Jonathan Russo

We’re about to learn the meaning of ‘Never Again’

Babi Yar is a ravine in the Ukrainian capital Kiev and the site of a series of massacres carried out by German forces and local Nazi collaborators during their campaign against the Soviet Union. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place on 29Ð30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation. The decision to kill all the Jews in Kiev was made by the military governor, Major-General Kurt Eberhard, the Police Commander for Army Group South, SS-Obergruppenfuhrer Friedrich Jeckeln, and the Einsatzgruppe C Commander Otto Rasch. It was carried out by Sonderkommando 4a soldiers, along with the aid of the SD and SS Police Battalions backed by the local police. The massacre was the largest single mass killing for which the Nazi regime and its collaborators were responsible during its campaign against the Soviet Union and is considered to be the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust to that particular date, surpassed only by the Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000Ð43,000 victims, and the 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by Romanian troops. Victims of other massacres at the site included thousands of Ukrainian nationalists and civilians, Soviet prisoners of war, communists and Roma. It is estimated that between 100,000 and 150,000 lives were taken at Babi Yar during the German occupation. (Photo by: Pictures From History/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Masacare at Babi Yar

Now 72 years old, the Holocaust was before my time. But not so much that it was not present in my life. People talked about it, photos were widely available, German cars were boycotted, and I vividly remember seeing the numerical tattoos on the arms of concentration camp survivors. At a Reform Jewish camp, the counselors once rounded us up in the middle of the night and herded us into a collective space while terrorizing us… just roleplaying what it was like to be under Nazi control. Yet the Shoah was far from the prosperous suburban upbringing I had in post-war America.

During my first visit to Israel some 58 years ago, the sense was a little different. In those days, the climate in Israel was rawer when it came to the Holocaust. Camp survivors and those that hid from the Einsatzgruppen were everywhere. The remnants of the Jews of Europe that were not killed or maimed made up the fighting force that won the 1948 war of independence. Of course, all this was before 1967, when the country was far smaller and Jerusalem was just a dream to be intoned at Passover.

Along with rebirth came the phrase “Never Again,” evidently from a 1927 poem about the slaughter of Jews by the Romans at Masada. The meaning could not be clearer. Israel was the safe place that the world’s Jews could escape to from history’s endless attempts to exterminate them.

From intermittent visits over the decades, I have watched the State of Israel grow up. Watched its military prowess protect it from the neighboring countries that wanted to wipe it and Jews off the map. Watched it expand into an occupying power that cannot find its way to peace. Watched it grow into an economic powerhouse with unmatched technology that has the world trying to secure a piece of it. Watched it grow into an affluent country with penthouse apartments in branded luxury buildings fetching tens of millions of dollars on land that was once a small Arab village. Many here live a good life too, one of of travel, beautiful homes and those once-shunned German luxury cars. The standard of living for Jewish Israelis now equals those of the European countries they fled.

While terrorism in its myriad forms (cross-border attacks, suicide bombings, athlete massacres, and random stabbings) were never in the distance, they were always managed. The wars grew shorter and had less powerful enemies. Intifadas could be put down with the occupation of a few cities and terror groups were hunted down and eliminated. Israel was in fact so successful at eliminating external threats that it had the space to focus on internal conflicts. Secular vs. religious, settlers vs. Tel Aviv tech bros, Likud vs. Meretz, Ashkenazi vs. Mizrahi. Tragically, this follows the history of Israel, infighting weakens the state and outside forces crush it (see First and Second Temples.)

In essence, Israelis created their own Dreamland, as described in the 2002 book by Howard Sachar about the Jews of Europe’s big cities between the two world wars. A civil society that encouraged personal accomplishments.

Yet, the Holocaust is still a living part of the Israeli DNA. Foreign dignitaries are whisked from Ben Gurion to Yad Vashem before they set foot in the rest of Israel. The two minutes of silence on Remembrance Day is an annual ritual that focuses the mind on the ghettos, ovens, and gas chambers that Israel’s founders crawled out from. Recent photo exhibits like the Lonka project keep those still alive in our consciousness.

Many military analysists insist that part of Hamas’s expectations were that Israelis had become soft. That they had come to love “life” and would not care or be able to fight and die for their country. It might appear so to Hamas, as many are engaged in white-collar jobs and high-tech financing. Crawling through tunnels mined with explosives is not their daily experience. When they leave their compulsive military training, they are more likely to travel to India or Thailand than continue assembling trip wires for IEDs. Hamas is probably counting on this secular bent to confront the oncoming assault against their fighters who have demonstrated far more depravity.

By committing the atrocities they did, Hamas has triggered in Israel the Never Again pledge. The Hamas goal, whatever it was, reminded Jews that the savagery, the animalistic bloodletting of thousands of years of Jew hatred, is once again right on their border. Withdrawing from Gaza in 2005 was not the invitation for prosperous Palestinian society but in fact a permission to plan for Israel’s elimination.

If I were an IDF soldier on the Gaza border, I would probably be scared to my core. I would be in a state of shock that the day before yesterday, I was worried about picking the kids up at school on time or the thousands of other minutiae that compose the fabric of life. Now, I may be asked to go building by building with trained snipers trying to kill me.

The vision of the killing ravine that was Babi Yar had had its return in the village of Kfar Aza and everywhere else Hamas struck. That vision has to be in the forefront of consciousness in each IDF soldier, it has to be in each Israeli civilian too. It is in mine… a secular Jew in the diaspora.

There can be no quarter for Hamas, just as there was none for the Germans by the Allies, especially the Russians.

While Hamas butchers may cry Allahu Akbar calling up God to align his wishes with theirs and acknowledge his primacy, the Jewish cry of Never Again will prove stronger. Just wait and see.

About the Author
Jonathan Russo has been observing Israel and its policies since he first visited in 1966. He is a businessman in New York City.
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