Seventy-five years ago, on May 8, 1945, one of the most consequential events of the 20th century took place, when the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany to the Allied forces went into effect, bringing the European conflict in World War II to a decisive end.
At the time, news of the surrender sparked enormous celebrations throughout the US and Western Europe, as throngs of citizens took to the streets to cheer the demise of the so-called “thousand-year German Reich”.
The cessation of all military operations took place at precisely 23:01 Central European Time, which led America and many European countries to declare May 8 as V-E (Victory in Europe) Day. Since Moscow is two hours ahead of CET, the war there officially ended at 1:01 a.m. the following day, which is why Russia and various Eastern European countries mark it on May 9, as does Israel.
Nonetheless, despite the significance of what it commemorates, V-E Day does not garner the attention that it should and passes by largely unnoticed by much of the general public. Just try asking some young people about it and you will most likely be met with a series of blank stares.
This situation needs to be corrected, particularly as the years go by and the end of World War II fades into history. Indeed, V-E Day deserves far more attention, if only to serve as a timely reminder of the heroism of the “greatest generation” as well as to highlight the largely untold chapter of the Jewish contribution to the war against Hitler.
Now, you might be wondering, is there really a need for this? After all, the calendar already includes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, which was established by the United Nations, and Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day each year on 27 Nissan. So what exactly would featuring V-E Day really add to the public’s consciousness, particularly here in the Jewish state?
Of course, it is only natural that when we contemplate World War II our thoughts should turn immediately to the Holocaust, in which one third of our people were consumed in the ovens of Europe as the world looked on.
But without taking away one iota from the need to remember those dark days, we surely owe it to those Jews who fought and died in the battle against the Axis powers to recall their sacrifice and not allow it to be forgotten.
Consider the following: According to Yad Vashem, 1.5 million Jews fought on behalf of the Allied forces in World War II, with 500,000 serving in the Soviet Red Army, 550,000 in the US Armed Forces and 30,000 in the British Armed Forces, including units such as the Jewish Brigade, which consisted of volunteers from pre-state Israel.
Another 100,000 Jews fought in the Polish army against the German invasion of that country in September 1939.
Jewish losses on the battlefield, like those of their non-Jewish compatriots, were staggering, with an estimated 250,000 Jewish soldiers having given their lives in the war.
The heaviest losses were suffered by Jewish servicemen in the Red Army, of whom some 120,000 were killed in the line of duty and another 80,000 were captured and murdered by the Germans as prisoners of war. Approximately 10,000 American Jewish soldiers died fighting Hitler and his collaborators, and an astonishing 30,000 Polish Jews either “fell in battle, were taken captive by the Germans or declared missing during the battles defending Poland, 11,000 in the defense of Warsaw”, notes the Yad Vashem website.
Shouldn’t we aim to preserve the stories of young Jewish men and women who took up arms to defend freedom and defeat Nazism? Don’t they too deserve a greater degree of recognition?
In 2017, the Knesset passed a law designating May 9 each year as Victory over Nazi Germany Day, and in the past couple of years, a growing number of events such as parades, marches and memorial ceremonies have been held.
But more needs to be done, from educating schoolchildren about the Jews who fought Hitler to collecting the testimonies of the remaining thousands of aging Jewish veterans before it is too late.
The fact that so many Jews fought against Nazi Germany, whether as Allied soldiers or as partisans, is an important chapter in Jewish heroism and courage, one that does not get its due.
But V-E Day provides us all with an annual opportunity to change that and to ensure that the sacrifices made by so many will be remembered for generations to come.
The writer is founder and chairman of Shavei Israel (www.shavei.org), which assists lost tribes and hidden Jewish communities to return to the Jewish people.