M. J. Rosenberg.
War and Remembrance
-- M. J. Rosenberg
Israelis recently commemorated Yom Ha’Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day
and Israel’s 60th Independence Day.
That Independence Day immediately follows Yom Ha’Shoah is appropriate.
Together these two days encapsulate the message: Never Again.
The existence of Israel is in no way compensation for the eradication of Europe’s Jewish communities. The Nazis killed six million Jews and destroyed some of the world’s most vibrant centers of Jewish life. The existence of Israel does not bring any of that back but, at the same time, it is a guarantee that there will be no second Holocaust. All kinds of bad things can happen to Jews but one thing cannot. Jews will never again be in a position in which they lack the ability to fight back with at least as much force as those attacking them.
The six million Jews killed between 1939 and 1945 could not defend themselves, could not protect their children, and could find no refuge. Today we tend to look back at those doomed Jewish communities as predestined for destruction. But that isn’t true.
On a visit to Poland a few years ago, I purchased a book of photographs of Polish Jews taken just prior to the Nazi invasion called “I Can Still See Their Faces.”
German soldier of the Waffen-SS and the Reich Labor Service
look on as a member of Einsatzgruppe D murders a Jewish man kneeling before a filled
mass grave in Vinnista, Ukraine in 1942.
One looks at these photographs of people studying, relaxing, courting, dancing, at the beach, and playing soccer and one can’t help but see foreboding in their eyes. Of course, it isn’t really there. We know that they died, and how they died, and we imagine that they knew too. But they didn’t. They went to school, married, raised kids, always believing that the future was in front of them.
It is important to understand that. Don’t think of the Six Million. Think of the 23-year-old woman in Budapest in 1941 trying to decide whether to go to medical school. Or the young man in Prague in 1938 wondering whether to propose to his girlfriend. Or the young couple in Krakow overjoyed that, after a few years of failure, they had conceived a child. Or the child surrounded by love.
Then multiply these examples many, many times.
I’ve been to Poland several times. Warsaw, more than Berlin or any other place I’ve visited, has the effect of making World War II feel like it took place yesterday.
It’s a large old city but with hardly any old buildings. That is because it was destroyed by the Germans during the war. The Poles paid a terrible price for their decision to fight the invading Germans rather than yielding. Because they threw in the towel quickly, the French saved Paris. Because they fought the invaders in 1939, and again during the 1944 national uprising, the Poles saw their capital destroyed. There are little plaques affixed to walls everywhere explaining that on such and such date the following Poles were executed by the Nazis. Fresh flowers adorn these sites, of which there are thousands.
They all carry a word – unique to Polish – which also appears on Jewish memorials: hitlerowcy. It is an adjective describing the most common cause of death during the six-year Nazi occupation of Poland. Three million Jews; two million Christians.
During my first trip to Poland, and on my first night in Warsaw, I went out looking for the site of the Warsaw Ghetto. The Nazis leveled it after the ghetto uprising (as they would, one year later, raze the rest of the city after the general Warsaw Uprising).
I walked in the direction of the ghetto, not seeing anything that seemed “right,” until I came across a street sign that read: “Moredchaj Anielewicz Street.” That was the name of the 24-year-old commander of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a hero of mine since childhood.
I wanted to find 18 Mila Street, the bunker headquarters of Anielewicz and his fellow young fighters. An old Pole passed and stopped. He didn’t know English but when I said the word “zhidow” (Jew in Polish) and “ghetto,” he led me toward an open space.
He crossed himself as we arrived at the bunker site—now just a seven or eight foot high mound of rubble. I looked around at the dark emptiness surrounding me. These streets once bustled with Jews. All kinds. Zionist and anti-Zionists. Religious and atheist. Communists. Socialists. Assimilationists. “Good” Jews and “bad.”
Now nothing but silence—and the knowledge that the bunker in which Jewish heroes died – in which their bones still lay—was beneath my feet.
Suddenly the silence was broken. It was foggy and I could not see who was coming, but the teenage voices were loud and rowdy. Then they appeared. Hebrew filled the air as a mob of Israeli adolescents tried, unsuccessfully, to behave reverently. They couldn’t. And they didn’t have to. The dead warriors under my feet would, I’m sure, be delighted by these rowdy kids.
A few hours later, I bumped into the same crowd of Israeli kids at the McDonald’s on Marszalkowska Street. They were singing Israeli folk songs and making a general ruckus, to the amusement of the locals, while eating their Big Macs and fries. These Jews were afraid of nothing. Singing in Hebrew in Warsaw, they embodied the triumph of Zionism.
I think of those teenagers whenever I read about an Israeli soldier being killed while on patrol in the West Bank. Mordechai Anilewicz’s spiritual descendants should not have to do this. Nor should Palestinian kids have no choice but to view these Israeli youngsters as their oppressors.
The occupation is antithetical to the spirit of the ghetto fighters like Anilewicz. If they were here today they would be both amazed and thrilled that the Jews had actually pulled off the creation of a state in the ancient homeland. Just 65 years after the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, a Jewish state of 7 million is the fourth strongest military power in the world. Any Jew who wants it can have instant Israeli citizenship. Its capital is Jerusalem, where King David reigned.
But what would these fighters of 1943 think if they knew that this magnificent enterprise is threatened not only by outside enemies but by Jews who behave as if they believe that a Jewish state without Nablus, Hebron, Jericho, and the rest of the overwhelmingly Arab West Bank is worthless? Or that they are supported by a supposedly pro-Israel community in the United States that seems to prefer a greater Israel to a secure Israel? Or that the Holocaust is invoked to defend an occupation?
They would be appalled, as anyone who cares about Israel must be. There is only one way to honor the memories of all those Jews lost in the 20th century. It is to preserve a strong and democratic Jewish state, one that will always be there for those who need it. That means negotiating an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that guarantees both Israel’s security and the Palestinian right to statehood. Trifling with the future of Israel over West Bank settlements or the right of Palestinians to control Arab sites in Jerusalem is simply obscene.
Without peace, the magnificent Zionist dream is only half-realized. The hardest part has already been accomplished. It is time to complete the mission.
MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center.
Copyright 2008 Israel Policy Forum. All Rights Reserved.
Did you enjoy this article?
- share it with your friends
so they do not miss out on this article,
(free), so you do not miss out on the next issue,
(not quite free but greatly appreciated) to enable us to continue
providing this free service.