Maligned, misunderstood, and derided, provocative, emotive and polarizing. Often condemned, just the mention of the word Zionism is enough to raise the blood pressure of many. This often results in both pro and anti-Israel activists engaging in a battle of words. Frighteningly, this battlefield has expanded way beyond the Social Network to university campuses and other congregating venues where Jews identifying as Zionist are at physical risk.
So, what is Zionism exactly and why is it such a hot-button issue?
Simply put, Zionism is the National Liberation Movement of the Jewish people. It is a guarantee of the rights of the Jewish people to organize themselves politically and assign it a name that hearkens back to ancient roots and love for Zion.
Zion is synonymous with city of God; the place that God loves – Jerusalem. ‘Mount Zion’ – on the southeast side of the Old City – is the high hill on which King David built a citadel. The word Zion occurs over 150 times in the Bible and essentially means “fortification” and has the idea of being “raised” as a “monument”.
Zion is described both as the City of David and the City of God.
The word Zion is embedded into Jewish religion and culture as it is embedded into the rock and masonry of Israel’s capital – Jerusalem.
The great American civil rights leader, Rev Dr Martin Luther King is rumoured to have described Zionism as “nothing more that the yearning of the Jewish people to return to their ancient homeland”.
After thousands of years of being made aware that we are unwelcome in many countries, Jews have returned en masse to our ancient and ancestral homeland. The word Zion refers to those biblical ties since time immemorial. It is proof that Jews have “indigenous people’s rights to the land” and in case anybody has doubt, there is antiquity being discovered every day that supports this.
Israel’s detractors are quick to point out that Nelson Mandela, the father of democratic South Africa and the icon of the anti-Apartheid struggle’s support of Palestinians. What they neglect to conveniently mention is Madiba’s support for the Jewish people’s right to self-determination – Zionism.
Mandela has been quoted as saying
“As a movement, we recognize the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism just as we recognize the legitimacy of Zionism as a Jewish nationalism,” he said in 1993. “We insist on the right of the State of Israel to exist within secure borders, but with equal vigor support the Palestinian right to national self-determination.”
There has been much debate, discussion and social media brouhaha over who is or what defines a Zionist. Zionism is not restricted to Jews, but many Christians, Druze and yes, even Muslims consider themselves Zionists. Supporting Jewish rights to self-determination in no way makes one anti-Palestinian. Sadly, so much misunderstanding about what constitutes Zionism has resulted in alienating people who have an emotional attachment to Israel. Too many would prefer that Zionism be relegated onto the pile of other unwanted “isms”.
Many thought that with the realisation of the modern state of Israel, anti-Semitism would disappear but instead it has reared its head in a new form – anti-Zionism.
The world has emerged a hostile place for Zionists.
Ask the students on campus who are bullied and sometimes physically threatened for their political beliefs. Or the store owners in Europe who find their shops ransacked for carrying Israeli products. Or the travelers turned away from accommodation for being Israeli. The rise of the alt-right in the USA with their Nazi salutes and propensity for spray painting swastikas or the neo Nazis, the UK Labor party with its ongoing accusations of institutionalized antisemitism and BDS supporters in Europe, South America and South Africa has many Jews feeling afraid and isolated.
The argument “I am not an anti-Semite, I just don’t like Zionists” is spurious.
Even the French President, Emmanuel Macron says anti-Zionism is “a new type of antiSemitism.” He told the Israeli Prime Minister when speaking in Paris at an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the Vel D’Hiv round-up, in which 13,152 French Jews were deported to Nazi concentration camps that France will “not surrender” to anti-Israel rhetoric.
There are an estimated 50 Muslim countries in the world, and an estimated 30 countries that define themselves as Christian. There is only one Jewish state and yet, so many have an issue with its very existence?
Saying that the Jews have no right to organize themselves politically and call it Zionism is in fact, racism.
Is it politically correct to criticize Israel?
Criticising the government and its policies is the national sport of Israel.
Is Israel perfect? No. And it is perfectly okay and healthy to say so. However, saying that Jews have no right to national self-determination or that Israel has no right to exist is racist and anti-Semitic.
I believe part of being a Zionist is being able to criticize and improve. I believe that Zionism means that you want to see an exemplary Israel – a light unto the nations. An Israel that is tolerant and welcoming and grateful for all who support her. This is dignified, this is keeping with the tenets of our founders who envisioned this. There is room in the Zionist tent for everyone – Jew, Christian, Muslim, as well as from left to right across the political spectrum.
These values are enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence:
“The State of Israel will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.”
I invite anyone who is somewhat skeptical or perhaps undecided about their views on Zionism to ask themselves how different it is to their national aspirations. Perhaps this will lead to a lot more understanding, a lot less maligning and hopefully an end to the rising violence that so many supporters of Israel are currently enduring.
The news broke in 2015 that the British-born South African musician, who blended western and Zulu music had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. However, he continued to perform while receiving treatment. Then in September 2017, came the announcement that he was embarking on a final international tour that he called “The Final Journey”.
That journey came to an end this July when the icon who had defied the country’s apartheid-era racial barriers, celebrated its new democracy under Nelson Mandela and taken his Zulu-infused rock music around the world, finally succumbed to his terminal illness.
Clegg’s mother’s family were Jewish immigrants from Poland, and the singer describes his upbringing as “secular Jewish.” As a child he spent several months living in Israel, which he again visited in 2003 when his sister living in Ra’anana passed away.
He had planned a much-awaited revisit to Israel – this time to tour with his band in 2010 – hence the reason this writer called him on phone to interview him for Telfed, a South African community magazine in Israel that I had been editor of at the time. I tracked the musician down while on tour of New Zealand to a hotel room in Auckland. Within hours of a press release that Clegg would be performing in Israel, the Telfed office, which had undertaken to promote the concert in Israel, was inundated with inquiries.
A world away in Auckland, Clegg was happy to hear this upbeat update. “Israel is probably the country closest to my heart in terms of-ex-pats,” with close members of his family living in the Jewish homeland. “I have visited on two occasions, butthis will be the first time that I will be performing there,” he enthused.
One of the many hits he would be singing would be “Scatterlings of Africa” which rocked the charts in the UK “enabling me to give up lecturing in Anthropology at Wits University and focus on music.” In 1988 the song was featured on the soundtrack to the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman and Tom Cruise.
Clegg had once explained the inspiration for the song in a live concert, saying “When we wrote this song, the oldest human bones in the world had just been discovered at Olduvai Gorge, in Africa. So this is a song about how everyone can claim to be African … if they want to, that is.”
Harassment To Harmony
Prior to his overseas success, “making a living exclusively from music in apartheid South Africa was difficult.Our racially integrated band was refused airtime on the radio and our concerts were routinely broken-up by the police, who would barge onto the stage with dogs and shotguns.”
His band Juluka was an unusual musical partnership for the time in South Africa, with a white man (Clegg) and a black man (Mchunu) performing together. The band, which grew to a six-member group (with three white and three black musicians) by the time it released its first album Universal Men in 1979, faced harassment and censorship, with Clegg later remarking that it was “impossible” to perform in public in South Africa.
Clegg made it ‘possible’!
The group tested the apartheid-era laws, touring and performing in private venues, including universities, churches, hostels, and even private homes in order to attract an audience, as national broadcasters would not play their music.
The year that Clegg planned to tour Israel, was proving “very busy.”
Earlier in 2010, he told the writer, “We performed at a 9-day concert in Rabat, Morocco,” where his group joined some of the biggest names in music, such as Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys and Kylie Minogue. Clegg had also recently finished recording his own compositions for a Nelson Mandela audiobook with narration by some of Hollywood’s biggest stars. He had enjoyed a strong association with the iconic former state president and performed frequently to raise funds for the Nelson Mandela Foundation to combat AIDS.
As an adolescent in Johannesburg‘s northern suburbs, he related befriending Charlie Mzila, a flat cleaner by day and musician by night, “drawing me into the city’s Zulu migrant workers’ music and dance scene. Through Charlie, I mastered the Zulu language and the maskandi guitar as well as the isishameni dance styles of the migrants.”
Johnny was on the way to becoming a “White Zulu”.
Clegg’s close association with black musicians frequently led to his arrest. His first arrest was at the age of fifteen and – in SA legal parlance – it was for violating the Group Areas Act that prohibited people of different races from congregating together outside select areas and at select times.
However, it was his meeting with Sipho Mchunu that had the next major impact on his life and music. “I was seventeen and Sipho was a Zulu migrant worker; we just clicked and that led to Juluka.”
He explained that “Juluka means “sweat” and also had been the name of a bull owned by Mchunu.
Clegg had a talent for integrating his knowledge of Anthropology with his music, which led him in the early stages of his musical career, to include in his songs snippets of Zulu culture.
Later, his lyrics would contain coded political messages and references to the battle against Apartheid, although Clegg maintained that Juluka was not originally intended to be a political band. “Politics found us,” he told The Baltimore Sun in 1996. In a 1989 interview with the Sunday Times, Clegg denied the label of “political activist”. For him, “a political activist is someone who has committed himself to a particular ideology. I don’t belong to any political party. I stand for human rights.”
Nevertheless, Juluka’s music was both implicitly and explicitly political; it proved a thorn in the flesh of a political system based on racial separation – Apartheid. As a result of the political messages imbedded in their music, Clegg and other band members were arrested several times and concerts routinely broken up. While harassed at home, Juluka managed to tour abroad playing in Europe, Canada and the USA , and had two platinum and five gold albums, emerging as a major international success.
In one instance, the band drew such a large crowd in Lyon, France that Michael Jackson cancelled a concert there, allegedly complaining that Clegg and his group had “stolen my fans”.
During a concert in 1999, Clegg was joined onstage by South African President Nelson Mandela, who danced as he sang the anti-Apartheid protest song dedicated to the President, “Asimbonanga“. Meaning – “We have not seen him” – Asimbonanga was one of the first songs to call for Nelson Mandela’s release while still imprisoned on Robben Island.
Unfortunately, Israelis would not get to hear Clegg live in 2010 with those great hits ‘Scatterlings of Africa’ and ‘Asimbonanga’because the tour to Israel was cancelled, much to his regret.
Paying tribute to his father, his son Jesse Clegg, expressed: “Johnny leaves deep footprints in the hearts of every person that considers him/herself to be an African. He showed us what it was to assimilate to and embrace other cultures without losing your identity. An anthropologist that used his music to speak to every person. With his unique style of music, he traversed cultural barriers like few others. In many of us, he awakened awareness.”
“They are the scatterlings of Africa
Each uprooted one
On the road to Phelamanga
Where the world began
I love the scatterlings of Africa”
Asimbonanga was an anti-apartheid song by Savuka, from their 1987 album Third World Child. It was a tribute to Nelson Mandela, imprisoned on Robben Island the time of song’s release, and other anti-apartheid activists.
*Title picture: WHITE ZULU: Johnny Clegg (Picture: Tsheko Kabasi)
If you want to become a life member of one of the most exclusive clubs in the world – the All England Club, which organises the Wimbledon Championships – then either marry a prince, like Kate Middleton did, or try the easier way and – WIN IT!
When Simona Halep won last Saturday the Wimbledon women’s final, what seemed to please her the most was that as a champion, she, too, now had life membership of the venerable old club started in 1868 “by six gentlemen” at the offices of The Field, the world’s oldest country and field sports magazine.
Halep had spoken in the locker room earlier in the fortnight about what membership would mean and said:
“It was one of my motivations before this tournament, so now I’m happy.”
And Halep wasted little time in taking advantage of her elevated status, being pictured the day after her win against Serena Williams smiling broadly with a purple membership badge pinned to her red dress after being awarded it by club chairman Philip Brook.
However, for some, even by winning the world’s most famous and prestigious tennis event might not get you to the coveted membership; that is if you’re either Jewish or Black.
Ask 84-year-old Jewish Angela Buxton, who is accusing the All England Club of Antisemitism because she has yet to receive membership 63 years after her victory in 1956.
It’s too late to ask her Black American doubles partner, and twice Wimbledon singles champion Althea Gibson who passed away in 2003.
In 1956, the English former tennis player Angela Buxton, together with her playing partner, Althea Gibson won the women’s doubles title at both the French Championships and Wimbledon.
Angela Buxton was the first British Jewish player to win a title at Wimbledon. Following the win with Althea Gibson – the first black American woman to compete and to win at the tournament – a British newspaper at the time ran the headline:
Gibson was the only black woman to win the Wimbledon singles (1957 and 1958) until Venus Williams took the title in 2000. When she died in 2003, she was still awaiting her membership after applying – like her Jewish partner, Angela – in 1956.
Born in Liverpool, Angela Buxton was the daughter of second-generation immigrants from Russia. Angela and her family spent the war years in South Africa where she took up tennis at the age of eight and quickly excelled. Returning to England following WWII, Angela pursued her tennis in London and then in California where she was coached by Ben Tilden, an ex-Wimbledon winner with whom she began playing mixed doubles.
Angela returned to England in 1953, ready to compete in Wimbledon, but at the Bournemouth Hardcourt Championship she was soundly beaten by the reigning Wimbledon champion Doris Hart. Ready to quit, Buxton decided to play in her last tournament at the 1953 Maccabi Games in Israel. There she won two gold medals which renewed her confidence, and back in London, Angela had her most successful tennis year in 1956. It was “my Wimbledon year,” winning the women’s doubles title and reaching the singles final.
So, while the players battle on the manicured grass courts of Wimbledon each year in July surrounded by the history of the world’s oldest tennis tournament, rarely remembered is the prejudice-defying moment in 1956 when Althea and Angela – the African-American and the British Jew – teamed up to win the women’s doubles championship.
Both had to overcome prejudice which stands in sharp contrast to today’s diversity in the top ranks of tennis.
When residing in South Africa during the WWII, Angela’s neighbors complained about her playing “with nonwhite girls” with one exploding at her mother, telling her, “You Jews think you own the world.”
Back in England after the war, Angela began winning regularly on the junior tennis circuit and took lessons at London’s renowned Cumberland Lawn Tennis Club in West Hampstead. Dating back over 120 years, the CLTC is steeped in history since the first balls were hit on its courts back in the 1800s.
However, much harder than the hard surfaces of the courts, was the below the surface antisemitism in post-Second World War England. Regardless of her talent, her coach at the Cumberland assured her:
“You’re perfectly good, but you’re Jewish. We don’t take Jews here.”
The American Civil War might have ended slavery; WWII did not end antisemitism.
“Waiting For Godot”
Like the two central characters in Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot who never arrives, so the two players (one posthumously) of the 1956 final are waiting for Wimbledon that too ‘never arrives’.
While Angela was one of the first individuals to be inducted into the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame during its opening ceremony in Netanya, Israel in 1981 and next month will be recognised at a special ceremony at the 2019 US Open, where she will deliver a speech about her doubles partner Althea Gibson, Wimbledon still ignores her.
When Angela last inquired about the status of her membership, she was told that “They said I had refused it and my membership had gone to the back of the queue. This is simply not true; I never refused it and there are so many players who didn’t do anything like me and got membership.”
Noting the increase in antisemitism in the UK and its prevalence in the Labour Party – the traditional party of much of Britain’s Jewish community – Angela expressed to The Times, “It’s an unfortunate example of how the British really treat Jews in this country. This sort of thing exacerbates the feeling towards Jews. It’s perfectly ridiculous, it’s laughable. It speaks volumes.”
A Wimbledon spokeswoman responded: “While the decision-making process for membership of the All England Club is a private
matter, we strongly refute any suggestion that race, or religion plays a factor.”
Meanwhile, Wimbledon’s Jewish champion Angela Buxton is still waiting for recognition.
Well now that the matter is out in the open and hardly a “private matter”, the question remains:
At 84, how much longer is Angela Buxton expected to still stand “in the queue”?
The Jewish ritual of reciting Kaddish as part of the mourning process for a parent, sibling, offspring or spouse connects the mourner with the departed so that the deceased remains alive in thought and sentiment.
However, what of those family loved ones, who but for them you would not be, but never met?
How do we honour them or more important, how to we meaningfully acknowledge the impact they had on the destiny of the family?
A former South African in Israel, Richelle Shem-Tov found an innovative and enriching way through imagined letter writing set well over a century ago based on records, photographs, letters and personal recollections that brings her grandparents ‘alive’ but also provides insights into an era that resonates to this day and beyond.
“I never knew my grandfather,” writes Richelle Shem-Tov in the opening line to her ‘My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm in Africa.’
In truth, her grandfather never knew her as he died in 1922, but it appears the writer knew him well!
A retired physiotherapist living with her husband in Tel Aviv, Richelle, who grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), ingeniously plots a riveting journey of discovery revealing the history of her family from Courland in Latvia to a farm in the Woodbush area (Houtbosch), part of the Zoutpansberg or Pietersburg district through imagined letter writing.
The letters – covering the twilight period of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century from 1892 to 1912 – are all fiction. You would never think so as they are mostly based on real events, real people and real places from the lives and times of her grandparents, Herman and Doris Hirschmann. From what transpired over this tumultuous period covering people’s ‘greed for gold’ and the resultant Anglo Boer War (1899-1902), Richelle weaves a tapestry of trying times, revealing how young Jewish immigrants – her grandparents – with no knowledge of the terrain, the people, or able to speak the local languages (English, Afrikaans and African tribal) carved lives for themselves in this wilderness.
The ‘journey’ literally begins with Herman’s first letter written in 1892 to his friend Maurice in Palestine from an oxcart on the way from Pretoria to Woodbush:
“…You would not believe where I am right now – writing this letter to you at the side of a small wood-fire, next to an ox-wagon in the wild bushland, somewhere in the middle of “no-where.”
The opening line of this letter articulates the migratory patterns evolving amongst Jews from the Baltic States.
Thank you for your letter telling me that you have been released from prison and that you and your wife are leaving for Palestine. It has always been your dream…. I believe conditions in Palestine are very difficult but I think you will do well to leave Courland.”
This letter reveals how Jews, troubled with their circumstances living in the Russian Empire, embraced Zionism or socialism and other political causes, while others – like the writer’s grandparents – chose to emigrate, mainly to escape anti-Semitism, military conscription and economic hardship.
Having in time established a farm upon the land he bought, Herman writes to his father, “People living here have to travel about thirty miles to Pietersburg for their supplies – on horseback, by donkey or mule cart or by ox-wagon. And it can take days to get there.”
Retaining Judaism in this wilderness proves a challenge!
“There are few Jewish families in Pietersburg and in the district. We meet only rarely as travel is difficult, but I am grateful for their company, especially on the Yomtavim (Jewish holy days).”
And yet Herman would succeed, attesting to his many great-great-grandchildren living today in South Africa, the US, England and Israel.
However, before the writer’s grandmother Doris was ‘chosen’, and sent from Latvia to be Herman’s wife, there were temptations!
Wild at Heart
Writing to his friend in Palestine what he dares not reveal to his father in Courland, Herman describes how he is “enjoying the company of many a young lady in the homes of my neighbours and there are some of whom I feel rather fancy me. One such young and fair meidjie nursed me through a bad dose of fever. She brought me muthi – some Black or Dutch concoction. She wiped my burning brow, while also turning my head and my heart. It never went further as she was promised to a young Afrikaaner from the Limpopo River area. This is just as well as I could not hurt my family by marrying out the faith. It took me some time to regain my strength after the fever and to still my heart after parting with that fair young lady.”
It is a great day when Herman writes to his father on August 12,1885:
“Well, I am now a “burgher” – a citizen of the “Zuid Afrikaansche Republiek” and have been presented with a certificate in Dutch. I had the certificate framed and it hangs on the wall of our shop.”
Herman now feels “a sense of belonging”. He owns a large farm, is a citizen, and now “I hope and pray I will be able to raise a fine Jewish family in this beautiful country amongst these good and hospitable people.”
Not Black and White
The spectre of souring race relations rears its ugly head in Herman’s August 1885 letter to his idealist friend in Palestine:
“You ask me about the conditions of the Blacks. I must admit that it is very convenient being a white citizen with all the privileges that come with it, but I do feel a degree of shame. We used to be very critical of the rich landowners in Europe and the exploitation of the poor and the peasants. Believe me the conditions of the Blacks here is no better and perhaps worse. And yet, I find myself part of this system. There are some areas in our district still controlled by native tribes, but more and more of their land is being taken over by the Whites – by both the Boers and by the English.”
Herman is clearly uneasy.
“…. they can work a small plot around their kraal and may keep some livestock of their own. In return, they are required to do all the work on the farm and are remunerated only for ninety days a year. Although, in my eyes they are pitifully poor, my white friends believe that their needs are very limited. This is questionable as many of these men leave their homes for the towns and cities to find work and earn extra money.”
Herman concludes “I have learned much from a “boy”. In fact, he is not a boy but a man of my age but is so termed.”
It is 1885 and Herman is revealing the ugly beginnings of 20th century Apartheid.
Love & War
As the farm begins to prosper, so does a romance blossom between Herman and Doris in an exchange of letters that prepares her to leave her home in Mitau, Courland 1897, for a land she has never seen nor a man she has never met.
It would be the first Jewish wedding in the district and in the years ahead, Doris Hirschmann would emerge as a great Zionist leader – Vice Chairman of the Pietersburg-Zoutpansberg Zionist Society as well as the first chairman of the Woman’s Zionist League.
Long before this, war intervenes.
Herman writes to his family in November 1899:
“Despite all our hopes that somehow it could have been avoided, war has broken out in this most beautiful of countries, between two nations which have given us a home and a country. I fear this war will bring with it much suffering and sorrow. We Jews find ourselves neither here nor there and, as you well know, we in the country areas tend to sympathize with the Boers. However, we, certainly I, have no wish to participate in this foolish fighting game for either side. I am a burgher of the Republic but hopefully, I will not be called upon to join the fighting forces.”
How often were the Jews in foreign lands throughout history – before they had a Jewish state – faced with this dilemma?
In imperial Russia where Jews experienced horrendous persecution, they were nevertheless drafted into the Tsar’s army to serve for periods up to 25 years.
Jewish youths as young as twelve years of age were conscripted.
Would Herman be called up to fight in a war he so opposed?
“…the future looks none to cheerful,” writes Herman in October 1900. “On the eve of the New Year, unlike in previous years, we did not join our English friends in Haenertsburg, as we did not want to be regarded as taking sides. We remained at home and were joined by a few other Jewish families.”
“So far,” pens Herman, “the fighting has not reached our part of the world.”
By November 1901, the tide of the war has changed and Herman writes, “Pietersburg was occupied by the English in April… The British are ruthlessly burning the farms and rounding up the farming population, both black and white.” He describes watching a fierce battle from a hill on his farm and writing, “Perhaps one day when all this is over, you will be here with us and I will show you the site and describe this painful event to you.”
There would still be many days of pain for both Herman and Doris who were separated from their children while they were imprisoned in a British concentration camp.
However, following the war and “back in the saddle”, life resumed, and there would be the years of joy when the Hirschmann family would grow and prosper.
There would be some prophetic musings in his 1902 letter to his friends in Palestine. Following the Anglo Boer War that “left so many dead and wounded … causing so much suffering, poverty and hate that could surely have been avoided,” Herman writes:
“Maurice, my friend, there is great interest here in events taking place in Palestine, particularly since so many of our people have immigrated there. I understand that you generally get on well with your Arab neighbours, but now there seems to be a growing resentment towards the Jewish people since the Arabs are afraid of losing their land. This rings a familiar note, which I fear can lead to armed conflict and violence.”
Wizened from his own experiences, Herman counsels:
“I doubt you and I can have any influence on these events in either country, but my advice to you is to keep your distance from anything like war, from killing or being killed. We have seen here, as we saw in the old country, the appalling results of armed conflict.”
Herman describes a fierce battle his family observed between the Boers and the British on two hills bordering their farm, shortly before their arrest by the English. “We saw in the distance the fall of many a horse and rider. We heard the noise of it; the shouting in triumph and in suffering, and the hollow sound of bugles. We saw the Boers surrendering and fleeing an we saw the bodies – many bloodied covering the once green and brown earth. It was too far to actually see their faces, but we knew that some of them were of boys who grew up in the district. It was the last attempt to prevent the English from taking over the farms on the hill and burning it.”
Fortunately, “our farm was left relatively untouched since it was used to house British troops. For this we are truly grateful.”
And “truly grateful” can be today’s readers of My Dear Papa for such personal insights on a past that has bearing on the present as it will have in the future.
And on a personal level for the author, through these insightful letters, “I feel,” says Shem-Tov, “that I am bringing my family from whom I came, back to life.”
Richelle Shem-Tov was born and grew up in Polokwane (formerly Pietersburg), South Africa. Today she is a retired physiotherapist, a mother of four and a grandmother of ten. She lives with her husband near Tel Aviv in Israel.
Her book, My Dear Papa – Letters From A Farm In South Africa can be purchased directly from the author Richelle Shem-Tov. Call (Israel) 03-5347074; (Cell) 050-6689457; email: firstname.lastname@example.org or from Amazon.com in paperback or in Kindle.
Former South African couple in Israel honoured by Lithuanian government in Tel Aviv
By David E. Kaplan
“What we are all have in common is an obsession not to betray the dead we left behind, or who left us behind. They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness,” Elie Wiesel, Romanian-born American writer, professor, political activist, Nobel Laureate, and Holocaust survivor.
For over 20 years, these words inspired Abel and Glenda Levitt to embark on a mission to ensure that the names of murdered Lithuanian Jews do not remain buried with their remains and to educate young Lithuanians to understand why a once vibrant Jewish community that lived amongst their grandparents is today “No More”!
In the same week this June that D-Day 70th commemorative ceremonies were held on both sides of the English Channel, honouring the bravery of the soldiers that participated in the 1944 Normandy landings “that their sacrifice should never be forgotten,” a less conspicuous ceremony was held at the Lithuanian Embassy in Tel Aviv honouring two different kind of ‘soldiers’ to ensure that the victims of Nazi tyranny and their collaborators, would also “…never be forgotten”.
Close friends and family, the media, members of the Lithuanian embassy and honoured guests including Bennie Rabinowitz from Cape Town, South Africa, heard addresses before Lithuanian Ambassador, Edminas Bagdonas, awarded Abel and Glenda Levitt with the Medal of Honor of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs “Lithuanian Diplomacy Star”. The award was presented “for fostering relations between the Republic of Lithuania and the State of Israel and commemoration of historical memory.”
From Rugby To Roots
Who would have thought that the Levitt’s journey began over a rugby match that was not even played? “It was pure chance that took us on our first trip to Lithuania in 1998,” reveals Abel. “Our son Adam played for Israel’s national rugby team and when we saw they would be playing in Vilnius (Vilna), Glenda and I decided to join the tour as “camp followers” determined to wave the biggest Israeli flag from the stands.”
It was not to be!
The match was cancelled but not the Levitts’ trip. They had made arrangements to meet with Jacovas Bunka known as “The Last Jew Of Plungyán”, the town Abel’s father left in 1913 aboard the Durham Castle for Cape Town.
So, while no flag was unveiled in 1998 at a rugby match, a journey of discovery began for Abel and Glenda that traversed many miles and many years and, on the 17th July 2011, through perseverance and persuasiveness, a Memorial Wall was unveiled at Kaušenai outside Plungyán with the names of those who had been brutally murdered over two days in July 1941.
At that ceremony in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Lithuania and diplomatic representatives of ten countries, including Israel, Poland, Japan the USA and Germany, Abel expressed that the memorial, “allows us to come and stand here in the killing field of Kaušenai and mourn. We do not ask how it happened. WE KNOW.
We do however ask: WHY?”
“No longer,” continued Abel, “do we speak about 1800 anonymous souls. This Memorial Wall is the tombstone to our martyrs.”
One of the names appearing on the memorial was Abel’s uncle, his father’s brother – Yisrael Levitt.
The Hero of Plungyán
It was from 75-year-old Miriam Lisauskiene, a lawyer in Klaipeda in Western Lithuania – and whose name Glenda had earlier come across researching at Yad Vashem – that Abel learned of the final few minutes of his uncle’s life that earned him the honorific:
“The Hero of Plungyán”.
Miriam was revealing her own story of survival; that she was fourteen years old when she stood at the edge of a pit in Ponar outside Vilna waiting for the bullets to pierce her back and thrust her down into oblivion. As the shooting began, she saw her friends fall beside her and one pulled her down as “We were holding hands when the shots were fired.” Scratched by a bullet, Miriam followed her friends into the grave. Later that night, she clawed and crawled her way out over dead bodies and mounds of earth.
It was while Miriam was showing the Levitts a video of her testimony to the Spielberg Foundation that she excitedly jumped up from her chair and pressed pause.
“There’s your uncle, Abel” she animatedly bellowed. “He was so athletic and tall; you look just like him with the same skin colour. I remember him like it was yesterday.”
She related how the Jews were lined up at the edge of the pit, waiting their fate. Yisrael Levitt, who had been one of the stronger men, had been digging his own grave. Suddenly, he turned around, and with his spade, he knocked the gun from the hands of one of the killers and ran. He knew he had little chance, but what little time he had, he would be free. “Miriam did a zigzag movement with her hand, indicating the way my uncle ran towards the forest,” described Abel. “He never made it. As he reached the edge of the field, his eyes fixed upon the trees ahead, a solitary bullet from a hunting rifle with a telescopic lens ended his valiant run for freedom.”
Miriam described how “he was dragged back like a fleeing deer and tossed into the grave”. Shaking with emotion, Miriam said to Abel, “Your uncle was the last Plungyáner to be thrown into the pits; and he was known thereafter as the ‘Hero of Plungyán’.”
From Roundup to Redemption
Abel reveals what happened in July 1941 to the Jews of Plungyán. “They were rounded up by the German soldiers and their Lithuanian Nationalist collaborators in the village square about 100 metres from where our family lived in Telz Street. They were then led into the Groyse Synagogue where they were held in indescribable conditions for two weeks. Thereafter they were marched – the elderly taken by cart or lorry; the children carried – to the Kaušenai forest. For two days the sounds of the shooting could be heard in Plungyán, only four kilomtres away.”
There had also been a witness.
“A Jew by the name of Garb – who incidentally had family in Cape Town – had married a Lithuanian Catholic woman and converted to Catholicism. The local priest pleaded for his life with the German officer who only moments before his execution ordered his release on hearing that Garb had been “baptized”. Garb survived the War and provided detailed testimony of what transpired.”
It was tough hearing Abel speak of the seventy-five schoolgirls who had been raped and murdered. “The priest had begged for their lives and offered to baptize them – but to no avail. They lie buried in a mass grave – covered symbolically with seventy-five slabs – as one climbs the hill.” It was here that Abel discovered that his first cousin, Rosa Levitt, aged twelve, lay buried.
In recent years, when it became impossible to save the synagogue from development – there had been the hope of converting it into a museum to preserve what Jewish life had been like before the Shoah – Abel and Glenda asked the question that paved the path ahead. “If the synagogue is to be demolished, what’s to become of the bricks?”
And so it came to be, that 1800 bricks – one for each of the Jews murdered – were salvaged, stored and then used to build a Memorial Wall so that the names of Plungyán’s martyrs will be preserved for all time.
It was the first such undertaking in Lithuania, “possibly the first in Eastern Europe,” says Abel. With more money raised by the Levitts than was needed for the Memorial, “we supported a Tolerance Centre in Plungyán, the eighth in Lithuania and considered one of its finest.”
This was only the beginning.
The Levitts engaged with teachers in Plungyán – today a city of 25,000 – to educate its youth of the town’s Jewish legacy and why and how there are no Jews left. Art competitions today are held annually for school children on the theme of: “What happened to our Jewish community?”
Some of these art works have been exhibited abroad.
“It is only by educating the young people about what happened,” says Abel, “that we can hope for a better understanding between our peoples, as we follow the words of Almighty God to the prophet Joel:
“Tell your children about it, and let your children tell their children and their children tell their children, from generation to generation.”
While Glenda Levitt noted in her ceremony address that “there are many worthy causes in this world of ours deserving attention, Abel and I stumbled unto two subjects which we felt were interwoven like a tapestry – honouring the victims of inexplicable murder and to ignite in young Lithuanian students an awareness of the vibrant life of a community of Jews who were Lithuanian, how they lived and how they died and are no more.”
The magnitude of the loss was brought home by the Levitt’s son Ari revealing that had certain Jews in Lithuania not read the writing on the wall, the world would not have ever know of:
Ehud Barak, former Prime Minister of Israel; Abba Eban, Former Israeli Ambassador to the US and UN; Amos Oz, Israeli writer and intellectual; Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York; Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Laurette for economics; Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laurette chemistry; Nadine Gordimer, Nobel Laurette for Literature; Bob Dylan, singer-songwriter and Nobel prize for Literature, Marc Chagall, artist; Leonard Cohen, singer-songwriter; J.D. Salinger, author of ‘Catcher in the Rye; Aharon Barak, former President of the Supreme Court of Israel; Sir Ronald Harwood, Academy award winner; Michael Levitt, Nobel Laurette for Chemistry and Brian Levitt, Officer of the Order of Canada.
Ari concluded that with his parents, “Being recognised by the Government of Lithuania for their tireless work in preserving the memory and promoting tolerance, they earn their place on the list of achievements of Jews of Lithuanian descent.
A Town Called Birzh
And then we learnt of Birzh!
There was a large poster facing the seated guests at the Lithuanian Embassy with two photos of Jewish life before WWII and the disturbing words:
“Commemorating Birzh-Birzai 8.8.1941”.
It was said that Birzh was a town few people had heard of. To Lithuanians it is known for its beer and breweries, but for Jews whose families lived there since the 16th century, it is remembered “where their Lithuanian neighbours helped massacre its entire Jewish population of 2,400 in 1941,” wrote Bennie Rabinowitz, Gweynne Schire and Dr. Veronica Belling in their article, ‘Remembering Birzh”. Until very recent years, the present-day residents were unlikely to have ever met a Jew, even though before the war, half its population was Jewish.
All this changed when Abel and Glenda visited Rhodes scholar and philanthropist Bennie Rabinowitz in Cape Town in 2014 and asked if he would help sponsor a young Lithuanian, Gabriella, through law school in Israel. With Bennie’s support, Gabriella the granddaughter of the lawyer from Klaipeda, Miriam Lisauskiene would graduate at the IDC Herzliya and is today working at a top law firm in Tel Aviv and was one of the guests at the ceremony at the Lithuanian embassy. However, back at that 2014 meeting in Cape Town, Bennie revealed that his family roots were from Birzh and that besides a photograph of its main Street in the early 1930s, all he had was “just a name.”
What a surprise to Bennie when the Levitts revealed, “we were there two weeks ago.” What alarmed Bennie was the Levitt’s relating that after seeing the mass Jewish graves, they visited the Birzh Museum where it had NO recorded history of Jews.
It was as if Jews never existed in Birzh and yet a 1931 government survey showed that Jews owned 77 of the town’s 99 businesses; owned 12 out of 14 groceries; 9 out of 12 butcheries; 11 out of 12 textile and fur manufacturers; 7 out of 8 leather and shoe business, 3 out of 4 haberdasheries and 28 of 45 factories.
So why no record of Jews in the Birzh Museum?
The date glaring at us on the poster revealed the explanation.
On August 8, 1941, 2400 Jews of Birzh, including 900 children – were stripped naked and shot into pits in the Astravas forest, 3.5 kilometres north of the town. It was carried out by Gestapo officers supported by 70 Lithuanians from Linkuva and Birzh.
Testimony has revealed that when the killers returned to town at 7.00pm – having begun their grisly work at 11.00am – they “walked in singing.”
This June 2019, the townsfolk of Birzh will became more aware of this dark past as a monument to the victims was officially opened.
Made of sheets of metal, winding their way on a bridge over water and through the Lithuanian forest, the names of the victims appear on the memorial cut out of the metal with stars of David – small for children, larger for adults. There are three large tablets of stone. One contains the Birzai story in Lithuanian, another in English and the third stone records the major contributors to the project led by Ben Rabinowitz of Cape Town.
The architect of the Memorial is Dr Joseph Rabie, a graduate of the Haifa Technion and a former Capetonian, today living in Paris. His grandfather emigrated to South Africa from Birzh, the Yiddish name for Birzai.
With successive Lithuanian governments accused of minimizing the role of Lithuanians in collaborating in the near total annihilation of Lithuanian Jewry – 96.4%, more than any other country – the award by the Lithuanian government to Abel and Glenda Levitt for their monumental projects to educate is a hopeful sign of new understanding.
In this new spirit of confronting the past, students at the Birzh Austra High School collected the names of former Jewish citizens of their town and painted them on stones which they then took in a procession – accompanied by the Deputy Mayor – from the once Birzh ghetto to the mass grave, where they were solemnly placed.
When these local schoolchildren returned home covering the same journey as their town’s earlier mass murderers, they were not “singing”.
Today, Birzh is Judenrein!
That is a fact not to sing about but to remember and mourn.
In the words of Elie Wiesel:
“They were killed once. They must not be killed again through forgetfulness.”
Few things in the world are more sacred than the bonds between mothers and daughters.
This is a bond that is only made even more special with shared experiences. Now imagine this incredible experience while exploring your heritage and roots as well as growing your special bond as you step back in time and follow in the footsteps of the matriarchs and then get a glimpse into the future as one can do in Israel.
It is with this in mind that Michelle Melamed Cohen who recently passed away from cancer formed Mothers with Meaning.
Mothers with Meaning is an extraordinary organization that aims to grow the bonds between mothers and daughters while giving them the unique experience of forging unbreakable ties with Israel.
So where did this all start?
Melamed Cohen had a vision to create a programme which would create a space for secular women to form a sense of community in Israel. She felt that the more religious women already had events and structures in place that connected them to Israel and their Jewish roots, so why not create the same for their secular sisters?
This vibrant not-for-profit was founded with the aim to connect women to their Jewish roots, Israeli history and the Land of Israel. Something great and bigger than them that they could feel a part of. The best way to do this was to create national and local events that would be meaningful, unique and above all create community. Melamed Cohen believed that connecting hearts and brining Israeli women together through fun and meaningful activities was the best way to grow unity between Israel’s myriad of different cultures.
It is heartbreaking to note that Melamed Cohen passed away before she would see the organization grow as it has, but she left a tremendous legacy.
Creativity is a great motivator and Melamed Cohen’s enthusiasm and passion for her vision proved infectious. This motivated one of the Israeli members of Mothers with Meaning member, Orly Tesler, to come up with an idea that could include future generations. And so, the Batmitzvah programme for mothers and daughters was started.
There are three parts to this programme – the opportunity connects with your daughter, your Judaism and to Israel”, says Tesler. Orly was motivated to include women from abroad. “This is about connecting them to Israel from an earlier age and is totally non-political – it is about their identity as a Jewish woman,” says Tesler
Yehudit Novick agrees, “Going on this mothers and daughters tour was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life – what a privilege to be able to wake up every day with just me and my youngest daughter sharing a hotel room, and then sharing breakfast together. Even though I have been to Israel so many times, we experienced so many activities I have never done before. I loved every moment, from the inspirational and moving talks, to dancing, laughing and even crying together.”
Mothers with Meaning aims to stress the importance of Israel as a Jewish homeland. Over the last couple of years, many tours to Israel have become highly politicised and in the current climate where showing a proud Zionist identity often leads to intimidation and harassment, Mothers with Meaning hope to instill a sense of pride and confidence in identity. The hope is that participants on returning home will become involved in women’s Zionists organisations and in their communities.
Some of the young girls who have participated have been so impressed and turned on by what they have seen and experienced that they are making plans for their futures in Israel. They have expressed hope to either study or join the army!
Throughout the programme, they are encouraged to come out from their comfort zones and enjoy unique and enriching encounters from training at army bases to meeting with Holocaust survivors. These unforgettable events have been life-changing and have only enhanced the ties that bind generation to generation.
Everything is about connection – Shabbat at the Kotel, exploring Israel’s future in Tel Aviv, learning the importance of continuity and bearing witness with Holocaust survivors and so much more.
Israel is more than simply a country that has conflict with her neighbours. There is a rich tapestry of cultures and history and while some may not be attracted to religious aspects, there is something for everyone.
Michelle Melamed Cohen may not have lived long enough to enjoy the rich fruits of her vision but the gift that she has created will pass down from generation to generation. Mothers with Meaning is transforming lives and building last bonds between moms and their daughters and instilling love for Israel – there is no greater legacy than that.
Shifting from the salon sofa and watching the buildup to the 2019 Eurovision Song Competition on TV to actually immersing oneself in the swelling crowds at the Eurovillage in Tel Aviv’s beach front was an eye-popping opener or as one says in Hebrew:
“Ein milim” – “no words”.
For a press that usually obsesses with covering Israel in a negative light, what a refreshing change:
Britain’s The Independent ran with a headline reading:
“This year’s Eurovision was one of the best in recent memory,” praising the broadcasts “general splendor” and calling it “an incredible show.”
CNN called the grand final “a showpiece that would have disappointed few Eurovision fans.”
The New York Times, which only recently published a vile antisemitic cartoon anchored on Israeli politics, said the show had “enough glitz, plumes of fire and special effects to invigorate even the blandest Europop.”
Even the BBC was captivated by the special atmosphere. Its newsreader Graham Norton during his live commentary said of the 2019 rendition of Israel’s 40th anniversary of “Hallelujah” by Gali Atari accompanied by previous top Eurovision contestants – Conchita Wurst, Måns Zelmerlöw, Eleni Foureira and Verka Serduchka:
“What a real treat for Eurovision fans… a really special moment. A gorgeous moment.”
The BBC was spot on – it was a “gorgeous moment”. However, the entire week was a compilation of “gorgeous moments.”
Off course, there were still those who could not resist ‘aiming’ their pens in describing Eurovision in Israel as “Tel Aviv caught between partying and politics” but so be it:
The event lived up to its expectations; the theme of Israel’s Eurovision was “Dare To Dream”, a theme espoused by Israel’s founding father Theodore Hertzel, who defied the naysayers over 120 years earlier with “If you will it, it is no dream.”
The results were there for all to celebrate as the eyes of the world – some 200 million viewers – were on Israel and seeing:
How you can build a country in 71 years and that despite the immense challenges, despite being surrounded by enemies desiring our extinction, despite a biased global media in perpetual assault mode against the Jewish state, saw the curtain rise on a modern, fun-loving, exciting, enterprising, entrepreneurial and hi-tech behemoth that can also show the world:
‘How to party’
And party Israel did.
Tel Aviv lived up to its reputation of the “City That never Sleeps” or as I like to describe it, “as the city that wakes up every morning and decides what’s its going to be”.
Yes, the people of the “Start-Up Nation” know how to “work hard” but they also know how to “play hard” and the multitude of visitors from abroad were swept away by the euphoric atmosphere.
Three Swiss visitors I spoke to, agreed, “The atmosphere here is special; you will never see anything like this in Switzerland – Eurovision or no Eurovision”
A twentysomething from Germany remarked, “It’s funny; I’ve been here a week and even with the time change, Europe is fast asleep when you guys are still partying.”
Euphoria in Eurovillage
The lingua franca of the people standing around me near the main stage at the Eurovillage was a cross of European languages and many of them were holding aloft their country’s flags. Facing me were the flags of Romania, Italy, Sweden and Denmark. Looking back, all I could see was a sea of people, gyrating to the music of an Abba Revival band from Sweden. The four singers down to their dress looked like Abba and if you closed your eyes, you could be back in the seventies – they sounded exactly like Abba.
Most the people around me were probably not even born when Abba won with Waterloo in 1974, but tonight was Tel Aviv’s “Waterloo” as it won in victoriously emblazoning to the world, if you want to know us, come and see Israel for yourself.
Clearly, the thousands of overseas visitors were happy they did.
BDS failed abysmally in sabotaging the event. Despite their appeals for countries to boycott – notably by their flagbearer, Roger Waters – not one European country pulled out. Noted for flying a balloon of a giant pig with a Star of David at his concerts and then denying “I’m NOT an anti-Semite”, Ranting Roger made a last ditch-11th hour incoherent rant on social media following an appeal “from my friend Omar Barghouti” for contestants to boycott Tel Aviv. A co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, Barghouti does not believe in a two-state solution as he believes that the “creation of a Jewish state was a crime” and calls to restore the name of “Palestine” for the entire area from the river Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea.
Waters’ appeal met on deaf ears.
Where once people listed to his music, today, few were interested in hearing what he had to say.
Even the pro-Palestinian Icelandic ‘Hatari’ participated albeit displaying Palestinian flags. They received no thanks for doing so!
The Iceland band’s gesture cut no ice with BDS who wrote on its Twitter account:
“Palestinian civil society overwhelmingly rejects fig-leaf gestures of solidarity from international artists crossing our peaceful picket line.”
At a press conference, Hatari offered a purely positive message saying, “We need to unite and remember to love – hate on the rise in Europe.”
Yes, that hate is manifesting itself in the worst outbreak of antisemitism in Europe since WWII.
And happy to join that hate fest are Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Fatah posted the cartoon below on Facebook, showing an Israeli soldier shooting at Palestinians in Gaza. Musical notes are flowing from the “Eurovision” but turn into an ammunition belt for the soldier’s machine gun.
In a second cartoon posted by Fatah, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is dressed up as Israeli singer Netta Barzilai who won last year’s Eurovision and brought the competition to Israel. Netanyahu is holding a missile in each hand:
Missiles? What the PA and Fatah neglects to advise its gullible readership is that it was the Palestinians in Gaza that only two weeks earlier had launched nearly 700 missiles at southern Israel, killing four Israeli civilians, injuring many and causing severe structural damage to property, including moving motor vehicles.
Never Stop Dreaming
Israel’s message to the world was so poignantly encapsulated by the Shalva Band. Shalva (The Israel Association for Care and Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities) is a registered non-profit organization that supports and empowers individuals with disabilities and their families in Israel. The eight-piece band, which includes Israelis with blindness, Down syndrome and other physical and developmental disabilities, called on spectators “to never stop dreaming.” The band performed a rendition of A Million Dreams from the film The Greatest Showman.
The band made it to the finals of The Rising Star, the local Israeli contest that determines who represents the country at the Eurovision. Predicted to win by judges and audience members, they dropped out because performing at Eurovision would have necessitated violating the Sabbath in order to participate in the Saturday night final broadcast.
At a press conference they revealed that they were living out their dream.
“When we first started playing together people wouldn’t listen to us, they would just leave the room,” said Band director Shai Ben-Shushan. “We worked hard, and we became better and better, and we believed in ourselves. After a lot of hard work, we got to Hakochav Haba (The Rising Star) – and in the beginning we didn’t believe that we were good enough to make it to the end.”
The Israeli public thought they did.
“We’ve made a huge change in Israeli society,” he said. “Today, when we walk in the street, the Israeli people want to embrace us – not because we’re a gimmick, but because we’re good at what we do.”
If only the PA, Hamas and BDS would understand this message
Wonder Woman On Wonder City
A quick lesson in “three minutes” about life in Tel Aviv was revealed in the back of a taxi by Gal Gadot, Israel’s famed star from Wonder Woman with taxi driver, famed Israeli comedian Yuval Semo.
“Three minutes,” says the Hollywood superstar it took for Netta Barzilai in 2018 to bring the Eurovision to Israel with her winning entry “Toy”; “three minutes,’ she joked, “is the average an Israeli waits before getting personal – a little too personal,” and “Three minutes to understand the essence of Tel Aviv – Inspiration, innovation, big ideas and open arms. Come as you are, bring who you like, love what you do, day or night, daring and caring, outgoing and including everyone under one hot sun.”
At the end of the week – All Said And Sung – the real winner of Eurovision 2019 was – ISRAEL!
As Israel’s message in its 1979 Eurovision win: “Hallelujah”
On the Sunday, preceding Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence day) on Thursday, Israelis could not escape the question:
“Will we be celebrating Independence Day, or will we be at war?”
It was a fair question in light of some 700 missiles fired at Israel from Gaza over a period of 48 hours.
Come Wednesday evening however, bands were playing on open-air stages in cities and towns all across Israel and people were joyously dancing in the streets under a night sky ablaze not from missiles but fireworks!
The quick transition from ‘dodging rockets to dancing in streets’ reminded me of a 2014 interview with the late Yehuda Avner who served as speech writer and English secretary to Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, and personal advisor to Prime Ministers Yitzhak Rabin, Menachem Begin and Shimon Peres as well as Israel’s Ambassador to Britain, Ireland and Australia.
Closeted in the very nerve center where life and death decisions were taken, Yehuda was in prime position to record intimately those monumental events and the cerebral machinations that determined the destiny of a nation.
Yet it was Avner’s experience on Israel’s first day – 14th May 1948 – that encapsulated the transition from battle to bliss.
The 14th of May 1948 was a Friday, and unbearably hot. “For three consecutive sun-grilled days and restless nights,” 18-year-old Yehuda Avner from Manchester and his 25 comrades, armed with pickaxes, shovels and a dozen WWI Lee Enfield rifles, had been fortifying a narrow sector of Jerusalem’s Western front, overlooking the Arab village of Ein Karem. They had heard rumors that an Arab offensive would be launched that night from Ein Karem, joined by Iraqi irregulars and a Jordanian brigade but with no communication with the outside world – “no field phone, not even a radio” – they were totally cut off. Needing to find out what was happening – “particularly whether the British had evacuated and whether Ben Gurion had or was going to declare independence or not” – our commander, Elisha Linder, instructed Holocaust survivor, Leopard Mahler to go into town and return “with hard news.”
A grandnephew of the famous composer Gustav Mahler, “Leopard never went anywhere without his grey knapsack from which the neck of his violin protruded.” He had been a violinist with the Berlin Philharmonic until the Nuremberg Race Laws dispensed with his services. Surviving Auschwitz, he tried unsuccessfully to obtain visas to join the Chicago Philharmonic and later the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, and reluctantly settled for an opening in the Palestine Philharmonic in Tel Aviv. “When he finally got his Australian visa, Jerusalem was already under siege and the poor fellow tried to get out to Tel Aviv on a convoy, but it was ambushed, and he had to return to embattled Jerusalem.”
Being a violinist and the obvious concern about protecting his hands, “we were happy that instead of joining us digging trenches in the rock-hard earth, he should be the one to go into town and fish for information.”
He came back close to midnight shortly after there had been a lengthy exchange of fire, crying “I have news; I have news!” He related that “the British had evacuated the country and that our forces were in control of the centre of the city.”
Substantiating his claim, he opened his coat to display a Union Jack tied to his waste. “He then began pulling from his bulging pockets forgotten luxuries – Kraft cheese, Mars Bars, Cadbury chocolate, and a bottle of wine, all compliments from an abandoned British officer’s mess. And then, from his knapsack, came out cans of peaches, jars of Ovaltine and a bottle of Carmel wine.”
But most important was the news that: “David Ben-Gurion had declared independence that afternoon, and that the Jewish state would come into being at midnight.”
There was dead silence, midnight was only minutes away!
“Hey, Mahler!” shouted Elisha Linder, cutting through the excitement, “Our new state – what’s its name?”
The violinist didn’t have a clue. “I didn’t think to ask,” he said.
“How about Yehuda? suggested someone. “After all, King David’s kingdom was called Yehuda – Judea.”
“Zion,” cried another. “It’s an obvious choice.”
“Israel!” called a third, “What’s wrong with Israel?”
Filling a mug to the brim with the wine, Elisha settled it with, “A l’’chaim to our new State, whatever its name.” But before the wine touched the lips, a Hassid whom we all knew as ‘Reb Nusesen de chazzan’ (he was a cantor by calling), shouted “Wait,” It’s Shabbos. Let’s make Kiddush first.”
“That was a Kiddush I shall never forget,” says Yehuda whimsically, and added, “Next day we were relieved to rest up and we went into town where masses of Jews were dancing the horah in the courtyard of the Jewish Agency building. Someone was playing a banjo and another a harmonica and before not too long Mahler took out his violin and joined in, playing HavaNagila (Jewish traditional folk song).” Picking up the beat, he began reworking it into a widely spiraling variations, his notes fluttering this way and that, improvisation upon improvisation, as if a man and instrument were rediscovering each other in shared pleasure after a long separation.”
This was the uplifting feeling of independence after 2000 years; “we were discovering ourselves as a People after 2000 years of separation from our Land.”
Now 71 years later, we were again experiencing days of war and music, and while we braced ourselves early in the week against missiles, we now pleasurably ‘brace’ ourselves for the upcoming 2019 Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv from the 14th to the 18th May.
Israel’s song in the competition to be performed by Kobi Marimiis “HOME”. Having re-established our national homeland 71 years earlier after 2000 years of exile, the last three words of the song resonate:
“I’m coming home”
It’s a mesmerizing melodious message three weeks after Pesach (Passover) where we celebrate delivery from slavery; two weeks after Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day) where we pledge “Never Again”, and a week after Yom Haatzmaut, where we rejoice of our return to national sovereignty in our ancestral homeland.
The final verse speaks of “standing tall”, “not giving in” and “I’m coming home”.
“I am standing tall not giving in
‘Cause I am someone, I am someone
And now I’m done, I’m coming
Now I’m done, I’m coming
Now I’m done, I’m coming home”