Here and There: November: A time to remember

Grandma Katten was settled in a comfortable home for the elderly trusting that no one would touch old people even if they were Jews... She was murdered at Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Sobibor death camp (photo credit: REUTERS)
Sobibor death camp
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Today, November 21, as this edition of The Jerusalem Post Magazine hits the newsstands, marks 30 years since Operation Moses began a number of airlifts bringing 8,000 Ethiopian Jews, via Sudan and Brussels, to Israel. Over a period of seven weeks 30 flights brought home our Ethiopian brethren. These were the lucky ones – for the hard painful trek from Ethiopian to the Sudan began with 12,000 participants – tragically 4,000 literally fell by the wayside. This airlift could only happen because there was a place, a country that would accept these Jews.
November is a month in which we should all remind ourselves of the significance of having a Jewish state.
MY HUSBAND, John, born in Germany, recently gave a talk to an ESRA (English Speaking Residents’ Association) audience on Kristallnacht – the night between November 9 and 10, 1938, when synagogues in Germany were set alight, when Jewish shops were attacked and vandalized and when the men of the community were taken off to concentration camps. Our daughter and son-inlaw, visiting from London, decided that they wanted to come along and hear this personal recollection of Kristallnacht.
While they had heard the story before, somehow, on this occasion, sitting with others and observing the emotion with which John recounted the trauma resonated at a far deeper level.
John, a boy of 10, was living in Bamberg in 1938 where his father was the rabbi of the synagogue – a beautiful synagogue (as most European synagogues were) that went up in flames. As he stood in front of his audience he began to recall how it was for Jews living in Germany under Hitler. His father had fought in the First World War and been awarded a medal.
He felt very at home in Germany. His mother, originally from Hungary, was the one who had wanted to leave Germany much earlier – almost from the moment that Hitler came to power in 1933. It was hard to obtain visas and guarantees from family abroad that would enable a Jewish family to leave Germany. Countries that were prepared to accept Jews and give the right documentation had quota systems in operation.
John’s grandmother (his father’s mother) lived with them as she had been widowed when her only child was eight years old. While the family finally obtained visas to leave Germany for America, this did not include a visa for Grandma Katten as no country was prepared to take in an old lady. His father was torn – how could he leave his mother? – it seemed impossible. John recalled the many arguments between his mother and father relating to this terrible dilemma. There was yet another problem – the entry visa to America was dated November 1940 (part of the quota system that restricted entry each year). However, John’s other grandfather, Rabbi Dr. Michael Guttmann, an eminent rabbi in Budapest, through his connection with the then chief rabbi of Britain, Dr. Joseph Hertz (originally from Hungary) resulted in Hertz obtaining a temporary visa for the Katten family enabling them to have a limited sojourn in Britain until they could enter the United States. Grandma Katten was settled in a comfortable home for the elderly, trusting that no one would touch old people even if they were Jews. The family left for London believing that Grandma would be safe and cared for. How wrong they were – she was murdered at Theresienstadt concentration camp.
NOVEMBER 2 this year marked 97 years since the Balfour Declaration. The famous letter written by Arthur James Balfour, on behalf of the British government, to Lord Rothschild in which he asked him to bring to the attention of the Zionist Federation that “His Majesty’s government view with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of the object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”
The tragedy is that this declaration took a further 30 years to come to fruition.
We can but wonder how the course of Jewish history might have changed if there had been a homeland to receive the six million who were barbarically murdered in the Holocaust.
November 29, 1947, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, the United Nations voted for the partition of Palestine, thus enabling the rebirth of the Jewish State of Israel. Amos Oz in his autobiography A Tale of Love and Darkness describes graphically how it was for his parents as they stood in their Jerusalem street with others listening to the radio, with bated breath, as each member state cast its vote for the “Partition Plan” and then the indescribable joy of hearing there were enough votes for a Jewish state.
NOVEMBER 2014. My generation understands the significance of a Jewish homeland. We understand because we remember a world without a home for the Jews. What of the younger generation? Born into a world where Israel has always been there – just another country for them. A world where the Holocaust is distant history and where when people like my husband die out there will be no one left to personally tell the despair of a people with nowhere to go.
There can be no doubt that, today, one of the most important challenges is to convey to the younger generation the full meaning, significance and relevance of a Jewish state. The most effective way is to ensure they have the opportunity of an Israel experience – to see for themselves the reality that is Israel rather than the distorted view as too frequently portrayed by the media.
To have the chance to meet with their Israeli peers so that they can get to know and understand each other better.
We are a country that prides itself on a wealth of nongovernmental organizations succeeding in bringing a brighter tomorrow for children and youth at risk. I sat in recently on a meeting of our ESRA Projects Committee. It was moving to hear our volunteer coordinators speak about how we are building communities of youngsters who, in spite of their personal challenges, will become contributing members of Israeli society. What I was especially pleased to learn was that “gap year” students from abroad were volunteering in some of our projects and were meeting with our Israeli students engaged in our Students Build a Community project (one of ESRA’s most successful projects offering carefully chosen students rent-free accommodation in distressed areas in exchange for their mentoring the children on the block).
We must somehow instill a sense of pride as to what this little state has managed to achieve in a short 66 years of existence.
Israel is second only to the US’s Silicon Valley in the field of hi-tech. Israel’s Research and Development programs have resulted in numerous medical discoveries to help mankind. But over and above these success stories is the reality that we are a country that cares about others.
Back in 2010 we were the first to send a 200-strong relief team to earthquakestricken Haiti, saving thousands of lives.
In 2011 we were one of the first countries to send aid to earthquake-stricken Japan – we sent a medical team and set up a field clinic. Since 1995 Israel’s “Save a child’s heart” project has treated over 2,300 children, half of whom came from the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Iraq as well as other Arab countries. Currently, Israel has sent a number of fully equipped field hospitals to African countries to assist in the fight against the deadly Ebola disease.
Back to the beginning – 30 years ago today 8,000 Ethiopian Jews began the journey home. For those who are questioning the relevance of a Jewish state in 2014 may I suggest taking a look around the world in which we live – anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head once more – thank God there is an Israel!
The writer is the chair of ESRA and has been active in public affairs and status-of-women issues.