Fundamentally Freund: A room full of heroes

There is no shortage of people who wake up each morning and make the conscious choice to continue to be Jewish in a world that seems more hostile than ever to our very existence.

michael freund 88 (photo credit: )
michael freund 88
(photo credit: )
Anyone who doubts the ability of the Jewish people to produce towering men should have been in the Polish city of Gdansk this past week. For it was there, in a far-away corner of northern Europe, that a remarkable gathering brought together two extraordinary figures in the annals of modern Jewish bravery. The occasion was a commemoration held at Gdansk's lone synagogue to mark the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. The event was cosponsored by Poland's Jewish community and Shavei Israel, the organization that I chair, and was part of the Polish government's official program of ceremonies recalling the initial German assault that spiraled into a global conflagration of epic proportions. There was of course the usual array of diplomats and journalists who attend such events, as well as an impressive showing of local Jews from Gdansk along with other cities throughout Poland. BUT IT was a diminutive 86-year old with plenty of spunk still left in him who caught my attention and that of all those present. Many Israelis know Samuel Willenberg as a successful sculptor and artist, but his true accomplishments came at a much earlier age. In 1939, as a 16-year-old, he volunteered for the Polish army and battled against invading German troops before later being wounded in clashes with Soviet forces in the eastern part of the country. Subsequently, Willenberg was arrested and sent to Treblinka, where he took part in a prisoner revolt in August 1943 and managed to escape from the German death camp. Making his way to the capital, he took up arms once again, this time in the Polish underground's August 1944 Warsaw Uprising. After the war, and the establishment of the State of Israel, Willenberg made aliya and built a new life for himself and his family in the Jewish state. When he gripped my hand and looked me directly in the eyes, I caught a glimpse of the steely strength that lay within, and was stirred by this man's seemingly inexhaustible ability to ride out even the most trying of circumstances. Moments later, Willenberg was introduced to visiting Minister for Information and Diaspora Affairs Yuli Edelstein, himself a veteran of Soviet labor camps who stood up to tyranny and paid a heavy price for doing so. Edelstein, who has an amazing facility for languages, taught Hebrew to his fellow Jews in Moscow and pressed for the right to emigrate to Israel. Russian authorities persecuted him and shipped the young activist off to a jail cell near the Mongolian border, where he tenaciously clung to his faith. In the summer of 1987, Edelstein was finally allowed to make aliya, and I still remember the emotional greeting he received when he was brought straight from the airport to the Western Wall. Along with thousands of others, I sang and danced together with him as he celebrated his newfound freedom and return to the land of his forefathers. Then this incredible man, who just hours previously had been lying in a Soviet prison, led us all in the evening ma'ariv prayer in the heart of ancient Jerusalem. And within a decade, he would go from being a Prisoner of Zion in communist Russia to a highly-respected member of Israel's government. So here they were in Gdansk, these two men who had survived just about everything that the 20th century could throw at the Jewish people. And as I looked at Edelstein and Willenberg chatting amiably with one another, I could not help but think about all the cynicism and pessimism we have become accustomed to back home. SKEPTICISM AND disparagement of others has unfortunately become the norm in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, where many seem to thrive on the sport of tearing down our leaders and picking them apart. It has seeped into our consciousness, colored our view of the world and contaminated our way of thinking, leading many to believe that we Jews just don't make heroes the way we used to. Sure, you might be thinking, Edelstein and Willenberg are great men, but their deeds belong to another time and place. What about now, what about the future? Are there still heroic figures in Jewish life today? As I pondered this question, I turned toward the back of the room, where I think I may have found the answer. There, seated quietly, was a row of 12 young Polish Jews, nearly all of whom had only recently discovered their Jewish roots. Many were raised as Catholics, only to learn that a parent or grandparent had in fact been Jewish, but had chosen to hide their identity because of Nazi persecution or communist oppression. Now, along with a growing number of others throughout Poland, these young people are defying social norms and a great deal of latent anti-Semitism and choosing to embrace their Jewish heritage. Thanks to the tireless efforts of Polish Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, they form the core of a nascent revival of Jewish life that is under way in the land where more than 90 percent of Polish Jewry was murdered in the Holocaust. It is hard to believe, or even imagine, the challenges they face in doing so. The easiest thing in the world for these young people to do would be to suppress the new-found knowledge of their Jewish ancestry, bury it away in some mental attic and get on with their lives in a newly free and democratic Poland. But they choose instead the path of resistance, the path of challenge and defiance - the path of heroes. It was then that I realized that Willenberg and Edelstein were far from alone in that room. Their example of Jewish valor and nerve was being taken up by a new generation, one with its own struggles to wage and battles to be fought - whether in Gdansk, in Jerusalem or elsewhere. There is no shortage of such people, who wake up each morning and make the conscious choice to continue to be Jewish in a world that seems more and more hostile to our very existence. So the question remains: Do the Jewish people still produce heroes? Sure - all you need to do is to know where to look.