Survivors Bear Witness on Holocaust Remembrance Day
Ceremony Commemorates Jewish Rescuers Heroism
"The Jews who risked their lives to save other Jews during the Holocaust stretched the Talmudic principle that 'all Jews are responsible for each other' to its utmost limits. They were willing to die so that others would live and so that the Jewish nation would continue to survive." KKL-JNF World Chairman Mr. Efi Stenzler
was speaking at the joint KKL-JNF and B’nai B’rith Holocaust Commemoration Ceremony on April 6, 2010, Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Day. This ceremony is the only one in the world dedicated to commemorating the heroism of Jews who rescued fellow Jews during the Second World War. It was held at the plaza in front of the "Scroll of Fire” monument, a sculpture by Nathan Rappaport that tells the story of murder of the Jewish People during the Holocaust and of their rebirth in the State of Israel through a moving base relief. The sculpture is located in Martyr's Forest, a joint KKL-JNF-B’nai B’rith project that memorializes the victims of the Holocaust through 6 million trees planted in the Jerusalem Mountains near Moshav Kesalon. The forest was planted and is maintained thanks to the contributions of Jews from Israel and from throughout the world. Dr. Bentziyon Bar-Lavi
, Director of KKL-JNF's Education Department, described the day's activities: "Participants include 350-400 youth from ages 14-18, along with 250 soldiers from the Israeli Army's Border Police. Some of the youth are immigrants from the Former Soviet Union who are part of the Na'ale program. We set up eight stations in the forest where Holocaust survivors tell their stories to the soldiers and youth. For almost all of them, this is the first time they have heard testimonies from the survivors themselves. This ceremony is one of the most important Holocaust Remembrance Day events in Israel. KKL-JNF and the B'nei Brith World Center in Jerusalem chose to focus on education and on the heroism of Jews who risked their lives saving other Jews during the Holocaust."
Words fall short when attempting to convey the unique atmosphere at the encounters in which the survivors told their stories to the soldiers and youths. Let the testimony of one of the survivors, Esther Meron of Hunagry
, who is now 86 years old, speak for itself: "There were originally 1,500 of us. 100 people were packed into cattle cars that were intended for 60. When the train finally stopped at Auschwitz, we stood on the wooden platforms for the selection process, which was presided over by Mengele. From 1,500 people, only 120 remained, and from these 120, only 13 survived. During the time I was in Auschwitz, I passed 17 selections, I have no idea how. Do you understand what a selection is? The nod of a German's head determines whether you live or die.
"I was eventually sent to a work camp near Mauthausen, and once again, it was thanks to a twist of fate that I remained alive. We were loaded onto a train, and suddenly the train stopped in the middle of a forest, not unlike the one we are sitting in now. We stopped for a while, then the train started moving again. I had no idea what happened, but after the war, I spoke with a historian of the Holocaust, who told me that the manager of the work camp had called up and said he had no need of us since he was about to receive a transport of Jews from Greece, so they might as well kill us in the forest. Before they were about to unload us from the train and shoot us, the manager called back and said that the transport from Greece hadn't arrived yet, so he would use us as workers and they could kill the Greek Jews.
"When we were eventually liberated by the American army in 1945, I was sick with typhus. Three American soldiers, two white and one black, entered our bunker and told us that we were free. We didn't even respond, we just laid in our beds, apathetic. Then, the black soldier came up to me and said in Yiddish, 'ir zeint frei' – 'you are free'. I have no idea how he knew Yiddish. They put us on stretchers and took us to a field hospital, where the American army cared for us with great kindness.
"I eventually regained my health, and it was time to go home, but to what home? It was possible to register to go to Palestine, Czechoslovakia or Hungary. I wanted to see what was left of what I had known as home, and when I realized that there was nothing left, I understood what to you must seem so self-evident – that a Jew must have a country of his own, with Jewish schools, hospitals, police and first and foremost, a Jewish army; a place that no one will deport him from; a place where no one will ever pack him into a cattle car. It is only here, in Israel, that the ground under my feet feels stable, because you are protecting me. When I was in the American hospital, one of the soldiers asked me what I wanted most. I answered that I wanted to hold a gun in my hands, not to feel helpless. You are all soldiers in the Israeli Army. I want you to know how grateful we all should be that we have a state of our own, and that we have the ability to defend ourselves."
Speaking at the ceremony, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler
described how hope could exist even in such darkness: "I would like to tell you about a most unique KKL-JNF Blue Box that was discovered in the charred remains of the Warsaw Ghetto. What was it doing there? Did people who were surviving by eating potato peels think about donating money for Israel? The answer is a resounding 'yes'. These people were not naïve; they knew that it was highly unlikely that this Blue Box would ever reach its destination. It was the vision of the Blue Box, of redeeming the lands of the Jewish people's ancient homeland that they identified with, and this is what gave them hope.
"Every Jew who is alive today must see themselves as a survivor of the European inferno. We live to remember, but also to plant and to create. In this spirit, together with B'nei B'rith, KKL-JNF planted six million trees in Martyrs Forest, six million verdant memorial candles. With the help of our friends worldwide, we are planting forests, building water reservoirs, restoring rivers, fighting desertification and much more throughout the country. In this way we are helping to realize the words the prophet Ezekiel spoke to the dry bones: 'And I shall put My spirit in you and you shall live, and I shall place you in your own land.'"
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The ceremony, which was beautifully and graciously emceed by Hadar Epstein
of KKL-JNF's Education Department, began with the lighting of a memorial flame by Mr. Alexander Sarel
, a Holocaust survivor who also fought in Israel's War of Independence. Mr. Sarel expressed his gratitude to KKL-JNF for the honor and the opportunity: "I was born in Lvov, Poland to a wealthy and assimilated Jewish family. When Poland was occupied, I was 11 years old and my sister was 8. It was as if we were suddenly thrown into a hell beyond anything the human imagination could ever have conjured. I decided that it was unsafe for my sister to stay with me, since as a Jewish male I was 'branded', so I arranged for her to stay in a Catholic convent.
"I managed to survive as a fugitive who fled from place. When the war finally ended, I was put in an orphanage with some Ukrainian boys, who, even though the war had ended, wanted to slit Jew's throats with razor blades. It was then that I realized that there was nothing left for me or for the Jewish people in Europe. I went to Israel and joined the Palmach. Today, I spend a lot of time bearing witness to young people. I feel that those of us survivors who are still alive must tell our stories again and again, so that our children will understand why we must have our own country and protect it."Professor Yitzhak Meir
, a member of the B'nei B'rith World Executive, who was born in 1927 and was in Budapest, Hungary in 1944 when the Nazis arrived, spoke about the need to remember that Jews had rescued other Jews, and why this important chapter of our history had not received the recognition it deserves: "Some people take it for granted that that's what Jews should do, but you have to understand the context. Life had become unbearable and no one had received any previous training how to deal with such a reality. People had no idea how to save themselves, let alone anyone else. When I was liberated by the Red Army, one of the soldiers, a Jew, spoke to me in Yiddish. We must never forget that Jews served in all the liberating armies, not to mention the Jewish Brigade in the British Army. As time passes, there are fewer and fewer of us who can tell our stories in first person. It is very important that KKL-JNF and B'nei B'rith organize ceremonies like this."
The deputy commander of the Border Police Training Base, Eliyahu Amrani
, reminded everyone that throughout history, the Jewish People was persecuted while the world remained silent: "Even as we remember the Holocaust today, tyrants from Ahmedinijad to the Hamas brazenly flaunt their goal of destroying the state of Israel. Our uniqueness is what infuriates our enemies on the one hand, but it is the secret of our survival on the other hand."Mr. Zevulun Orlev
, Chairman of the Knesset Education and Culture Committee said that our generation has been charged with an imperative to remember: "We must remember the survivors, and we stand in awe of the deeds of the partisans and fighters. The Knesset's Education and Culture Committee has instructed Yad Vashem to record the saga of those Jews who rescued other Jews in the annals of the Jewish people for all eternity. We must remember, so that Jewish blood will never again be cheap, and so that we will never again be in a situation in which we are dependent on others for our defense."
The European Union was represented at the ceremony by H.E. Edward Iosiper
, the Rumanian ambassador of Rumania, who noted that the Rumanian Jewish community was able to save half of its members: "Led by Wilhelm Hilberman, the head of the Jewish community, they used political tact, legal means, influence in high places and other means to save Jews. They were even able to garner the support of the Church, which was by in large anti-Semitic. Their superhuman efforts should serve as an inspiration for us to fight intolerance, racism and anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head."Mr. Haim Roth
, a Dutch survivor and chairman of the Committee to Recognize Jews who Rescued Jews during the Holocaust, was the concluding speaker at the ceremony: "I would like to thank KKL-JNF for providing us with such a fitting venue for remembering these Jewish heroes, whose deeds remind us that we were not solely dependent on the goodwill of the nations for our lives. Together with the Righteous of the Nations, Jews were responsible for saving tens of thousands of their countrymen. It is especially moving to remember them together with high school students and young soldiers, because many of the rescuers were their same age when they decided to risk their lives to save Jews."
The ceremony ended with soldiers and children reading the names of children murdered in the Holocaust, the presentation of certificates to Holocaust survivors, Yizkor, Kaddish and the singing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. After another round of testimonies by Holocaust survivors, KKL-JNF volunteer guides took the pupils for a two and a half hour hike through Martyr's Forest, to the B'nei B'rith memorial.
After the ceremony, we spoke with Oded Ravivi
, the mayor of the Efrat Municipal Council, who told us about a joint initiative with KKL-JNF that was being led by two teachers from Efrat, Susan Weiss and Tali Samuel: "Susan and Tali had the idea to collect one and a half million buttons for the one and a half million children who were killed in the Holocaust." Why buttons? Susan explained:
"Buttons are round, like the cycle of life, and they come in all sorts of sizes and shapes, like children. Clothes may fade, but the buttons remain, so they symbolize the memory of the children who were killed. We found this to be such an effective way of educating children about the Holocaust that, with the help of KKL-JNF's Education Department, we created suitcases with buttons, which are actually Holocaust study kits that are now being used in schools throughout the country with great success."Kfir
, a high school student from Gush Etzyon, asked Eliezer Lev Tziyon
a Holocaust survivor who helped save other Jews, how it felt to remain
alive when so many people around him, including his mother and brother,
were murdered: Eliezer replied: "You certainly asked a difficult
question. Truthfully, I feel some pains of conscience. Why did they die
while I stayed alive? I don't feel like a hero, I did what a person had
to do. We lived from minute to minute, there were no long-term plans.
For some reason I lived and was privileged to come to Israel. I worked
for KKL-JNF sixty years ago covering the Negev desert with trees. We
didn't live for ourselves, we lived to serve others, and that is my
blessing to you."Yulia Bogolovski and Moria Medina
are both ninth-grade students at the Youth Village High School in Ben
Shemen: Moria: "We learned about the Holocaust in history class, but
this is the first time we heard about it directly from people who were
there, which makes it much more real. On the one hand, the stories were
very captivating, but the other hand, they were difficult and painful
to listen to."
Yulia added; "I feel privileged to have met these people who somehow
survived, made it to Israel and helped build our country. It is in
their merit that we are here today."
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