Street signs are telling lessons in Israel’s history, revealing friend from foe
By David E. Kaplan
There is good reason why there are streets in Israel named after the 33rd president of the United States, President Truman – even a moshav ‘Kfar Truman’ three kilometres east of Ben Gurion International Airport – and not his predecessor the 32nd president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR).
It is no careless omission but one of deliberate intent!
No less a statesman than Israel’s first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said of Harry Truman, “as a foreigner I could not judge what would be his place in American history; but his helpfulness to us, his constant sympathy with our aims in Israel, his courageous decision to recognize our state so quickly and his steadfast support since then has given him an immortal place in Jewish history.”
No such words could ever have been said about his predecessor.
FDR’s antipathy towards Jews both in word and deed is well documented. However, most revealing is Rafael Medoff April 5 article in The Jerusalem Post “The Saudis, the Jews and FDR’s dog” where one is left in little doubt that FDR – unlike his successor – would not only have NOT supported the creation of the Jewish state of Israel – he would have opposed it!
And this is with full knowledge of the enormity of the Holocaust!
Medoff’s article reports on FDR’s grandson, Hall Delano Roosevelt, working for an Iowa-based public relations firm – the LS Group – on a Saudi-financed public relations campaign to celebrate his late grandfather’s pro-Saudi policies. The campaign anchors on the 75th anniversary of FDR’s meeting with King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud that took place on February 14, 1945 on the deck of the USS Quincy.
It was not the optics of the meeting between the US president and the first monarch and founder of Saudi Arabia who ruled from 23 September 1932 to 9 November 1953 that was alarming; but the substance of the conversation between the two leaders as it pertained to Jews.
Taking notes at that fateful meeting was William Eddy, the US ambassador to Riyadh. He wrote down the remarks of the two leaders in the form of a “Memorandum of Conversation”, which both the President and the King signed. One of the major topics of discussion was:
Whether or not the Arab world could accept the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine
Roosevelt asked the Saudi King for his view of “the problem of Jewish refugees driven from their homes in Europe.”
Ibn Saud responded that he opposed “continued Jewish immigration and the purchase of land [in Palestine] by the Jews.” In supporting his position, the King noted that “the Arabs and the Jews could never cooperate, neither in Palestine, nor in any other country.”
The US President seemed to share this assessment as he “replied that he wished to assure his majesty that he would do nothing to assist the Jews against the Arabs and would make no move hostile to the Arab people.”
Hardly nuanced, this meant – no future Jewish state in Palestine.
The King suggested that the Jews should be “given living space in the Axis countries which oppressed them,” rather than Palestine.
Horrifying by its insensitivity was FDR’s response to Ibn Saud:
Willian Eddy writes:
“The President remarked that Poland might be considered a case in point. The Germans appear to have killed three million Polish Jews, by which count there should be space in Poland for the resettlement of many homeless Jews.”
Roosevelt colludes with the Saudi monarch of “resettling” Jews on the burial site of murdered European Jewry!
Several weeks after the meeting, on March 10, Ibn Saud wrote to Roosevelt, requesting the President oppose any support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
FDR replied on the 4th April by recalling “the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago” and reaffirmed that “no decision [will] be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews” but further asserting that he “would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.”
In other words – no support for a sovereign Jewish homeland.
Roosevelt, who was quick to recognize the “INFAMY” of Japan when it attacked Pearl Harbour in 1941 killing 2,403 Americans, failed to see the “INFAMY” of the Nazis and their European collaborators in the murder of six million Jews when he addressed a joint session of Congress on March 1, 1945 and said:
“I learned more about the whole problem, the Muslim problem, the Jewish problem, by talking with Ibn Saud for five minutes than I could have learned in the exchange of two or three dozen letters.”
Even members of his own party were astounded on his reliance of a sworn enemy of the Jews as his expert advisor. Colorado Democrat Sen. Edwin Johnson sardonically commented:
“I imagine that even Fala would be more of an expert.”
‘Fala’ was Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s dog!
The following month, FDR suddenly died in office and President Truman was sworn in as the 33rd president of the USA. Three years later, on May 14, 1948, just after 6.pm, Charlie Ross, President Truman’s press secretary read aloud the following:
“Statement by the President. This government has been informed that a Jewish state has been proclaimed in Palestine….The United States recognizes the provisional government as the de facto authority of the new State of Israel.”
This is why as Israel pursues its journey on the ‘road’ ahead, there will always be streets in the Jewish state called Truman and never one named Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
From Lithuania to South Africa – a ringside vista from Tel Aviv down memory lane
By Dr. Gail Lustig
If anyone should be telling this story it should be my late father, Donny Loon, who passed away on the 16th January 2011 in Israel. It is the kind of story he liked hearing, reading, telling and retelling!
My first taste of his storytelling was when I was in my teens and he was hospitalized in a nursing home for a collapsed vertebral disc. It had been caused by Brucellosis contracted by drinking unpasteurized milk while doing a house call at a patient`s farm. He wrote a riveting short story which he read to me during a visit, telling me it had been written “by the priest next to him in the room!”
This story has taken decades to tell and was written in the days of lockdown in Tel Aviv , while going through some photo albums and discovering two old black and white photographs that aroused my curiosity more than usual.
Their story begins in Ponevezh, Lithuania where my grandfather, David Loon, and most of his five brothers, Arthur, George, Lazar, Issy and Maurice and one sister, Hetty, were born. David was born with clubfeet; proving a serious handicap in his motor development. The congenital problem for which he was teased endlessly might have spurred him on to take up boxing which was popular amongst the Jewish youth of Lithuania. He excelled at the sport and before long he was given the nick-name of “Siki” after a French-Senegalese light heavyweight boxer and world champion in the early part of the last century.
The Loon brothers were close; they enjoyed life, were social creatures, and supported one another in many ways. The family connection was always particularly important to them and their children developed close ties. David took time to teach his son Donny the punches and rules of boxing and although he never formally took up the sport, he certainly had a good knowledge of it.
In the early 1950s, Donny left the family and settled in Cape Town with Rita his young wife – my mother – who had grown up in the southern most city in Africa. He set up a general practice and soon became one of the popular young doctors in Bellville; where he treated people from every background and walk of life.
Donny hankered after his childhood environment with its warm atmosphere and exciting prospects, and a spirit that filled him with hope. He hadn`t taken to Cape Town, the city of his wife`s family. He was irritated by the soft, white sea sand that got in between his toes. He did not like biting on chicken pieces coated with sand on Muizenberg beach where he sat on a beach-chair with a towel over his legs while his family dived into the warm waves of the Indian Ocean.
It was perfectly natural, that as soon as circumstances permitted, he would pack his Chevrolet and head northwards on the National Road with his young family to visit his parents and cousins in Johannesburg. And so in August, after a brief stopover in Beaufort West, Donny forged ahead, hour after hour along the lonely road until they reached Magaliesburg, near Johannesburg. The family had been booked in at the Moon Hotel, a modest holiday venue.
How thrilling it must have been to discover that the Moon Hotel had been chosen as the training base for the young Australian boxing champion, Jimmy Carruthers, an Australian bantamweight champion who was in his early twenties and had come to fight the South African World Champion, Vic Toweel in November 1952. This would be the first time since 1908 that an Australian would be fighting for a world title. Toweel, of Lebanese roots, was the first South African to hold a world title.
Within a few hours of settling into the hotel, it was completely natural that Donny and Jimmy meet, and an instant rapport developed between them. He learnt that Jimmy was one of eight children born to an English wharf worker in Sydney who had developed boxing skills at an early age. Jimmy was friendly, a little lonely, with an open personality and although devoted to a tight and demanding schedule for training, enjoyed Donny`s lighthearted and warm interest in him, his stories and jokes and knowledge of boxing.
He and his trainer shared some pleasant hours talking to Donny and Rita who loved a laugh and the fact that her baby had taken to the boxer who clearly had a way with children.
Before long, Donny found himself drawn into the pending fight between Toweel and Jimmy. It was clear to him that Jimmy had a great chance of beating the favourite but he didn`t seem to have a clear plan of how to go about it. Toweel was defending the title for the fourth time. He had won 200 bouts before turning professional, and now, on home territory, it seemed that everything was in his favour. What was apparent was that Vic was slow to get started in the ring whereas Jimmy was quick and agile with a machine -gun like hand speed.
Within no time, Donny realized that the way to go about beating Toweel, was to move like lightning, straight after the bell, pull as many punches as possible, thus surprising his opponent and hoping for a knockout.
He proposed his plan to Carruthers` trainer, teaching him how to use the stopwatch he had with him (a useful instrument in a doctor`s medical bag), in the training programme, timing Jimmy`s responses and reaction time. And so it happened that every morning for the next week, just as the sun rose, Donny would get up early, secretly meet Jimmy in the training ring, before Toweel`s team appeared. Over and over he would demonstrate to Jimmy how to improve his performance straight after the bell, until he literally reacted within a split second.
A ‘Fist’ful Of Pounds
Of course the Loon uncles and cousins were in on the story and immediately understood that if luck were on their side, it might be the perfect opportunity to back the underdog and score a personal small betting victory.
Before the match, we returned to Cape Town. Donny continued with his routine and but for the photos, Jimmy Carruthers faded from his mind.
Before long it was the 15th of November. Everyone in South Africa who enjoyed competitive sport, crowded around the radios to listen to the match. The Loon brothers and Donny, by now, loyal supporters of Jimmy, were in on the excitement on opposite sides of South Africa.
And of course you`ve guessed it!
The bell was sounded; Carruthers pounced on Toweel, and in just on 2 minutes 19 seconds and 110 accurate punches, knocked Vic Toweel out to become the new light bantam weight champion of the world!!
The tactic of moving like lightning after the bell sounded, had worked like a charm.
And today, while tidying my photos, I came across these two, which in their naiveté, reveal so much!
Jimmy Carruthers gave up competitive boxing in 1954 at a young age, having made enough money to settle down, marry and run his pub in Sydney, Australia. In one article I read on him, he was described as a unionist and a proponent of world peace!
And that`s when I really understood what had bought the two men, Donny and Jimmy together – hardly the ability to knock out, but rather to change the world in a very different way. Each dreamt of world peace; it would unite them forever and more important be passed down in the image of a chubby baby secure and fearless on the knees of a champion boxer – me!
About the writer:
Gail Loon-Lustig, born in Cape Town, lived in Bellville. After completing Medical School, Gail made Aliya in 1976 and runs a Home Care Unit in greater Tel Aviv area. Inspired to “give back to society”, she counsels young doctors and health workers and has guided the teaching of ‘home care’ at her alma mater UCT. Gail has volunteered at Telfed and the South African retirement home Beth Protea where for many years she focusses on medical issues of the residents. Interested in many different aspects of life, especially those that involve her family.
Stuck at home this Independence Day because of Corona? Take a virtual journey of Israel’s Independent Trail. From Hebrew city to Hebrew state, the trail begins with the founding of Tel Aviv in 1909 and ends with the Establishment of Israel in 1948.
By David. E. Kaplan
Walks these days are mostly to the supermarket or pharmacy. While hardly fun, adventurous or cerebrally challenging they are essential. However, no less “essential” is to ensure the mind remains active even if our legs are taking ‘a back seat’!
Prior to Corona, Lay Of The Land toured Independence Trail that was inaugurated in 2018 in honour of Israel’s 70th Independence Day. Only one kilometre (0.6 miles) long, it is rich in 40 years of intense nation-building history. Opting to use a guide rather than the free Municipality of Tel Aviv’s Independence Trail App, our guide began:
“It was 40 years of wandering before the Biblical Hebrews entering the Promised Land of ancient Israel, today you will be exposed to those 40 tumultuous years of establishing modern Israel during the first half of the twentieth century.”
How better to begin this hike of 10 stops with a cup of coffee and where better to enjoy it than where the hike officially begins – The First Kiosk Of Tel Aviv at the intersection of Rothschild Boulevard and Herzl Street, one of the most central spots in Israel.
Kickoff at the Kiosk
The aroma of coffee was irresistible and adhering to the adage “When in Rome”, we all ordered “café hafuch” – Israel’s famous “upside down coffee”.
Frequently compared with a latte, it is creamier and is also made in reverse. If in a latte, the milk goes on top of the espresso, a café hafuch uses steamed milk on the bottom, and then a shot of espresso is carefully poured on top of the steamed milk and finally topped with milk froth as well as nutmeg or cocoa powder. The most iconic aspect is the “reverse” – so typically Israeli of hitting the right button but ‘Israeli style”.
“Today, as you can see,” said our guide, “Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard is lined with restaurants and cafés but when the street was first established in 1909, not all the residents were in favour of any commercial activity. While some were agreeable about setting up shops in the neighborhood, others were against, but a year later a small kiosk opened where we are today.”
Situated in the exact same spot where the original once stood and modeled after the eclectic architectural style of the time, the small kiosk is today called Espresso Bar.
Next, we walked on to the Nahum Gutman Fountain.
Fountain of Knowledge
Gutman’s mosaic fountain reflects the simplicity of the early days of the “First Hebrew City” as it was once the fashion to call Tel Aviv. Israel’s famed artist, who was also an accomplished illustrator, photographer, and writer “went to school here, played in these streets, absorbed its sights, sounds and smells and projected them in his colorful exuberant art,’ informed our guide. “He was awarded the prestigious Israel Prize in 1978 and as you can see, the mosaics around the fountain tell the history of Jaffa – the ancient port city from which Tel Aviv was born.” In a kaleidoscope of color – the artist’s leitmotif – myths and stories from Jewish and Israeli history are emblazoned, from Jonah and the whale to Moses Montefiore and Theodore Herzl.
Our next stop was the personal home built in 1909 by Akiva Aryeh Weiss, whose name is literally cemented to the beginning of Tel Aviv.
Akiva Aryeh Weiss was one of the founders of the Ahuzat Bayit neighborhood, which later evolved into Tel Aviv. As President of the then newly established Building Society, Weiss presided over the famous 1909 lottery in which 66 Jewish families drew numbers written on seashells to determine the allocation of lots in the about-to-be established city of Tel Aviv.
Now restored, the cornerstone of Weiss’ Tel Aviv house located at 2 Herzl Street was laid in 1909. Originally a single-story structure, the upper floor was added in the 1920s.
Our third stop was the visitor’s center with its history of Tel Aviv in the Shalom Meir Tower in Herzl Street. Although once the tallest building in Tel Aviv – and when built in
1965 was the tallest building in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Oceania – far more historically significant is its prestigious predecessor – the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium. The country’s first Hebrew-speaking high school and originally known as HaGymnasia Ha’Ivrit (High School in Hebrew), the cornerstone laying for the school took place on July 28, 1909, the same year as the city’s founding. Designed by Joseph Barsky and inspired by descriptions of Solomon’s Temple, it was built by Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche, whose family founded Neve Tzedek (“Oasis of Justice”) in 1887 and were again among the founding settlers of Tel Aviv in 1909. These are the proud ancestors of Lay of the Land cofounder, Yair Chelouche who was too enjoying the tour and contributing to the history of the area.
“The school was a major Tel Aviv landmark until 1962 when the site was razed for the construction of the Shalom Meir Tower,” added Yair.
Some of the schools celebrated alumni include Prime Minister Moshe Sharett, the poet Nathan Alterman, the artist Nachum Gutman, the physicist Yuval Neeman, the present mayor of Tel Aviv, Ron Huldai and the journalist and chairman of the Yesh Atid party in the Knesset, Yair Lapid.
“Did Alterman write poetry about Tel Aviv?” asked a member of our group.
“Sure,’ replied our guide. “An immigrant from Warsaw, Alterman viewed Tel Aviv as the successor to the cities he had known in Europe. In contrast to the Hebrew poets who preceded him, who felt more connected to religion and biblical landscapes, Alterman was an urban poet who shaped an abstract theatrical world of music boxes, horse-drawn carriages and streetlights in Hebrew poetry.”
Looking up at the tall Shalom Tower, the guide told us a popular joke in Tel Aviv of the 1960s after the tower went up that encapsulates the trajectory of modern Israel.
“A Tel Aviv taxi picked up a New York tourist who was boasting about his city, how skyscrapers appear suddenly like wild mushrooms when suddenly the taxi turned into Hertzl street and the tourist, who was looking up at the tall Shalom Tower, bellowed:
“WOW! What building is that?”
To which the taxi driver replied:
“I don’t know; it wasn’t there yesterday!”
The imagery of Alterman’s Tel Aviv was a far cry from the city of today, but that vibrancy portrayed by the poet’s pen was all too evident as we proceeded along bustling Rothschild Boulevard to our next stop – the Great Synagogue.
The Great Synagogue on 110 Allenby Street, served as Tel Aviv’s spiritual and religious center long before Israel’s independence.
“People who attended services here included Tel Aviv’s first mayor Meir Dizengoff, prime ministers David Ben-Gurion, Moshe Sharett and Menachem Begin. It also hosted the inaugurations of Israel’s chief rabbis and the funerals of national icons such as the pioneer of modern Hebrew poetry Haim Nahman Bialik and the Zionist leader Haim Arlosorov, assassinated in 1933 while walking on the beach in Tel Aviv.”
We marveled at the building’s features, notably a huge dome, elaborate lighting fixtures, and magnificent stained-glass windows – replicas of synagogue windows that were destroyed in Europe during the Holocaust.
“Not widely known,” revealed our guide, “The Declaration of Independence was meant to be declared here on the 14 May 1948.”
“So why was it not?” I asked.
“Ben Gurion knew that the moment he made the announcement Israel would be under aerial attack and if the new State’s leadership were altogether under one so identifiable a roof as the Great Synagogue, it would make for an easy target for low-flying enemy planes. Instead, the Declaration took place around the corner at a much smaller building, which will be our last stop on the tour.”
Ben Gurion’s concern was “not unreasonable,” continued our guide. “Arab planes bombed Tel Aviv three times and one Egyptian pilot was taken prisoner when his plane was forced down nearby.”
Also “nearby” was our next stop: the Haganah Museum.
Located on Rothschild Boulevard, the Haganah Museum was once the home of Eliyahu Golomb the founder and first commander of the Haganah. A paramilitary organization, the Haganah was the forerunner of today’s Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and from1930 to 1945, this house was the Haganah’s secret headquarters.
Initially protecting the pioneers on kibbutzim (cooperative farming communities) from an attack in the 1920s and 1930s, the Haganah went on to facilitate the illegal entry of more than 100,000 Jews into Palestine after the British government’s 1939 ‘White Paper’ restricting immigration. “In this way,” explained the guide, “the Haganah paved the way in providing the essential manpower that proved so critical in the War of Independence.”
So tranquil is Golomb’s residential room and office on the ground floor today, it is hard to conceive that this was the nerve center of a war for the survival of the Jewish People in Palestine.
“It’s one thing to fight but without finance little can be achieved,” said the guide as he led us to our next stop – the historical headquarters of Israel’s national bank.
The Bank of Israel Visitor’s Center showcases the history of the Jewish State’s financial system. The historical headquarters of Israel’s national bank, the Centre’s exhibits reveal the country’s historical development of money with exhibits from ancient coins to banknotes, and coins issued from pre-State days to the present.
Particularly entertaining were the interactive activity stations that explain, by means of computer games, the functions of the Bank of Israel, the history of money, and the contribution of the central bank to the economy. No less fascinating were the short films on the essential role of the Bank of Israel in maintaining price stability, supporting economic growth, employment, and reducing social gaps in Israeli society. It is sure going to have “one job on its hand” in the immediate post-Corona era!
Back then, our next stop was the Tel Aviv Founders Monument.
The ‘Plot’ Thickens
The Founder’s Monument and Fountain is dedicated to the men and women who established Tel Aviv in the first half of the 19th century. Nestled into a green space on Rothschild Boulevard, it is a serene spot, dotted with benches, centered around a small pool and fountain, and located opposite the home of the first mayor of Tel Aviv, Meir Dizengoff, on 16 Rothschild Boulevard.
The historic lottery for the distribution of plots was held on April 11, 1909. As the families could not decide how to allocate the land, they held a lottery to ensure a fair division. Sixty-six grey seashells and sixty-six white seashells were gathered with the names of the participants written on the white shells and the plot numbers on the grey shells. A white and grey shell formed a pair, assigning each family a plot.
It was on this very site that the founders’ monument was planned 40 years later and established in 1951, on Dizengoff’s birthday.
Designed by Aaron Priver, on one side is a sculpture divided into three sections. The bottom shows sand dunes and wild animals that roamed the area before the establishment of Tel Aviv. The middle section depicts the first homes, mostly one-story, and the top represents the Tel Aviv of 1949, with specific landmarks, and the Tel Aviv of the future as envisioned at the time.
On the other side of the monument is the list of the sixty-six founding families of the city of which includes the Chelouche family that founded the quaint neighboring district of Neve Tzedek over twenty years earlier. Pointing out his family’s name on the monument, Lay of the Land co-founder Yair Chelouche related how his great-great-grandfather Aharon Chelouche acquired the plot of land that became part of Chelouche family folklore. “There were no land surveyors. The seller and the buyer would meet on the land to agree on the size of the land and the price. To measure the plot from one end to the other, the buyer took a stone and threw it, and where it landed was the end of the plot.” Smiling, Yair continued, “Aharon must have had a very strong arm because the family ended up with a huge chunk of land.”
Two decades later, representatives of the Chelouche family would join other family members in 1909, this time not throwing stones but picking up shells with their plot numbers on it.
The genesis of Tel Aviv was brought “home” to us when passing 9 Rothschild Boulevard. “Stop,” bellowed Yair, and then revealed, “here was the house of my great-grandparents, the first house that my great-grandfather, Yosef Eliyahu Chelouche built for them when they left Neve Tzedek for the “new” city of Tel Aviv.”
And so began the saga of “the city that never sleeps” – Tel Aviv.
Our second last stop was at a statue. While most cities in Europe and the Americas are replete with leaders and warriors perched defiantly on horses, such artistic depictions are rare in Israel. So, it is with some curiosity that we looked upon the bronze statue opposite the Founders Monument of a man riding a tired-looking horse. The rider is not a general but a civil servant – Tel Aviv’s first mayor, Meir Dizengoff. He may not have made his mark on a battlefield, but he left a far more enduring legacy.
For miles and miles in every direction from this small statue, the rich urban development that is Tel Aviv today, can be traced to the superlative efforts of Tel Aviv’s first mayor who encouraged its rapid expansion and conducted daily inspections, paying attention to details. How did this indefatigable mayor travel each day to inspect the progress of the projects throughout his growing city?
By horse of course!
No wonder both rider and horse look exhausted.
Created by the artist David Zondolovitz, the statue was unveiled in front of the mayor’s historic residence, our final and tenth stop and the most important of all.
What was the end of our trail, was the beginning of the modern State of Israel!
On May 14, 1948, the house on 16 Rothchild Boulevard – then serving as the Tel Aviv Museum of Art – hosted the historic ceremony of the Declaration of Independence.
Our guide related the events and atmosphere of that day.
Crowds began to swell in the afternoon at cafés and balconies along the boulevard. People were waving little flags and singing and then at three o’clock, journalists from around the world started filing into the Tel Aviv Art Museum. They were joined by dignitaries to the rapturous applause of the crowd.
At exactly four o’clock, David Ben-Gurion started the ceremony by banging the gavel.
Outside and around the country, people were listening to the ceremony in the first broadcast of Israel Radio.
Ben-Gurion read the declaration, which opened with a historic prologue on the Jewish connection to the land and then it went on to assert that:
“We hereby declare the establishment of a Jewish State in the Land of Israel, named the State of Israel.”
He was followed by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon who with a cracked voice, read the ancient prayer:
“Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this occasion.”
The crowd shouted “Amen!”
Ben-Gurion signed the declaration, then the members of the People’s Council were invited one by one to come up to the stage and sign the declaration alphabetically. The ceremony ended with the singing of “Hatikva,” the national anthem.
As we finished the tour of Independence Hall, we came out and saw again the Espresso Bar formally The First Kiosk Of Tel Aviv where it had all begun.
For our Lay Of The Land readers all around the world who are not familiar, BJE March of the Living(Building Jewish Education) is a two week experience during which teens from all over the world travel together to Poland and to Israel to learn about the Jewish people’s past, present and future. Cancelled this year because of Coronavirus,
Monise Neuman, former director of BJE March of the Living sends the following personal message including information to access today about Yom HaShoah.
Monise Neuman’s Message
“I know that everyone is inundated with emails these days with either humor to lift our spirits from the Covid-19 plague or updates about the spread and impact of this virus.
I beg your indulgence, as important people in my life who have shared the very powerful March of the Living journey with me over the many years, and who have provided me with continued sustenance, as I share my personal reflections and turn my attention to another reality of Covid-19.
The inability, for the first time in more years than I can count, that I will not be standing on the grounds of Auschwitz-Birkenau on Yom HaShoah and telling the souls who hover over this scarred and sacred land that I haven’t forgotten them. Freddy’s story, Peska’s story, Sigi’s story, Bob’s story, Dorothy and Allen’s stories and the words and teachings of Ronnie Mink (z”l) will remain entrenched in my very essence. They will not be shared with the participants of the eight adult and young adult delegations that I have had the pleasure of working with for the last nine months. It was my earnest desire that they, like all of us, would become part of the chain of remembrance and attempt to comprehend what Ronnie told us year-after-year that “the Holocaust did not take place in black and white, but in living colour.”
I am asked continuously why I do what I do – and the reasons are countless. While I firmly believe there are SIX MILLION REASONS underlying this passion – it is the understanding that this reality has to be understood as one person at a time. This was captured for me when I came across the picture and words below written by Gela Sekzstein, displayed at the Oneg Shabbat Exhibit at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw, displaying documents that form the Underground Archive of the Warsaw Ghetto, founded by Emanuel Ringelblum.
I am sharing this reflection with you with immense gratitude because your commitment to the march and your support of me and this endeavor has allowed me to do my part to ensure that Margolit Lichtensztejn and her mother Gela are not forgotten.
To say I am disappointed, like many of you, not to march on Yom HaShoah from Auschwitz to Birkenau is an understatement, but I am incredibly proud of the very difficult decision made by the leadership of the International March that the health and well-being of all concerned is paramount. While we cannot be together in person to commemorate, the MOL is sponsoring virtual programs.
The March of the Living Virtual Plaque Project will continue the tradition of placing messages on plaques on the train tracks of Auschwitz-Birkenau. I would love it if you could click on https://nevermeansnever.motl.org/ and leave a personal message in solidarity and unity.
Please note also that on Yom Hashoah, Tuesday, April 21, 2020 at 4:00PM PDT, a 2020 Virtual March of the Living will be aired at 4:00PM PDT at motl.org/live, on Facebook at facebook.com/motlorg, as well as on Jewish Broadcasting Service at jbstv.org/watch-live. There will be a special address by the President of Israel and interviews with survivors, educators, MOTL alumni and leaders. If you miss it at this time, please note that the program will remain available for viewing after it has aired.
Thank you all for being part of my reality and for ensuring that we never forget Margolit, Gela, Freddy, Peska, Sigi, Bob, Dorothy, Allen and Ronnie.”
Monise Neumann – Currently serves as National Consultant for the International March of the Living. She has worked in Jewish Education for the past 40 years. Prior to this position, she was the Head Consultant for the Builders of Jewish Education in Los Angeles – overseeing the teen department which included running the BJE Teen March of the Living overseeing the participation of over 220 teens, survivors and staff. Originally from South Africa, Monise is married with two children and recently became a grandmother.
El Al – Israel’s National Airline – missions to bring stranded Israelis home during the Corona crisis
By Rolene Marks
“This is Am Yisrael (the people of Israel) – we never leave our brothers or sisters stranded”.
I recently enjoyed the distinct pleasure of interviewing Captain Ofer Aloni, a veteran pilot who has had a renowned career both in the army flying Cobra helicopters; and for El Al – Israel’s national carrier.
Captain Ofer Aloni is warm and engaging. A pilot with an enduring passion for music, Captain Aloni recently participated in a historic mission – to bring back stranded Israelis from Peru because of international travel bans due to the global spread of the Corona virus. He graciously shared some insight into this extraordinary mission, one of several to various countries.
What makes these missions extra special, is that this is the first time the Boeing airplanes, with their tails proudly displaying the Israeli flag, have flown to these countries. Australia, Peru, Colombia, Nigeria, Costa Rica and various others – Israel has proven that we will dispatch our national carrier to the far flung corners of the world to bring our citizens home safely.
First Direct Flight To Melbourne Lands. Rescuing stranded Israelis, the flight on the 2 April 2020 from Tel Aviv Israel to Melbourne Australia took 16 hours and 24 minutes.
Captain Aloni describes how the mission started. “We heard that there was a mission being planned to go to Peru and everyone wanted to be a part of it,” he says. Israel does not have an Embassy in Peru but the prospect to fly to a place where El Al had never been before, proved intriguing.
Before the planes could take off on their extraordinary mission, a sterile environment had to be created on board because of the highly contagious nature of Covid-19. A sterile area was created behind the cockpit – business class became a no-go area. Pilots and cabin crew took great pains to keep a distance from each other, and social distancing rules means that there was absolutely no contact between pilots and passengers and cabin crew had to wear masks and what has now become de rigueur Corona accessories.
With a sterile environment set up on board, it was time for the two El Al flights to depart for Lima, Peru.
“Flying into the unknown is very exciting for a pilot and this time we were flying over countries and in weather we had not previously experienced,” says Aloni. The flight path soared over the magnificent Amazon Rain Forest and high above the Andes mountains, with its unusual clouds and the weather was eye opening. High clouds above the Andes Mountains are fertile ground for storms.
For this long haul flight that took over 30 hours with no layover, the six pilots took shifts. Usually, the pilots that are off shift, are able to rest comfortably on proper cots with sheets and blankets but in this case, nobody seemed to mind catching a few z’s on the floor of the cockpit. “It was special, and the atmosphere was different – we knew that we doing something completely out of the ordinary,” says Aloni.
It was certainly out of the ordinary. With the whole world engaged in a war against encroaching Corona virus, airports were closed and for the first time, flight traffic was quiet.
After flying for so long, it was time to notify air traffic control that El Al was coming into land.
“This was the most incredible feeling. It was so exciting not just for us, but for the air traffic controllers at the airport in Lima. This was the first time ever that they were greeting El Al pilots and having planes land in the empty airport. I felt so lucky! Prime Minister Netanyahu phoned to congratulate us but we are Israel – we never leave our people behind,” says Aloni.
With a 1000 enthusiastic and grateful passengers on board, it was time to head home. This was a flight like no other and while Aloni and his crew had to keep a safe distance from the passengers, the affable Captain took to the on-board microphone to address everyone. For Israelis and Jews around the world, this was defining moment. It was a moment that would signal light and collective brotherhood.
August 2018 – Captain Ofer Aloni, son of Holocaust survivors, with his guitar, making a special emotional gesture with passengers returning from Poland to Israel , after delegations visited Auschwitz-Birkenau and other Nazi death camps.
“I used the opportunity to speak about using this opportunity of quarantine to appreciate our togetherness. I said to them that I would love to hug all of them, we couldn’t at this time, but we can focus on each other,” says Aloni.
Footage of the speech and ensuing singing was posted to social media channels and had people the world over singing – and shedding a few emotional but joyful tears.
Home sweet home – and was homecoming ever this sweet?!
The reception waiting for crew and passengers was simply extraordinary! There were about 30-40 parents, clapping, crying and thanking us and I could not contain my tears,” says an emotional Aloni. “This was the greatest reward! There are moments in life that you cherish. For me, it has been the rescue of four soldiers I rescued during combat, and now this mission is definitely another one. We don’t leave anyone behind – on the battlefield and in crisis,” says Aloni.
Israel has proven the ancient tenet that we are all responsible for each other – even if it means flights to every corner of the globe, including the unexplored that bring with them new terrain, and that every life is precious which is why we never leave anyone behind.
Israel must be the only country in the world that is today welcoming new immigrants
By David E. Kaplan
In a country where its friendly citizens typically love to kiss and warmly embrace, “social distancing” is now the name of the game. Schools, universities, kindergartens, movie theaters, restaurants, pubs, gyms, parks, libraries, museums and beaches are now off limits. “All social interactions,” says the Ministry of Health should be conducted on the phone or by other digital means. Pessimistically paraphrasing the iconic line from the 1970 romantic movie ‘Love Story’, Israel’s Prime Minister appeals:
“Love is keeping your distance”
As the novel Coronavirus pandemic continues to proliferate, each day brings with it new challenges and restrictions for Israeli society. Where one day the restriction is not to meet anywhere where there are NOT more than ten people present, the next day it is not to meet at all – unless it’s a dire emergency.
Where one day an instruction is an appeal, the next it is a pre-emptory order.
“This is not a game. It’s a matter of life and death,” asserted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his update on Tuesday.
And yet, there is something quite unique about Israel. Despite the dwindling few still entering the country going straight into a mandatory 14-day quarantine, new immigrants (olim) are still arriving at Ben Gurion Airport with Israel absorbing them like returning family.
In the first half of March 2020, 163 immigrants arrived in the country, according to the Jewish Agency’s statistics.
One of them is Craig Evans from Sasolburg in South Africa who came with his wife Meghan and their 9-year-old-son. An older 14-year-old daughter, Jade, was already in Israel, enrolled at the Mosenson School in Hod Hasharon. The first Craig and Meghan heard that they would have to go directly from Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport into quarantine was when they were standing in the departure queue at the A1 gate at Oliver Tambo International Airport. “There we were, about to board our El Al flight and we received a phone call from the Israel Centre in Joburg informing us and that there would probably be no-one in Israel to officially welcome and process us through immigration. We must make our way alone as best we could and then head straight to our apartment and wait for someone to contact us!”
Like the intrepid MI6 agent of “Shaken, but not stirred’ fame, Craig told Lay Of The Land “Yes, obviously we were concerned but there was no turning back. Our minds and our destination were determined. We were going to Israel, and contrary to the warning, we received 5-star treatment. They literally welcomed us from the moment we got off the plane in Israel. We were met by the representative from Telfed and the Jewish Agency who stood there holding aloft a sign with our names on and who then guided us through the process of receiving all our necessary documentation – most importantly for Kupat Holim (health care provider). We were out of the airport in 30 minutes; and then the rep organized a huge transport vehicle for all our masses of baggage and in less than one hour, we were in our apartment in Netanya.”
So how did it feel for this on-line marketing man and dance teacher wife to be alone in quarantine in a new country?
“Who’s alone? We have an incredible circle of friends all over the country as well as new friends. Within 40 minutes of arrival, there was a knock on the door from the local South African community to welcome us and bring food. We have been inundated with people contacting us, even if only over the phone or through the narrow gap of the front door.” Seeing “a silver lining” in the situation, “if it was not for the quarantine, we would never have met so many new people. This would never happen anywhere else in the world.”
Immigration to Israel is a complex process and during a global health crisis even more so. “We are advising people to postpone their immigration, but it’s not so easy,” explains the South African immigrant organisation, Telfed’s CEO, Dorron Kline. “People have sold their homes and cars and even so, people want to come and are determined to brave these challenging times. Whatever they decide, Telfed will be there for them,” asserts Dorron. “Telfed was born in challenging times when it was established in 1948 during Israel’s War of Independence and we are at war now against an unseen enemy and we are all ready to meet this challenge.”
Such determination is evident with a young man immigrating next month from South Africa who will be going straight into the IDF. “Not only is he still determined to enlist during these trying times,” says Dorron, “but he wants to come earlier to Israel to enable him to complete his 14-day quarantine period before his call-up date.” Only the day before, “we had a 19-year-old, young woman from Australia who just made Aliyah, so yes, despite the situation, people are still coming.”
Even with the enormous pressures on Telfed’s staff who are alternating between working from home and the head office in Ra’anana, “we are calling all immigrants who arrived in the last six months from South Africa and Australia to find out how they are coping and if their need any assistance. We have also created a special Coronavirus platform on our Telfed website where people can on-line ask for any assistance and others in the community can volunteer to help them. We are connecting those in need with those who can help.”
An example of how successfully the project works, Dorron sites “a new South African immigrant who was in quarantine and who ran out of her medicine. She posted this on the Telfed website and in a few minutes, someone responded and offered to go the pharmacy and bring her the medicine.”
Yael Katsman, Vice President of Public Relations and Communication at Nefesh B’Nefesh – which supports Aliyah from North America and the UK – told The Jerusalem Post earlier in the week that in spite of the coronavirus crisis and despite the restrictive conditions, “Aliyah is continuing. We have a group of 24 olim arriving Thursday who are going to be remotely processed, which is a first.” The composition of the group are of diverse backgrounds and ages – families, retires and singles and that only a few of the elderly had decided to postpone. And as to the immediate future, Katsman says that in the period leading up to Passover in April, “We are expecting about 60 to 70 olim. At the moment, a very positive indicator is that people who had planned to come are still coming regardless of this new reality.”
One recent arrival is David Bassous who made aliyah over a week ago from Highland Park, N.J. “I didn’t realize how hard quarantine would be,” he admits. “The hardest part being unable to go outside or see the kids and grandchildren.”
However, he figured that Israel “is one of the safest places to be right now because of its proactive policy—one of the strictest in the world.” Nevertheless “I was still shocked when I landed and witnessed Ben-Gurion Airport deserted.”
Still, says Bassous, he’s “so happy to be home after a 2,500-year exile.”
There are a lot of Jews around the world – Coronavirus or not – who share his enthusiasm. They can live for a while being two meters apart from the next person, but not being apart from their ancestral homeland.
At this time of difficulty and danger, here is a Healing Prayer from Jerusalem
*Feature Picture: New Immigrants to Israel Jump Right In to Coronavirus Quarantine – Chief Rabbi of Israel David Lau, World Chairman of KKL-JNF Daniel Atar, and Co-Founder of Nefesh B’Nefesh Tony Gelbart with Olim moving to Israel’s periphery (photo credit: SHAHAR AZRAN COURTESY OF NEFESH B’NEFESH)
Away from Coronavirus, a young Ethiopian singing Israel’s 2020 Eurovision entry in four languages is just what the doctor ordered
By David E. Kaplan
WOW! It was Purim this week but it did not feel like it.
One of Israel’s most widely celebrated festivals that is traditionally embraced by religious Jews in Jerusalem and secular Tel Avivians alike was a damper. Instead of parents joining their kids in donning colourful costumes, they donned anxious expressions as public areas were eerily quiet. From my highrise balcony in Kfar Saba, I would normally have a grand view of the Purim Parade down the main street and the piazza. Not this year – for March 2020 has been hijacked by something I had never heard of until two months ago – CORONAVIRUS!
Too frequently writing on the other more familiar virus of global antisemitism, this one caught me off guard together with the rest of the world.
Only hours after Italy announced that its entire population was under lockdown, Israel followed with its most extreme measure to date of requiring ALL people entering the country to go into immediate 14-day isolation.
Turn on the TV news networks, open the newspapers, it’s all about Coronavirus – facts, figures, measures and counter-measures. The customary news of Israel’s failure to form a government and the USA’s Democratic Party’s primary elections were sidelined to the proverbial smaller print. Coronavirus has captured the world’s attention and in so doing, dislodged our set perspectives on news. Suddenly we did not fear Iran over any nefarious activities seeking our destruction but shared common concern that “54 Iranians had died from the virus in the past 24 hours recording the highest toll in a single day since the start of the outbreak in the country.” Borders were blurred as we showed concern for people effected from Wuhan in China to San Francisco in the USA and the worst – in between in Italy.
We were forced to recognise how fragile our world is and how vulnerable we are as individuals!
With the constant infusion of distressing news of cancellations of conferences and sporting events, airlines grounded, hotels closing, people quarantined, economies paralyzed, and forecasts of a global recession but too early in the day for a medicinal scotch, I turned off the news and tuned into Israel’s latest entry into the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest.
While the 2020 Eurovision in Holland may end up another Coronavirus casualty, Israel’s singer and song are a sheer delight. Watch and listen – it is a well-deserved הפסקה (“hafsaka”) or “break” as we say in Israel from the daily dose of news.
Last month, when we were thinking less about Coronavirus, Eden Alene, a 19-year-old Ethiopian Israeli won the country’s “The Next Star” and became this year’s representative to the 2020 Eurovision Song Contest in Rotterdam.
On stage she hugged her mother – that emotional embrace watched in living rooms across the nation, spoke volumes – it had clearly been a long road for this mother and daughter pair.
Alene’s win has been significant for Israel and its Ethiopian community, as she will be the first Israeli of Ethiopian descent to represent the Jewish state at Eurovision.
The song ‘Feker Libi’ – co-written by Israel’s 2018 winning entry ‘Toy,’ Doron Medalie and Idan Raichel, a top-selling singer-songwriter – is described as “a colourful pop gem that fuses together African dance beats with an infectious middle eastern sound.” The lyrics of the song are made up of four languages – Hebrew, Arabic, English and Amharic – and the name of the song, means “My Love” in Amharic. The song connects with Eden’s roots, having both parents originally hail from Ethiopia.
Interestingly, the roots of the cowriter of the song, Doron Medalie is also African.
If Medalie’s lyrics were “daring” in his song “Toy”, sung by Netta Barzilai, that won for Israel the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest, it’s because he comes from a lineage of daring. His late grandfather, Dr. Jack Medalie, left his private practice in Johannesburg, South Africa, to volunteer – serving as a doctor in Israel’s War of Independence. What’s more, before leaving in early 1948, he quickly rushed to marry his sweetheart and came on his honeymoon to a country at war, all ready to provide ‘a healing hand’.
“Love” and “healing” are what we need right now – so take a “hafsaka” (break) from Coronavirus and listen:
It was a journey about a man and even the actor that played a man.
Maybe it was a journey about me, or you, or all of us.
It was a journey that resonated in my soul, tugging at my heart and moving me on so many emotional levels.
Because it was a journey about a certain time – yet it was also a journey about all time.
It was a journey about the Jewish people and what it means to have a home – a home that you are forced to defend with everything that you have, because without that home, you truly are alone.
The movie I watched was an old Kirk Douglas movie called Cast a Giant Shadow.
It was about an American army officer, Mickey Marcus, who was born Jewish yet never really cared much about it. He always saw himself as American first and the Jewish part was just something he was incidentally born into – yet never really formed a part of his essence. But he suddenly found himself thrust into the very centre of Jewish life as pre-state Israel Jewish agents asked for his help in early 1948 just as the new country was preparing to declare independence. All of this was happening while being threatened by the entire Arab world. And even though many were saying it was a lost cause, there was a hope and a stubbornness in its people that refused to accept that.
For Israel was a country that truly stood alone. While an arms embargo was in force against it, the British were continuing to arm the Arab legions around her as well as providing training and actual British officers.
It was a country that was without weapons, without an air force, without an army and without international friends who would support it.
It was a country surrounded by fanatical enemies who were dreaming of unleashing a campaign of terror that would fill the streets and the alleys and the beaches with the blood of the Jewish people.
It was a country made up of many of those who had survived absolute hell on earth in Europe, only to be fighting for their lives once again.
Yet it was not a hopeless country. In fact it was a country in which hope was its biggest asset.
Hope and belief that the People of Israel were back in the only place on earth that could truly be called their home.
At the time, the British, who had betrayed the Jewish people by reversing their promise to create a Jewish homeland, were trying desperately to stop Jews from entering the country in the hope of appeasing the Arabs. They turned away ships full of Holocaust survivors returning them to the lands on which the blood of the families still soaked the soil. And those they did make it to the Promised Land, were being herded off to internment camps on Cyprus, rather than being allowed to remain there.
But the will of the Jewish people is strong – stronger than the mightiest armies on earth, and the Jews continued to make their way to Eretz Yisrael – enduring harsh conditions on leaky boats just to get home.
In a scene that was particularly moving, a group of survivors, Jews who had lost everything and everyone in the world, managed to get ashore only to be confronted by a British army patrol. The British officer ordered the survivors to step forward so that they could be detained. But from over the hills, Jews who were already living there, including Micky Marcus who had come to see what was happening, flocked towards them, mingling with the new immigrants, making it impossible for the army officer to distinguish who had just arrived. So the British officer once again ordered the new arrivals to step forward, ordering his men to fire a warning shot over their heads.
And yet, the people didn’t flinch and didn’t take a single step forward. A battle of wills ensued with the army officer warning them that the next shots would be aimed at them. His soldiers lined up their weapons, aimed at the ragtag group of people. And yet, they continued to stand defiantly, refusing to move. The officer warned them again that on the count of ten, his men would open fire. But still the people continued to stand, bracing themselves for what would come, knowing that they would and could no longer bow to anyone in their own land. The countdown continued, closer and closer – and yet there was no movement. Perhaps in that moment, Micky came to understand just how strong the will of the Jewish people – his people – was.
Eventually the count reached ten and the army officer realised that these were indeed a stubborn people who could no longer be bullied anymore. So he ordered his men to lower their rifles and the people cheered. “I suppose they’re going to dance now,” he quipped, as the people rushed past him to join their fellow Jews in Eretz Yisrael.
Jews are a stubborn people. A people who refuse to die and refuse to bow and refuse to give up on being Jews. It’s our strength and our belief and our hope that has sustained us through thousands of years of persecution and oppression and even genocide.
Because there exists a spark in all of us – a Jewish spirit if you like – that continues to defy what the world tells us and refuses to give up our identity. A spark that that will continue to fight for our rights and our dignity despite so many wanting to take that away.
Micky Marcus, who always saw himself as American first, realised that no matter where he was or where he lived, he was and always would be a Jew – and that was a part of him that couldn’t be ignored, even if he tried. It called to him, igniting that spark and making it burn inside him with such fierce pride that it was a flame that could never be extinguished. It was that spark that made him ignore his comfortable life in America to throw himself into helping the newly formed Jewish state – his people – to survive.
In a way, Kirk Douglas was the same. He was born to poor immigrant Jewish parents, and fought hard to fit into American society, ignoring his Jewish side. And yet throughout his life, he was drawn to Jewish projects and Jewish stories – including making this movie about the birth of the Jewish state. The spark within him never died. It was always simmering. And later in life, when he rediscovered his Jewish roots, that spark – that small flame that was always inside him – ignited and his Jewish soul took flight. He became a fiercely proud Jew who stood up for his people and stood up for his Jewish country of Israel. So much so that when he died, he left behind a Jewish legacy that all Jews can be proud of.
The Jewish spark lives in all of us. It calls us, sometimes in quiet voices in the night, sometimes in loud booming trumpets in the middle of the day. Sometimes we hear it early in life and sometimes much later. And tragically there exists those among us, who don’t simply ignore it, but do everything in their power to put it out.
Yet, it is a flame that cannot be put out, because it continues to burn in all of us, igniting a pride that we feel deeply, a pride that causes our hearts to swell, our chests to rise, and allows us to walk a little taller among the nations of the world. We need to hold onto that pride and to guard it jealously, because it is our strength – an unflinching belief in who we are as a people, and a stubbornness to never let it go.
Justin Amler is a noted South African-born, Australia-based writer and commentator on international issues affecting Israel and the Jewish world.
A few weekends ago, I participated in Inspired TLV’s journey to Poland. Visiting the sites of some of our darkest moments in Jewish history has been something I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right moment to do it. Most likely because making that decision is hard enough. How do you convince yourself to spend a weekend in a place that you know will be so emotionally trying? And if planning a weekend abroad, why not book a ticket to somewhere exciting like Florence or Paris and go indulge in all that these beautiful cities have to offer?
I am going to start off by saying, that this trip was a lot harder than I could have possibly imagined, and I came back feeling utterly devastated, heartbroken – and to some extent, traumatised.
The book of Hasidim talks about how physical places absorb the energy of events that occur in them. If something positive happened, a place will always feel joyous, but if something terrible happened, it will be doomed with energies that reek of pain, suffering or sadness. On moments during the trip, when I could not stand to look anymore, I would close my eyes hoping that my mind would show me something more positive and give me the boost of strength I so badly needed to process what I was seeing. However, closing my eyes didn’t make things go away; it’s not like watching a scary movie and covering your eyes just as something terrible is about to happen and when you open them it’s over. With my eyes closed, my senses were heightened and from deep within, I felt just how dark, cold and evil the ground was beneath my feet. There was no silence, only the distant, soul-wrenching sounds of screaming, weeping, and unanswered prayers.
“Feeling” was even more terrifying than “seeing”.
Day 1 – Majdanek
Majdanek is positioned in the city of Lublin; residents drive by daily on their way to work and this former concentration camp is in plain sight for all to see. It is the most well-preserved of the camps and remains today pretty much as it did in 1944 when it was liberated by the Soviet Army. While Majdanek is less spoken about than Auschwitz, it was in no way less horrific. It is estimated that 360,000 people were murdered there, 125,000 of them Jewish and the remainder Poles or Soviet prisoners of war.
The barracks housing rows of triple layer bunk beds, the showers that either released ice cold or scorching hot water to ensure there was absolutely no pleasure in taking a shower, and the room filled with thousands of pairs of shoes – mans’ most personal item, are just a few of the spine chilling things one will find at Majdanek. When walking into the gas chamber, my breath immediately caught in my throat. The gas chambers were not rooms that by default were filled with gas. They were meticulously thought-out and designed with the sole intent to kill as many as possible as fast as possible, right down to the smallest detail. One of the first things you will notice is that the door opens outwards instead of inwards, as human instinct had frantic victims trying to break the door open when they realised what was about to happen and resulted in piles of corpses next to the door making it extremely difficult to open from the outside. The low ceilings of the gas chambers are not found anywhere else in the camp. The gas chamber inter-leads with the crematorium, complete with an en-suite bathroom where Nazi officers often bathed next to burning corpses as this was considered by far the warmest place during the winter.
As we exited the crematorium, we were confronted by a large concrete monument which houses a monstrous pile of ash. Here lie the remains of our dear brothers and sisters, their bodies reduced to mere ashes. Stripped of their dignity, clothes, hair and teeth; robbed of their possessions, forced into slave labour, forced to watch their relatives die and children torn away from them, and at the very end not even afforded a decent burial. They lie there on display for all to see – and all we could do was say Kaddish (the prayer for the dead).
Day 2 – Belzec
There is very little that remains of this Extermination Camp – in fact there wasn’t a whole lot to begin with. Jews were transported by freight trains and traveled for hours or even days under intolerable conditions. Many died en-route. Upon arrival, they were told that they had arrived in a transit camp in order to be disinfected and showered. Men and women were separated; all were told to remove their clothing and were forced to hand over their valuables. Thereafter they were sent straight to the gas chambers. The whole process took between 60 and 90 minutes. 600,000 Jews were murdered at Belzec, and there are only two known survivors who managed to escape into the surrounding woods. Had they not escaped and given their testimonies, we would never have known about the atrocities committed. One of the most powerful moments of this entire journey was walking down the snow-filled pathway to the memorial wall at Belzec singing somberly and unanimously:
– גם כי אלך בגיא צלמות לא אירא רע כי אתה עמדי –
“Though I walk in the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no harm, for You are at my side”
We grappled a lot with the concept of faith in G-d during the Holocaust, finding it harder by the moment to believe how Holocaust victims who lived through the worst degradations and pain retained theirs. A German prison guard was asked how he knew when everyone in the gas chamber was dead, to which he responded, “It was when I stopped hearing the words Shema Yisrael“.
Motzei Shabbat – Buczyna Forest
After an uplifting and inspiring Shabbat (Sabbath) filled with song, stories and a walking tour of the Jewish quarter of Krakow, we were instructed to dress warmly and get on to the bus for a night activity. 1.5 hours later we arrived at what appeared to be a very affluent Polish neighbourhood and started walking through its streets until we eventually arrived at a forest. It was pitch dark, bitterly cold and wolves could be heard howling in the distance. We walked down a dirt path and then finally turned left into a field and arrived at a sectioned off area decorated by balloons, candles and an Israeli flag.
We were then told that we were standing next to a mass grave where 800 children from the nearby town of Tarnow were brutally murdered in the middle of the night at the hands of Germans soldiers – hearts hardened against the children’s humanity by years of incessantly messaged hate. We stood there teary eyed and shaking from the cold, picturing young children, perhaps siblings, holding hands. Helpless. Scared. Crying for their mothers. In that forest. In that very spot. We could do nothing but pray for their souls. This was undeniably the most disturbing aspect of my entire experience, but powerful beyond imagination and speaking volumes about the importance of Jewish continuity.
Day 3 – Auschwitz-Birkenau
We were told of a story about a how a survivor of the Holocaust who was transported from Majdanek to Auschwitz, got off the train and kissed the ground upon arrival at the camp. At a first glance, I could understand why. The former military compound, in stark contrast to Majdanek, is organised into clear sections with sturdy structures, a post office, kitchen and medical barracks. Undoubtedly the largest and most notorious of all the Nazi death camps, Auschwitz was equipped with several extermination facilities and 1,100,000 Jews were murdered by means of Zyklon B gas. In its museum today, you will find 100,000 pairs of shoes, 12,000 kitchen utensils, 3,800 suitcases and 350 striped camp garments and millions of items of clothing that once belonged to men, women and children. One of the most harrowing sights is a room containing 6,350kg of human hair that had been destined for factories where it would have been woven into fabric for carpets, work clothes and for car seats.
Visiting Birkenau isn’t like a museum. You are mostly left on your own with your thoughts. Left to take it all in and try to make sense of what took place here. It is vast – spanning over nearly 2 Kilometres with over 200 buildings, and honestly too much to possibly comprehend. Most of its structures lie in heaps of bricks as buildings were torn down, blown up or set on fire, and records were destroyed by Nazis desperately trying to hide evidence of their crimes pending the end of the war. But it is increasingly evident that this place is an emblem of evil, a site of historical remembrance and a vast cemetery.
Although there is a lot more I still want to share, I am going to end this post by saying that this experience changed my life. I am in complete awe how anybody survived those places under the most untenable conditions, and I have nothing but admiration for the resilience of our precious Holocaust survivors who walked through hell and emerged to tell their stories in order to ensure that the world will never forget. I am still processing a lot of emotions, fighting off bouts of anger, uncontrollable sadness and teary moments, but I am immensely thankful for the opportunity to have experienced this with an amazing group of young professionals from all over the world, led by Rabbi Avi Hill, Rabbi Ilan Segal and Rabbi Raphael Raiton who took us to the darkest of places and showed us the most beautiful light through their love for Judaism, Torah and song. They always had a positive message to lift our spirits, teaching us to value and appreciate life through the hardest of lessons. The impact of embarking on this journey with a group, as opposed to alone was immense and I urge anyone with enough courage to join the next Inspired TLV journey to Poland for a truly meaningful and life-changing experience.
About the Author:
Stephanie Hodes made aliyah from Johannesburg in 2011 with a background in Journalism, Jewish communal leadership. Today, she lives in Tel Aviv and runs a hi-tech recruitment company focusing on placing English and foreign language speakers in Israel with top Israeli companies.
Imagine finding out at the ripe old age of 46 that there was a letter in the English alphabet that you never knew existed. Would you be left awestruck? Would you be temporarily blinded by this flash of enlightenment? After all, how often does a shiny new nugget about the language you speak, write, sing, read, think and feel in, fall into your lap? You may well come away from such a revelation altogether buoyed.
I felt my knees buckle; my head swirl, throat turn dry, and a cold sweat break out across my face.
“You look pale,” my wife observed. “What happened?” “Turns out that I’ve been mispronouncing ‘Tzade’ as ‘Tzadik’ for the last 40 years or so,” I lamented.
To the uninitiated, ‘Tzade’ is the 18th letter of the Hebrew Alphabet. Meanwhile, ‘Tzadik’ is a title in Judaism given to the most righteous among us. This A-list includes Moses and
other characters from the Bible’s cast of thousands. There are also spiritual masters like Rabbi Saadia Gaon, the medieval Jewish philosopher, translator of the Bible into Arabic, commentator, and author of a Hebrew dictionary. There are even 36 hidden Tzadikim. According to Jewish mysticism, every generation produces at least 72 holy men, 36 who live in Israel, and 36 who live outside of Israel. We have no idea who these righteous among us are, except that their good deeds and sterling character keep our world going.
I’m not the only one who confuses ‘Tzade’ with ‘Tzadik’. It’s about as minor an infraction as the comma splice or split infinitive. Difference is that I KNOW about those common English language grammar mistakes, and choose to ignore them as I see fit. But the swapping out of ‘Tzade’ for ‘Tzadik’ was an act of criminal negligence.
Even more humbling was the fact it was my eight-year-old daughter who cottoned onto my hint of illiteracy. She’s in second grade now, and developing a healthy addiction to letters, words, and reading. It was while I was helping her with her homework one evening that my terrible secret, a secret unbeknownst to me, was exposed.
Getting skunked this way by a language I’ve struggled to make my own since moving back to Israel confirmed my fear that Hebrew will never supersede English as MY language. Sure, I read the daily newspapers, watch the nightly newscasts, and converse in the vernacular when arguing with the bank. But the soundtrack of my life, language of my dreams, and mapping of my thoughts remain stubbornly in English.
And perhaps this is as it should be. The language we imbibe as children contributes no small measure to the formation of our identities. To quote Oliver Wendell Holmes: “Language is the blood of the soul into which thoughts run and out of which they grow.” My experiences, knowledge, and beliefs are coded in the same language used and mastered by Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. I quite enjoy being linguistically linked to such righteous fellows.
Yet by raising our children in Israel, my wife and I are ensuring that their unique personalities will be nourished by the letters, grammar, syntax, idioms, Biblical associations and quirks of a language that until about 70 years ago was buried among the ruins of history.
I quite like the idea of being linked by family bonds to the perpetuation of the Hebrew language, and the Jewish people.
About the Author:
Gidon Ben-Zvi is an accomplished writer whose work has appeared in
The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, the Algemeiner, American
Thinker, the Jewish Journal, Israel Hayom, and United with Israel. Ben-Zvi
blogs at Jerusalem State of Mind (jsmstateofmind.com).
A former Californian, the writer lives with his wife and four children in Israel.