Spirit of the Phoenix

The week between Yom HaShoah, and Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut, is always a week of reflection. Like an invisible silken thread, the seven days which connect between the two seems to me like a reenactment of the journey between the end of the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel, my homeland. Homeland. Something that seemed inconceivable, but a dream, an aspiration in those dark, terrible years, when we faced genocidal extinction, and which became a tangible reality three years later. That word, homeland should not to be taken for granted. I am deeply aware of the price we have paid to be able to say it and every time I use it, a flutter of appreciation causes an imperceptible change in the rhythm of my breathing, reminding me that the word is not to be taken lightly.

The legend of the Phoenix, tells of a mythical bird, spectacularly beautiful with red and golden feathers, which rises from the ashes of its destruction, after having perished in flames. It is not resurrected, it rises, the master of its own renewal, not dependent on others to bring about its rebirth. The Phoenix was the symbol of the Third Reich, and as such was the symbol of our torment, the instrument of the Holocaust, the plan to eradicate us. Thus there is a profound justice in the fact that we Jews, who faced annihilation by their hands, we are the ones who rose from the flames and the ashes of the Holocaust, and with unrelenting determination forged our own rebirth. As Israelis living in our homeland, we are the embodiment of the Phoenix. And, this stark irony is the most emphatic response to those who were determined to bring about our demise.

The mythical Phoenix

At the end of WWII, there were 11 million displaced persons in Europe, West and East. These people were dispossessed, destitute and homeless. In an attempt to deal with this humanitarian crisis, the United Nations set up Displaced Persons camps throughout Europe. The original plan was repatriation. However, many could not be repatriated to their original countries, They were left homeless the result of fear of persecution, or refusal to return to their countries of origin, for obvious reasons. Unsurprisingly, 250,000 of these people were Jews, a full 25%. This meant the prospect of an interminable period of time in Displaced Persons camps. Imagine: these Jews, who had just been liberated from death and forced labor camps, were once again placed behind a barbed wire fence, in Spartan conditions, with food rations, curfews and guards. I could not think of anything more demoralizing. It must have been intolerable. Only one option offered them the promise of freedom from persecution and spiritual rehabilitation; British Mandate Palestine.

Defying the blockade of Palestine to Jewish immigration, these weak, emaciated refugees, took on the might of the British Empire. They risked their lives, taking to the sea on overcrowded vessels, some barely seaworthy, and challenged the British resolve with wave after wave of ma’apilim. For long months, they had lived with Death wrapping its arms around their necks like the sleeves of a cardigan over their shoulders. Armed soldiers and the imposing shadow of a battleship was not going to daunt them. They had nothing to lose, nowhere else to go. The British failed to understand this. And, that is why they were powerless to stem the tide of immigrants. They couldn’t win. Some 75,000 Jews from Europe, crossed the Mediterranean and attempted to break the blockade.

Some ships made it through and reached the shores of Haifa or Herzlia. There they were met by throngs of Jews from the Yishuv, who helped smuggle them into the country, hiding them in the crowd. Some of the ships capsized, overburdened with too many passengers on board, who perished and drowned. Some passengers died on board, from dehydration, or no air to breathe, or sickness. Most ships however, were intercepted and diverted to Cyprus, where the ma’apilim were once again detained in camps, with armed guards, fences and curfews. And still they did not give up. Still, they determined to make it to Israel.

A Ma’apilim ship makes it to shore

I often try to put myself in the shoes of a British soldier and wonder what he must have felt, having to confront people who had lived through such indescribable hell, incarcerated in inhumane conditions; people who had lost their entire families – and to herd them back into detention, to imprison them. Again. Did their conscience bother them? How could they face such anguish and maintain their resolve, unquestioningly following orders? What does it say about the human decency of the British, that they can submit people who have suffered so much, to such heartless treatment? When I think about how, despite these hardships and the recurring disappointment they must have felt in humanity, the Jews from Europe did not lose their resolve, I am filled with admiration. And, when eventually they did make it to Israel, they were determined to build a life of hope and optimism, of tolerance and humanity to fellow man.

A Cyprus detention camp

On Yom Hazikaron, we remember our fallen and we acknowledge the sacrifice of our soldiers, who gave their lives, to bequeath us ours. We bow our heads in solemn appreciation, so deep that it is sometimes impossible to express. On Yom Ha’atzmaut, we celebrate the State we founded and built. We celebrate our independence and that we are now masters of our own destiny, something that we were deprived of for centuries. We can stand, proud in our achievements and rightly so.

However, somewhere along the line, we have forgotten about these brave ma’apilim, with broken bodies, but unbroken spirit. They are the most compelling reason, why Israel should exist. If not for them, there would likely not have been a Partition Plan, and the historic United Nations Resolution, which gave birth to our State would not have been passed. And so, this Yom Hazikaron, I will determine to also remember these Holocaust survivors turned ma’apilim and their indomitable spirit. They exemplify the spirit of the Phoenix and like that magnificent, mythical bird, Israel can today spread its wings, and provide shelter to all Jews in need.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach made aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz transforming rocks and mud to a green oasis in the Gallilee. He served in infantry during his army service, serving in both Lebanon and the West Bank, including on reserve duty during the first intifada. Paul still lives on Tuval with his wife and two sons.