Elchanan Poupko

Image of Victory: The Untold Side of 1948

Kovner (right) briefs members of the IDF in Yad Mordechai during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War (Wikipedia)

The recent Israeli drama movie Image of Victory, telling the story of Kibbutz Nitzanim, is not just a high-quality Hollywood-grade movie with historical lessons –it conveys the essence of what happened in 1948, forgotten by most. With the raging war of narratives between Palestinian nationalists and defenders of Israel’s right to exist, remembering the facts about 1948 is more critical than ever. Most essential facts the movie highlights are? Who was fighting the war, and the tragedies brought about by the war. 

Watching the scenes of the desperate Israeli defenders of Kibbutz Nitzanim against the Egyptian army, it is hard to ignore how young everyone is; not just the soldiers, the drivers, the caregivers– everyone involved is young. This is not very different from the black and white images we see from 1948. While in the past, those images of young Hagana fighters have been often romanticized, it is time we recognize the trauma and tragedy of 1948–the young Holocaust survivors who came off the ships from the horrors of Europe and were given a gun to go and fight off five organized armies. 

The troubled image of Abba Kovner, who survived the Holocaust fighting in the forests of Vilna and saw 94% of Lithuanian Jewry murdered in the cruelest ways, is also hard to ignore. Sure, Kovner’s conduct in demanding Kibbutz Nitzanim fight to the bitter end despite impossible odds is troubling, yet we must recognize that he and many of the fighters and decision-makers have seen the cruelest and merciless genocide in the history of humankind. 

Kovner (right) briefs members of the IDF in Yad Mordechai during the 1948 Arab–Israeli War (Wikipedia)

Kovner and those who fought in 1948 and haunted by the cruel memories and knowledge of the Holocaust. They knew that if they didn’t win this war, there would not be a forgiving end to it. They had stared down the pits of Ponar, Baby Yar, and Lublin. The eyes of these kids saw the smoke of their families going up out the chimneys of Auschwitz, Sobibor, and Treblinka, and they were not going to roll the dice again three years later.

It is impossible to ignore the fact that Mira Ben Ari, the movie’s protagonist and actual historical figure, who fought fiercely to defend the Kibbutz despite knowing what the odds were that she defeated the professional Egyptian army, was born in Berlin. Knowing that your childhood friends, community, and many relatives were cynically misled, deceived, and ultimately murdered does not allow the luxury of leaving things to chance in the future. 

Mira Ben Ari with her son in Kibbutz Nitzanim, shortly before he was evacuated, and before the battle for the Kibbutz in which she died (Wikimedia commons)

In her final letter to her husband, snuck out of the Kibbutz in her son’s pocket, Mira writes: “these days one must overcome everything. Perhaps because of our people’s ability to suffer and not give up, because of our insistence on holding up despite being so few, despite everything, we might get all that we deserve after 2000 years. No farewell is more difficult than of a mother from her child, but I am departing from my child so that he grew up in a safe place and so that he be a free man in his own country.”

These young children did not have to face war just three years after the Holocaust. There could have been a different path–the path of following the decisions of international bodies who had time and again promised the establishment of a Jewish state.

Another often forgotten truth about 1948, often overlooked because of its seeming triviality, is the language barrier. The young soldiers who newly arrived on the shores of the promised land right into the arms of war often lacked a common language, something necessary to communicate, especially in urgent times. These youngsters who had lost everything came from South America, Greece, Yemen, Iraq, Germany, and Poland. Like the many other challenges they had, this, too, was one they would just have to overcome. It is no coincidence that often, these were the soldiers who died first. 

Tomb of an Unknown Soldier, Mount Herzl, by Segal

Whether it is the 6000 Jews who died fighting in 1948, most of whom were young Holocaust survivors, or those who survived the war, we as a people have not fully dealt yet with the pain and tragedy inflicted on us against our will by Palestinian nationalism and rejectionism in 1948. As some attempt to change the narrative and talk about the “Nakba” (tragedy) of 1948, it is important noting that the highest estimate of Palestinians killed in 1948 amounts to 800, Jews lost more than 6000, which was one percent of the population in Israel at the time. In American terms, that would be a war now in which more than 3 million (!) Americans are killed. 

It is often–mistakenly–said that the state of Israel was a response to the Holocaust. We must never forget that while the return to Zion and rebuilding of the land of Israel began more than a century before the Holocaust, the war of 1948 was very undoubtedly fought in the shadow of the Holocaust. Those fighting often knew that losing may bring the same result again, and indeed most of those who died were Holocaust survivors cynically handed a war shortly after everything they had been through. 

Too often, our schools, synagogues, and textbooks teach of 1948 as a great victory when in fact it was not. Israel lost one percent of its population to a war it did not begin. Most of those who died were Holocaust survivors; those who survived did not deserve the trauma, injuries, and conflict it imposed on them, as they had just survived the Holocaust. We must never forget the Nakba–tragedy–of 1948, the one imposed on a young nation of survivors, many of whom did not survive this war, young and scared. We the living must never forget the Mira Ben Ari’s of that generation who gave up everything so that her child “grow up in a safe place and so that he be a free man in his own country.”

The original note Mira Ben Ari hid in her child’s pocket before her death (Wikimedia commons)
About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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