"Every year, for over twenty years, we have been coming here to the Bernardo O'Higgins Recreation Area to open Chile's month-long Independence Day celebrations, during September. This year, we are especially excited to host members of the Chilean Fire Department and to award the Bernardo O'Higgins Medal of Honor to Israel Fire Commissioner Shimon Rokach."
We were speaking with Touvia Goldstein, president of the Israel-Chile Cultural Institute and president of the O'Higgins Institute in Israel, at KKL-JNF's Eshta'ol Forest. Several Latin-American communities have dedicated forest groves and recreation areas in this area, often in memory of a national hero or an important personage. Many distinguished guests, including the Chilean ambassador to Israel, the Honorable Ms. Irene Bronfman, the Chilean Army & Navy AttachÃ© to Israel, Colonel Carlos O'Ryan, firemen from the Bet Shemesh Fire Department and members of the diplomatic corps, came to honor the memory of Chile's national hero and to participate in the ceremony.
Rabbi Yerahmiel Barylka, head of KKL-JNF's Latin America Desk, welcomed the distinguished guests, saying that KKL-JNF was honored to host guests from South America. "Israel has always felt a special closeness to the countries of South America, which supported us even before we received our independence. On behalf of KKL-JNF and its fire fighters, we join in honoring Commissioner Rokach, who is eminently deserving of this award." Colonel Carlos O'Ryan thanked KKL-JNF warmly for hosting the ceremony at this magnificent site and shared Bernando O'Higgins' fascinating story with the audience.
Bernando O'Higgins was born on August 20, 1778, 230 years ago. He was the central military and political figure in the saga of Chile's independence and the architect of independence for additional Latin American countries. He helped establish the Chilean army and to found the National Congress in 1810. When the Spanish invaded Chile in 1813 with the intention of nipping Chilean independence in the bud, O'Higgins proved himself to be a brave soldier and capable military strategist, earning him the title of general in 1814. It was during these battles that he sounded his famous call: 'Live honorably or die in glory. If you are courageous, follow me!' Together with the Argentinean army, he defeated the Spanish in 1817 and Chile declared its independence in 1818.
After the war, O'Higgins devoted himself to writing Chile's constitution and forming Chile's government and governmental institutions. He also founded the national library and national medical institute. In spite of his many and varied political accomplishments, he had to contend with the bitterness of the aristocracy and those who could not accept that the revolution was over and the time had arrived for nation building. In 1823, he resigned and moved to Peru, where he resided until his death in 1842, just as Chile was about to officially reinstate him as a national hero and recognize his tireless efforts on behalf of his country. His life may serve as a model of heroism, humility and self-sacrifice. His unique personality is an inspiration for our army to this day and makes us proud to be Chileans wherever we might find ourselves.
Wreaths of flowers were placed on the O'Higgins memorial, after which Israel Fire Commissioner Shimon Rokach was presented with the O'Higgins Medal of Honor in recognition of his contribution to the excellent relations between Chile and Israel, particularly between the fire departments of the two countries. He spoke of the chance way he had discovered Bernardo O'Higgins. "I am a coin collector and was curious about this man whose image I saw on so many coins. I studied his biography and realized that he was "the Chilean Ben Gurion." I am greatly honored to receive this award. If I have made some small contribution to Israel-Chilean relations in the past, I now feel obligated to make an even greater contribution in the future. I think that fire-fighting is an excellent venue for international cooperation: a non-military field dedicated to saving human lives. I also want to thank the Bet Shemesh fire department for participating in today's ceremony."
Ambassador Irene Bronfman said that there were few jobs more exciting or important than that of a fire fighter. "In Chile, most of the fire-fighters are volunteers, so it really is about cooperation and giving. There have been Israeli missions to Chile and vice-versa, and I hope that this trend will not only continue, but actually grow stronger. This is a very important month for us as it is the time we celebrate our independence. I cannot imagine a better place to begin the month's events than in this beautiful forest, which I'm sure reminds everyone here of our homeland."
Speaking with us later, Commissioner Rokach told us that in Chile, each fire station was named for a different country, and there were now two fire stations named for Israel. "And talking about cooperation - there is excellent cooperation between the foresters and firefighters of KKL-JNF and the Bet Shemesh fire department in dealing with fires in this area. This is not the first time that Bet Shemesh firemen - with their fire engines - are guests in KKL-JNF forests!"
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