(photo credit: Courtesy)
As we trekked through a rain forest in northeast Thailand as part of a group of visiting Israelis, Moshe told me his life story. Born in Hungary, he was a little boy when Nazi Germany occupied his country, and he and his family joined the more than 430,000 Hungarian Jews deported to Auschwitz as part of Adolf Eichmann’s notorious death marches.
Moshe has a hearing aid in one ear – a disability an outside observer would easily subscribe to the gradual onset of advancing years. The truth, however, is less gentle. Moshe’s deafness stems from the day an SS guard slammed a rifle butt into his head after the four-year-old failed to keep his hands above his head while marching toward the death camps.
Unlike the 75 percent of Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz and were sent to the gas chambers either immediately or soon after their arrival, Moshe and his parents survived and, after the war, made their way to Israel to begin a new life in Ramat Gan. Moshe built up a successful legal career, and still maintains an office in Ramat Gan despite having passed retirement age.
While pursuing his career, Moshe felt the need to cater to his spirit, embarking on a doctorate (concerning the laws of inheritance) that originally started under the auspices of the Hebrew University but which finally was awarded, due more to happenstance than planning, by a Hungarian university. This closed the circle for the little Jewish boy forced to leave his home more than 65 years ago but who returned as a proud Israeli citizen to receive his doctorate.
Aside from the hearing aid, which of itself is no indication of his past, nothing outwardly marks Moshe as a Holocaust survivor. His accent-free Hebrew is perfect; he served in the IDF as an officer for many years and, thanks to a long and prosperous career, he now has time to enjoy the good life. If you ever need a hotel recommendation for a European capital or a tailor in Bangkok, Moshe’s your man.
And yet Moshe cannot (and nor does he want to) shake off his past as that little Jewish boy forced to leave his home toward the end of World War II. The memories (and the accompanying deafness) of that dark period in European history will always be with him, shaping his worldview. And what is true for Moshe also holds for the estimated 250,000 or so Holocaust survivors living here today.
ONE CANNOT understand modern-day Israel without acknowledging the Holocaust and its impact on the wider society. On the eve of Israel’s independence in 1948, the Jewish population of the county stood at 670,000. By 1952, it had absorbed 373,852 Holocaust survivors (and around 345,000 immigrants from the Arab world).
At first, native Israelis looked down on the survivors for, in their mistaken eyes, “going like lambs to the slaughter.” The post-1948 myth of the tough sabra was in no small part built on providing a striking contrast to the often looked-down-on Diaspora Jew.
The meeting of the pre-state Israeli population with the survivors is hauntingly captured by Amnon Danker’s Hebrew-language novel Aunt Eva, His Nights and Days
. Screams and nightmares punctuate the book as the survivors grapple with the daytime difficulties of their new lives in Jerusalem among an often uncaring citizenry and their nighttime memories of past lives and murdered families.
It took decades for mainstream Israel to adopt a more mature and sympathetic approach to Holocaust survivors, but during this time the majority of the survivors somehow found the mental strength to create a new life in often harsh conditions. The early years of statehood were far from easy for all sectors of the population, and the tense waiting period before the Six Day War, when many Israelis were convinced the country was facing imminent destruction, was a particularly dark time for those with memories of previous destruction.
At today’s Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremonies, the focus will be on
stories of general Jewish suffering and occasional examples of
individual heroism. As a new generation of Holocaust deniers rises to
disparage the tragedy that befell the Jewish people in Europe, the
importance of these ceremonies and the stories that accompany them, in
terms of bearing witness, cannot be downplayed.
There will also be much discussion of the elderly, impoverished
Holocaust survivors, particularly those who arrived here after the fall
of the Iron Curtain and who never had the chance to join the labor
market here and build a more secure economic future.
But alongside mourning the 6 million of our people who were wiped out,
and making a commitment to ensure that those who did survive can live
out the end of their days in dignity, we should also find space to
celebrate the lives of people like Moshe who survived, came here and
helped both build up the country and a new life. Their lesson of
survival, which includes the ability to enjoy the opportunities that
they created for themselves, is no less important to us than the other,
grimmer lessons of the Shoah.
The writer is a former editor-in-chief of
The Jerusalem Post.