What Israel Owes Holocaust Survivors
In 1943, as news of Nazi atrocities began to spread, the Ukrainian-born Hebrew writer, Haim Hazaz, published “The Sermon.” The story’s main character is Yudka, a kibbutz member usually reticent to speak. One evening, though, Yudke erupts with a speech that has become an Israeli classic.
“I want to state,” Yudka says, “that I am opposed to Jewish history. ... We didn’t make our own history, the goyim made it for us. ... What is there in it? Oppression, defamation, persecution, martyrdom. I would simply forbid teaching our children Jewish history. Why the devil teach them about their ancestors’ shame? I would just say to them: ‘Boys, from the day we were exiled from our land we’ve been a people without a history. Class dismissed. Go out and play soccer.’”
At first blush, it seems surprising that Hazaz’s urging his Jewish audience to divorce themselves from Jewish history would have become such a fixture of Israeli literature. History is a pillar of Israeli life and culture, the country’s very raison d’etre. Without thousands of years of history, Israelis cannot justify their claim to the land on which their state stands. Without the horrors of the 20th century, the international community would probably not have thrown its support behind the idea of Jewish State.
As Israel on Thursday observes Yom HaShoah, its annual day of mourning for victims of the Holocaust, the air-raid sirens sounded, and in a moment that sends chills up the spines of millions of Israelis, an entire nation became silent and stood still. Whether on the highways, in busy Tel Aviv intersections or in Jerusalem shopping neighborhoods, life came to a stop. The silence is a symbol of our recognition that even 70 years later, words still fail us. The only appropriate response to the still unthinkable is utter wordlessness.
Given how central history and memory are to Israeli life, what was Hazaz trying to say, some five years prior to independence? He was saying, in part, that the still-emerging Jewish State should be about creating a new Jew. Israel should be the place where the pale Talmud student would emerge from the dark and dank yeshiva. He would work the fields by day and defend the border by night. Pitchforks and rifles would replace sacred texts. Bronzed and muscled Jews would replace those European Jews who proved themselves incapable of self-defense.
The siren and Hazaz are competing pillars of Israeli consciousness. While Israel treats the Holocaust as sacred and honors its victims, Israelis have also been deeply ambivalent about the survivors. In the decades after the Holocaust, young Israelis derisively referred to survivors as “soap,” an allusion to what the Nazis did with the bodies of some of the Jews they murdered. Tommy Lapid, a survivor of the Budapest ghetto who later became a leading Israeli political figure, recalled with pain that “in the 1950s and 1960s … the general public treated us with condescension. ‘Why didn’t you fight back?’ they would ask. ‘Why did you go like sheep to the slaughter?’ They were first class Jews who took arms and fought, while we were second class Yids whom the Germans could annihilate without encountering resistance.”
The Israeli government has virtually turned that ambivalence into policy. It funds Yad Vashem, and sends IDF officers to visit the death camps and its pilots to fly over Auschwitz, but it virtually ignores the survivors. According to a recent report by Israel’s National Insurance Institute, some 189,000 survivors still live in Israel. About 40 die each day, and 45,000 of them, almost 25 percent, live in poverty with an income of less than $755 a month. Over a quarter reported that they had no heat in their apartment during the winter, while almost two-thirds need assistance covering the costs of basic food and medicine.
Despite government neglect, there are still times when Germany’s atrocities move Israelis and stir them to action. When Chaya Gertman, 92 and childless because of the experiments Josef Mengele had performed on her, died this week, 400 people attended the funeral, thanks to a posting on social media. Because she had no children, there is technically no one obligated to recite the Kaddish for her for eleven months, as mandated by Jewish tradition. Yet many of those in attendance pledged to recite it, as though they were her children.
Ultimately, Yudka lost his battle against the prominence of history in Jewish life. Ambivalence and government neglect of survivors notwithstanding, history has a sanctity in Israel that's shared almost nowhere else in the world. Just be on the highway as the siren goes off. Watch an entire nation stop and remember. All doubt evaporates: Israelis are rooted in history, and probably always will be. History is the oxygen of this country.
Whatever one may think of him, when Benjamin Netanyahu invokes both the Holocaust and Iran (as he did Thursday), Israelis of all stripes nod in agreement. They share his horror at the Nazis’ evil and the world’s complicity, both active and passive.
Six days after Holocaust Memorial Day, Israelis will observe the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers. The proximity of the two dates speaks volumes. As the recent election showed, many Israelis share their prime minister’s worry that the 6 million Jews living in Israel could become existentially vulnerable once more. Not so deep down, Israelis are worried, as Yudka put it, that “the goyim” might be about to shape Jewish history yet again.
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