There are 23 741 reasons to bow our heads this Yom Hazikaron. There are 23 741 reasons to express our profound eternal gratitude. There are 23 741 reasons for our hearts to ache. There are 23 741 reasons to be proud. 23 741 reason for the tears to fall from our eyes. There are 23 741 to remember. There are 23 741 names ingrained in our hearts forever. There are 23 741 reasons for the siren to wail its mournful cry.
23 741 soldiers, security forces and police have fallen in defense of Israel since its birth as a modern state in 1948.
We will never forget them.
The stories of unparalleled bravery and selfless sacrifice like Roi Klein, who saved the life of his unit by absorbing the blast of grenade. Risking it all to leave the comforts of home in the US, to serve as a paratrooper like Michael Levine. The iconic warrior like Yoni Netanyahu who fell in Israel’s daring Entebbe operation in 1976 that rescued 102 Jewish hostages from a hijacked Air France passenger aircraft in Uganda’s capital.
The names of the wars and operations are etched in memory – the War of Independence, the Six Day War, the Yom Kippur War, the wars with Lebanon, Operation Cast Lead and so on.
Their names are seared in our hearts.
And there are those whose names we will never know but whose valiant acts of bravery are the reasons that we enjoy the freedoms that we do.
At 20h00 a mournful siren will announce the start of Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen warriors and victims of terror.
Yom Hazikaron inspires in us a sense of awe and creates an incredible sense of solidarity amongst Jews around the world, but it is here in Israel where the emotions are seriously heightened. Our soldiers are not uniformed strangers who serve but our children, spouses, colleagues, parents, friends and lovers.
They are the people we love.
Yom Hazikaron is not only a day of remembrance, but also one of gratitude. Few words can express how grateful we are for all who protect us on land, sea and air. Our brave warriors, these lions of Zion are our guardians and protectors. We are proud of them; we embrace them, and we love them.
Israelis respect life. We revere life and we revel in it. And it is on this solemn and heartbreaking day that we are reminded of its fragility.
This year is particularly poignant. I write this just days after 700 rockets were fired by terror groups in the Gaza strip into Israel, killing 4 civilians (may their memories be for a blessing) and injuring and traumatizing countless others. We were reminded again that the guardians of Israel neither slumber nor sleep as they worked 24/7 to protect us. We thankfully lost no soldiers but days like this are bitter reminders of the threats we face as a nation and how achingly close we come to situations where this is a possibility.
In recent years, Yom Hazikaron has also included honouring victims of terror attacks.
Victims targeted simply for being Israeli. We remember brave men like Ari Fuld who gave chase to his murderer before succumbing to his wounds. Zidan Saif, a Druze policeman who had come off his shift when he heard of an attack on a synagogue and rushed to assist and paid with his life. We remember teenagers Gilad Shaer, Eyal Yifrah and NaphtaliFrenkel – whose names live on in heartbreaking infamy. We remember the mothers and father, brothers and sisters, grandparents and babies – gone soon, far too soon. This year the number of victims of terror is 3 146.
There are 3 146 reason to remember, to wipe the tears from our eyes, to light a candle.
In an emotional paradox, the sun will set on mourning and Israel will don her best blue and white to celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut.
This year we have 23 741 more reasons to. We celebrate in their names.
They will forever be the watchers on our walls, the guardians of our gates. Their memories will be forever blessed.
“…And so they stand, the light on their faces, and the Lord,
alone passes among them, with tears in His eyes He kisses
their wounds, and He says in a trembling voice to the white
“Not a day goes past that I don’t think about the Eichmann trial”. Judge Gabriel Bach greets us warmly as he welcomes us to his apartment in a leafy suburb of Jerusalem. His living room bears testament to an extraordinary life and career. Dotted with family pictures and impressive volumes of books, the eye is drawn immediately to a collection of books entitled “The Eichmann Trial”.
It is this moment when you are aware that the gentle, charming man who has welcomed you with a twinkle in his wise eyes is one of the men who sought justice for the millions. He is the mensch who put the monster, Adolf Eichmann, the man responsible for sending millions of Jews to their deaths. I do confess to being more than a little star-struck. It is men like this, the quiet giants and their pursuit of justice and truth that hold a nation on their mighty shoulders.
Monsters are usually the stuff of fairytale lore but this one was real. The world was riveted when news broke that Eichmann was captured.
Hiding out in Argentina as Ricardo Clement, the devil was now in custody, thanks to a stealth and decisive operation by Israel’s Mossad. All that remained was justice.
Born in Germany, the Bach family managed to flee to Holland just two weeks before Kristallnacht (Night of broken Glass) which would result in the destruction of many synagogues and businesses and the rounding up of Jews, many who would be sent to camps like Dachau. The Bach family managed to stay one step ahead of the Nazi machine, leaving Holland just before the German occupation and sailed to British Mandate Palestine on the “Patria” which would sink on its next journey. It was here, before there was a State of Israel and safe haven for Jews, where Bach, young lawyer in the state’s attorney’s office with an exemplary record and a bright future was one of those chosen to join the team of prosecutors. He would also be tapped to be in charge of the investigation.
It was time to gather the evidence for the trial that would begin on the 11th of April 1961.
The team of prosecutors would have to wade through volumes of documents and evidence. Married with a small daughter, Bach would spend 9 months immersed in investigations and communication with Eichmann without meeting him face to face, that included ensuring that he was aware of his rights to a defense attorney of his choice. The time came to meet the devil face to face.
Judge Bach describes his first encounter with evil. “I will never forget it. I was sitting in my office in the prison, reading the autobiography of Rudolf Höss, the commander of Auschwitz who was eventually hanged in Poland, describe how they had many days when they killed a thousand Jewish children per day and he mentions how the children would kneel and beg to be spared and when he and his colleagues were pushing the children into the gas chambers his knees would hurt and he felt ashamed of this “weakness” but remembered how Eichmann had reiterated that it was the children who had to be killed first lest they grow to be a generation that would grow up to take revenge. And then 10 minutes after I read that, there was a request from Eichmann to see me. It wasn’t so easy to keep a poker face with him sitting opposite me.”
How does one even imagine what it was like to have to sit opposite such a monster?
Bach describes having to handle this like any other criminal case. Emotional moments would come later – and without warning.
The German government was most cooperative in ensuring that Bach and his team received documents from all the ministries. The evidence was irrefutable. It was time for the trial to commence.
The Eichmann trial was a game-changer in many respects. The first to be televised, the trial would allow millions around the world to enter the courtroom. The trial would also be the first opportunity that would allow survivors and witnesses to give emotional testimony. For many young Israelis who could not understand why the Jews of Europe seemed not to defend themselves, they now understood the severity, the genocide, the cruelty and the devious tactics of the Nazi killing machine that ended the lives of six million. There are accounts of Eichmann telling deportees on their way to the death camps to write postcards to their remaining loved ones and friends, not only telling them of the wonderful place they were going to, but also encouraging them to follow.
Eichmann sat behind the glass, in the dock, completely impassive. Eichmann showed no remorse and no regret.
His defense? He was just following orders. This would prove untrue when on several occasions evidence would come to light and on more than one occasion when asked to spare the life of a Jew, Eichmann would refuse absolutely.
As the trial progressed, so did day after day of emotional, harrowing testimony from survivors who gave heartbreaking account of the loss of their families and the excruciating cruelty they endured at the hands of the Nazis under the commands of Eichmann.
Most of us who have watched Schindler’s List can remember the searing image of the little girl in the red coat going to the gas chambers and her lifeless body on a pile of corpses.
A red coat would later affect prosecutor Bach’s composure! One day when hearing testimony from a survivor who during the selection process was spared for labour while his wife and daughter were sent to the gas chamber for immediate extermination. The SS were unsure of what to do with his son but eventually told him to join his mother and sister. The witness was concerned his son would not find them but saw the image of his little daughter in her red coat, no more than two-and-a-half, disappearing, never to be seen again.
Bach had just bought his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter a brand new red coat. His impeccable composure was shaken to the core.
The trial would proceed until the eventual verdict. On December 13, 1961 the court found Eichmann guilty on most articles of the indictment, and on the 15th of that same month, sentenced him to death. The defense appealed to the Supreme Court which on May 29, 1962, ratified the verdict of the lower court. Eichmann and his team appealed to the President, Yitzchak ben Zvi for clemency but were denied and during the night between May 31, and June 1, 1962, Eichmann was executed by hanging at Ramla Prison. In his final moments, Eichmann expressed his unwavering love and loyalty to Germany and Argentina. After his body was incinerated, his ashes were scattered at sea outside Israeli territorial waters.
Justice had been served.
At the conclusion of the process, jurists from all over the world, including some who had initially questioned Israel’s right to judge Eichmann, noted the fairness shown by the judges and their strict adherence to the principle of a fair trial.
This was more than Eichmann ever showed his victims.
Prosecutor Gabriel Bach would go on to enjoy an illustrious career that would see him assume many titles. He would go on to be State’s Attorney and then a Judge on Israel’s Supreme Court. One title would accompany him through all of this – that of mensch. Today, at his advanced age, Judge Bach is still a most sought after and loved speaker and travels the world, engaging new audiences. He is particularly moved by the interest and willingness to learn by young Germans.
Judge Bach waves goodbye to us from the window of his modest apartment. Well into his 90’s his exuberance for life and gentle personality are testament to why this man is a giant amongst the heroes of the Jewish people. The lessons have been many.
The importance of bearing witness, of seeking justice and the example set by a man who can affectionately be called prosecutor, Judge and mensch.
Escaping the clutches of the Nazis as a child, years later he would face the arch architect of “The Final Solution” in an Israeli court. ‘Insights and Revelations’ from the man who prosecuted Adolf Eichmann.
ByDavid E. Kaplan
“What was it like staring into the face of pure evil?”
It was my opening question to 93-year-old Judge Gabriel Bach, regarding his first meeting with Adolf Eichmann, whose case he investigated in 1961, and then prosecuted. As Israel’s Deputy State Attorney, he was the only member of the three-man prosecution team who had one-on-one contact with Eichmann.
We sat for the interview in the former Supreme Court justice’s modest apartment in the leafy Talbiya neighbourhood of Jerusalem, just a stone’s throw from the official residence of Israel’s State President.
Conspicuous on the bookcase were leather-bound volumes – in English and in Hebrew – of the transcripts of the Eichmann trial.
An estimated 500 journalists from around the world converged on Jerusalem in 1961 to cover what was dubbed the “Trial of the Century” and what was televised live to 56 countries. The trial was the first time that testimony about the death camps had ever been broadcast live – and directly from the victim’s mouths.
TIME magazine described the accused as:
“A thin, balding man of 55 who looked more like a bank clerk than a butcher: a thin mouth between protruding ears, a long, narrow nose, deep set blue eyes, a high, often wrinkled brow. He looked puny beside two burly, blue-clad Israeli policemen. When he stood, he resembled a stork more than a soldier.”
Yet this “bank clerk” or “stork” was the architect of the ‘Final Solution’ that meticulously murdered six million Jews.
Following the audacious capture of Eichmann by the Mossad from a street in Buenos Aires in May 1960, he was brought to Israel where he was imprisoned near Haifa for nine months preceding the trial in Jerusalem. Tasked in heading the investigation, Deputy State Attorney Gabriel Bach left his young wife Ruth and their 2-year-old daughter in Jerusalem and moved into a hotel in Haifa.
He recounts before that fateful first meeting sitting in his office at the prison engrossed in reading the memoirs of Rudolf Höss, the longest-serving commandant of Auschwitz concentration and extermination camp and who had been executed in 1947. Suddenly, Bach came upon a startling reference to Eichmann.
“Höss was writing that they often killed a thousand children a day in the gas chambers and that the children would often go on their knees pleading to be spared. At times, when he and his colleagues had to push them into the gas chambers, he admits “my knees got a bit wobbly” but added “I always felt ashamed of this weakness of mine after I talked to SS Obersturmbannführer Eichmann, because he impressed upon me that it is especially the Jewish children that have to be killed first, because where is the logic, that you kill a generation of older people and you leave alive a generation of possible avengers who might afterwards create that race again.”
Ten minutes after Bach read this passage, a policeman walked in and said: “Adolf Eichmann wants to see you.”
A father of a young daughter facing the man who had plotted the extermination of all the Jewish children in the world, “it was hard for me to keep a poker face.”
But that is what this professional lawyer did.
One can only imagine the thoughts that went through Bach’s mind.
Sitting a metre away from the monster – separated by a desk – he recalled of sitting 20 metres away in 1936 from another Adolf – Adolf Hitler – separated by stadium seats. It was at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. “I saw when Jesse Owens won the gold, Hitler walked out so he would not have to shake the hand of a Black.”
At that time, Bach was attending Theodor Herzl School off Adolf Hiller Square in Berlin. As good timing would have it, “Two days before Kristallnacht, my family left for Holland.”
Within a few years, Gabriel was the only student of his class at Theodor Herzl School – ALIVE!
The mild-mannered monster sitting opposite him was responsible for that!
Bach’s departure from Germany was not without incident or violence. At the Germany border with Holland, we were ordered off the train by the Gestapo and told to open our suitcases. After an unpleasant search on the platform, the train began pulling out and “the German SS officer kicked me in my behind as I was running, and I lunged with my case onto the train. That is how I left Germany – LITERALLY kicked out.”
In Amsterdam, Gabriel attended a non-Jewish school, but as good fortune would have it, the family left for Palestine one month before Germany invaded. If again the Bach family were blessed with good timing, the ship the “Patria” that brought them to Palestine, sunk “on its very next voyage with a huge loss of life. So, as you can see, our family was always just one step ahead of imminent disaster.”
All these thoughts percolated in the mind of Gabriel as Eichmann requested, “If he could have Robert Servatius – who had represented Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg – as his defense attorney. We agreed; even changed Israeli law to allow it and Servatius was paid by the Israeli government for his services.”
“Only Following Orders”
For this writer who had studied the Eichmann trial at law school in South Africa over four decades earlier, I recalled the two salient issues:
(1) one of jurisdiction, that is, the legality of kidnapping a man from one country to stand trial in a second for crimes committed in a third
(2) Eichmann’s defence that he had been a functionary, a bureaucrat “following orders.”
“Arguing jurisdiction did not pose a problem,” explained Bach. “The Argentine objection was mostly token, and Germany – the only other country to realistically try the case – was perfectly happy Israel took on the responsibility and cooperated fully in providing much of the material and documents from the camps to help build our case. In any event, the global sentiment shifted enormously to the view that it was most important to present the facts of what Eichmann did, and preserve them for historical record.”
Addressing the second issue of “I was following orders,” Bach refuted this with one horrifying example after another.
“In 1944, Hungarian leader Admiral Horthy wished to leave the Axis and make peace with the Allies. Hitler convinced him to stay but only on Horthy’s condition that 8,700 Hungarian Jewish families be allowed to emigrate to a neutral country. Hitler agreed – not out of any sense of humanity – but because it was more important to have Hungary remain on the side of the Axis powers, and would ensure that the remaining 800,000 Jews would be exterminated.”
Eichmann, however, would not have any of it.
“We found a telegram from the Nazi appointee in Budapest to German Foreign Minister Ribbentrop, reporting that Eichmann was very upset about releasing these families, saying they were important “biological material,” who could proceed from the neutral country to Palestine, where they could help reconstitute the Jewish race. According to the Nazi telegram, Eichmann tried to speed up deportations so those Jews would be taken before their visas arrived. Eichmann thereby acted in defiance of Hitler himself, belying his claim – of just following orders.”
Documents from various countries showed Eichmann was often requested to spare particular Jews. However, “no matter how seemingly strong the request, Eichmann invariably said NO.” Bach presents the case of a German general in Paris who wrote to Eichmann requesting he spare a professor Weiss – an expert on radar – for his value to the German war effort. Eichmann refused. When the general replied saying, “How dare you refuse me, I am a General!” Eichmann responded:
“And I am a SS Obersturmbannführer and I understand you already took over his patents, so there is no need to delay his deportation.”
When the SS came, professor and Mrs. Weiss managed to drop off their infant daughter at their neighbors, who sent her to America. During the trial, this young woman came to Israel and visited Bach in his office. She said she had no memories of her parents, and asked Bach to help her locate photos. He tried but was unsuccessful.
In Lithuania, the Germans arrested a Jewish woman who was the widow of an Italian war hero. This Italian officer had died fighting the Allies with the Germans. The Italian ambassador to Lithuania asked Eichmann to spare her, saying that, “All of Italy feels this lady should be allowed to return,” and “the Italian authorities demand her return, in memory of her husband.”
Eichmann refused and sent her to the camps.
For Eichmann, there were no exceptions.
Postcards From The Edge
Always Gabriel thought there might be “one case” where Eichmann might find reason not to send a Jew to his death – but it was not to be.
In Holland, the Dutch Fascist leader requested Eichmann spare a dozen or more Jewish Dutch Fascists, “on the grounds that their deportation would demoralize their party comrades, and because they could help identify other Jews.” Eichmann agreed only to delay their deportation to Auschwitz for two weeks.
After that, Eichmann said, “their comrades would be used to it.”
Far from “following orders”, Eichmann proved a master manipulator at devising ways to keep Jews unsuspecting on their path to destruction. One such devilish stratagem, explained Bach “was forcing the new arrivals at Auschwitz, moments before being sent into the gas chambers, to write postcards to their relations – the wording determined by Eichmann – such as:
“The conditions are good here, come before all the best places are taken.”
During the trial, “We came across a survivor who had received such a postcard before himself arriving at Auschwitz with his family. This witness came to Jerusalem the night before he was to testify but because it was already 11 o’clock at night, I told him to come to my office in the morning. However, he arrived late the next morning, and so I proceeded blind, putting him on the witness stand, without having heard his testimony.”
The witness testified of how he arrived at Auschwitz on the train, with his wife, 12-year-old son, and 2 1/2-year-old daughter. “The guards told his wife and daughter to go to the left, which he later learned were the gas chambers. Telling the guard he had been a metal worker in the army, he was told to go to the right. However, the guard was uncertain where to send his son. They waited some time until the guard returned and told his son to “run along after your Mama.” The son went off to the left, and the father stood there trying to see them, wondering if his son caught up with his mother and sister. Meanwhile hundreds of people had gone between them, and soon the father could not see his son anymore, nor his wife. But his young daughter was wearing a red coat, which he suddenly spotted. He watched this red dot get smaller and smaller, and so his family disappeared from his life. His last recollection of them was of a red dot.”
Bach points to a family photograph on a shelf. “Here is our daughter Orly, who was roughly the same age as the girl in the red dress. Only the day before hearing this testimony, my wife had photographed me standing with Orly wearing her new red-coated dress that we had bought for her two weeks before. Hearing this testimony, culminating with the red dress moving inexorably towards the gas chamber, I suddenly was unable to speak — I could not utter a word. The judges looked to me to continue, but all I could do was shuffle my papers for three minutes before I gained my composure and was able to proceed.”
Day after day over a period of four months, live testimony brought to the world the horrors of the Holocaust.
Did Bach at any time during the trial ever get the impression that Eichmann felt any remorse?
“NEVER – he showed no sign of it.”
Supporting this assertion, Bach referred to an admission made by Eichmann in 1956 – eleven years after the war and five years before his trial – that he had only one regret:
“that I had not been tougher because now you see what has happened, the Jews have reconstituted their State.”
Yes, a Jewish state that would hunt him down and expose his crimes to the world.
As I stood up after an enthralling three-hour interview, staring at me from framed photographs were Bach’s children and grandchildren. Their smiling faces left no doubt that Eichmann’s biggest fear – couched in the instruction to Auschwitz commandant, Rudolf Höss, “to kill the children first” – was realised.
The smiling children of Israel, today, tomorrow and forever are the message to the Eichmanns of the world – “Never Again”.
*Feature picture – Adolf Eichmann on trial in April 1961. Photo : Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis.
On the evening of May 1st, Israelis will begin to mark Yom Ha Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day.
It is a day when we remember the destruction of an entire civilization. The world of European Jewry came to an end in gas chambers, crematorium and countless ditches and rivers. We remember people like us slaughtered without mercy or cause, simply because they were Jews, It didn’t matter if they were orthodox or atheist, Zionist or communist, healthy or disabled, rich or poor, old or young, man or woman, even babes in their mothers’ arms were pitted on bayonets.
An estimated one third of the Jews of the world were brutally exterminated. Two thirds of the Jews of Europe, 90% of Poland’s Jews, were all to meet in mass graves or have their ashes dumped in rivers, lakes or plowed under with bulldozers.
First, they lost their civil right and then they were robbed of all their property and possessions, forced into ghettos and traumatized with disease, starvation and slave labour-before they were transported to the death factories.
Who is guilty?
Is it the German Nazis and their henchmen who perpetrated these atrocities? Absolutely. The Nazis who along with all those who benefited from the slaughtered? Of course. But there is more. The world is guilty.
The British who closed off the gates to what was then mandate Palestine, the ancestral homeland, to those fleeing from the killers.
The Americans who denied visas to those who desperately sought asylum in the land of immigrants. Even their fellow Jews who in their comfortable safety in many nations, were fearful to demonstrate in their millions to cry out for their trapped brethren. Silence was not golden; it was a death sentence. Whatever happened to the biblical exhortation “Thy shall not stand idly by thy brother’s blood?”
There will be many fine speeches and many calls of “Never Again,” but I want to make this more personal.
My mother’s parents were lucky enough to have left Europe many years before the Holocaust. My maternal grandmother and her brothers and sister left the Polish city of Przemsyl, after the area was ravaged during WW I. Their family had been successful for middle class Jews in Poland, owning a flour mill and fruit orchards. My grandmother often told me of how, as a child, she and her siblings would catch fish in the stream that powered their father’s mill where the local peasants would bring their grain to be ground into flour. Had there not been the destruction wrought by the war, they would have remained in Poland and I would never have been born, and they would have ended up, like the other Jews of Przemsyl, in the death camp at Birkenau.
My mother’s father, my Zaide, was born in Vienna. The son of a family of furriers, well off by most standards and fiercely proud of being part of the Germanic world. My grandfather served in the Kaiser’s army during the Great War as a cavalryman and fought against the Allied armies of America, England and France. Why did his family leave a prosperous existence? They were by no means religious Jews, but, as they would say, “Germans of the Mosaic persuasion.” But the raging anti-Semitism after the war, when the new nations that emerged after the dismemberment of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire were feeling their birth pangs, the new nativist parties descended on their minorities with a vengeance and the Jews of Austria caught the enmity of their neighbors in their faces. Regardless of my grandfather’s service in the military, he was beaten and broken by the hatred and his family also left for the shores of America and arrived at the gates of New York.
My father’s family left Kaminetz-Podolsk in the Ukraine, after the Bolshevik revolution. My paternal grandfather was a bootmaker and had a small shop where he made all types of leather goods from boots and shoes to harnesses for horses. The Soviets took his shop and called him a lousy “Zhid,” Russian for “dirty Jew”. When I first heard this story, as a small boy, I couldn’t understand why they hated this man, with his shining blue eyes, quick smile and warm embrace. But, now I know, that they did him a favour because it motivated him along with my grandmother and my father, his two brothers and baby sister, to make the trek that ended up in an apartment building in the Bronx, weirdly, not that far from where my mother was living as her family also lived not far away.
So, for me, because my family took an often hazardous and dangerous sea voyage across the Atlantic, I eventually came to be. I used to tell my students when I was teaching children in my temple, that for want of a sea voyage, many of them would never have been born-including their esteemed teacher.
That is not to say that I didn’t lose hundreds of cousins who weren’t fortunate enough to have left Europe, and even though I never knew them, I grieve for them.
Only G-d knows how many souls were destroyed, how many artists, musicians, doctors, teachers, went up as greasy smoke in the crematoriums of the death camps, or were machine gunned and fell into muddy pits all over the European continent. Was the cure for cancer murdered at Majdenek, or burned at the stake at Kluga, or drowned in the Danube? Was anyone of them my kith and kin?
But as a people we have survived and thrived. We have rebuilt our sovereignty in our own homeland, and I am doubly blessed to be alive and living in the land of our ancestors. I wake up and see the flag flying from the pole in front of the elementary school across the street; I see and hear beautiful Israeli children schlepping their book bags to classes, laughing and talking in Hebrew. I watch as young men and women in the uniform of the IDF standing at the bus stop on their way back to their bases and, most importantly, I know that every day the sun rises over a free, proud and independent Jewish state and blesses her people with a bright, shining “boker tov” that another Holocaust shall never happen to this people again. We continue – not in mourning for what was lost, but in celebrating of being alive, free and forever Israeli.
Irwin Blank was born in NYC in 1952 and has a BA in Political Science from Colombia University NY. He was part of the Speakers’ Bureau American Zionist Youth Foundation and editor of the Zionost Organization of America. He made Aliyah in July 2008 and lives in Maaleh Adumim.
Everyday. Everyday we are reminded that it is everywhere. The cancerous hatred that is antisemitism is rapidly metastasizing around the world.
It has manifested in the images of swastikas on schools, the defilement of monuments to the Holocaust, the thin disguise as anti-Zionism – as if telling us that we have no right to self-determination as a nation makes it better!
The new phenomenon of politicised antisemitism that lurks the halls of the UK Labour Party, as well as the ill-disguised venom of the Ilhan Omar’s, Linda Sarsours et al that are pervading American discourse. The soccer thugs chanting “Jews to the gas” and the repugnant images of the hook-nosed, money hungry Jews, the vile BDS campaigns against our state Israel, the institutionalised obsessive hatred in the UN and in NGOs who have forgotten about the oppressed of the world with their disproportionate focus on Israel.
As I write this, it a matter of hours since news broke of yet another shooting in a synagogue in the USA. This time at the Poway Chabad in San Diego, killing one and wounding others. The attack occurred six months to the day of the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that claimed the lives of eleven. Communities around the world are reeling because an attack on one is an attack on us all.
Antisemitism is visible in WASP, exclusionary snobbery and the trolls on social media who hide behind avatars and cowardice. Social media is fast becoming the playground of the hater evident in the number of posts and comments as the medium is abused by these perpetrators to state their intentions or publish their manifestoes.
Every day. Everyday more news breaks about antisemitic incidents on university campuses. It is not just restricted to students but also faculty members and universities who seek to divest from co-operation with Israeli universities. While volumes can be written about this, two recent examples include:
– South Africa’s top university, the University of Cape Town (UCT) mulling an academic and cultural boycott of Israel. A resolution to this effect will be further addresed by UCT’s Senate on the 10th May.
– a chemistry professor from Vermont’s Middlebury University who posed the following question to his class:
“Calculate the lethal dose of poisonous gas that was used in the Nazi gas chambers during the Holocaust.” He has been suspended but antisemitism is becoming mainstream and it is our duty to fight it.
Every day. Every day we see how more and more complicit the media is becoming in disseminating anti-Jewish rhetoric. It is alarming that many media outlets cannot seem to make the correlation between some of their content and rising antisemitism. The most recent example of this is a cartoon published in the international edition of the New York Times that shows a blind Donald Trump, yarmulke on his head, being led by Netanyahu who is portrayed as a dog. This could quite easily have come from Der Sturmer circa 1939 and again traffics in a dangerous trope that was espoused by the Nazi’s and many hatemongers today who compare Jews as either controlling global leaders or as inhuman and like animals.
The New York Times offered a weak apology that excluded “we are sorry”.
Every day. It is happening every day and the silence of the world that has not learnt from the history of the Holocaust is deafening. Today, space has been created for Holocaust revisionism and blatant denial. This is the greatest insult to the Jewish people and compounds an already spreading hatred that must be fought. This week as we approach Yom HaShoah -Holocaust Martyrs and heroes Day in Israel – we are reminded again of what happens when hatred goes unchecked. It spreads like the malignant, rapidly metastasizing cancer that it is.
Every day we need a reminder. We need to be reminded that the Holocaust started with words – not gas chambers. We need to be reminded that hatred and intolerance is not just a Jewish issue, it belongs to us all.
The time is now. Do we choose to stay silent and complicit or raise our voices and take a stand? After the Holocaust we declared NEVER AGAIN. Never again has become every day. Whether it is the far left or the alt-right, political figures or campus activists, the media or non-governmental organisations and once-revered global institutions, this hatred needs to be checked.
NEVER AGAIN – well, it is happening again. Everyday. ENOUGH is ENOUGH
My Name is Rella Krok. I was born in the small town of Rakashik, Lithuanian in 1918. My father Yankel Krok was a leather merchant. He was a wealthy man and upstanding member of the community. My mother, Dvora Gruniye (nee Assness) took care of us all. We were six kids – Ettie, Ollie, Yaakov, Zalman, Sonya, Sima and me. I was the baby.
I was the lucky one.
Ettie married Mendel Maron – and Ollie married David Yaakov. The young couples made the long sea journey to Cape Town, South Africa, where their children were born. The pain of separation was excruciating.
The rest of us stayed.
I finished school and went on to study nursing. I was living in the ghetto of Kovna and working in the hospital nearby. The atmosphere was tense. Everyone was afraid. I was engaged to be married to a fine young man. He wanted to escape. He decided to run. He was going to cross the border of Lithuania and keep going until he was safe.
He begged me to run with him. I refused. I could not leave my home, my family.
He was shot dead near the border.
One of my colleagues, a Gentile doctor in the hospital, approached me quietly. He told me that if I was ever in trouble to come to him.
People were starving. There was no food. I made a decision. That night I was going to look for bread. I removed my yellow star and snuck out after dark. I found someone willing to sell me some bread. I hid it under my thick winter coat. I was almost back in the ghetto when I was caught by soldiers. I was terrified. What now? They took me to a room somewhere and locked the door. They told me to strip naked. I did. I was shaking from fear. Are they going to rape me? Are they going to murder me? They forced me to lean over and they whipped me. It was agony. The humiliation more than the pain. They told me to get dressed again. They had had their fun. They dumped me back in the ghetto, without the precious bread. Everyone was still hungry.
What now? What next?
I approached the Gentile doctor. I told him I need a place to hide. He did not hesitate.
I spent the next two years in a tiny crevice dug below the basement floorboards. I never saw daylight. The Gentile doctor’s wife was angry that he had brought me into their home and endangered their lives. She was terrified. I was hidden from their children. They lived in fear that the neighbours would hear a noise. I was alone all day and most of the night in this tiny little hole. Once a day, late after dark, they let me out to relieve myself and eat. I was embarrassed and ashamed to use a pot. A pot that the doctor’s wife had used to empty and clean. A meal was raw potato skins and hard bread. But a meal it was.
I owe them my life. I survived.
After the liberation, I returned to Rakashik to my family home, hoping and praying that I would find my family alive. It was not my family I found. The Lithuanian neighbours had claimed our family home. It was now theirs. I begged them for knowledge of my family – of their whereabouts. They would not let me in. They slammed the door in my face, so I knocked again. My mother’s Lithuanian neighbor and friend opened the door and threw some of my mother’s belongings at me. My mother’s winter coat. My mother’s starched white linen. I sobbed. She threw my mother’s things at me and told me to go.
My old school friends crossed the street to avoid me.
My brother’s twin infant boys were cared for by a Nanny. She adored those boys. A streak of hope…. Maybe she took them to be her own. Maybe my nephews were alive. Maybe they were safe and sound. I started to run. I ran all the way to her house and knocked on the door. But I was wrong.
They were all dead. My family had not survived.
My sisters Ettie and Ollie sent me a ticket to Cape Town. I travelled by boat. I was with them for nearly a year. They begged me to stay, to settle in South Africa, to be close to them. I refused. I would not. I could not.
I made Aliyah and settled in Petach Tikva. I found a job at HaSharon Hospital as a surgical nurse. There was no other place for me. Israel was now my home. Israel was now MY home. Here I was safe. I would always be safe. I was safe for 60 plus years.
I died August 2004. I was 86 years old. I died of old age.
I am buried in the Yarkon Cemetery. I have a grave.
Martine Maron Alperstein made aliyah from Cape Town 21yrs ago. She currently resides in Modiin with her husband, kids and kitty cats.
The passing of a French pilot in Nice this week, brought back memories of the heroism of two South Africans in Israel’s ‘The Great Escape’.
By David E. Kaplan
When the news broke in Israel on the 28 March 2019 that the Michel Bacos – the pilot the pilot of the Air France flight from Tel Aviv that was hijacked in 1976 and landed in Entebbe – had died at age 95, it brought back memories and a huge amount of pride.
“He refused to abandon his passengers, who were taken hostage because they were Israeli or of Jewish origin, risking his own life,” Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice, where Bacos lived, announced Tuesday on social media. “Michel bravely refused to surrender to antisemitism and barbarism and brought honor to France.”
When the hijackers were planning to let Bacos, the rest of his crew and the remaining non-Jewish hostages go, he refused.
“I gathered my crew and told them there was no way we were going to leave – we were staying with the passengers to the end,” he said. “The crew refused to leave, because this was a matter of conscience, professionalism and morality…. I couldn’t imagine leaving behind not even a single passenger.”
While President Reuven Rivlin said Wednesday that Bacos was “a quiet hero and a true friend of the Jewish people. May his memory be a blessing,”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that the pilot “stayed with the hostages through all their hardships, until IDF soldiers – led by my brother Yoni – freed him in a daring operation. I bow my head in his memory and salute Michel’s bravery.”
One of the bravest and most successful rescue operations in human history, many who were around at the time will recall where they were when the story broke. I was a law student in South Africa in 1976 travelling by car between Durban and Cape Town and was sitting in a Wimpy Bar in Grahamstown when the restaurant’s TV broke to Breaking News to announce the unfolding drama. Little did I know at the time that years later I would be interviewing two South African heroes who participated in the rescue Dr. Jossy Faktor and Ricky Davis. Both had been members of South African Jewish youth movements before immigrating to Israel.
The crisis that led to the Entebbe Raid began on the 27th June, when four terrorists seized an Air France plane, flying from Israel to Paris with 248 passengers on board. The hijackers – two from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two from Germany’s Baader-Meinhof gang – diverted the aircraft, ‘flight 139’ to Entebbe. There, the hijackers were joined by three more colleagues who then demanded the release of fifty-three of their associates held in jails in Israel and four other countries. The clock was ticking. If the detainees were not released, they would begin killing hostages.
Shades of the Shoah
The plot of the unfolding saga drew in a global audience mesmerized by the twists and turns of a modern-day Homeric epic. Abduction and rescue – the stage was set for a cataclysmic clash of wills. On the one side, an anguished Israel, while on the other, German and Palestinian terrorists aided and abetted by one of Africa’s most notorious dictators, President Idi Amin. Stories abounded by this man’s evil proclivities, notable that he had a certain taste for eating his enemies.
It was said that his palace fridge had been a real ‘who’s who’ in Ugandan politics – leftovers to go with the salad. Some 3,400 kilometres away, a nervous Israeli government was agonizing which way to move. No options were risk free.
The terrorists then played a card that simplified the decision.
They separated the passengers – Jews from non-Jews – releasing the latter. Shades of the Shoah colored the unfolding drama and Israel now stood alone.
It also knew what it had to do.
It was a proud cast of characters who participated in the mission dubbed by the Israeli military – “Operation Thunderbolt”. Amongst the medical team on board one of the four C-130 Hercules aircraft, was a former South African from Pretoria, Dr. Jossy Faktor. A gynecologist and obstetrician, Jossy at the time was serving in the permanent force of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) and would later rise to become its Surgeon General.
When the call came summoning the 36-year-old doctor to report for duty, Jossy and his wife Barbara were clicking champagne glasses celebrating the tenth wedding anniversary of their old Habonim friends, the Kessels in Ra’anana. Little did they all know when Jossey hurriedly stepped out of Terry and Carol’s front door, that he was about to enter the history books.
At roughly the same time, 21-year-old Ricky Davis was with his paratrooper unit at Wingate when the call came through. Only two years earlier, Ricky, a member of Betar in Port Elizabeth, made Aliyah and within three months joined the IDF. “We immediately packed up and assembled at a base near Petach Tikva. Although we were aware of the hijack drama playing out at Entebbe, we had no idea that we would be connected. We went on so many hair-raising missions into Lebanon and Jordan in those days that we assumed it was another of the ‘usual ops.”
Once assembled at the base, “Everything became top secret. We began training, still not knowing our destination. Only at the last stage, were we brought into the picture. My unit was to secure the escape by destroying, in advance, anything that could jeopardize our escape.”
“No Going Back”
The next day saw Jossy being briefed by the Surgeon General, the late Dan Michaeli. “I was instructed to quickly put together an aero-medical team.” Although Jossy’s specialization was gynecology, he had been trained in aviation medicine that included ensuring the health of aircrews and aero-medical evacuations. While there had been missions and escapades in the past, nothing would come close to what he was to experience in the next few days. “The success of the operation was secrecy, and because the public at the time was well aware of the hostage crisis, we had to come up with something to deflect attention. Also, we needed to obtain a large supply of blood from Magen David Adom (Israel’s Red Cross), and that necessitated a credible cover story. We did not want anyone – least of all the media – questioning why we suddenly needed so much blood. Because nothing quite like this had ever been attempted, we had no idea of what casualties to expect. Anyway, the word went out that a crisis was developing on the northern border with Lebanon, and we would need medical teams and blood. The story held, and we took off with only those involved in the operation in the know.”
The final briefings were divided according to the different roles to be performed by the various participants. “We were briefed by Dr. Ephraim Sneh, who was the overall commander of the medical teams.”
Jossy describes the flight as long and uneventful.
“We left Friday morning and landed at Sharem el Sheik, stopping for essentially two reasons. Firstly, for refueling. We had enough to get us to Entebbe, but no more. And as we did not expect the ground staff at Entebbe to accommodate us by refueling our planes, we needed sufficient fuel to take off after the rescue and make it to Nairobi.” The other reason for the stopover was no less intriguing. “When we took off in Israel, the Cabinet had still not decided to go through with the mission. The risks obviously weighed enormously with them and so wanted to keep the option to abort open until the last moment. On the runway at Sharem El Sheik, we received the final green light. Now there was no going back.”
The last stretch of the flight to Entebbe “we flew at a very low altitude to avoid radar detection. The turbulence was heavy, but it did not bother me,” says Jossy. “I recall there was very little chatting; everyone was so wrapped up with their own thoughts. I spent much of my time in the cockpit as the captain, Amnon Halivni, was a good friend of mine.”
Jossy traveled with the medical teams in the fourth Hercules. “Our plane was virtually empty ready to accommodate the hostages and expected wounded.”
The other three planes carried ground forces, with the black Mercedes Benz and Land Rovers on board the first aircraft. The word out on the street was that the Mercedes was owned by an Israeli civilian and was apparently sprayed black so it would appear as the Ugandan’s president’s car when approaching the terminal building. However, the intelligence was dated. The two Ugandan sentries on duty that morning were well aware that their President had recently purchased a white Mercedes replacing his black one. They ordered the motorcade to stop. Had they had the opportunity for a closer look they would have also noticed that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car, but by that time, they were both dead.
In fear of prematurely alerting the terrorists inside the terminal, the subterfuge motorcade sped up and the assault teams quickly went into action.
Jossy’s aircraft had been the last to land. Throughout the operation “we stayed on board, preparing for the arrival of our passengers. It took just under forty minutes for the first casualties to arrive. The waiting was the worst. We felt like sitting ducks as the battle ensured. In the end we needed only six stretchers, one of which was used for Yoni Netanyahu, who died on the way to the aircraft.”
Ricky’s unit, tasked with getting away safely, took care of the Russian Migs on the airport tarmac. “The real danger was that they could give chase, easily catch us, and shoot us down. We were not taking any chances and blew them up with anti-tank missiles.” Adds this warrior, “Yes, we stopped for coffee in Nairobi on the return flight home.”
The enormity of what these daring men had pulled off “only sunk in,” says Jossy “when we touched down at Tel Nof Airbase and were met by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Defense Minister Shimon Peres. It was only then, safe on Israeli soil, that people felt free to express their emotions.”
In the immediate aftermath of the rescue mission, the government of Uganda convened a session of the UN Security Council to seek official condemnation of Israel for violating Ugandan sovereignty. The Security Council ultimately declined to pass any resolution on the matter. The words of Israel’s ambassador to the UN at the time, Chaim Herzog, in his address to the Council resonates no less today: “We are proud not only because we have saved the lives of over a hundred innocent people – men, women and children – but because of the significance of our act for the cause of human freedom.”
The history of the Jewish people and that of many African countries is more similar than it is different. There are some striking parallels – tribal allegiances, love of the indigenous land and a shared history of persecution and colonialism.
In the fledgling days before the founding of the modern State of Israel, Jews fought to end the British mandate that effectively colonized their ancient land.
It was with philosophy that both the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl and Israel’s Prime Minister, Golda Meir, who was the first to recognize that the Jewish state was the natural partner to help beleaguered African countries.
They recognized the shared desires of the African people as well as the Jews to live free in their homelands and respected the national liberation movements of the time, sensing a mutual desire to that of their own Zionist ideals. Zionism after all, is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.
But today, much like in many other parts of the world, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head on the continent. A continent that has suffered more than its own share of discrimination and persecution.
From the north to the south
Many would be surprised to find out that there once were thriving Jewish communities in many countries across the continent and while communities are sparse in sub-Saharan Africa, in Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, they once flourished.
The Lemba of Southern Africa, the Igbo of Nigeria, Ethiopan Jews, the Abuyudaya of Uganda and the Sephardi and Ashkenazi of Europe, many of whom settled in Africa to escape persecution and who can forget the Mizrahi Jews of Arab countries, who were forced to flee Islamic rulers.
Due to rising anti-Semitism and poverty, these communities barely exist anymore. Outside of South Africa which has the largest community on the continent, there were communities in Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Uganda, Zaire (the Democratic Republic of Congo) and Zimbabwe. While many left for Israel, others left for Europe or elsewhere.
The continent’s massive poverty rates and political turmoil in the late 20th century led to some African national leaders blaming Jews for the problems of their countries which they claimed, “are operated by a conspiracy against the African race”. Anti-Semitism in Africa includes false rumors and allegations that the AIDS pandemic, was bioengineered by either the US, the United Nations or “the Jews” in a plot to exterminate millions of black Africans and that the disease is a part of the “Jewish” or “white Europeans’ maneuvers against Africa” or a continuous practice of “racial genocide”. African nations are prone to accept unreliable anti-Semitic reports and revisionist history that the slavery of black Africans in the new world was because of “Jewish merchants working for European colonial masters”. According to social scientists, these theories are appealing to some impoverished and downtrodden people without enough education to know the “Jewish conspiracy” myth is false and unprovable.
The South African story
In post-Apartheid South Africa, the Jewish community has not been spared. This is particularly troubling considering that the contribution made by the Jewish community during the Apartheid years was significant in the fight to end the racist regime. One famous example was that out of the 13 Rivonia trialists, 5 were Jewish.
Who can forget the inimitable Helen Suzman, the lone voice of opposition in parliament to the Apartheid government? Jewish and a woman to boot! Some of the greatest names to enter the pantheon of anti-Apartheid activists, be it through political, cultural, religious or civil action, include Johnny Clegg, Rabbi Isaacson, Joe Slovo, Arthur Chaskalson, Nadine Gordimer, Gill Marcus and Albie Sachs to name but a few. The founding fathers of the Rainbow Nation, Mandela, Sisulu and Thambo were intimately involved with Jews, having worked alongside many throughout their legal careers. Mandela famously visited Israel with “his” Rabbi Cyril Harris and met with then Prime- Minister, Shimon Peres. Mandela famously refers to Menachem Begin and the Irgun as the basis on which he hoped to model the armed wing of the ANC, Umkhonto we Sizwe in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom:
“I read The Revolt by Menachem Begin and was encouraged by the fact that the Israeli leader had led a guerrilla force in a country with neither mountains nor forests, a situation similar to our own.”
I think that these great stalwarts of human rights would be greatly hurt to witness the appalling invective levelled against South Africa’s Jewish community.
Good Jew, Bad Jew
Manifesting more as anti-Zionism rather than traditional anti-Semitism (although the two cannot be separated) the clarion call seems to be “Jews are welcome, Zionists are not.” Or are they? Over the past few years, anti-Semitism is manifesting on the Southern tip of the continent much like it is all over the world. Social media platforms have become new battlefields and threats of violence and subsequent incidents have increased.
There seems to be a division between who is termed “good” or “bad” Jew. Good Jews apparently are not Zionist and identify as Jewish by “cultural ties”, not those awful traditional, Israel loving kind. There have been atrocious incidents of anti-Semitism ranging from the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) movement and their cries of “shoot the Jew” at a conference hosted by the South African Zionist Federation to the appalling tweets from populist Black Land First leader, Andile Mngxitama and a whole host of incidents and issues in between.
Many look to Europe or the USA as the barometer on how anti-Semitism manifests but if we ignore the South African model, we do so at our peril. It would appear that when BDS and their supporters in South Africa sneeze, their global network catches a cold. This is not to say that anti-Semitism in South Africa is restricted to BDS and the far left but the far right, perhaps emboldened by the alarming rise of their counterparts in the USA are rearing their ugly, neo-Nazi heads as well.
The consequences of rising anti-Semitism in South Africa are worrying. This could mean the marginalizing of a minority group that has played a vital role in not just the fight against the injustice of the past but continues to punch far above its size in helping to build a new country. It would also result in many of South Africa’s Jews leaving for safer pastures – and along with them, investment and employment opportunities for many of the country’s impoverished.
South Africans fought against Apartheid and many paid a painful price. After the struggles of the country’s dark past, do we really want to see this vicious cycle of discrimination and racism rise again?
Silence is no longer an option and the message that Jews are just as much a colour in the Rainbow Nation as any other community needs to be heard. Loudly.
Recollections, Revelations and Remorse from the Descendants of the Perpetrators of the Holocaust
The United Nations designated January 27 – the anniversary of the 1945 liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau – as a day for member states to honor the Jewish victims of the Holocaust and millions of other victims of Nazism.
With the alarming rise today in Holocaust denial and antisemitism – even in the very lands where the Holocaust happened – LOTL explores the hatred of the Shoah (Holocaust) by interviewing Pastor Jobst Bittner, who heads the movement of the descendants of Nazi perpetrators to openly confront the hatred of the past that it will foster a genuine healing, and hopefully – “Never Again”.
ByRolene Marks and Lindy Hoffman
This was a profoundly emotional and moving experience. It takes an enormous amount of courage to delve into the past, especially that of your family and navigate a painful past. To explore this can also bring about great healing. After Apartheid in South Africa came to an end in 1994, there were many attempts through the ‘Truth and Reconciliation Commission’ to try bring healing and understanding between victims and perpetrators but too few sat down with each other on a one-to-one basis and shared the experience of the other. Perhaps March of Life sets an example that the traumas of the past, when spoken about and addressed openly, fosters great healing.
Jobst Bittner greets you with a warm smile and twinkling blue eyes. He immediately puts you at ease when he shakes your hand and his presence is reassuring. Bittner, apart from being a Pastor, is the Founder and President of March of Life – a movement of the descendants of the German Wehrmacht, the SS and the police forces of the Third Reich, and who organise memorial and reconciliation marches at sites across Europe where atrocities were committed.
How did it all begin?
Sounds of Silence
The German city of Tübingen was a hotbed of training for the Nazi party. A university town, many of the intellectual elite of the Nazi party would gather in Tubingen where they later created an institute known as the Institute for Racial Hygiene. This “institute” would in time decide who was an “Aryan” and who was an “untermensch” (subhuman); who was a “superior” and who was an “inferior”; and was responsible for the ‘selection process’, which saw millions of Jews and other “undesirables” sent to their deaths.
The March of Life was born is 2007 when Pastor Jobst Bittner and his wife Charlotte decided that something had to be done about the history of the city. Growing up in the post-war generation, Bittner and his wife realised that their parents and grandparents never spoke about the war or their experiences. The past was related by sticking to just the historical facts; never a mention of the experiences of those persecuted by the Nazi regime.
“My parents”, says Bittner, “never spoke of the deaths of six million Jews and this was the same for all of Germany. People pushed aside or repressed their guilt or played it down.”
Up Close And Personal
“But once we realised we needed to take responsibility, at least in our own city, we had to engage with our own family histories – to make it personal. We started training members of our church to take a careful look at their own family history which in Germany is simple because Germans are so thorough and everything was recorded. So we started training our members to ask their families “What happened?” and “What did you do?” I found a term for it – ‘Breaking the Veil of Silence’. It is now a recognized term in Germany because the two decades after the war are known as the decades of silence,” says Bittner. “Most families don’t talk about what really happened, preferring instead to say that “nobody was involved”. But this was not the case. The perpetrators of the Nazi genocide against the Jews were still able to resume normal lives and careers after the war. Many returned to their careers, resumed positions as judges, in government, in the civil service and academia – they simply returned to their normal lives and professions in society.”
The members of Bittner’s church started to research their family backgrounds and each one of them discovered terrible details about the involvement of their own families. One member discovered that his father had been in the Wehrmacht in Poland and active in genocide there. Others were involved in the Ukraine, and in general, it was expressed that “Nazis were somebody else”. The Bittners believe that in some way, every single German was involved. Nobody could say: “I was not involved.”
Someone learned that their grandfather had been a guard at Dachau – but the family made the excuse that he was “just a book keeper” or “just sitting around”. On closer investigation, it was discovered that the system at Dachau ensured that all duties rotated and everyone had the chance to do each “duty”.
Face to Face
Pastor Bittner feels an incredible sense of duty and responsibility to face the pain of the past so that the trauma that affects both descendants and victims of the perpetrators can be healed.
“Traditionally, Germans have played down the magnitude of of the atrocities. We teach them to speak the truth and own up to the past. Yes, my father was involved in the genocide. My parents remained silent and were just as guilty. The vast majority remained silent. It takes something to say my parents were silent as our Jewish neighbours were taken away, dispossessed, sent to concentration camps and killed. They were as much an accessory to the Holocaust as pulling the trigger on a gun. And so a movement was birthed. I wrote a book on the veil of silence. The same silence we saw from perpetrators, we saw from the descendants of the victims. The tragedy is passed down through the generations. The silence of the fathers became the silence of the sons,” says Bittner. “We can understand the silence of the generations of victims; the pain would be too much and the silence was passed down as pain. We realized that as long as the pain was still there through the generations, we have a responsibility to the victims to do something about it. In our experience, when we speak to survivors, we needed to find ways to ask the forgiveness our fathers and grandfathers would not ask. Only then can we start to heal the pain.”
As one could well understand, the eventual meetings between survivors and descendants were extremely emotional. Both parties were extremely touched and opened up their hearts to each other. This created the space for healing.
During the war, “Tübingen had been surrounded by concentration camps,” says Bittner. “Not large but terrifying; and towards the end of the war they were razed to the ground and the surviving prisoners forced on death marches. Over 250 000 people perished in plain sight on the streets of Germany. They were either shot or died from sheer exhaustion. Nobody could say, “I didn’t know”. So what we started to do was to trace the route of one of those death marches from Tubingen to Dachau. This is why we called it ‘March of Life’ – to reaffirm life that the death marches could become a march to sanctify life.”
March of Life is connected to the annual educational programme called March of the Living “which invited me to address 25 000 participants in Budapest. While March of the Living is connected to the survivors, what we say is that we are so closely connected to them because we are the descendants of the perpetrators. “
Before participating in their first march, “we had not met with any survivors and during that march, we received a call from a survivor who asked to walk with us. Rose was a survivor of six concentration camps and liberated from Dachau at the age of sixteen. We considered it an honour, and then Rose asked to bring thirteen more survivors. For some it was their first trip to Germany and many were fearful to hear German, the language of the persecutor. We were at a loss what to do. We knelt and we washed the feet of survivors and at first they did not know how to react but after a while were so deeply moved at the healing taking place at the moment. We started to embrace each other. We thought this is what we can do to bring healing.”
A Movement Is Born
This was one of the most pivotal moments of Bittner’s life and from these deep, emotional roots, a movement was born. Healing for descendants who carry guilt and shame as their heritage is just as important as that of the survivors. As we lose more and more survivors, so the responsibility to teach the next generations becomes ours. While there are many who say we must move on, the importance of memory and bearing witness is so important, especially as antisemitism rises around the world.
March of Life advocates that we cannot be silent in the face of antisemitism and hatred. Delving into the past is painful. But the results are evident. The media started to pick up on this extraordinary story in The Jerusalem Post, and The New York Times and the message started to spread. It grew organically, gaining momentum.
“We were invited to Poland and the Ukraine. By telling our story it encouraged others to do the same. In Poland and Lithuania where they had previously denied involvement, they began to talk. Our message as Germans was if we could face this, so can you. Now we educate – we are in a university town. So historians are considering how the culture of commemorating is done. Memorial events or historic remembering of facts is important but antisemitism is exploding. It has become disproportionate in the last five years. History can only come alive if we make it personal. If not us, then who? In the recent issue of Der Spiegel, we were the main cover story with personal stories but there is so much more to do with people still reluctant to talk about it,” laments Bittner.
Many people are resistant to the descendants telling their personal stories, feeling it dishonours the memory of their parents. Nevertheless, the descendants took a conscious decision to press on and the grandparents started to talk. “They found it easier to talk to their grandchildren than their children,” says Bittner.
Silence Is Not Golden
One could call March of Life a truly pioneering movement. While the government of Germany feels that working through the past is a high priority and share a sense of responsibility for the state of Israel, many ministers resist revealing their family history. March of Life has exhibited true courage to go where many dread – the past; and work closely with Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust memorial museum and education centre. And this has found a welcome response from Germany’s Jewish community, and in 2017, the Jewish Community of Halle in Germany, awarded the March of Life with the Emil L. Fackenheim Prize for Tolerance.
Marches take place all over the world from Germany to Switzerland, Poland, South America and Jerusalem.
The impact is massive, reaching to millions of people.
Pastor Bittner says that despite the fact that they march proudly with Israeli flags and in cities like Paris where security is vital, they have faced no aggression, something “ We don’t take it for granted.” In Austria, they marched at the Mauthausen Death camp and taught seminars. “People revealed symbolic Nazi paraphernalia that had been in their family’s possession for years and some were shocked to discover what they meant. We even had reformed neo-Nazis in our congregation. Bittner believes that “antisemitism will cease to exist once it leaves the church.” They are also present in schools teaching about the Holocaust. “I take some experts from Israel to schools and we are invited on a regular basis and we take survivors. Hearing from a survivor has a profound impact. We have seen this with Muslim students who have never been exposed to this. One story from a survivor is more important than fifty lessons.”
March of Life is a living memorial to history and a testament to the power of dialogue, no matter how painful it is. Silence and indifference propagate hatred. After the Holocaust, Jews took the vow “NEVER AGAIN”. Never again would we allow hatred to rise to the levels that it results in genocide. Never Again would we be silent. Never Again would we allow the wholesale slaughter of our people.
Our gratitude to Pastor Bittner and March of Life – they have given wings to our vow and a tailwind to our voices.