An ‘illuminating’ perspective of the Shoah from the ‘darkness’ of a collapsed mine
By David. E. Kaplan
Pedestrians stand solemnly in silence, while buses stop on busy streets and cars pull over with drivers standing at the side with their heads bowed. This collective conduct of the citizens of Israel is set off by a two-minute siren wailing across the country marking Holocaust Remembrance Day or known colloquially as Yom HaShoah (יום השואה). It is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
This year – 2020 – will be different as Corona transforms everything usual into the unusual.
The siren will still wail for two minutes but the streets will be mostly and ominously quite as most the citizens of the country will be home under some form of lockdown.
In cities and towns, people will stand on the balconies or poke their heads out of apartment windows for the two minutes as the siren wails and look down at the empty streets below.
The image of “looking down” made me think 10 years back to another perspective of the Holocaust, that of the inverse of “looking up”!
I always wondered what someone who had no knowledge of the Holocaust would feel following a visit to Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial in Jerusalem to the victims of the Holocaust. It was a thought that had intrigued me for many years, and an opportunity to answer this thought arose in 2011, when 24 of the 33 Chilean miners who had been rescued after spending 69 days trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine the year before arrived in Israel. Hosted by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for a 8-day visit, including their families, I had been invited as editor of the Hilton Israel Magazine to spend the day with the miners as they toured Jerusalem, one of the sights being Yad Vashem.
One forgets, but as the Coronavirus dominates the news today, in 2010, what dominated the news – for at least 69 days – was the plight of the 33 miners trapped 700 metres below ground in the collapsed copper–gold San José Mine located near Copiapó, in the Atacama Region, Chile.
Mesmerized in front of TVs, a global audience was drawn to this heart-rending and nail-biting unfolding drama who rooted for the rescue of these miners buried beneath in what was referred to at the time in the media as the “Deep Down Dark”. People of the world identified with the families of the miners as we all became “one family” hoping and praying for the success of the incredible rescue operation.
Thankfully this story of the 33 miners sealed inside the mountain by a “megablock” of collapsed stone, some 770,000 tons of it -“twice the weight of the Empire State building” – had a happy ending.
Over 1 billion viewers around the world watched the rescue unfold live on TV on Oct. 13, 2010 as all 33 of the miners were raised to the surface of the earth. Staring at that flat, smooth wall, Luis Urzua, the crew’s supervisor, thought at the time:
“It was like the stone they put over Jesus’s tomb.”
Continuing in the biblical parlance of Urzua, it was as if the miners had been unbelievably – “resurrected”.
In Israel’s invitation to the miners, which was extended to members of their families, the Israeli tourism minister, Stas Mesezhnikov, wrote:
“Your bravery and strength of spirit, your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth, was an inspiration to us all.”
From San José to Shoah
With my Spanish interpreter tagging besides me, I caught up with the miners as they exited the Hall of Names – a repository for the names of millions of Shoah victims. Close to four million eight hundred thousand of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices are commemorated here.
The miners came out looking emotionally drained.
They stood in groups, clustered together on the platform overlooking the forests and the city of Jerusalem – the capital of the state of the Jewish People.
I began to interview them – all revealing their unfamiliarity before their visit to Israel of both Jews and the Holocaust.
Some men are blessed with “nine lives” I thought interviewing 33- year-old Victor Zamora, a mechanic who only went into the mine on the day of the collapse to fix a vehicle. This same man had also been a victim and survived the Chilean earthquake seven months earlier. The 14th miner to be rescued he said, “Before coming to Israel, I knew nothing about the Jewish Holocaust. I’m still feeling claustrophobia, it’s a feeling that stays with you; hard to shake off but,” and then stopping to shake his head, he continued, “whatever I experienced, it hardly compares with what I’ve just seen here now [at Yad Vashem].”
Standing next to Zamora, was his former shift manager, the 54-year-old Luis Urzua, who had been the last miner to be rescued. His level-headedness was critical for the survival of his men and his gentle humour was all too evident when later describing the 69-day ordeal as:
“It’s been a bit of a long shift.”
And to my question of “How important was your faith in God?” he replied:
“We were 33 miners; God was miner number 34.”
However, it was this leader of the miners that revealed to me a perception of the Holocaust that resonated more than much of the academic writings I had come across.
“Having been so close to death with your fellow miners, how did you feel after having walked through Yad Vashem revealing how the Jews in Europe too faced death?”
This brave and resolute man answered wiping away tears:
“There is one big difference. While we may have shared with the Jews in the concentration camps that feeling of always being close to death, we at least enjoyed one luxury – HOPE. We knew there were people rooting for us, praying for us all over the world and working non-stop to save us. Now, having spent the last two hours walking through Yad Vashem, I know the Jews in the Holocaust had no hope. No-one was coming to rescue them. There lies the big difference – we at least had HOPE!”
Four letters but it incapsulates the DNA of the State of Israel. Jews today in the direst of circumstance can HOPE. From rescuing 49,000 Jews of Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950), Jewish passengers of a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, to rescuing thousands the Jews of Ethiopia in operations Moses and Solomon and now in 2020, to sending planes all over the world to bring back “HOME”, Israelis stranded because of the Coronavirus.
Today, Jews can not only HOPE, they can depend on the Jewish state to come to their rescue!