‘Ani Nishba’ – I swear

We the living were making a commitment to the dead. For soon there will be no more living survivors.

Soldiers lay flags on Graves on Remembrance Day 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Soldiers lay flags on Graves on Remembrance Day 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
My name is Gadi. I am 18 years old. Last week I stood at the Kotel (the Western Wall) with about 400 other young Jews and was sworn in as a member of the Paratroopers’ Orev tank-hunting unit.
My officers invoked the memories of the Holocaust, of the wars we have had to fight here in Israel. I stood there last night, at the symbol of the Jewish people’s exile, the focal point of generation upon generations of prayers. I received my gun and my Bible and I swore an oath. “Ani Nishba” – I swear. I swore an oath of loyalty to the IDF, to the Jewish people to the Jewish state. For me and my family this oath was the culmination of a long journey. This oath had its roots deep in my family’s past. This oath is my oath, my promise, but it is also a microcosm of Jewish experience.
My family made aliya about three years ago. Though obviously Zionists, we are very English – from a long-suffering love of Spurs to an addiction to Tetley’s tea bags. Of course I knew that, for me, the army beckoned. What Israeli kid doesn’t grow up with this fact hovering over their consciousness. Indeed, I had various try-outs for different units scheduled for just after Passover. So I was somewhat put out when my dad announced that we were going on a family trip. Furthermore, not just any family trip, but a trip to Poland.
March of the Living. Learning about our history. The Shoah. Appreciating how Jews lived in Poland. Trying to understand the mechanics of the Holocaust. My dad, with his typical, sentimental, misplaced romantic idealism thought a trip to Poland for my brother Josh, 16, my mum, Sylvie, me and him was just what we all needed.
Why? We had just moved into a new house (chaos), Josh was about to have exams and I was preparing for the most important army trials which would decide my future. Why was my dad so intent on this family trip? Mum had a point: Eilat or skiing, yes! Holocaust education? March of the Living? Can we not do it another time? But Dad was adamant. He wanted us to take the trip as a family. Now was the time, because there is never a “good” time to do these things. Furthermore Dad wanted us to understand every word and every nuance. That was why the British delegation of MOTL was right for us. Our Hebrew is good, but when it comes to minutiae Dad wanted us to understand everything. In addition, Dad had grown up with Scott Saunders, the organizer and heartbeat of the trip and therefore knew that there was no political or religious agenda to the trip. It was purely to educate us.
And so the day after Passover we went to Poland. I cannot put into words how that trip affected me or us as a family. Nor is it my intention to provide a detailed itinerary in these thoughts. From learning about Mordechai Anilevich, who dared to defy the might of the Nazis, to the heroism of the nameless victims who tried to look after each other and survive in the Warsaw Ghetto.
We visited the camps, we saw the horrors. The warehouse of shoes in Majdaneck, each pair with its own tragic story to tell, the majority of which will never be told.
We spent time with our two amazing survivors, whose zest for life despite witnessing terrible atrocities seems enhanced. The truth is, until you go, you don’t know.
Despite my Holocaust education, I was not prepared.
We also appreciated life, as well as death. The yeshiva of Lublin, thriving, the ghetto of Krakow, teeming with commerce and shuls and shtiebels.
A personal highlight for me was Shabbat in Krakow.
We davened at the Tempel Synagogue. As it was the Shabbat before the March, thousands of Jews were in Krakow. The shul is an amazing building, built in the 1860s in gothic, middle-eastern style. Very rich and ornate. Yet though there were well over a thousand of us the shul still felt half full. Chazan Muller led the service.
If you closed your eyes during “Lecha Dodi” you could feel the ghosts around us. We were bringing back a little taste of Jewish life for a brief snatch of time.
And then Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau spoke. He told us about Passover in Birkenau as a child. The devastation and dehumanization that pervaded. That you ceased being a person but became a number. He told us about how Jews from all over the world were there, speaking many languages, Greek, French, Italian, German, Yiddish.
He told us that that Passover was bitter.
He told us that his father said then that as Jews we had become very good at dying together, but what we needed to do was learn to live together. That was his message, conveyed to us in a huge synagogue that is empty most of the year and only comes to life to commemorate the dead. That we should learn to live together as Jews. Religious, non-religious, Diaspora or Israeli, Sephardi or Ashkenazi. We are Jews.
Aushwitz-Birkenau. Bleak and soul destroying. The death camp was able to deal death to about 9,000 Jews a day. On the day we marched, about 8,000 Jews went into Birkenau – and 8,000 marched right out again. I couldn’t help appreciating that if I had been born in a different time, I would not have had that opportunity.
The ceremony was amazing. Chazan Adler recited the “El Maleh Rachamim,” the prayer for the dead. And standing there with my mother, my father and my brother and thousands of other Jews by the crematoriums it seemed to me that we had opened a bridge between the living and the dead.
We the living were making a commitment to the dead. For soon there will be no more living survivors.
Soon there will be no more eyewitnesses. That generation is dying. It is up to us, my father’s generation and mine to take ownership, to tell the stories, to be the survivors.
Who will tell my children if not me? There was one more moment. My dad, my brother and I had some unfinished business at Birkenau. My great-great-aunt Hannah Lederova had been slaughtered there in 1942. We only learned this fact recently.
And so for the first time in 68 years her direct descendants said Kaddish for her.
A day after the March of the Living I was back in Israel.
I was trying out for Paratroopers. A gruelling, four-day trial. What gave me impetus to get through the do my best was the March of the Living. What I had learned was that I was a living testament. That the experience of what I had seen and done in Poland was now part of my psyche forever. I understand far better now who I am and what I am.
I understand that Rabbi Lau’s message about learning to live together as Jews is crucial. We have to understand who we are in life order to understand where we are. MOTL gave me a far better understanding of that. It made far greater sense to me when I made my oath at the Kotel. I know the path I have chosen to follow is not that of every English Jewish kid. Nor should it be. But the compass of MOTL, the deep need to understand, should be a journey undertaken by as many as possible. Anybody who goes on the March will end up making their own vow of commitment as a Jew and to the Jewish people.