Israelis are raised on the stories of the Maccabees, the exploits of underground resistance groups such as the Lehi, Irgun and the Haganah and the daring of the young soldiers who fought in the War of Independence, but they know very little about the heroism of the Jews who fought in the ghettos, rebelled in the concentration camps, or battled shoulder-to-shoulder with the partisans in the forests, according to Colette Avital, who chairs the umbrella organization of 57 Holocaust survivor associations in Israel.
A former diplomat and member of Knesset who was active in ensuring the restoration of funds and property to Holocaust survivors and a child Holocaust survivor herself, Avital spoke at a Hanukkah candle-lighting ceremony that took place at the President’s Residence on Monday morning.
There were several such heroes in the hall, she said, but she categorized all of the survivors present as heroes who had the courage to start life anew, to volunteer in the War of Independence, to get married and to create families in place of those who perished in a bid to guarantee Jewish continuity. They also integrated fully into academia, religious institutions, the legal system, and more, proving the ability of human beings to survive and overcome the most devastating chapters in their lives.
The Jewish people had succeeded in surviving their enemies, she said, but the challenge today, is to survive from themselves.
President Reuven Rivlin told of an incident that had taken place in Bergen-Belsen on the second night of Hanukkah in 1943. The rabbi had used part of his shoe laces for wicks and had created something like candle wax from the soles of his shoes. He had debated with himself whether or not to recite the sheheheyanu blessing, which gives thanks to God for having granted us life and sustained us so that we could reach this time.
The blessing is recited on the first night of a festival or in appreciation of a pleasant new experience. When the rabbi was asked how he could recite sheheheyanu in a place like Bergen-Belsen, he replied that when he saw the faces of so many Jews who had maintained their Jewish identity, who were prepared to risk all for the preservation of Jewish law and tradition, it was obvious to him that he must recite sheheheyanu.
In memory of this, Rivlin, who had recited sheheheyanu on Sunday evening, thought it appropriate to once again recite sheheheyanu in Jerusalem the capital of the “free, independent, democratic Jewish state.” He said he was reciting it “with a full heart.”
Looking out across the crowd that had come from all over the country, Rivlin said: “The survival of each of you is a miracle and your collective story is that of a generation of heroism and activism.”
The candles were lit in a hanukkia salvaged from a Polish town in which there were once 200,000 Jews, of whom barely any survived.
Rivlin said that he wants to ensure that Israel does everything that it can do to enable Holocaust survivors to live out their lives in dignity and respect.
Polish-born Holocaust survivor Hannah Weinstein, who is a member of AMHA Rehovot, which is part of a worldwide network that helps Holocaust survivors to deal with the traumas of the past, said that for 60 years she had been silent and afraid.
“I didn’t speak,” Weinstein said. “I was terrified to go from one room to another in case someone was hiding under the bed. I was scared to stand near the window in case there was someone outside waiting to attack me.”
But she always wanted to be normal “like everyone else.” As a child, she had spent a year and a half in the ghetto, then three years living like an animal in the forest, wearing the same dress every day, she said. A non-Jewish friend had helped her family and another to escape from the ghetto and hid them in his house.
But the neighbors noticed that he was buying too much food and came to check him out. First, they shot him and his family, then they turned their guns on the Jews. Weinstein’s mother lay on top of her to protect her and was killed. Weinstein was wounded, but lay still as did all the others, pretending to be dead. When the villagers left, the survivors got up and made their way to the forest – three little girls and their father. There was nothing to eat in the forest except leaves. At night they covered themselves with branches to guard against the cold. There was no fresh water, and they had no option but to drink polluted water.
When the war was over, the three little girls emerged from the forest and sat by the roadside, waiting for someone to find them. The person who did was Lena Kuchler, who was looking for her family, but found only hungry children on the road or in refugee camps. She became famous as the surrogate mother of a hundred children whom she led walking from Poland to Israel.
“I was one of the hundred children” said Weinstein. Kuchler initially took them to Zakopane, “where she taught us how to brush our teeth – and our lives began again.” After 60 years of traumatic fear in Israel, Weinstein eventually found her way to AMHA, and after receiving therapy, also found her voice and the courage to accompany 10 groups to Poland.
Entertainment was provided by members of the IDF entertainment troupe, causing Avi Rosenthal the CEO of the umbrella organization to say: “Who would have imagined during the Shoa that we would sit in Jerusalem and listen to entertainers dressed in the uniform of the Israel Army?”
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