Yesterday I flew home to Israel from Poland on a special chartered ELAL flight with other members of the official Israeli delegation to the main commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The commemoration ceremony was held in front of the Death Gate of KL Auschwitz II–Birkenau with hundreds of survivors and their families from all over the world, heads of State, Steven Spielberg, Ronald Lauder and other invited dignitaries in attendance.

The entire mission had been expertly organised by “Routes Travel.” The delegation included 30 Israeli survivors and their families, Doctors and nurses from the Israeli medical team, IDF officers, press and Minister Silvan Shalom. Upon returning home to Israel, I literally kissed the holy ground out of gratitude for having the merit to live in an era with a Jewish State. I came back from our past in Poland to our future in Israel.

The past three days were a profoundly moving experience that I will remember for a very long time. As an IDF veteran and second-generation survivor family I was profoundly moved to be in the company of so many survivors. I participated in the delegation in my professional role as an educator to teach, but in actual fact came away from this experience having learnt and gained so much from this inspirational and optimistic community of survivors.

The most intense experience I had, was a spontaneous non-scripted moment that occurred in the grounds of Auschwitz–Birkenau. It transpired when I was walking in silence, with my wonderful WIZO group from New York, in the cold dark night after the conclusion of the official State ceremony. We were walking in single file on the way to one of the destroyed crematoria for our intimate group ceremony. Our ceremony was to include children and grandchildren of those murdered in the camp saying a communal Kaddish to honour their family’s ashes that were scattered over the largest Jewish graveyard in the world. Some group members were holding memorial candles. The whole scene looked surreal. Our group appeared as spectral figures shrouded in mist trudging through the snow alongside the train tracks on the selection ramp.

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“Remembering Auschwitz 70 years later”  (Photo: (c) T. Book, 2015)

Suddenly, I heard the sound of Hebrew conversation and noticed that the Israel Air Force delegation was walking past us, the silver Stars of David on their cap badges glinting in the moonlight.  I grabbed the opportunity and asked the commanding officer if his group of officers could join our group of survivors and their families to sing our national anthem “Hatikvah” (which was conspicuously absent from the State ceremony). The officers quickly formed a line and our group joined the line in a semi-circle facing them holding the memorial candles. Two members of my group held a huge Israeli flag that I had brought next to the soldiers. The officers of the IAF saluted our flag, our State, our people and our future. We sang our national anthem loudly and clearly with all of our Jewish pride, together as one, into the dark night. The profound text culminates with the words;

The hope of two thousand years to be free people in our land, the land of Zion, Jerusalem.

We sang a song of hope in a place of despair. In a place of death we sang a song of the rebirth of the Jewish people in our land.

The tears on the faces of the soldiers and those in my group were both tears of despair and sorrow for being 70 years too late to aid our murdered brothers sisters, and at the helplessness of the Jews without a State and an army, and tears of pride for now being so strong and having the ability to protect Jews in Israel and world-wide  The tears of each emotion mingled together in this bitter-sweet moment.

Like the mythical Phoenix arising from the ashes of Europe, our State arose and was reborn. Nobody handed us our State, in the words of Chaim Weitzman, “on a silver platter.” It rose because of the selfless courage of generations of selfless young boys and girls who were and still are prepared to step forward and “walk the walk.”  For just as in the previous century the young Chalutzim (Pioneers) recreated a brave new Jewish land by planting one tree at a time, and revived our language one word at a time, and restored our sense of self-worth one defender at a time, so today we are blessed with a generation of young boys and girls who were well represented by those IAF officers proudly standing to attention on the tracks in Auschwitz that snowy night.

Those Israeli soldiers symbolised a strength that will never be extinguished.  They stood for what it means to have our own country where Jews do not to rely on the pity of their host nations.  We all know that the culmination of that “pity” was the Shoah.  Now we Jews are once again in charge of our own destiny and “never again” means NEVER AGAIN!

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Am Yisrael Chai! (Photo: T. Book (c) 2015)