‘Never had fun in Yad Vashem before’ — Biden bends knee to meet Holocaust survivors

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‘Never had fun in Yad Vashem before’ — Biden bends knee to meet Holocaust survivors

The US president dispensed both with social distancing and the chair laid out for him to meet 86-year-old Rene Quint and Giselle Cycowicz, 95

Joe Biden dispensed with both social distancing and the chair arranged for him Wednesday as he embraced two Holocaust survivors, then knelt to speak with them during his first trip to Israel as US president.

Rene Quint, 86, and Giselle Cycowicz, 95, were scheduled to have a brief conversation with Biden at Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum.

But the president quickly put the women at ease, signalling to them to sit down after they rose to greet him when he walked over following a wreath-laying ceremony to honour Holocaust victims.

Biden took the survivors’ hands and kneeled between them.

He spoke with the women for about seven minutes, kissing both on their cheeks as their conversation drew to a close.

“I always thought that Yad Vashem was a very sad, solemn place that we remember,” Quint said afterwards.

“I didn’t realise that, when the president came over, he was so warm, and he was so sweet and he held my hand and he kissed me and it turned out to be a lot of fun.

“I never had fun in Yad Vashem before. The president of the United States came and gave us fun, pretty amazing!”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, whose stepfather was a Holocaust survivor, later joined the conversation followed by Israeli prime minister Yair Lapid and Israeli president Isaac Herzog.

Quint, who was three when the Nazis invaded her native Poland and who survived the Holocaust pretending to be a boy at a labour camp, said she did not tell Biden much about her experience during the genocide, in which her parents were murdered.

Rather, she spoke about how immigrating to the United States in 1946 had shaped her life.

“It’s a closing of a circle. When I arrived in the United States I was a scared little girl, I was 11,” she said. “And now I’m meeting the world’s most important person.”

Quint recalled her immigration to New York City as the adopted child of another Holocaust survivor.

Her adoptive mother died three months later of illness she had contracted at a Nazi concentration camp, and Quint was again alone in the world.

But a Jewish couple who could not conceive children adopted her and raised her, encouraging her to study and obtain a master’s degree in education.

She moved to Israel in 1984 with her husband, whom she met back in the United States and with whom she has four children.

She has worked and volunteered at multiple educational frameworks, including Birthright, an organisation that brings young Jews from the Diaspora to Israel, and at Yad Vashem, which asked her to attend the visit and meet Biden.

Cycowicz was born in what is today Ukraine and survived the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp before being reunited with her sister and cousin after the Holocaust.

She also moved to the United States, in 1948, then to Israel, arriving on a student exchange program in 1955 and staying to marry and raise three children.

At the age of 56, in the 1980s, Cycowicz decided to resume her studies, which were cut short because of the Holocaust.

She obtained a PhD in psychology and volunteers to this day with other Holocaust survivors, helping them work through their trauma.

In the visitors’ book at Yad Vashem, Biden wrote: “We must never, ever forget because hate is never defeated, it only hides.”

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