The Human Spirit: The origins of heroism

Maj. Roi Klein recited 'Shma' as he made a conscious decision to give his life to save the men under his command.

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April 23, 2009 15:13

 
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Outside, rain fell relentlessly on the countryside. Inside the train, more Nazi officers crowded into the compartments, their voices loud and grating. Menahem Klein glanced at his watch once again. The time was now. His heart pounding, he nodded to his young cousin and trying to look inconspicuous, they made their way to the door in the farthest passage. They were on the run. They had already left Düsseldorf, Germany for Lille, in the north of France, but then the Nazis had conquered France, too. Time to jump. They were passing the spot where they were to meet their contact. He leaned against the door, but it wouldn't open. The train sped on. Klein pushed with all his might, and at last, managing to wedge the door open a bit, the two fugitives jumped, tumbling from the speeding train. Klein eventually gained sanctuary for his wife and children in Switzerland. After the war, in 1945, the Kleins made aliya. The terror of that unyielding door, he'd told his son Aharon, haunted him throughout his life. Six decades later, Menahem Klein's grandson stood outside a closed door in the village of Bint Jbail in southern Lebanon. He was a major in the IDF and a deputy battalion commander in the Golani infantry brigade. On July 24, 2006, his soldiers had been hastily shifted from fighting in the south to the Second Lebanon War's most difficult battle with Hizbullah. Supplies were meager and the intelligence maps of the town were out of date. For Major Klein, this wasn't the first time he had been in Bint Jbail. He and his special troops had been the last soldiers to leave Lebanon in 2000, isolated in that very village when the IDF evacuated earlier than originally scheduled. Now he was back, but after two days of fighting, Klein's unit received orders to leave Bint Jbail. Then inexplicably the orders were changed again. They were to stay one additional day and carry out a mission to get behind the town wall. Before dawn, three homes near the wall were to be taken over on the way to breaching the wall. The soldiers moved forward. The first door was easily opened. The second proved more difficult. But a steel door barred entry to the third house. Battering, bullets and explosives wouldn't budge it. The delay and noise alerted the enemy and elicited gunfire. Several soldiers tried a detour, circumventing the house through an adjoining olive grove, but soon found themselves facing a higher wall. Caught in the open, they were ambushed from three sides. The crackle of the radio brought deputy commander Roi Klein the dire news. "Kodkod my commanding officer, I'm wounded. Need evacuation." Under fire, Klein traced their path through the olive trees. Gunfire and grenades rained down on them. As Klein bent to lift an injured officer onto a stretcher, a live hand grenade tumbled near his feet. Klein leapt forward and covered it with his body, shielding his comrades from the deadly blast. HOLOCAUST REMEMBRANCE DAY and Remembrance Day come soon after our glorious celebration of liberation and redemption on Passover, sobering reminders of the agonizing, ongoing struggles for survival of the Jewish people. I've stopped thinking of the two memorial days as separate events but as bracketing a seven-day period of mourning and reflection, a time when it is our duty to express appreciation for those who gave their lives to enable us to live ours with confidence and dignity in Israel and in the Diaspora. As some mistakenly assume, the determination and fortitude of the IDF did not rise in contradistinction to a lack of courage in Europe. Just the opposite. It is as a continuation of the unbreakable spirit of the Jewish people that endured with courage and resilience unspeakable horror and debasement. Until 2003 when so many IDF pilots wanted to take part in the Auschwitz fly-past, few realized how many were grandchildren of Holocaust survivors. Brig.-Gen. Amir Eshel - his feet in the ashes of Auschwitz and his eyes on the IDF pilots in the sky - correctly identified the fighting spirit of the IDF as a continuation of that of the Holocaust. The voice of the pilot from above declared: "We pilots of Israel, flying in the skies above the camp of horrors, rose from the ashes of the millions of victims and salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people." I frequently watch that ceremony on YouTube. Likewise, I keep a copy of the film With All Your Soul, the story of Roi Klein, on my desk, revisiting it to remind myself of the enormity of the loss and the debt we owe our soldiers. Wondering about the origins of Klein's extraordinary heroism, I spoke to Shoshana Klein, Roi's mother. I wasn't surprised to hear that she, like her husband came from a family that had experienced the Holocaust. Shoshana was born here to a pioneer mother who had left Europe before the war, but all her siblings and parents were left behind. Two aunts became partisan fighters in the forests of Eastern Europe. The rest of the family perished in the ghettoes of Lithuania. ROI WASN'T named after any of the murdered relatives. Instead, his sabra mother preferred a name that means "shepherd." "What could be nicer than to be a shepherd of Israel," asked Shoshana. "Roi knew about the family Holocaust background of course. How could we ignore it?" Roi enjoyed an idyllic childhood in Ra'anana. A quiet and serious boy, intelligent and creative, with a broad endearing smile and a sense of humor, he was good at just about everything and handsome as well. An excellent student, he was talented in music, sports and acting. But even as a child, he was committed to public service. When he was only in second grade, a neighbor's child went missing for an hour, and he insisted on searching for her. He volunteered as a youth leader in Bnei Akiva and on Shabbat read the Torah for immigrants in the nearby absorption center. When he turned 18, Roi spent a year at the pre-military yeshiva Bnei David in Eli before beginning four years of challenging military service in the elite and dangerous Orev and Egoz special units which required both leadership and teamwork. Later, he was called back to the IDF, and became a platoon commander. Somehow, he managed also to complete an engineering degree with distinction, marry his sweetheart, Sara Sjalin, and to be a devoted dad to their two small sons, Gilad and Yoav. All the while, Roi continued serious Torah studies, daily picking up an admired older rabbi before dawn so that he could enjoy a private study session with him. His personal motto was "difficult is good." How much he had to give up. But on that fatal morning in Bint Jbail, Maj. Roi Klein made a conscious decision to give his life to save the men under his command. As he leaped forward, he shouted, "Shma Yisrael Adoshem Elokeinu Adoshem Echad, Hear O Israel, the Lord Our God, the Lord is One." The blast tore his body, but he refused to die until he had passed on the valuable coded transmitter to his comrades. Maj. Roi Klein was buried at Mount Herzl on his 31st birthday. Shma Yisrael. These have always been the parting words of our people, those of us who were murdered in the Holocaust and those who fight to keep our fledgling nation alive. Just as in his life Roi Klein was a bridge between the Holocaust heroism and sabra heroism, so was he at his death. We remember him, we thank him, we honor him and through him, all our beloved and irreplaceable human treasures whom he so ably represents. On earth, Roi, we need to keep your memories alive with good deeds and resilience through difficulty. In heaven, the doors surely flew wide open for you.

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