A colossus against global evil – the Nazis – how would South Africa’s WWII leader have shone today against a global disease – Covid-19?
By Philip Weyers, great-grandson of General Jan Smuts.
A few days ago, “Lay of the Land” Editor, Dave Kaplan, posed to me what I thought to be an interesting question:
“How would a Jan Smuts’ government have dealt with the Corona crisis?”
Before being a Soldier-Statesman, my grandfather was a brilliant scholar. While one of his tutors, Professor Frederic William Maitland – regarded as the modern father of English legal history – said of Smuts “the most brilliant student” he had ever met, Lord Todd, the Master of Christ’s College, said that “in 500 years of the College’s history, of all its members, past and present, three had been truly outstanding – John Milton, Charles Darwin and Jan Smuts.”
While offered by his old Cambridge college, Christ’s College, a fellowship in Law, he declined, choosing instead to return to the Cape Colony, determined to make his future there. He sure did!
Apart from leading his country inspirationally through WWII, Smuts contributed substantially to the creation of both the League of Nationsand the United Nations – writing the preface to the U.N. Charter. Participating in so many milestone happenings of the 20th century, it should come as little surprise that the only person to have signed the charters of both the League of Nations and the United Nations was General Jan Christiaan Smuts. Sadly, Smuts’ United Party lost the election in 1948 to the Nationalist Party of D.F. Malan that introduced Apartheid – system of institutionalised racial segregation – that existed to the early 1990s.
Of course with Smuts gone for nearly 70 years any attempt to answer the question relating to Corona would be purely speculative and based on our understanding of his personality and how in the past he confronted monumental challenges.
I do however believe we have sufficient evidence to create at least some credible scenarios.
Covid-19 made its presence known with people dying in droves in Wuhan, China, subsequently high percentage of deaths followed in Italy, Spain, the UK and the USA where New York City has been the worst hit.
The South African Government did react relatively swiftly applying lockdown measures with individual movement restricted to medical reasons and the purchase of essential items. Socialising of any nature was forbidden. Initially there was understanding and compliance from the vast majority of the urban population, but in the informal settlements, life continued much as usual. It is important to note that the initial lockdown included prohibitions on the sale or purchase of inter alia cars, clothing, hardware, children’s toys, stationery including puzzles and of course the two “sin” items – alcohol and tobacco products.
It is reasonable to believe that Jan Smuts would have reacted in much the same manner initially; he would have been attempting by best means possible to combat what was for the entire world – a complete unknown. It is also fair to believe that Smuts would have permitted a larger component of the South African economy to remain active than was the case, under conditions to minimise the transmission of the disease.
After nearly five weeks of what was advised to be “Stage-5” of the lockdown, President Ramaphosa advised that their efforts had been successful in slowing down the spread of Covid-19 and that there was to be a move to “Stage-4” on 1 May. Perplexing the public – some amusingly others irritatingly – the sale of alcohol remained illegal, while tobacco products could again be purchased. Much joy and relief followed this announcement, not least of all the11 million South Africans who smoke!
Those who were missing a drink resorted either to the highly active and exorbitant black-market or started brewing their own mampoer – South Africa’s highly intoxicating “moonshine” derived mainly from pineapple. Within days of President Ramaphosa announcing a relaxation of the sale of tobacco products, it was announced by Nkosana Dhlamini-Zuma, Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs, that the matter had been re-assessed and the tobacco would remain embargoed, resulting in astonishment and much anger amongst the population.
It is at this point I believe that Jan Smuts’ path would have taken a significantly divergent course to that adopted by the South African Government, and in a number of ways.
The Great Communicator
Jan Smuts was an accomplished communicator, and believed in the value of accurate, comprehensive, and regular communications. He was a prodigious correspondent and a highly accomplished writer – in longhand – of his own speeches. It would be inconceivable that at a time of such perceived threat and uncertainty, he would not regularly appear on all media platforms, placating and reassuring the population, certainly he would not have been silent for weeks at a stretch.
We can see today from Smuts’ many speeches how his voice resonated with his audience and how he instilled confidence. This is precisely what is needed today and is surely lacking!
Furthermore, it would be inconceivable to believe that a Smuts Government would not have consulted every credible source of expertise covering such essential aspects as the economy, medical (in particular epidemiologists both locally and abroad), commerce and business and modelled the regulations imposed according to guidelines that he would have gleaned from such consultations. A balance between all critical elements would have been achieved as far as possible.
Smuts would have realised from the start that trying to legislate a population into compliance, would have produced at best short-term results. He would not have been autocratic, aggressive nor condescending when dealing with the people. He would have been well aware that compliance would result from cooperation rather than legislation, particularly when the regulations would seem – with some justification – to be nonsensical and of little tangible value.
To achieve public compliance would invariably have involved law-enforcement but certainly no heavy-handed and unnecessary force. Violent enforcement would not have been tolerated – particularly of petty contraventions.
There can be no doubt that following the initial lockdown and greater scientific data became available offering the wisest counsel to this “mystery disease”, Smuts would have moved swiftly to get the economy back on track. It would have been clear to Smuts that without revenue, a government is restricted in its ability to control or treat the virus.
Disrespect To Disregard
Essential to gaining the people’s support and compliance is to return their lives to as normal a situation as possible. Smuts would realise that a population will only adhere to regulations while they present at least some logic and make sense even at an unsophisticated level. Nonsensical and seemingly irrelevant restrictions would enjoy a short period of compliance before the public at large despaired and disregarded them. The extended restrictions on clothing, for one, were apparently devoid of logic and benefit.
One could buy a long-sleeved shirt, but not a short-sleeved one! Ladies could buy “winter” shoes but not shoes with open toes!
Smuts would not have countenanced such nonsensical regulations believing them rather to further aggravate an already incensed population.
One can of course hypothesize almost without end how the ‘soldier-statesman’ Smuts would have mounted a campaign to counter Corona. In truth, we could never really know. I sense that a Smuts Government would not have acted very differently to the Ramaphosa government in the initial four-week period, but beyond that period, there would have been a marked divergence.
Therefore I feel confident to surmise, that under a Smuts leadership, South Africans would be in far better position than that in which we currently find ourselves.
About The Writer
Philip Weyers is Past Executive Director of General Smuts Foundation. An “Amateur historian” on Jan Smuts, the South African Air Force and the Royal Air Force, Weyers is President Emeritus of the South African Air Force Association. He is currently a member of SAAFA NEC; SAAF/SAAFA Liaison, Foreign Relations. As a “Friend of Israel” and like the “Oubaas”, a confirmed Christian Zionist, he addresses audiences in Israel and England.
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.
From running marathons to running Israel’s medical system, Ichilov Hospital’s Prof. Ronni Gamzu is now overseeing Israel’s senior living facilities
By David E. Kaplan
While Corona grounded Israel’s traditional Independence Day flyover, it did not stop four training planes taking off and flying over the hospitals throughout the State of Israel in salute to the medical teams who – like our soldiers in uniform – are risking their lives daily.
From my balcony in Kfar Saba, our family watched the planes fly over nearby Meir Hospital and then two of them perform a spectacular vertical maneuver leaving a huge while trail in the sky in the shape of a giant heart.
Residents from balconies draped in the blue and white Israeli flags, clapped and cheered. Everyone knew someone affected by Corona whose lives were dependent on the men and woman to whom the pilots in these planes were paying tribute.
One of the most vulnerable sectors of the population are our seniors and so my thoughts went out to Prof. Ronni Gamzu who I had interviewed back in 2016 for Hilton Israel Magazine and had been pleased to learn had in early April 2020 been placed in charge of the Ministry of Health’s efforts to combat the virus in homes for the elderly. In other words – to oversee senior living facilities throughout Israel.
His appointment followed a number of coronavirus-related deaths in homes for the elderly followed by a public outcry and a High Court petition to which the state was required to respond. The Health Ministry responded – most notably by appointing Prof. Gamzu, the director general of Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center aka Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, to coordinate between government departments and formulate a national plan of action.
Within a few days, residents at senior living facilities were being tested around the country. My thoughts went back to that interview looking at the huge heart in the sky.
On the late afternoon of our interview in 2016, this gynaecologist and obstetrician who had brought “over 1000 babies into the world,” had his own to look after – his young baby daughter, Anouk – “our first”. So instead of meeting at Ichilov Hospital, we met in a garden in Ramat Gan, within “easy running distance” to the hospital and his home – whichever emergency might summon him at any moment. The interview proceeded uninterrupted with neither a ‘cry’ from Anouk nor patients.
It was well known that back in 2016 Prof. Gamzu participated in major marathons around the world which invited my first question. His answer proved revealing – a metaphor on his approach to medicine.
Running in the London, Paris, New York and Tel Aviv marathons, explained Gamsu “is very different than running in the Jerusalem marathon which is hilly.” The point the professor was making is that conditions and topography vary, and one must correctly read the landscape and understand its complexity to successfully negotiate “the road ahead”.
Prof. Gamzu has always been focused on “the road ahead”. This would explain how he perceived early in his career, the need to be equipped with a broad and varied education that spread well beyond the discipline of medicine.
Following degrees in medicine at Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) and a PhD in fertility research from Tel Aviv University (TAU), I asked why he felt the need to add to his academic armory an MBA and a degree in law.
“Well, ‘armory’ is the right word,” he replied because “these degrees literally helped me to surmount loads of legalese and achieve goals that I may not have without them.”
During his earlier tenure as the Director General of the Health Ministry (2010-2014), he explained, “we made major progress in expanding the general services covered by our national health insurance. My predecessors in the Health Ministry tried for years without success – always coming up against a bureaucratic wall; not seeing a way forward. With my legal background, I found a way around it.”
“What do you mean by “a way around”?” I asked.
“The standard approach was to look to the Knesset (Israel’s Parliament) to either pass or amend legislation. This is understandable but problematic because of political coalitions and so many competing interests that, to reach consensus about extending provision for any public service, is never easy. Military matters are always easier because they are considered a national existential issue. This is not the case with social services. This is unfortunate as the issues from education to public medicine are no less existential to the wellbeing of a nation.”
So, with his legal training, “I buried myself in reading all legislation pertaining to national medical coverage and realised that we did not need to proceed through the Knesset – we could bypass it, as there were pre-existing regulations that permitted us to proceed forward. In this way, we made major breakthroughs that have dramatically changed the lives of Israeli citizens.”
Can you cite examples?
“Yes, we expanded our general health services to include mental health issues that had been limited, and dental care that had been mostly private, and prohibitively expensive. Under the new plan, family doctors started referring patients with emotional and mental problems – such as depression, phobias or panic attacks – to psychiatrists, psychologists and other therapists for treatment, without themselves writing prescriptions for psychiatric drugs, as they did before.”
With regard to extending dental services, he explained:
“Dental hygiene is no less important than other areas of personal health. Periodontal or gum disease that ranges from simple gum inflammation to serious disease that results in major damage to the soft tissue and bone that support the teeth, affects too many Israelis of all ages. It is important to treat at a young age so that teeth are not lost in early adulthood. Whether gum disease is stopped, slowed, or gets worse depends a great deal on how well people care for their teeth; this requires regular diagnosis by professionals and this is where we came in, making it affordable to those who had previously neglected their teeth – not because they felt it was less important – but because they felt they could not afford going to private dentists and hygienists.”
Under the new system, Gamzu explained, “they still pay but considerably less with the result that dental health has now become affordable – not the luxury of the wealthy, but a right to all. The new system of dental cover is now more in line with the fundamental egalitarian philosophy of Israel’s founding fathers.”
Asking what specifically he meant by this, Gamzu replied, “Well Israel can be truly proud of not only its superlative cutting edge medical services but of how we provide this quality service to all our citizens at affordable costs to the recipient.
For this, Gamzu said “we are indebted to the founding fathers of the modern State of Israel.” Combining the traditional Jewish concern for all people with an emphasis on societal needs, “the Zionist Movement in pre-state Israel, regarded public health as a top social, political and economic priority. By the time Israel declared its independence in 1948, we already had a national health infrastructure in place.”
Gamzu cited as examples “Tipat Halav (Mother-and-child care centers) administering vaccinations to new-born babies and counseling parents on proper care for their infants, and Kupot Cholim (Health insurance funds) offering day-to-day consultations with doctors and specialists, and insured members for hospitalization.”
With medical cover a challenge in any society, “and we see how it dominates debate in US elections,” I asked how will Israel sustain its special features of affordable cover to all?
“You are right; it is a challenge of our public health system and it’s a challenge that I am committed to,” answered Gamzu. “However, we have seen that even with Israel’s transformation from a socialist to a capitalist economy, some of our most cherished values remained intact because it’s part of our ethos and ingrained in our culture. As future needs arise as was the case in extending services for mental and dental health, so we need to be on guard and adhere to our founding principles.”
“Do you think Israel can teach the world about its concept of Public Health?” I enquired.
“Sure, and we do. Israel has been a pioneer in the practice of Public Health, and we host many visitors – particularly from the developing world – keen to learn of how Israel developed its system of Public Health. Just so we understand, while medicine treats the health needs of an individual, Public Health (also known as public or social medicine) deals with the health requirements of society as a whole and despite absorbing wave after wave of immigrations, bringing with it a host of medical challenges, Israel has one of the world’s healthiest populations with one of the highest average life expectancies in the world.”
I reflected on that 2016 interview as I gazed from my balcony on this Corona Yom Ha’atzmaut upon the giant heart in the sky over Meir Hospital and thought that despite our enormous challenges, we can be thankful for Israel’s unique health system.
There is a reason why Jews, when toasting, prefer to say “Le’Chaim” instead of “Cheers”.
After all, what can be more important to cheer about than “to Life”?
This past week Israel celebrated Yom Ha’atzmaut, our 72 Independence Day!
Usually this day is celebrated with fireworks, concerts, ceremonies, and parties. People gather on the beaches, in the forests and in the parks.
Not so this year. Covid-19 put the kibosh on all of that. Israelis were relegated to celebrating indoors, in their own homes, under strict lockdown conditions.
What still did happen though; and what happens every year; is that the municipality starts putting up Israeli flags along the streets, on street poles and lamps. They hang blue and white bunting across intersections. This takes place across cities and towns country wide and is very festive!
Families also decorate their balconies, gardens, and cars with flags. The whole country is proudly blue and white!
A week or so before Yom Ha’atzmaut, I came across a post on Facebook written by someone who was upset that the municipality was, in his opinion, ‘wasting’ money that could have been used towards medical care, equipment and such, because they were putting up these flags.
That comment bugged me. Even now, a week after Yom Ha’atzmaut has come and gone, it’s still bugging me.
I totally understand that our medical needs are huge, that our medical front liners need PPE equipment and that we need more ventilators and that saving lives is the most important thing we can do.
But…I also feel that celebrating our independence, our homeland and our freedom is just as important. Perhaps this is even more so in these troubled and uncertain times.
Seeing those flags made me smile. Seeing those flags made my heart feel lighter. It made me feel connected to people, my fellow citizens, when I had spent almost an entire month in my home with no personal contact with anyone outside of my immediate family.
Those flags gave me hope.
It was an affirmation. We are Israel! We are Israelis – and we can overcome anything that is thrown our way.
So, random Facebook man, I vehemently disagree!
Those flags are not a waste of money. Not at all. They are – Joy, Love and Hope. And they are a promise.
We WILL make it through this.
We WILL survive.
It’s what we do.
Gina Jacobson is a mom, a wife, a dreamer. She loves coffee and when she’s not reading, she’s writing.
Susan’s House in Jerusalem inspires youth through art
By Stephen Schulman
Most of the buildings in the industrial zone of Jerusalem do not greatly differ from those in many other parts of the country. In their functionality, they tend to be rather uniformly drab and dreary. One building in particular with its wide external corridors lined with doors of many workshops is no different from the rest. Nevertheless, what makes it so special is that opening one of the doors leads you into a very special workplace – Susan’s House.
I was fortunate enough to be part of a group that visited, toured, saw this magnificent project in action and learned of its history.
Started in 2002, Susan’s House is a living memorial to Susan Kaplansky, a gifted artist who had prematurely passed away at the age of 38 leaving her husband Eyal and four young children behind her. Susan, a gifted artist, fervently believing in the healing powers of art, had used her talents to work with disadvantaged children. After her death, Eyal started this workshop and artists’ studio to continue her work and perpetuate her memory.
The workshop produces and sells a wide range of arts and crafts ranging from special glassware, jewelry and ceramics to unique stationery and greeting cards made from recycled paper. All of these products have two things in common: they are carefully crafted, and they are made by a dedicated group of thirty youngsters whose ages range from fifteen to eighteen. Each of these young people comes from a difficult background both Jew and Arab. Most are school dropouts and currently unemployed, socially marginalized and at risk – a sad reminder of problems that exist in both communities.
At the beginning of the tour, we listened to an introductory talk by Avital Goel, the workshop supervisor who explained that Susan’s House gives them employment and a wage. He went on to explain that under the guidance of a team of social workers and volunteer artists, the teenagers are given vocational rehabilitation, guidance and real life work experience that enables them to become contributing members of society.
They gain self-esteem and the ability to respect others. They not only learn a trade but become part of a working community that is also a home where they learn social skills and in so doing, gain self empowerment. “They work together as a team learning how to manufacture and sell. They also learn the value of money, how to spend it correctly and be a wise consumer. All the youngsters not only eat a wholesome lunch together every day but are also, in turn, given the responsibility to buy the provisions and help prepare the meal.”
The real highlight was a talk by two seventeen year olds – Aviva from a poor Jewish neighborhood and Ahmed, a Muslim Arab from East Jerusalem. Both of them, with complete self-assurance, spoke about themselves, their lives, backgrounds and their work at Susan’s House. Their honesty, openness and sincerity was palpable, their enthusiasm for their workplace was genuine and infectious and there was not one of us sitting and listening to them who was not moved!
During our stay, production continued, and it was business as usual. We walked around, watched work in progress and then visited the aesthetically arranged shop, which was staffed entirely by the youngsters, to purchase items to take home both as presents and as memoirs of a most illuminating and rewarding visit.
Susan’s House is proud of the fact that its five hundred or more graduates have acquired life skills and gone on to become functioning and positive members of society with more than sixty percent serving in the army or doing national service. As a result of its success, another branch has opened in Eilat.
Coincidentally, Susan’s House is located on 31Wings of Eagles Street (31 Canfei Nesharim – 31 כנפי נשרים). A most appropriate address for a noble institution that has been giving so many young people the means to soar!
*For more information: Phone: 02-6725069 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
About the writer:
Stephen Schulman, is a graduate of the South African Jewish socialist Youth Movement Habonim, who immigrated to Israel in 1969 and retired in 2012 after over 40 years of English teaching. Stephen, who has a master’s degree in Education, was for many years a senior examiner for the English matriculation and co-authored two English textbooks for the upper grades in high school. Now happily retired, he spends his time between his family, his hobbies and reading to try to catch up on his ignorance.
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.
The numbers are far too many to bear. Their names are etched in our national consciousness. We take succour in tales of their incredible bravery and courage, their daring and chutzpah, their duty and sacrifice. The young men and women who through 72 years of the modern state of Israel have paid the ultimate price in defense of their country and the many who have fallen simply because they were targeted for being Israeli.
Yom Hazikaron, Israeli Remembrance day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day are upon us. At the founding of the modern state of Israel, it was decided to have these two national holidays together – a genius idea because we have a heightened sense of the sacrifice and the cost of many for us to have the flourishing, democratic State we call home.
As the sun sets and the flags lowers signaling the start of Yom Hazikaron, our thoughts will turn to those we have lost, and our hearts open a little wider to welcome in their bereaved families. The first siren will wail its mournful cry, which pierces the soul and calls the nation to attention.
This year, commemorations will be even more poignant. The threat posed by Covid-19 and new social distancing norms means that visits to military cemeteries which bereaved families and many citizens consider sacred; will be forbidden. There will be no unified ceremonies at the call of the second siren, there will be no heart wrenching poems and prayers.
This Yom Hazikaron, solidarity will take a different form, but it will be as strong as ever. We are at a time when we are acutely reminded of the fragility of life. As those sirens wail, so we will bow our heads and tears will fall. We take 24 hours to go back in time and remember the name of those felled in battle and those whose lives tragically ended. We will remember the names. Names like Yoni Netanyahu, Roi Klein and Michael Levin. Names like Hadar Goldin, Oron Shaul and so many who fell in our defense.
We remember the names like Taylor Force, Dafna Meir and Hallel Ariel. They suffered stabbings, shootings, suicide bombings and other murderous acts. So many, too many. We will listen to the stories and we will remember them.
We will remember 23,816 soldiers and security forces personnel fallen since the birth of the modern state in 1948. This year, 42 more fallen were added to a list that nobody wants to be on. The IDF also recognizes 83 that were disabled who passed away and are regarded as fallen soldiers and 3,153 citizens who have died from terror attacks.
Behind every number, is a name – and a story. Behind every number are bereaved families, for whom every day is a bitter reminder. Yom Hazikaron is that one day where the whole nation wraps its arms around them. This year we will have to find a new way to do it.
And then in a matter of moments, everything changes.
And as the clock changes, so too, does the mood in Israel. We observe that annual changing of the guard as we move from the intensity of grief to that of gratitude and celebration, understanding full well what sacrifices so many made so we can live in freedom. This year it is even more poignant as the flyovers and fireworks have come to a halt. While the barbecues may be lit, there is a tinge of sadness in the atmosphere as the threat of Coronavirus and social distancing means that we will not gather in each other’s homes, on the beaches and in the forests. We will celebrate as one – from the safety of our balconies as individuals and families. As we toast to the State of Israel, there will be deeper, meaning to that salute to life – L’Chaim!
There will be a changing of the guard both in traditions and emotions, but distance and restrictions will in no way diminish the unity and pride of Israelis. This is our strength.
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.
I am queuing for soup at the World WIZO HQ canteen in Tel Aviv. It’s lunchtime. I am hungry. The lady in front of me ladles rich vegetable broth into her bowl. I do not need to pray that there will be enough vegetables left in the soup to sustain me. No, I don’t need to think about that at all. Yet I do. Even now, five years later.
Five years ago, and I had read everything I could in preparation for my trip to Poland; the heart-wrenching observations of Ellie Wiesel, Primo Levi, Mary Berg, and others who bore witness.
I had revisited the battered old suitcase in our storeroom, containing the evidence of my late father-in-law’s internment in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald, including the rough and stained, striped shirt of the uniform that he was wearing when American soldiers liberated him in 1945. It is tiny.
I read so much, I listened to the memoirs of the Holocaust-surviving members of my husband’s family and had, on more than one occasion, visited Yad Vashem. I thought I was ready for this trip.
On Sunday, 12th April, I flew from Tel Aviv to Warsaw and joined British friends in the March of the Living (UK) group. We were 250 participants from the UK of all walks of life, Jews, non-Jews, students, professionals, youth leaders, laypersons, and first and second-generation Holocaust survivors. We were split over five buses, each with its own group leader, Holocaust survivor, and educator. Each of us on our own personal journey to listen, to learn, to feel.
Yet the more I learned, the more I saw, the less I understood.
For the five days of the trip and from now until the end of my days, I ask, “Why?”
We went from Warsaw to Lublin to Krakow and saw the scant remnants of our once-proud, once-fine upstanding ancestors. In Poland, the history of Jewish life dated back over a millennium and formed a vital part of the cultural history. I was intrigued to learn that in the 1930s, over 120 different Jewish newspapers were printed daily or weekly in Polish, Yiddish, and Hebrew, serving a Jewish population of some three and a half million. Between the 1939 invasion of Poland and the end of World War II, 90% of Polish Jewry perished.
From the stripping of basic human rights to the desecration of the sacred symbols of the Jewish faith, from the segregation and discrimination came humiliation and degradation and the internment in ghettos. We learned of the cruelty and barbarism, the likes of which any human being cannot comprehend. And yet, European Jewry refused to give up hope. As hunger, random killings, overcrowding, disease, and desperation reigned in the ghettos, and Jewish life was defaced, there were those who, ever optimistic, dared to dream of better days ahead. The contents of their suitcases as they packed for their journey eastwards to Auschwitz paid testament to that fact.
But they never got to unpack!
In the museum of Auschwitz preserved for eternity are some of those same suitcases and their contents: brushes, combs, cosmetics, religious artefacts, dishes, pots and pans. In one of the displays, a lone rolling pin caught my eye. Did the lady who owned that rolling pin dare to imagine that one day she would bake delicious kuchen for her family as she always had?
We, who had risen fresh from our comfortable beds in four-star hotels, had eaten hearty breakfasts. We, who had packed ample layers against the elements in our backpacks, emerged from our air-conditioned luxury coaches and descended to the depths of hell wearing our comfortable walking shoes, safe in the knowledge that we had an exit strategy. At any time, we could turn our back on the abject terror we witnessed and find our way out. And we did – but it does not leave us.
We visited the death camp of Majdanek and Belzec, Auschwitz, and Auschwitz Birkenau, where European Jewry was viciously terrorized, incarcerated, incinerated, and eventually wiped out. At each place, we stood solemnly at the monuments of remembrance and recited a Kaddish, each of us, in our way, sanctifying the memory of those we never knew but loved anyway.
Sometimes, the gravity of what we witnessed got too much for us, and we would walk out to breathe fresh air. I put my hand on the cold, damp wall of the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau and heard the silent screams. I wept and then felt guilty for weeping – for I did not experience the hunger, the whip, the pain of burning flesh, the panic. I had no right to cry.
It was five years ago, the 70th anniversary since the liberation of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and the end of the Second World War. The precious survivors amongst us were well into their eighties. They knew as we did that they are the final witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust, and they have made it their life’s work to share their stories with the coming generation.
At the Belzec death camp, one of the survivors, in trembling voice, recited Kaddish for his late parents and little sister who were murdered before his very eyes. This was the same man who gave me my new preoccupation with the soup tureen. He had told us, over dinner back at the hotel, that in those dark days of abject hunger, it was a lucky man who got his broth from the bottom of the pan because that’s where the vegetables lurked.
For four days in April, our journey took us deeper into hell but on the fifth day, the scene at Auschwitz shifted inexplicably. This evil place took on a different, hopeful guise as some 12,000 plus participants of March of the Living (MOL) worldwide descended from their coaches on a perfect sunny day, wearing their MOL jackets and baseball caps and carrying Israeli flags. We marched as if an ocean of blue and white that surged slowly yet forcefully forward alongside the train tracks that had brought our ancestors to their certain death. We marched as one, against the past, towards the future, because we are living, and we can.
We walked solemnly.
As we entered Birkenau, the names of murdered children rang out through loudspeakers. We drank copious amounts of water as we retraced the steps of the thirsty and the starving and those doomed to die. We placed markers on the train tracks of those we had lost. I put down two markers, one to remember my husband’s lost family members and another for our 42,000 slain sisters from the 14 WIZO federations in Eastern Europe in whose memory we continue our work for the people of Israel. And how strange, that amongst the crowd of marchers I saw one of our WIZO Presidents, Estela Faskha from Panama, and we hugged. Each of us mirroring the emotions of the other.
The march concluded in a poignant ceremony. Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, himself a child survivor of Buchenwald, addressed the crowd. Torches were lit in memory of the murdered, and in tribute to the Righteous Among the Nations, and to honor our precious survivors who lived to bear witness.
As they lit the last torch for the State of Israel where the Jewish people were reborn, and Dudu Fisher led the March of the Living Children’s Choir in a rousing rendition of Hatikvah, I once again found myself in floods of tears, but this time, I felt no guilt in crying. It was my right and obligation. It still is and always will be.
Today, 2020, there is no March of the Living this year. The 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen and the end of World War II is marked only on the virtual stage of digital media as the Coronavirus pandemic denies us social gathering. Our survivors are older, more vulnerable, nearer to their natural end of life. They are less in number but forever alive in our collective memory.
And even though we cry our tears in the safe space of social distancing, we will not, dare not, cannot, ever forget!
Manchester-born Tricia Schwitzer immigrated to Israel in 2001 and currently serves on the World WIZO Executive as Chairperson of the Marketing & PR Division. She manages, writes and illustrates the World WIZO social media pages and co-edited the Centennial edition of the WIZO Review. She is married to Avi, the mother of Ric and Nic Glancy and she lives in Ramat Gan with two naughty black cats.
An ‘illuminating’ perspective of the Shoah from the ‘darkness’ of a collapsed mine
By David. E. Kaplan
Pedestrians stand solemnly in silence, while buses stop on busy streets and cars pull over with drivers standing at the side with their heads bowed. This collective conduct of the citizens of Israel is set off by a two-minute siren wailing across the country marking Holocaust Remembrance Day or known colloquially as Yom HaShoah (יום השואה). It is observed as Israel’s day of commemoration for the six million Jews who were murdered in the Holocaust as a result of the actions carried out by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
This year – 2020 – will be different as Corona transforms everything usual into the unusual.
The siren will still wail for two minutes but the streets will be mostly and ominously quite as most the citizens of the country will be home under some form of lockdown.
In cities and towns, people will stand on the balconies or poke their heads out of apartment windows for the two minutes as the siren wails and look down at the empty streets below.
The image of “looking down” made me think 10 years back to another perspective of the Holocaust, that of the inverse of “looking up”!
I always wondered what someone who had no knowledge of the Holocaust would feel following a visit to Yad Vashem – Israel’s official memorial in Jerusalem to the victims of the Holocaust. It was a thought that had intrigued me for many years, and an opportunity to answer this thought arose in 2011, when 24 of the 33 Chilean miners who had been rescued after spending 69 days trapped in a collapsed Chilean mine the year before arrived in Israel. Hosted by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism for a 8-day visit, including their families, I had been invited as editor of the Hilton Israel Magazine to spend the day with the miners as they toured Jerusalem, one of the sights being Yad Vashem.
One forgets, but as the Coronavirus dominates the news today, in 2010, what dominated the news – for at least 69 days – was the plight of the 33 miners trapped 700 metres below ground in the collapsed copper–goldSan José Mine located near Copiapó, in the Atacama Region, Chile.
Mesmerized in front of TVs, a global audience was drawn to this heart-rending and nail-biting unfolding drama who rooted for the rescue of these miners buried beneath in what was referred to at the time in the media as the “Deep Down Dark”. People of the world identified with the families of the miners as we all became “one family” hoping and praying for the success of the incredible rescue operation.
Thankfully this story of the 33 miners sealed inside the mountain by a “megablock” of collapsed stone, some 770,000 tons of it -“twice the weight of the Empire State building” – had a happy ending.
Over 1 billion viewers around the world watched the rescue unfold live on TV on Oct. 13, 2010 as all 33 of the miners were raised to the surface of the earth. Staring at that flat, smooth wall, Luis Urzua, the crew’s supervisor, thought at the time:
“It was like the stone they put over Jesus’s tomb.”
Continuing in the biblical parlance of Urzua, it was as if the miners had been unbelievably – “resurrected”.
In Israel’s invitation to the miners, which was extended to members of their families, the Israeli tourism minister, Stas Mesezhnikov, wrote:
“Your bravery and strength of spirit, your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth, was an inspiration to us all.”
FromSan José to Shoah
With my Spanish interpreter tagging besides me, I caught up with the miners as they exited the Hall of Names – a repository for the names of millions of Shoah victims. Close to four million eight hundred thousand of the six million Jews murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices are commemorated here.
The miners came out looking emotionally drained.
They stood in groups, clustered together on the platform overlooking the forests and the city of Jerusalem – the capital of the state of the Jewish People.
I began to interview them – all revealing their unfamiliarity before their visit to Israel of both Jews and the Holocaust.
Some men are blessed with “nine lives” I thought interviewing 33- year-old Victor Zamora, a mechanic who only went into the mine on the day of the collapse to fix a vehicle. This same man had also been a victim and survived the Chilean earthquake seven months earlier. The 14th miner to be rescued he said, “Before coming to Israel, I knew nothing about the Jewish Holocaust. I’m still feeling claustrophobia, it’s a feeling that stays with you; hard to shake off but,” and then stopping to shake his head, he continued, “whatever I experienced, it hardly compares with what I’ve just seen here now [at Yad Vashem].”
Standing next to Zamora, was his former shift manager, the 54-year-old Luis Urzua, who had been the last miner to be rescued. His level-headedness was critical for the survival of his men and his gentle humour was all too evident when later describing the 69-day ordeal as:
“It’s been a bit of a long shift.”
And to my question of “How important was your faith in God?” he replied:
“We were 33 miners; God was miner number 34.”
However, it was this leader of the miners that revealed to me a perception of the Holocaust that resonated more than much of the academic writings I had come across.
“Having been so close to death with your fellow miners, how did you feel after having walked through Yad Vashem revealing how the Jews in Europe too faced death?”
This brave and resolute man answered wiping away tears:
“There is one big difference. While we may have shared with the Jews in the concentration camps that feeling of always being close to death, we at least enjoyed one luxury – HOPE. We knew there were people rooting for us, praying for us all over the world and working non-stop to save us. Now, having spent the last two hours walking through Yad Vashem, I know the Jews in the Holocaust had no hope. No-one was coming to rescue them. There lies the big difference – we at least had HOPE!”
Four letters but it incapsulates the DNA of the State of Israel. Jews today in the direst of circumstance can HOPE. From rescuing 49,000 Jews of Yemen in Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950), Jewish passengers of a hijacked plane in Entebbe, Uganda in 1976, to rescuing thousands the Jews of Ethiopia in operations Moses and Solomon and now in 2020, to sending planes all over the world to bring back “HOME”, Israelis stranded because of the Coronavirus.
Today, Jews can not only HOPE, they can depend on the Jewish state to come to their rescue!