A unique delegation of Holocaust survivors, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers and American supporters of Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) has recently completed a journey from "Holocaust to Independence,” in Poland and Israel in cooperation with the IDF Witnesses in Uniform project.
More than 150 FIDF supporters, together with 50 officers representing all IDF units, were able to experience the significant journey on the 70th anniversary of Israel's independence together with Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust survivors who participated in the mission were joined by their children and grandchildren, and thus constituted the story of three generations of heroism and victory.
This annual mission to Poland and Israel, the largest so far, began its visit in Poland in the city of Krakow and the Jewish ghetto. They visited the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps and the death pits in Tarnow. Following this, the delegation arrived in Israel to mark the Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror and Israel's 70th Independence Day.
The delegation was led by FIDF National President Peter Weintraub and FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, and joining them were FIDF National Chairman Arthur Stark, FIDF National Vice President Bobby Cohen, FIDF Executive Director in Israel Brig. Gen. (Res.) Effi Idan, IDF delegation commander and Israeli Air Force (IAF) Air Support and Helicopter Division Head Brig. Gen. Nir Nin Nun, and Rabbi Yoel Fuchs. FIDF National Chairman Emeritus Nily Falic also joined them in Israel.
"One ends the mission with a renewed appreciation for the contribution of the IDF and its soldiers, as well as the FIDF members who support them," said Allen and Dorothy Calvin of San Francisco, California, who joined the delegation for the second year in a row and this year decided to bring their seven grandchildren with them.
"I wanted them to get a real understanding of the Holocaust that can be experienced on such a journey,” said Allen. “When you are standing on the grounds of Auschwitz, listening to the IDF chief cantor, Lt. Col. Shai Abramson, and walking arm-in-arm with IDF soldiers down the two-mile road, you get hit with a reality that you don’t get any other way. This journey provides a unique perspective that people like me usually do not have access to. This is the legacy I would like to give my grandchildren.”
Leon Shear, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor from Ohio, also took part in the delegation. Leon was born in Poland and saw his mother and sister being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and besides his brother, who also lives in the United States, his whole family was murdered in the Holocaust.
"I survived two years in Auschwitz, but it feels as if time stopped there. Returning here with IDF soldiers fills my heart with a spirit of new hope,” said Shear, who came on the mission with his son Howard and his grandson Jeremy.
“This historic nine-day delegation traced the modern history of the Jewish people through the memories of Holocaust survivors and the eyes of IDF officers,” said FIDF National Director Klifi-Amir.
“It told the story of our near-extinction in Europe, the creation of the state of Israel 70 years ago as the Jewish homeland, and the new generation of Jewish defenders who safeguard our legacy today. Marching tall and proud into the dreadful Auschwitz-Birkenau camps together with IDF officers and the survivors who somehow endured there, all while flying the Israeli flag, sends a powerful message to the world that we will never forget; ‘Never Forget’ is the guarantee of ‘Never Again.’ Thanks to a strong IDF – one of the world’s most moral armies – we can make sure that the Holocaust cannot and will not ever happen again.”
“This mission comes at a crucial time, and is one of the last opportunities for survivors to return to Auschwitz and tell of its horrors,” said FIDF National President Weintraub. “We passed through the gates of hell, ignoring the false promise that ‘work will set you free,’ where countless Jews suffered from unimaginable cold, hunger, and despair. We were surrounded by those who survived within the camps’ walls, and also by those who make sure their stories are not forgotten – the brave soldiers who protect their legacy: the state of Israel and the Jewish diaspora.”
Joining the delegation was also IAF pilot and Holocaust survivor Lt. Col. (Res.) Arie Oz, who arrived with his son, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Shir Oz and his grandson, Lt. Maayan, who currently serves in the IDF Air Defense Command.
Arie was born in Germany in 1936 as Harry Klausner. In 1942, at the age of six, he was separated from his mother and sent to a village in the Netherlands, where a local Christian family hid him. In the attic, through a small window, he saw the planes of the Allied Forces passing over the house on their way to attack the enemy and the bridges connecting the two countries. There, in the attic, he dreamed of flying and decided he would be a pilot.
Arie survived the Holocaust, and after the war he immigrated to Israel. In 1956 he completed his IAF pilot course and became a pilot in, and later commander of, the IAF’s 120th squadron. Arie participated in Israel's wars and took part in significant missions such as Operation Entebbe and Operation Solomon.
The delegation's activities began with a festive dinner at the Sheraton Krakow Hotel. This opening dinner provided an opportunity for participants to get to know each other, and friendships were formed, and continued to grow strong throughout the mission.
The first day of the delegation, Friday, opened with a fascinating encounter with Holocaust survivor Eva Lavi, now 81, the youngest child on Schindler's list, who joined the delegation. Lavie, who until the age of eight survived the Krakow ghetto and Auschwitz, was finally saved with her parents by Oskar Schindler. On International Holocaust Remembrance Day this past January, Lavi proudly told her story on the UN stage, accompanied by her family.
The delegation then met with Oskar Schindler's relative, Rosemary Schindler, who demonstrated how one person can make a tremendous change in the world.
The delegation visited the city of Tarnow, which was once vibrant and had a thriving Jewish community. The IDF’s chief cantor, Lt. Col. Abramson, led singing and prayer at the site which used to be a synagogue, but of which all that remains are the four pillars that held the Hechal.
The group visited the Forest of Bucina, where more than 800 Jewish children were murdered in a mass grave. The Nazis shot them and they fell one by one into a huge pit. The delegation held a ceremony in their memory, which included reciting the Mourner’s Kaddish and lighting memorial candles.
On Shabbat, the delegation held a morning prayer at the Isaac Synagogue, in which Holocaust survivors and IDF soldiers took part. Afterwards the group had lunch at the Galicia Jewish Museum and then toured the well-preserved Jewish ghetto, where many buildings look exactly like they did during the Holocaust.
Following dinner at the Sheraton Krakow Hotel, Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke briefly to the participants, noting the IDF's strength, which is always evident, especially around Holocaust Remembrance Day, and that the IDF is the insurance policy of the entire Jewish people.
Abramson, together with the IDF's rabbinical choir, led the Havdalah ceremony with emotional singing that swept the participants.
On Sunday, the delegation visited the Auschwitz concentration camp and the Birkenau extermination camp. The guided tour was particularly difficult for some of the participants, but all agreed that it is crucial that every Jew visits this place, to see with their own eyes the evil Nazi machine.
To return to these terrible places – where they abused, starved, and murdered our brothers and sisters – was tragic. To visit the place in which Dr. Mengele conducted horrific experiments, to enter a gas chamber with signs of Jewish hands etched in the walls, to see with our own eyes the huge piles of clothes, shoes, glasses, suitcases, and hair of Jews.
It will take time until the members of the delegation, myself included, will digest everything we have seen and experienced on the Polish land. There is no doubt that the presence of the Israeli officers was a welcome source of light in this emotionally unbearable journey.
On Monday the group woke up with a sense of hope and joy in the heart. This was the day they left Poland and made their way to Israel, our land, our homeland. On the El Al plane, which FIDF chartered for the mission participants, the atmosphere was joyous and vibrant. People sang songs in Hebrew and danced in the aisles. The highlight of the flight was when it was decided to have an impromptu Bar Mitzvah celebration for Shear, who at 91 had never celebrated his bar mitzvah. In a special ceremony, with a Torah scroll and under the guidance of the military rabbi, Leon made the Jewish rite, and his singing was the symbol of the Jewish journey from Holocaust to freedom.
When the delegation landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, an exciting ceremony was held on the tarmac, which included singing and dancing. The delegation’s commander, Nin Nun, spoke and summarized the journey, saluted the Holocaust survivors and gave them a special pin.
FIDF National Chairman Emeritus Nily Falic congratulated the participants and noted the great importance of the journey in Poland, where the participants focused on the past and that now, upon their arrival in Israel they will experience the present and see the glorious future of the State of Israel, the people of Israel, and the IDF. The group traveled directly from the airport to Jerusalem, where they held a festive dinner at the King David Hotel.
On Tuesday the group traveled north to visit a Golani training base. They met with officers and soldiers, and were given the distinct privilege of viewing a special exhibition that emphasized the activities of the unit. After having lunch with the soldiers in the military dining hall, the group returned to Jerusalem.
On the eve of Memorial Day, they attended the official state ceremony at the Western Wall, in the presence of President Reuven Rivlin, IDF Chief of the General Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, and many other dignitaries.
On Wednesday, the delegation visited Israel’s official memorial site for fallen soldiers from the armored corps at Latrun, where, among the memorial wreaths, FIDF representatives laid a wreath on the memorial wall in memory of the fallen soldiers. From there they went to the 9/11 Living Memorial in Jerusalem.
In the evening, when Israel’s 70th Independence Day celebrations began, the delegation celebrated overlooking the illuminated Old City of Jerusalem. Fifty IDF combat veterans, who had received college scholarships thanks to FIDF’s IMPACT! Scholarship Progam, took part in the party.
Afterwards, some of the participants in the delegation went to Safra Square and Zion Square to experience the special holiday atmosphere with the masses of the Israel and even enjoyed late-night falafel before the sunrise.
On Thursday, Independence Day, the delegation visited the base of the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit, where they met with the base commander, officers and soldiers, sang, danced and dined at a festive meal especially donated for the occasion.
In the afternoon, the delegation visited the presidential residence, where they met the country's senior diplomatic staff, and were photographed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.
In the evening, a festive closing dinner was held at the King David Hotel, which included a fundraising session which raised $ 2.1 million to be used toward academic scholarships for combat soldiers.
Later, a joyous dance party was held with the officers who took part in the journey to Poland. At the end of the event, which lasted until the wee hours of the night, everyone thanked Shmuel Zaksenberg, the owner of the travel and tourism company "MOSAIC" for the excellent service that he and his team gave to the delegation, paying attention to every small and large detail alike. Am Israel Chai!