If you really want to know and understand Israel (its Jewish majority, that is), you have to know how to listen. Israel is built on stories. Nothing gives better insight in the essence of this country than the stories that we hear in the week between Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Memorial Day) and Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day). (Particularly) in that week, survivors and members of bereaved families tell us about sorrow, about the emptiness left behind, but also about courage, perseverance, survival, ingenuity. You cannot understand or appreciate Israel if you do not have a clue about the traumas and the pain, but also about the resilience and love of life that reverberate in those stories.
Last week, on the Sunday between those two memorial days, I participated in a course for teachers who will accompany school classes on the trips to Poland. There is a chance that visits to that country will resume soon, after a hiatus of more than a year. During the lesson we spoke, among other things, about the link between the personal and the national narrative. Adi Zohar, of the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute, told us about her grandmother, a survivor of Auschwitz. The story fascinated me immediately, especially because her grandmother had been in the Bedzin ghetto. As part of the preparations for this year’s school ceremony for Yom HaShoah, I had learnt about and summarized the life story of Gunter Faerber z”l, the father of a friend and colleague of mine, who had also been in the Bedzin ghetto and in Auschwitz. Adi told us how her grandmother survived, how she built a new life in Israel, and how she always remained optimistic and loved life.
In January 2017, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Frania Goldhar z”l, passed away. Half a year later, her grandson, Adi’s brother, Dudi, an IAF pilot and the great pride of Frania, was killed when his helicopter crashed during a training flight. While listening to Adi telling her story, I suddenly realized that her brother is the father of one of my 12th-grade students. I asked her if she is D.’s aunt, and she said yes, she is. Israel is often like a little village, which strengthens even more the feeling of mutual responsibility and the bonds between us. The soldiers that people abroad see on the television screen are we, our children, brothers and sisters. Two days later, at the start of Memorial Day, I had the honor of attending an online meeting in memory of Lt.Col. Dudi Zohar z”l (1974-2017). Adi told us how much Dudi loved his family, about his leadership, his warm personality, his caring for others, his modesty. After Dudi’s death, members of his family heard stories of his exceptional bravery, stories that he had never told them. Adi referred to the words of another David, which he said in a speech on the occasion of the establishment of kibbutz Yotvata (1957): “Dare, persevere, succeed!” That is about as Israeli as it gets.
Whatever you may think of Israeli politics and politicians (corruption, the occupation, problematic allies, etc.; I can’t help it, I am a leftwing Zionist, critical and highly worried), you can’t deny that we still pay a price for our freedom here. A central concept in this context is ‘shkhol’, a word that in English is usually translated as ‘bereavement’. A mishpaha shekula (bereaved family) is a family that lost one or more of its members in a terror attack or during their army service. Unfortunately, the national bereaved family still expands every year. Last week, in Haaretz, the writer and peace activist David Grossman, whose son Uri z”l was killed in the Second Lebanon War (2006), described the sorrow of those families as follows: “Above our private abyss, reality seems to spread some sort of thin piece of fabric, and we, the mourners, learn to walk on it. But the truth is that we only pretend. There is no fabric, yet still, our mission is to move forward.” I sincerely hope that one day, here in Israel we can realize the words of the Jewish-Dutch-American scientist and poet Leo Vroman (1915-2014) in his poem ‘Peace’ (1954): “Come tonight with stories / of how the war disappeared / and repeat them a hundred times / each time I shall weep.”
This is an adapted translation of a column that appeared in Friesch Dagblad on 23 April 2021.