PETAH TIKVA, Israel (Reuters) - She escaped the Holocaust at age six by hiding from the Nazis under a pile of dead bodies in her Ukrainian village.
Now the Israeli pensioner’s grandson stands accused of joining a neo-Nazi gang which allegedly attacked Orthodox Jews in Petah Tikva in metropolitan Tel Aviv and painted swastikas across the walls of the local synagogue.
Her 17-year-old grandson is one of eight young Israelis, all from the former Soviet Union, arrested in connection with neo-Nazi activity, in a case that has stunned the Jewish state. All denied involvement at a court hearing this week.
Some one million immigrants from the former Soviet Union have moved to Israel since the fall of Communism in 1990. Many, including some of the suspects, were not born to a Jewish mother -- the Orthodox definition of a Jew -- but qualified for Israeli citizenship because they had at least one Jewish grandparent.
The accused’s grandmother said on Monday her family had been Jewish “since Adam and Eve”.
It would be absurd, she said, to charge her grandson with neo-Nazi activities. Neither the accused, a minor, nor his relatives can be named for legal reasons.
“I went through a first disaster when I was six years old and now I‘m going through a second disaster when I‘m 72,” she said in a telephone interview. “It was just chance the fascists didn’t shoot me ... Now I‘m very sorry they didn’t kill me.”
The accused’s mother said her son was persuaded to join the gang after connecting with hardcore members on the Internet. She said he tried to leave when he found out about the attacks but was bullied into staying.
“He was always interested in history and the War,” his mother told Reuters. “He made a mistake ... he thought they were just a bunch of history freaks.”
“GOD WITH US”
The mother could not explain why her son tattooed “God with us” onto his arm in what she said was Yiddish. In German, which is close to Yiddish, the same motto -- “Gott mit uns” -- adorned the belt buckles of German soldiers in World War Two.
People in Petah Tikva -- many of whom sought refuge in Israel from anti-Semitism elsewhere -- expressed disbelief at the attacks on the local synagogue.
“This is incredible to see this here -- we didn’t even see this kind of thing in Russia,” said 32-year-old barber Mark Elazarov, who moved to Israel from the former Soviet Union 15 years ago and now attends the synagogue that was vandalized.
The case has revived calls for tougher immigration rules to ensure only bonafide Jews move to Israel.
While many Russian-speaking Jews have succeeded in Israel’s booming hi-tech industry, others, including many not regarded as Jewish by religious authorities, have struggled to integrate.
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said the neo-Nazi case was an isolated incident and cautioned against tarnishing the entire community of Russian-speaking immigrants.
But many in Petah Tikva want tougher action.
“People who are not Jewish should be kept out of Israel,” said Elazarov.
Shopkeeper David Ness, 58, said he “panicked in his heart” when he saw the swastikas emblazoned across the synagogue.
“This is a Jewish country and it’s my home, For someone to do something like this, it hurts,” he said. “The police should get them and throw them out.”
Additional reporting by Alastair Macdonald in Jerusalem and Rami Amichai in Petah Tikva