"You fought in the Warsaw Ghetto? You are a hero of Israel. May God bless you."
By YEHUDA AVNER
At four o'clock on the afternoon of Holocaust Memorial Day, 1981, Prime Minister Menachem Begin entered the Knesset cabinet room to welcome 30 top-ranking leaders of the United Jewish Appeal [now the United Jewish Communities]. With old-world charm he kissed knuckles, pumped palms, squeezed shoulders and called almost everybody by their first name.
These were the genuinely dedicated ones - the ones who traveled tirelessly across America, elbowing their way into disinterested Jewish communities to fire them up for Israel, pounding on Federation tables for a bigger share of the designated funds, tearing up in disgust pledge cards they deemed inadequate, and sometimes even locking doors so that no one could leave until they had given money - big money - for Israel.
Asked why they expended so much effort and means doing what they did, most would probably have simply said, because the fate of the Jewish state was every Jew's responsibility. Some might even have confessed to a sense of remorse and guilt over the appalling record of their elders - the American Jewish leadership of the Holocaust years - who, paralyzed by inertia, ignorance, apathy and indifference, had done too little, too late to save Europe's Jews. Now these philanthropists were resolved the Jewish state would not go the same way.
THERE WAS A predictable solemn note to Begin's words of welcome as he recalled the Six Million who had perished, and the undaunted valor of the fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto. And everybody straightened up in rigid attentiveness when one of their own, an elderly man, pulled up a sleeve of his jacket to reveal a claret-colored scar, and muttered, "I was there."
"You fought in the Warsaw Ghetto?" asked an incredulous Begin. The man nodded. Without another word the prime minister rose, walked over to where he sat, bowed his head in solemn salutation, gripped his shoulders in a fervent and possessive gesture, and in a voice husky with emotion, said, "Ata gibor b'Yisrael. Yevarechecha Hashem - You are a hero of Israel. May God bless you."
The aging philanthropist, whom everybody knew as Ruby, was a Los Angeles magnate dressed in a white outfit. He was very short, with a skinny neck, a big head and silvery tusks of hair that stuck out on the sides like Einstein.
Deeply moved at the prime minister's gesture he closed his eyes, pulled his mouth in at the corners, twiddled the lobe of his right ear, sat down, blew his nose to blink back the tears, and immediately shot up again to chokingly announce that he was doubling his pledge to a million dollars.
EVERYBODY applauded. Irving Bernstein, the indomitable executive vice president of the UJA, clapped his hands longer than anyone else. He was bushy-haired, short and slim, an intense activist with piercing, bespectacled eyes that never left your face. Now, typically, he bayoneted into the prime minister to ask, "Tell us, Mr. Begin, how the memory of the Holocaust influences your attitude toward Germany today."
For the briefest moment Begin stared balefully back at Bernstein. Burying his face in his hands, he whispered between his fingers, amid an astonishing silence, that the subject was deeply emotional for him.
"I have a special attitude concerning what the Germans did to our people," he said in a voice that expressed an infinite sorrowful spirit. "You see, I know how my mother, my father, my brother, and my two cousins - one four years old, one five years old - went to their deaths."
Seized by an infernal Shoah reverie, the premier's eyes stared unseeingly at the faces of his guests. They stared back at him in reverence.
"My father was the secretary of the Brisk [now Brest-Litovsk] Jewish community," he continued in a heavy voice. "He walked to his death at the head of 500 Jews. They all sang 'Hatikva'; 'Hatikva' and Ani ma'amin - 'I believe with perfect faith in the Messiah's coming.'
"The Germans pushed them into the River Bug. They opened fire with machine guns from both sides, and the river became red with blood. The water turned to blood. That is how they died.
"And my mother - she was an old woman, sick in hospital. They summoned her and all the sick women in the hospital, and slaughtered them.
"So, yes, I don't deny it - I live with this. It colors everything I do. I will live with this until the day I die."
EVERYBODY sat gazing at Begin with poignant earnestness as he dabbed his moistening eyes. Then, snapping out of his gloomy reminiscence, he remarked with renewed composure, "But now, baruch Hashem - thank God - we have the means to defend ourselves. We have Israel. We have our courageous Israel Defense Forces.
"And because we have Israel and the IDF, can there be no pardon, ever?" asked Bob, a lively fellow from Denver with a southern drawl and sparkling blue eyes. "Doesn't there come a time when we have to put the past behind us?"
"No, Bob, I can't do that. I shall never forgive the German people. Every German I see of that generation I think to myself - for all I know, that man murdered my father, my mother, and our little children. And when I speak of my father, I speak of all the fathers. And when I speak of my mother, I speak of all the mothers.
"And when I speak of my little brother and my little cousins, I speak of all the little Jewish children - of all the Moysheles and the Surahles and the Yankeles and the Rivkales and the Dovidils and the Leahles."
The names came out in whimpers, and when Begin next spoke it was between clenched teeth:
"The Germans bear collective responsibility for a horror the like of which has not been known since God created Satan. So long as that embodiment of all evil - Adolf Hitler - brought them victories, they hailed him. When his fortunes declined, they began to turn their backs on him - a little. So, no, I will never shake the hand of a German - never!"
"But what do you do when you have to officially shake a German's hand?" asked a middle-aged lady in a flowery frock, named Charlotte.
"Oh, then it is quite a different matter," Begin reassured her. "As prime minister I have to fulfill my official role. When the German foreign minister, Mr. Genschar, was here recently I received him with courtesy, and we talked of many important matters."
"In German?" asked Charlotte.
"No. I know German, but I won't speak their language. We communicated in English. And by the by," (Begin liked that expression) "if Chancellor Helmut Schmidt were to visit Jerusalem I would sit and talk to him, too, as it is my official duty to do. And there would be some things I would like to say to him face to face, in particular."
The head of the delegation, Frank Lautenburg, a patrician, soft-spoken gentleman who was shortly to be elected United States Senator for New Jersey, asked if the prime minister would care to elaborate on that. He had heard that the prime minister had had a serious quarrel with the German chancellor, and that, as a consequence, relations between the two countries were strained.
BEGIN STROKED the chin of his gaunt face, and to lend added sincerity to the words he was about to say, leaned across the table from the front edge of his chair and gazed into Lautenburg's eyes with great earnestness.
"It is true, Frank," he said. "I reprimanded Helmut Schmidt in public."
"What had he done? What had he said?"
"He had gone to Saudi Arabia, and he had said in a public statement that Germany had obligations to various peoples, among them the Palestinians, but he made no mention of the Jews.
"I was beside myself with astonishment. Could it be, I said to myself, that he, of all people, had failed to make mention of Germany's obligation to the Jews - and in Saudi Arabia, of all places? So, yes, I told him what I thought of him in public."
"And how did he respond?"
"He demanded an apology, but I refused. I publicly told him that he had shown arrogance and callous disregard of the Jews exterminated by his people in World War II. And I counseled him to take an example from his predecessor, Chancellor Willy Brandt. I told him to do what Brandt did: to go to Warsaw. I told him to go to the site where the Jewish ghetto once stood.
"Go down on your knees, Mr. Schmidt, I told him. Go down on you knees and beg forgiveness of the Jewish people for what your countrymen perpetrated under the Nazi regime against my people, at a time when you, Mr. Schmidt, remained steadfast to the personal oath you had given to Adolf Hitler, as a soldier in the Wehrmacht."
"He was a soldier in the German army?" asked Ruby.
"Oh yes. He even reached officer rank. He served both on the Russian front and the western front, until he was captured by the British in 1944."
"Whatdoyerknow!" marveled Bernstein.
"Yemach sh'mo!" spat the Warsaw Ghetto survivor. "Let him rot."
"And now he's chancellor of Germany," concluded the prime minister, shaking his head from side to side at the irony of it all.
But there was an even greater irony to come. In 1984, the former president of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, let it be known that Helmut Schmidt's father was the illegitimate son of a Jew.
The writer, a veteran diplomat, served on the staff of five prime ministers, including Menachem Begin. firstname.lastname@example.org
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