Thursday, April 12, 2018

Never Again: Those Who Fought Back (Thoughts for Yom Hashoah)

Although Israel declared her independence in 1948, it was not until 1953 that the Israeli government established an official day on the calendar in remembrance of the Holocaust. Why the delay? The Holocaust was a very touchy subject in the newfound Jewish state. From the beginning of the modern Zionist movement in the late 19th century, Zionist leaders were encouraging European Jews to leave Europe and move to Israel. They spoke of the great dream, vision and privilege of re-building a new Jewish state, but they also warned of the increasing anti-Semitism that was overtaking Europe. Most European Jews did not heed the Zionist call. This includes many anti-Zionist rabbis, whose “legacy” lives on in their Haredi descendants, who do not recognize Israel as a legitimate Jewish State, and who refuse to partake in the defense of Israel.

Throughout the dark years of the Holocaust, while European Jews were being killed by the thousands everyday, the pioneers of the Zionist Yishuv (settlement) in the Land of Israel were busy building what ended up becoming the new State of Israel. In addition to building kibbutzim, moshavim, and new cities like Tel Aviv, they were also building something that Jews did not have in nearly 2000 years – an army. Building a new Jewish military did not just involve training and weapons tactics, but something much greater and more challenging – a new Jewish mindset. After years of persecution, pogroms and expulsions, where Jews were forced to accept their fate without an option of self-defense, it was now the task of the Zionist leadership in Israel to train a new generation of Jews who were to be raised on the ideals of Jewish political independence, and Jewish military strength. Zionist leaders were committed to erase what they felt was the complacent mentality of diaspora Jews, and replace it with a new ideology where the Jews became masters of their own destiny. This type of thinking was being taught everywhere in the Yishuv – in schools, in public gatherings, in kibbutzim and in cities. Newspapers were filled with articles speaking in praise of Jewish political and military self-determination. Judah and the Maccabees became the new Jewish heroes, and walls everywhere had posters depicting the ideal “new Jew” – young and strong, with a pitchfork in hand and a rifle slung across his shoulder.

As reports of the horrors of the Holocaust began to circulate around the world, the Zionist Yishuv continued to build up this new generation of Jewish pioneers and defenders of Israel. In addition to the new Jewish fighting forces being developed by the Zionist leadership (such as the Haganah, the Etzel and the Palmach), there was even a 5000-strong volunteer “Jewish Brigade” in the Yishuv – trained by the British – who, in November 1944, were dispatched to Europe to fight the Nazis. At all levels in the Yishuv, Jews were being taught that Jews have the right to defend themselves, and – when provoked or attacked – Jews fight back.

With the end of World War II, Holocaust survivors started coming to the Land of Israel. Their initial greetings by the residents of the Yishuv were mixed and varied. Reactions to the new immigrants ranged from sympathetic pity and empathy to triumphant feelings of “I told you not to stay in Europe.” It wasn’t easy for the residents of the Yishuv -- who were raised on the ideals of Jewish strength and self-defense -- to accept the sight of their own Jewish brethren coming from Europe, physically emaciated, with a story that was largely one of Jewish helplessness and not fighting back.   

This unease about the Holocaust permeated throughout the Yishuv and into the early years of the State of Israel. The Holocaust was rarely spoken about in any official way, it wasn’t taught in schools, and there were no formal school or state ceremonies marking any sort of “Holocaust Memorial Day.” The dilemma regarding a “Yom HaShoah” that the new State of Israel contemplated was rooted in Zionism itself. Since Zionism is an ideology that is built upon Jews defending themselves, how can Zionist schools teach that “just a few years ago,” millions of Jews were deported from their homes, fenced into ghettos, forced into labor, and gassed to death in concentration camps? Worst of all, from the Zionist perspective, how could Zionist schools teach the young generation that was raised on Zionism that the Jews in Europe – with rare exception – did not fight back? What kind of message would a “Yom HaShoah” convey to young Israelis? Such were the dilemmas and debates about the Shoah and its commemoration in the early years of Israel. 

When the decision finally came to establish a “Yom HaShoah,” there were two essential issues on the table: the character and message of the day, and what date would “Yom HaShoah” actually be established on? The answer to both issues came wrapped up in one, and the official full name of the new commemoration begins to tell the story: Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah – The Day of Holocaust and Herosim.

It was decided that if the State of Israel was to establish a day commemorating the Holocaust, it’s aura would not exclusively be one of mourning the victims of the Shoah, but it would also honor the memory of those who did actually fight back against the Nazis. This “Shoah/Gevurah” combination was best expressed through the legendary Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the largest, most famous (although not exclusive) episode of partisan fighter Jews who organized resistance against the Nazis. The anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is April 19, 1943, which on the Hebrew calendar is the 14th of Nisan, the eve of Passover. Due to the impracticality of establishing this new day on the calendar just before Passover, it was decided to move it to just after Passover, on the 27th of Nisan. 

Placing it on this date presented a new narrative beyond “Shoah/Gevurah.” It would now lead into the State of Israel’s two most important modern dates on her calendar, both of which fall just a week after the 27th of Nisan – Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Israeli Soldiers – 4th of Iyar) and Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israeli Independence Day – 5th of Iyar). This calendar scenario of Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah leading into Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’atzmaut presented a narrative known in Israel as “Mi-Shoah L’Tekumah,” which technically means “From Destruction to Re-Building,” and – in this case – means “From The Holocaust to the Rise of the State of Israel.” 

With these dates firmly established on the State of Israel’s calendar, the educational message that Zionsim had taught throughout the days of the Yishuv would now come to light. Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah would teach young Israelis that, in addition to Jews being gassed in concentration camps, there were also those who – in the spirit of Zionism – fought back against the Nazis. The horrors of Auschwitz were juxtaposed with the heroism of the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, and the many other ghetto fighters who mounted resistance against the Nazis. Students in Israel would not spend the day exclusively with images of Jews going to gas chambers “Like sheep to the slaughter,” but would also learn – and idealize – the strength and courage of those who fought back. Whereas Holocaust ceremonies throughout the world focus on tragic readings from children’s diaries and poems, with names like Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel taking center stage, Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah ceremonies feature readings and stories about Mordecai Aniewelicz, Antek Zuckerman and Ziviah Lubetkin, all leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. Field trips on Yom Hashoah V’Hagevurah are not limited to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem (Israel’s official museum and memorial to the Holocaust). Schools can alternatively choose a visit to the “Mi-Shoah L’Tekumah Museum” at Kibbutz Yad Mordecai in the Negev, a kibbutz named after Mordecai Aniewelicz, the Commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. They might also go up north to visit the Holocaust museum at Kibbutz Lochamei Ha-Geta’ot – The Ghetto Fighter’s Kibbutz founded by Holocaust survivors who were all members of resistance movements during the Shoah.

Kibbutz Lochamei Ha-Geta’ot presents a moving denouement to the journey and message of Yom HaShoah V’Hagevurah. Amongst the founders of the kibbutz were Antek Zuckerman and Zviah Lubetkin, a brave husband and wife who fought side by side in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. In Israel, Antek and Zviah became symbols of Jewish heroism, and their story typified the “Shoah/Gevurah” message. In addition to their public activities in Israel, Antek and Zviah also had a family that they raised on the kibbutz.

In the late 1990’s, many years after Antek and Zviah passed away, the Israeli Air Force made a historic decision to open the IDF’s most difficult course – Combat Pilot Training Course – to girls. This historic move would potentially put Israeli girls in combat for the first time since 1948, and would do so from the most difficult and prestigious of places – the cockpit of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets. The dropout rate of this grueling course is very high, and only a handful complete the full three years of training.

In 2001, at the graduation ceremony for Israeli Fighter Pilots, a girl named Roni approached the stage to have her combat pilot wings affixed to her uniform by her commanders. This was a historic moment, as she was the first modern-day female combat pilot in the Israeli Air Force. 

It was also an emotional moment in Roni’s family – and in Jewish history. With her new wings firmly affixed to her uniform, Roni grasped them and looked up to heaven and said, “This is for you, Savta.” In this moving gesture, Roni dedicated her pilot wings to her late grandmother.

Who was Roni’s grandmother? Roni was born and raised on Kibbutz Lochamei Ha’Getaot. Her grandfather was Antek Zuckerman. Her grandmother – Savta – was Zviah Lubetkin. 

From the street battles of the Warsaw Ghetto to the skies above Israel, from Savta Zvia to her young granddaughter Roni, we hear the resounding cry – in a tough but sweet female voice – of “Never Again.”