Between Gaza and Gas Chambers

A farewell to my fallen friend and hero

I march into Auschwitz II-Birkenau. On my left shoulder our new Jewish state’s flag, in my right arm is a Torah scroll, our eternal legacy. My left hand holds photos of my brave great-grandmother, Mathilda Auerbach-Hirsch, who sent away her oldest 5 children hoping to save them, and they were; and of her youngest children: Shmuel, 5, and Shoshanah Rosaline (my mother’s namesake), 4 – murdered with her right here, over 70 years ago.

Growing up as a Holocaust survivor’s grandson imparts a strong historical orientation. I was eager since childhood to observe with my own eyes in Europe what the Nazis did to my family and to millions of other Jews.

In May 2013, it finally happened: as an IDF Tactical Command College cadet.

The journey was full of mixed feelings. While I was eager to encounter the Holocaust to understand what my family and nation went through, I have a hard time with “Holocaust-based identity”.

I decided not to ask for a role in any ceremony; seeking to avoid the “Never Again” cliché; not to feature in any “tough Israeli officers crying in the death camps” footage.

We landed. First three days — zero emotion.

Standing in a destroyed synagogue on the third night, with prayers and shofar blowing, something moved in my heart.

And then it happened: I suddenly felt the power of closure, of coming full circle, of marching in the Land of Death as a proud Jew in the Jewish People’s army from the Land of Life. I wanted to pay tribute to my family by a symbolic act.

On the fourth day, I woke up realizing that tomorrow I would enter Auschwitz-Birkenau. As a proud army captain of the Jewish state I would step into the very death camp where my family was slain. This would be a fitting tribute to my then-living survivor grandfather Ben Hirsch z”l (OBM) of Atlanta and Frankfurt am Main.

I approached the officer in charge and requested to lead the march into Auschwitz II with the delegation’s Torah Scroll. I explained that my survivor grandfather lost his parents and two siblings in this camp.

“I understand,” he said, “but — someone is already designated. I will check with him and see.”

So the night before the Auschwitz visit, Captain Tzvika Kaplan gave up on his dream for me. While he marched the Torah scroll out to the train station, he let me lead the delegation in; the journey highlight.

I began writing these words tonight, suddenly clearly remembering how moments before we got off the bus, he looked at me. Did he regret it? Was he disappointed? Did he truly realize what a gift he gave me, his friend, and was deeply satisfied?

Our sages say “Who is the truly brave? One that can restrain himself.” Tzvika was a brave hero in every way. Would I have acted the same? Few would. Tzvika was one of those special few.

May 9, 2013.

Surrounded by my heritage, our heritage, shouldering combat officer responsibility and our fate and destiny, I led 160 officers, Israel’s next generation commanders, carrying a Torah into Auschwitz II-Birkenau, the worst of the death camps.

Of all the special moments I had in a decade of service – nothing comes close to this moment, and I will never forget it.

Capt. Selavan Leads the IDF march into Auschwitz alongside camp survivor Menachem Sandovski OBM

In a perfect world, this past Friday, May 3, Tzvika’s 33rd birthday, would have been celebrated with his wife and two sons.

But Tzvika’s mission was to defend our country and our people. In 2014, Tzvika entered Gaza to fight terrorists on their turf, leaving behind a young widow and two orphans.

Ever since, Tzvika’s image, or should I say Tzvika’s force, leads me.

From going to battle in Gaza, helping me to overcome the fear of bullets and death; to creating original educational projects in Slingshot, to building the future.

His family and we, his friends, founded Koah Tzvika – Tzvika Force, keeping his spirit alive by sharing the love of this land and its people that he lived by, and instilling them into the next generation. Tzvika Force means rising to the occasion fearlessly in the hour of need and increasing love and understanding during times of peace, without rest. As Tzvika wrote in his Poland diary:

“We must remember where we came from and that we must strengthen our spirit in difficult times… We must remember that this reality, in which the Jewish People have a state after 2,000 years of exile, cannot be taken for granted. Despite the many difficulties…we must cherish and protect it.”

The last picture: Capt. Tzvika in his armored vehicle, minutes before the missile struck

Entering these elevated days between Holocaust Day and Memorial Day, which highlight our vulnerability without a state and the price needed for maintaining our freedom, and while writing these words, I cannot stop thinking of Tzvika and what I owe to him personally.

I’ve been privileged to help launch the Tzvika Kaplan Educational Center, reflecting his vision taking root in his beloved Bet Shean Valley and Mount Gilboa Springs homeland. When Tzvika’s mother asked me a few days ago to undertake increasing support for the center, I did not hesitate.

Since 2014, Yom Hazikaron for me means to focus on how these heroes LIVED; how to instill in ourselves the light and values of those who paid the heaviest price for our freedom, .

And that’s what I will do for my friend.

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Tzvika gave his life for us – We can keep his spirit alive.

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About the Author
Capt. (Res.) Yaakov Selavan is a strategic affairs expert and IDF motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees. A Golan resident and an IDF Tactical Command College alumnus, Captain (Res.) Selavan is an experienced lecturer in Israel and abroad. Following a decade of service as an Armored Corps Combat Commander, he founded Slingshot Israel, which aims to educate and inspire by offering a unique insider’s look into the IDF.
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