When Simon Stieglitz was 17-years-old, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Out of his numerous brothers and sisters, only Simon escaped the ensuing massacre. He and his father left their yeshivish world behind as they crossed the border into Russia, where they were promptly conscripted into the Red Army, payot and all. Within a day, Simon’s father lay dead on the battlefield. Simon remained all on his own.
Up to this point, Simon’s story probably sounds familiar to every Jew out there. We all grew up hearing about the Holocaust. We all read about the horrors of the Final Solution, the decimation of families and the plight of lone survivors. But the next chapter in Simon’s story isn’t part of the general discourse in the Jewish world. You wouldn’t learn about it in depth in most Israeli schools, or watch movies about it in Holocaust Memorial Day.
Simon went on to fight against the Nazis.
And he didn’t do it as a Jew, leading a rebellion in a ghetto. He didn’t join a band of Jewish partisans. He didn’t participate in some Jewish revenge fantasy a la Tarantino. He did it as a human being, a man caught in the disorienting upheaval of a total war.
All around Simon, the world was falling apart. Millions of people, Jews and non-Jews alike, lost their homes and communities. They escaped the invading German army, their flight across Europe heralding the carnage to come. Others were evacuated east by the Soviet government. People everywhere faced air-raids, blockades and starvation. Within this disorienting, shifting world, thousands of able-bodied men and women who took up arms to fight the invaders. Simon was one of them.
The war tore families apart. But it also brought people together. If not for his deployment to the Caucasus mountains, Simon wouldn’t have met his future wife. Svetlana, a young educated woman from Moscow, was evacuated to the mountains with the factory her father worked in. The previous yeshiva bochur met her while she served as a nurse in the local hospital. They went on to marry after the war, and give birth to two children: my uncle and my mother.
My grandparents lived and died in Russia, where World War II’s veterans were held in the highest respect. They and their fallen comrades were lauded as saviors, as the harbingers of victory and peace. Every year on May 9th, the official Victory Day in the Soviet bloc, the veterans marched to the tune of old victory songs, surrounded by cheering crowds.
My grandfather didn’t make it to Israel, but thousands of other World War II veterans did. They brought their heritage with them, but discovered that Israel’s young generation wasn’t particularly interested in listening. As Zama Simeyiv, who fought his way from Belarus to Prussia told me, “We want our children to know what our generation did for them before we came to Israel.” But will they?
Yesterday, one day before Victory Day, Zama donned his old medals and marched through Jerusalem’s center of town with his comrades in arms. Old soldiers in their 80s and 90s held hands, medals gleaming on their chests, Israeli flags held in their hands. Younger men and women came wearing their parents’ medals, often carrying their pictures as well. Passersby stopped and cheered.
But almost everyone present spoke Russian.
“What are you even doing here,” asked the security guard when I arrived, eyeing me suspiciously. “You don’t look Russian at all. What’s your business here?”
The guard let me through once I told him about my grandparents: Simon and Svetlana who met in the mountains; My father’s mother who was evacuated while her husband fought in the front. I didn’t even bother telling him about my husband’s grandfather Gerry, who fought in the American army; the guard was clearly only interested in my “Russian” connection.
I walked on, rather bitter and sad. We invest so much in remembering the Holocaust. Why don’t we invest a tenth of that effort in remembering and honoring the people who ended it? The people who risked and sacrificed their lives? Why do we relegate their achievement to a “Russian’s only” affair instead of celebrating it throughout Israeli society?
Why is it that in Israel, the plight and heroism of the veterans is barely acknowledged outside of the Russian-speaking community and press?
The veterans may have not fought as Jews. Their goals may have not been particularly Jews-oriented: their cause wasn’t the Jewish People as such. Like their non-Jewish comrades, they fought to push the Germans back.
But at the end of the day, their victory, just like the victory of their allies, was extremely important to the Jewish cause. The Holocaust couldn’t exist without the Nazi war machine. The Jewish People, and the Jewish state, couldn’t exist without the people who vanquished it.
As I walked around, conversing with the gathered crowd, my sadness faded. I noticed a group of Hebrew speaking schoolchildren from the scientific-technological school in Pisgat Zeev. Behind them, half hidden between Israeli and Russian flags, I saw the flag of the youth movement Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed. “These stories are part of the ethos of Jewish heroism that we want for our students,” Felix Shlemiev, a guide in the movement, told me.
“We want it to be part of the ethos of Israeli society.”
Shlemiev and his fellow volunteers gathered 150 youth from Jerusalem, Haifa, Tel Aviv and Bat Yam to join the parade. They linked arms with the veterans as they marched down the street, bringing their heritage into the future.
As I stood on the sidelines clapping and cheering, I felt hope. Perhaps our society is mature enough to integrate stories that took place before and outside of Israel into Israel’s identity and ethos. Maybe we are moving past the melting pot mentality that demanded we surrender our past.
Maybe, little by little, one school and one youth movement at a time, our society is embracing role models beyond the accepted Zionist canon. Maybe we are finally secure enough in the Jewishness of our identity to celebrate victories we achieved not as Jews or as Israelis, but rather as human beings.