Mori Sokal

Sirens and Silence, from ashes to flowers

Ship Full of Holocaust Survivors Sing Hatikva in 1945
Calaniyot and ashes

This year’s Yom Hashoah was a difficult but meaningful three days for me. Yes, Yom Hashoah by definition is one Yom- one day. But this year, I took part in events that were spread over three days, as it worked out. On Tuesday, two days before Yom Hashoah, my high school brought in a survivor to speak. His name is Dov Landau, and he is almost 94 years old. He told his story for almost two hours to an attentive audience of grades 9-11. I don’t know if I was more amazed at how the boys listened quietly and respectfully for so long, a feat unparalleled in my memory, or by his story itself. He went through multiple work camps and ghettos, and almost managed to save even his father, although he lost most of the rest of his family. After surviving all of this, he then went on to Israel, where he fought for the newly established state. The most amazing part of it, to me, was how he retained his faith as well. But he had promised his father, and he kept that promise. This week, while I was doing laundry, I thought about the striped pants he had shown us- the prisoner pants that were all he wore in Buchenwald. He said they wore them to work, to sleep, and again the next day. I thought of this, and stopped mentally complaining about having so much laundry to do.

On Wednesday, Erev Yom Hashoah (the eve of the day), I went on a tiyul – a trip – with a teachers’ group. We have been doing different trips all year, as part of our sabbatical. Our trip was not to Yad Vashem, as we might have expected, but to a valley near Latrun. In this valley, it was said at the time, a whole platoon of survivors of the Holocaust who had just arrived to Israel (then Palestine) on May 5th, 1948, was killed just 10 days later defending the newly born State of Israel. We learned how this small group of fighters was blamed for mistakes they hadn’t made, castigated for “not even knowing how to remove the safety catch” from their weapons. It was said that there were thousands who died because of their incompetence. It was only later on that the truth came out: these were partisans who had fought in Europe, who of course knew how to fight; they were given instructions by others, and had not made a mistake of going the wrong way; and the number of those killed was 140, of whom, only 8 were new immigrants. This was not one of our inspiring tiyulim, and left a heaviness on my heart. In particular, when I learned that those who arrived from the ashes of the Shoah and told their stories thay were not believed. Years later one wrote that they had survived 80 lashes, but were dealt the 81st by their own nation when they were disbelieved. Some things are indeed, too awful to believe, but is it not true that our people live on belief and faith? I often ask how some go on through so many difficulties and survive, both then and now, while others can’t. I don’t have an answer to that. 

We also learned about something I found incredible: that there wasn’t a path connecting the neighboring memorials of Yad Vashem for the Holocaust, and Har Herzl, where fallen soldiers of our nation are buried and mourned, until 2003. Yad Vashem was created in 1953, and Har Herzl had already been established. What took them 50 years to see the connection between the State that the world only grudgingly granted the Jews because of the atrocities of the Holocaust, and the place we honor those who have served and built that state? I grew up in the firm knowledge that it was mainly that great tragedy that opened the way for a place where Jewish people could live, and it hurt to learn about the years-long disconnect.

The last thing my madrich (tiyul guide) talked about was how, in the Darkness of the death camps in the Holocaust, it wasn’t possible to see who was wearing a knit kipa, who was wearing a black hat, who had a longer skirt or a shorter skirt, because it was too dark to see those differences. Of course, (my thoughts) they were really all wearing the same prisoner outfits, when they weren’t being forced to strip naked and go into the gas chambers together. Our guide continued and asked why was it then, that once we came out of the darkness of the Holocaust into the light of survival in our own country, did we forget that time, and start looking at our differences and fighting each other? We seem to be united when outsiders force it on us. Can’t we remember that and enjoy the light in peace and quiet? I find this thought particularly painful after some recent events in my community, but that is for a later post. It is enough to say that I wish I was still in the dark about what some of my neighbors think.

The third day on which I participated in Yom Hashoah was Thursday, on the day itself. This is the day when the siren to remember goes off at 10 am. This year, I was not in school at that time. In other years when I didn’t work on that day, I have been home, and just listened in solidarity from my living room. This year I had an appointment in Jerusalem and was in transit. I had gotten as far as the checkpoint before the tunnels when I saw it was getting close to 10, and I pulled behind a few other cars that had stopped on the side in preparation. Most of the other cars were still in line, but they, too, had put their cars in park. At 9:59, as one nation, we all got out and stood next to our cars. We bent our heads in silence, as the sirens did our wailing for us. Our moments of silence in this country are very loud, as the sirens pierce our hearts and minds. I think of the grandparents I didn’t know, the many questions I will never get answered. I think of the idea of a family tree, a flower plucked off its roots. It is still beautiful, but there will always be something missing. However, despite missing some of my roots, I have grown a family tree of my own, and we are blooming new flowers. So, despite what I learned the day before, for we all have flaws and are loved anyway, I felt the unity of living in a country where, for two minutes a year, or a whole day, or a week, our nation mourns together for all those we lost in the Shoah. Standing in silence with strangers who are yet family helped heal some of the pain from the truths I had learned the day before.

Broken flower I found on our Yom Hashoah tiyul

It is appropriate that this foundation stone of Yom Hashoah comes the week before Memorial Day, and that both precede our celebration of our Day of Independence, Yom Haatzmaut. On Yom Hazikaron, our Memorial Day for those fallen in service to the country, we have a siren in the evening as flags are lowered, and then another at 11am. I believe this day used to be for soldiers only, but in recent years, we have included those who were taken by terrorism as well. This is only appropriate, because as I have said in the past, all of us citizens of Israel are also fighting for our land, every day, just by being in it. In fact, not very long ago, there was an attack on a local bus, and a citizen who was armed took down the terrorist before he could hurt anyone else. After that, our prime minister actually requested that all citizens who are legally certified to carry weapons (and you need to go through many hoops here to get this), should carry them. We are soldiers, one and all.

During the morning siren I was, once again and unusually, not at a ceremony. My daughter had an appointment in Jerusalem, and afterwards we stopped at the mall for some food. I don’t think I have been to a mall on Memorial Day since we lived in America, where they celebrate the day with sales. Our mall was half closed, and in place of advertising, they had put up candles and Yom Hazikaron banners. Some things are more important, at least for one day. We had only just parked at 10:58, so we got out of the car and waited. In the underground lot, we looked around and saw a few others, also standing next to their vehicles. The siren echoed and resounded, until it felt like it was coming from the inside out. But just as the week before, when I was driving and wondering where I would be when I needed to pull over and also knew that most of the others around me were thinking the same thing, I felt both sad, thinking of those we have lost over the years, and comforted, that we are in this together. 

Many people shared links to videos and stories both for Yom Hashoah and Yom Hazikaron. One person shared just a picture, a small poem that asked how one can cross the great desert between the mourning of Yom Hazikaron to get to the celebration of Yom Haatzmaut. The answer is, by speaking about it. In Hebrew, the word to talk and desert are written with the same letters: midaber (to talk) and midbar (desert). The vowels are usually under the letters, if they are used at all- if one does not have to figure out which word it is from context. And they say English is confusing 🙂 . When our madrich told us about what happened right after the Holocaust, and how people were disbelieved, and therefore how many did not even start to speak of their experiences until 1961, after Eichman was convicted, I thought of how important it is to listen to others, and to hear them. When we speak our pain, we release it. If we want to heal, we often have to first clean out the wound.

In February, we had a tiyul to “Darom Adom”- the Red South. We went to a forest close to the Gaza border which, at that time of year, is carpeted in poppies- calaniyot. It was beautiful. Our guide pointed to areas on the ground between the poppies that were piles of dark ash, and we also saw some trees that were black and fallen. He explained that these ashes were the results of the explosive balloons that, for the past few years, have been sent by those in Gaza who would like nothing more or less than the destruction of our country. Yet, while these balloons have burned farmland and forests, when the flame was gone and there were only ashes left, the flowers bloomed. We are a nation 74 years young today, the last birthday my father had. My father was only two years old when his family fled Poland, and an orphan when he finally reached what would become the Jewish State. The State of Israel is 74, but we are a nation that has survived pogroms, expulsions, persecution, and a Shoah. We have survived for thousands of years, growing flowers out of ashes, blooming trees even when we have lost whole branches. We sometimes fight amongst ourselves, which is awful, but when we need to, we fight together against those who would see us gone. We have had a Hope, Hatikva, for thousands of years. No, the song doesn’t claim we are looking for peace, and maybe that’s not an option yet. But to be a free nation in our land, to learn from our mistakes and remember, at least sometimes, that we are in this together, that is a hope I can stand by. 

May the memories of all of those we’ve lost, of all those who have fallen, be a blessing that moves us to continue to grow as a nation. 

Darom Adom: fields of flowers growing from ashes in the south
About the Author
Mori Sokal is a SIXTEEN year veteran of Aliyah, mother of three wonderful children (with her wonderful husband) and is an English teacher in both elementary and high school in the Gush Etzion-Jerusalem area. She has a Masters’ degree in teaching, is a copy editor, and has published articles in Building Blocks, the Jewish Press magazine.
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