten, Hilde was more of a homemaker. Irma handled their finances, but both ate the challahs Hilde baked.

Judy Marcus, their second cousin, who accompanied them on the flight, said the two sisters seemed to have eluded the arrows of sibling rivalry. "They were never jealous of each other," she said. "They were always happy whatever the other one had."

About two years ago, Hilde was briefly hospitalized and pleaded that Irma remain at her side. Mrs. Marcus said she told a hospital official: "They are Holocaust survivors. They can't be separated."

"They made a special dispensation to allow Irma to sleep in Hilde's room," Mrs. Marcus recalled. "But Irma would not have left anyway, even if it meant sitting up in a chair all night."

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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