My FIDF Mission To Poland & Israel

by Herbert London

Herbert London, an FIDF supporter currently taking part in the FIDF Delegation to Poland and Israel, is a noted social critic whose work has appeared in every major newspaper and journal in the country.

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Tuesday, April 16, 2013
For me, the most appropriate way to describe the state of Israel is as a bumble bee. From the standpoint of aerodynamics the bumble bee should not fly. Its wings are too small to sustain its weight. Yet remarkably the bumble bee soars.

Israel soars as well, despite: neighbors that want to eliminate the state, even wipe it off the map; internal politics that are often byzantine at best and fissures of a social and cultural variety.

The commander of an IDF elite intelligence unit made it clear that Israel’s advantage is overcoming the odds against it. Israel’s entire history is an example of small and major miracles. Its strategic vision is one based on optimism. The difficult is handled with dispatch; the impossible takes a little longer.

On the 65th Anniversary it was an absolute delight spending some time with the troops. We danced and celebrated together, but most significant, was the conversation which reinforced the view that Israel is a land of optimism. Every one of the soldiers expressed a commitment to Israel, not only because of the tradition they carry in their hearts, but because of their commitment to shape the future. They understand what the military must do in order to celebrate one anniversary after another.

Israel remains optimistic, notwithstanding the problems in its neighborhood from Libya to Egypt and Syria. That optimism is not Pollyannaish; it is based on a confirmed belief that whatever the problem, Israel can address it. Every query to commanders and soldiers had the same response: Yes, that’s an issue, but we can deal with it.

I believe that is true, albeit Israel must guard against confidence morphing into complacency. Israel’s enemies are searching for that chink in national armor. This anniversary suggests, however, what every philo-Semitic person already knows –Israel has the will to defend itself and that will is manifest in the remarkable people in the Israel Defense Forces.

The balloons our contingent launched from the roof of the unit soared into the heavens just as Israel itself soars. Every single soldier is a microcosm of the national will. From what I can tell they are resolute, tough and committed to the welfare of the state.

God may not be in his heaven and all may not be right with the world (to draw on Browning), but as I see it, God does smile on Israel and despite any problems Israel may have, it is much more right than wrong.

Let this 65th Anniversary remind the world, Israel is here to stay and the IDF is prepared to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to achieve this result. 

Yes, Israel is like a bumble bee.
The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Monday, April 15, 2013

Literally thousands of Israelis gathered on Yom HaZikaron, Memorial Day, to honor those soldiers who perished in wars and terror attacks. A special ceremony in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim at the gravesites began with the ritual siren call. Mournful prayer expressed the price that Israeli independence demanded so that, according to the words in Hatikva, Israel would become a nation of “free people in our own land.”

Each burial site exemplifies an idiosyncratic tale of valor, but one caught my eye. It is the story of Beni Berale, a teenager caught in the cauldron of the Holocaust. Berale was a nickname; no one knew his real name and so posthumously his nickname became his last name.

When he was released from the concentration camps, Beni was confused. He was sixteen years old. His parents and relatives were cremated. Moreover, he was told it was dangerous to go east and dicey to go west. With friends, he came to Israel: it was 1948 and war had broken out.

Beni was on his own, but he had a burning desire to fight for his adopted home. Upon arrival he was handed a rifle and drafted into a makeshift Jewish army. Yitzhak Rabin was his commander and the Palmach was his unit. However, Beni was fighting bravely for something he had never known: a homeland. In a firefight on the corridor to Jerusalem, Beni was killed. He was no longer alone since 144 former survivors died with him in the 1948 War for Independence.

These victims who stood helpless in the face of the German war machine died with guns in their hands fighting for something they believed in. Beni was no longer the victim; he was the hero.

Beni was nameless, one of millions whose identity was taken by Nazi killers. Yet people like Beni shaped this land. He was a lost soul who found an identity in Israel. May he rest in peace along with his brothers who gave their lives so others could prosper in this Jewish land of liberty.

Thousands said Kadish as the Israeli flag proudly stood at half-mast above the assembled throng. This sacrifice that some made cannot be forgotten. And the pledge made today on behalf of the state of Israel is to continue to defend the nation’s principles and its independence.

From the cemetery our group travelled to the headquarters of the Institute for Intelligence and Special Operations, known as Mossad. It was an apt conclusion to the afternoon since the head of this vaunted organization provided some insight into the intelligence needed to protect Israeli security. Although understandably ambiguous and diffident at times, he could be direct. When asked on whom Israel can depend for intelligence, he responded, “ourselves.” In my opinion, this is the appropriate response. This land molded by Berale must depend on itself. Israel is an independent nation in every way.

The culmination of this day was the transformation of reflection and sorrow into celebration and happiness. It was time to honor the spirit of the past by contemplating the opportunities so many provided for the future. Memorial Day morphed into Independence Day and the tears became smiles. Israel is a land of contradictions. But at its essence is survival. Israel cannot lose any battles. Its longevity depends on young people who absorb the spirit of Beni Berale. His story and stories like his must be retold so the spirit of this nation is reenergized from generation to generation.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Day 7 - YIZKOR
Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sunday is a day Prime Minister Netanyahu meets with members of the Knesset. To my delight he met with our contingent as well for about half an hour. When asked about the Arab Spring, or what I would call the Autumn Nightmare, he said Israeli policy toward its neighbors has not changed. National defense stands as the overarching concern. However, the perspective on the region has changed, theological considerations, tribal loyalties, government failure and totalitarian impulses are features that have altered the landscape.

The Prime Minister also noted that whoever comes to Israel realizes this nation is a force. As he pointed out, after the completion of Ben Gurion Airport “Israel became a real nation.” Indeed Israel is real in every sense: economically, politically, culturally.

Our day continued with visits to the K-9 IDF unit, where dogs serve as scouts and explosives seekers, saving lives and reducing terrorist influence. It is ironic that the German shepherds herding Jews into the camps now are employed to save Jewish lives.

This was followed by a visit to the IDF counter-terror unit. The pyrotechnics and the demonstration of breaching a terrorist enclave were impressive. Even more impressive are the youngsters in this unit: resilient, reliable and attractive. Everyone found themselves gravitating to this remarkable group of soldiers whose job is to preempt when necessary and save lives when possible.

Arguably the most important event of the day was the inauguration of Memorial Day at Metzudat Kfir, when IDF soldiers honor their fallen comrades. It is Yizkor, a day of remembrance for those who made the ultimate sacrifice so Israel could survive.

The sirens blare through the dark night, a sharp reminder that Israel lives because others have died. A screen reveals youthful faces filled with the blush of life now honored heroes. Many Israeli parents live with the grief of their children being interred before them. Yet theirs is the silent bond that unites the nation. Their sacrifice results in a nation proud and unyielding.

Israel’s soil is drenched with the blood of fallen heroes. That blood is restorative; it sends a message to Israel’s enemies that this nation will do whatever is necessary to survive. Morale is the nation’s secret weapon. As Hatikva is sung cold tears slowly descend down my cheeks. The symbols are palpable. This is the Jewish sanctuary; it will live as long as young men and women are willing to defend this land.

After the defeat at the battle of Midway, Japanese Admiral Nagamo said he was defeated by American culture, by the way American troops conducted themselves in battle. There is a lesson in this for Israelis. Israel’s strength is its culture. The love of life; the belief in liberty and the youth who are willing to defend these principles represent the essential strength of the nation.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Saturday, April 13, 2013

It is clear that the IDF and every sensible Jew stands behind the slogan “Never Again.” Never again will Jews stand silently as millions are killed and never again will Jews be defenseless in the face of overwhelming force.

Yet – and here I hesitate – any briefing on the Middle East leads inevitably to the conclusion that chaos reigns in the region. Ari Melamed offered his view of current events and the recent past. In the case of state actors the Arab Spring is the Autumn of Despair.

Egypt is now a failed state with a fifty percent unemployment rate, a desperate need for imported wheat and bankruptcies in every quarter. Without foreign aid the nation is doomed.

Syria is in the midst of a civil war with Bashar Assad having killed 75,000 people, many of them civilians. The rebel force isn’t much better with war lords attempting to position themselves for authority in a post-Assad regime. Ironically, the U.S. through surrogates in France and Britain is supporting a rebel force buttressed by al Qaeda that has already established itself as a political entity.

The Syrian war has migrated across borders into Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, adding Sunni-Shia tension to an already volatile situation. The precipitate withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and the ambiguous U.S. position in the region has fostered confusion. President Maliki of Iraq is now dependent on Iran in order to maintain his position.

Iran’s desire to be the region’s “strong horse” is tied to the development of nuclear weapons. Should this happen, as I believe it will, a Pandora’s box will be opened leading to nuclear proliferation.

These, by the way, are merely the state actors. Non-state actors such as Hamas and al Qaeda have their own nefarious agendas.

Without going into painstaking detail, the roiling of political water in the Middle East has a direct effect on Israeli policy. While one might assume the internal state battles foreclose on hostile attacks against Israel, the long term is different. Hezbollah and Hamas may dislike one another, but they unite in their hostility to Israel. Should events stabilize, it is possible Israel could face threats from the south, the north and the east, along with an Armageddon strategy from Iran. But the “long run” itself is contingent on unpredictable events.

Clearly there are imponderables in any scenario of the future. But whatever unfolds, Israel must remain strong on every political front. Rebel forces in Syria today could well be terrorist groups in the Golan tomorrow. Al Qaeda in the Sinai today could well be suicide bombers in Ashdod tomorrow. Hence the role of the IDF cannot diminish. There isn’t any way to be sure of the location of the next attack, but it is likely there will be attacks.

From Birkenau to Gaza, Jews have faced enemies. They come in different guises, but they will come. Jews pray for peace – an admirable goal – but I believe it is utopian. I pray for stability, for a time when violence decreases. It may not be peace, but it is better than the status quo.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Friday, April 12, 2013

Flying from Poland to Israel on an IDF airplane is the equivalent of resurrection. We went from the Death Camps in Auschwitz/Birkenau to the Land of Milk and Honey in Israel. In fact, Israel existed long before the year of its founding as a nation in 1948, but its meaning after the Holocaust became all too profound for Jews everywhere.

That was evident when we landed in Tel Aviv amid a joyous celebration that included dancing, singing and pin distribution. Israel, not only breathes free, it defies the stench of destruction the Nazis attempted to impose on Jews. On the way to Jerusalem, I reflected on what I experienced the last few days. There was a swing of emotion, from darkness and despair to exhilaration and hope. In a strange way the utter depth of despair has given happiness deeper meaning than might be expected. Every breath a Jew takes is a gift provided by ancestors who lost their lives in the death camps.

It is instructive that the plane ride to Ben Gurion Airport was a party unlike any trip I have made heretofore. Very few people sat in their seats. There was a birthday celebration, photos with the flight captain, singing of “Avenu Shalom Aleichem” and even a demonstration of in-flight refueling. This was an explosion of emotion, a relief – a seeming exhalation of tension borne by all we witnessed.

Israel is indeed home for Jews. It is the realization that however much I love America, Israel is a sanctuary, a place where I can always seek repose. I thank God this nation exists and I thank God the Israel Defense Forces stands behind it.

It is not coincidental that our arrival coincided with Shabbat. The clouds broke as we drove on the Judean Hills lined with monuments to the heroic soldiers who broke the siege of Jerusalem in 1948. In the evening, the Shabbat dinner was graced by the presence of the Chief Cantor of the IDF and the “Lone Soldiers,” those without families in Israel. After a blessing from the rabbi of the Kotel, we enjoyed the music of the IDF Rabbinic Ensemble.

My wife and I were exhausted struggling to stay awake, but it was a time for thankfulness. We are in Israel, a blessed land. Even fatigue could not diminish the sheer joy of being here and the gratitude I feel for the existence of this glorious nation.

Primo Levi in his poem “Shema” admonished that survivors should recall what they experienced. “I commend these words to you. Carve them into your hearts. At home, in the streets, Going to be, rising; Repeat them to your children…” The Shabbat is a good time to begin and Israel, based on its history, is the place to take this admonition to heart.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Horror of Auschwitz and Birkenau is simply ineffable. These two chambers of monumental horror comprise the largest concentration camp in the Nazi plan for the “final solution” – the eradication of Jews.

The design for mass murder started with stripping away any sign of human dignity. Hair was cut, possessions were taken, eye glasses were crushed, tooth brushes were confiscated. The daughters of political dissidents were forced into prostitution with their chests tattooed with the words “field whore.” Children were separated from parents. Siblings were separated from one another.

It was understandable that many Jews denied the reality of this final solution. How can anyone assume mass murder of this kind was possible? Then I observed the thousands of infant garments collected before mere babies were gassed and cremated. What kind of barbarian kills infants? What madness leads to a result so unthinkable?

In the room where thousands (alas ,millions) were gassed to death there are scratches on the wall, signs of complete desperation, of unspeakable suffering. Where were the Allies who could have destroyed the rail lines leading to the death camps? Despite all the denials, the evidence indicates they knew what was going on, but were sinfully indifferent.

Survivors of the camps testified explaining the horror of their experience. They were teenagers when forced into the last ring of hell. It was youthful strength that kept them alive. As Asher Aud, a survivor, noted he got a “lucky number” tattooed to his arm which meant he would work rather than die. Notwithstanding every effort to destroy the spirit of Jews, there were moments of human concern. The Nazis could not destroy the moral legacy of the past. Joe Gringlas, another survivor, talks of planting flowers when a new victim who was on his way to the gas chamber inadvertently stepped on them. A guard, observing this incident told Joe to hit the confused victim on the head with a wooden plank. He refused. “I couldn’t do it,” he said “whatever the consequences.”

At the end of a gut wrenching day, we marched with IDF soldiers, proud warriors, who after observing the crimes against Jews understand why their role is critical. As the Israeli flag was raised about a quarter of a mile from the Birkenau entrance, I was too choked up to speak. Yes, Jews often say “Never Again,” but “never again” occurs again as a French Muslim kills Jewish children leaving a Hebrew Day School or Prime Minister Morsi says Jews are the progeny of apes and monkeys or Ahmadinejad maintains Israel should be wiped off the map.

This time there is a difference. The hate directed at Jews has not dissipated in many quarters, but the political killers, the new Nazis, know that there is a force of such magnitude Jews no longer tremble with the threats. That Israeli flag and those remarkable IDF soldiers provide ample evidence that the past is not easily repeated.

Rabbi Lau, the chief rabbi of Israel, recently told of meeting a soldier in Patton’s Third Army that liberated camps in Germany in 1945. To the rabbi’s surprise, the soldier was disconsolate about the liberation. He explained that “we came too late.” So much slaughter could have been avoided had President Roosevelt reacted in time, he noted. When Rabbi Lau met President Obama on his recent trip to Israel, he told him this story and concluded with the following words: “Don’t be late.”

Now Israel doesn’t have to rely on allies or the righteous few. If the skies turn red with the billowing smoke of corpses – God forbid – Israeli jets will do the bombing. Perhaps more than any nation on earth, the Jewish experience testifies to the claim peace is only possible through strength.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Words often cannot convey deep emotion. A tour of Tarnow, home to more than 50,000 Jews who faced unspeakable atrocities, and Buczyna Forest, where 800 children were executed by Nazi monsters, left me speechless. I could only conceive of one artistic image, Edvard Munch’s “Scream,” a silent scream of such intensity that people had to look and wonder.

Tarnow is a “silent” city. The Jews, who once represented half the population and 90 percent of the businesses, are gone, murdered in cold blood – the victims of an ideology that violates any notion of humanism. The city is silent for two reasons; the Jews are gone and the Poles were silent either because they were complicit in the collective murder or they were too fearful to speak. Many forget that in 1947 when several Jewish survivors returned to their Polish homes, a pogrom was launched against them. The Germans didn’t have a monopoly on hate.

When our group reached the Zbylitowska Gora Village on the outskirts of Buczyna Forest we lined up and marched as one group to the forest “grave” sites. It is inspiring to recall that we marched with our heads held high carrying Israeli flags, accompanied by 25 members of the IDF, as opposed to the naked victims ashamed to stand straight on their way to their deaths.

The mass graves contain thousands of Jews and, at least 800 children. But these are not grave sites in any real sense; they are death pits. One group waited and watched as the slaughter went on and the bodies were tossed into the pit. What could four and five year olds– too young to understand – have thought as they watched the horror and realized they were next. In some cases they were simply thrown into the death pit buried alive. Why waste a bullet? We read the names of those fallen and the year of their birth: 1937, five years old; 1939, four years old. My mind was spinning and nausea invaded my throat. I was born in the same year as many of these children and could have easily been one of them.

At the services, members of the IDF stood in attention as the flags were unfurled and the anthem was sung. My thoughts turned from the utter helplessness of the victims to the strength of Israel’s military force. IDF Colonel O. noted in his comments that he has three children he envisioned all through this trip through Krakow and Tarnow. “I particularly see them here in this forest walking through the woods in these paths pushed by the wave of people dragged by the guards and dogs towards the death pit frightened by the shouts. Are they together? What are their thoughts? Can I save them?”

In the past, there weren’t any saviors. Now there are and Colonel O. is among them. Yet the nagging question remains: how could anyone kill innocent children for no reason except their Jewishness? It is a question that goes right to my core; in fact, nightmares now keep me awake.

Then it dawned on me. Aside from the orders and possibly the drunkenness, there was something else at work in these murders. These killers persuaded themselves that Jews are not human. In their perverse mind set the Jews are insects to be stepped on.

In his novel, Metamorphosis Josef Kafka has his leading character transformed from human to cockroach. Here is the metaphorical equivalent of the Shoah. For these barbarous Nazis, Jews were not human. It didn’t make any difference if they were young or old; they had to be eradicated like an invasion of locusts.

I scream in the night, a silent scream. I cry for the victims. And I assert that the Israeli military force must remain strong, prepared and willing to sacrifice, not only for the welfare of Israel but for Jews everywhere. That is the lesson of Buczyna Forest and Tarnow and wherever Jews are treated as less than human.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Tuesday, April 09, 2013
Attempting to revisit the past is a dicey business. No matter how hard one tries, the past never reveals itself fully.

From roughly the 14th century through the Holocaust, Krakow had a thriving Jewish community. There were dozens of synagogues; some private, some associated with families and some a reflection of community interest.

We visited several of these synagogues, among the oldest in Europe. But rather than reveal insight into the past – the obvious intention of the visit – they revealed something about the Shoah. The synagogues were laid waste; they are now museums or more accurately mausoleums. To add disgrace to the devastation, the Nazis used these religious structures as stables and weapons depots.

While religious life blood cannot be restored without life, without an active Jewish community, the Jews in this Jewish Quarter are primarily tourists striving to uncover secrets about the ancestry. Looking at a well maintained home once occupied by Helena Rubenstein doesn’t cut it. Yet there is something to be said for the design of the neighborhood and the cemetery that transports visitors hundreds of years into another age.

Before lunch we gathered as a group in the Temple Synagogue. Even if we cannot give this site the transfusion it needs, we did successfully attempt to restore the sounds of the past with moving musical compositions and wonderfully raucous song and dance.

After lunch we travelled across the Vistula to the Jewish ghetto, the community where Jews were forced to live after the Nazi occupation. Eighteen thousand Jews were removed from their homes and marched across the river into a dilapidated community. There they faced the humiliation of waiting hours and sometimes days as the Nazis selected those healthy enough to be taken to a nearby work camp – now made famous in “Schindler’s List.”

They waited in bone chilling cold, unable to use a restroom and brutalized by the sadistic work camp general, Amon Goeth. When women attempted to retain their children usually separated at this public selection scene, the Nazis bayoneted the knap sacks carrying the infants leaving blood stains on the plaza for decades. This has been paved over with non-descript green chairs dotting the environment.

The ghetto itself insulated from the rest of Krakow was a den of disease and despair. Jews forced into the work camp were obliged to walk miles to reach their destination in cold weather so raw, many froze to death on the way. Spielberg revealed a great deal in his film, but not everything.

No matter how many stories are told, it is difficult for the horrors of the Holocaust to be understood. For the victims who survived, every second was tortuous; for the dead, life was taken too swiftly and without regard for even a scintilla of human emotion.

There are, of course, unanticipated moments. A guest on the trip told me of a colleague living in Krakow who when told to deliver all of his silver and gold objects to the Nazi command, hid these valuables in a floor board in his home as his young son watched fascinated by his father’s hiding place. As the years passed and the communists came to rule Poland, the father was reluctant to claim his treasure. Then he passed away. Ten years ago the boy, now very much a man and father himself, returned to Krakow. He found the house he lived in as a child and then with remarkable zeal started to dig in order to find the buried treasure. Mirabile dictu, despite the passage of 65 years, he recovered the family valuables.

This isn’t a story that mitigates Nazi atrocities, but it does show something about the human spirit: What the Nazis and Soviets couldn’t destroy often survives.

Solzhenitsyn once noted that even if the globe were covered in cement at some point a crack would emerge and from the crack a plant would grow and flourish. The Nazis tried to destroy every resemblance of Jewish life and culture, but in the end their necrophilia was trumped by a life spirit that cannot be squelched.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel: From Holocaust to Independence - Photo gallery

Monday, April 08, 2013
Krakow was once the home of one of Europe’s largest population of Jews. For centuries it was a center of Jewish culture.

My wife and I walked through this charming city that vibrates with vitality. Even on a chilly afternoon coffee houses are filled. The stores on the main street might be seen on Fifth Avenue or Oxford Street.

The marketplace or city center is a grand plaza, the kind that might be seen in Prague or Brussels. As I walked over the cobblestones, I realized each one had a story for me.

I closed my eyes and it was 1941. Jews were herded into the square trembling and silent. Police dogs stood watch as if shepherding sheep. Only days before this lock-down, Jews were minding their shops, tending to their children and healing the sick. Now the cobblestones tell me they had a one way ticket to oblivion.

There is a gossamer thin line between civility and barbarism. Nazis reared on Ficte, Wagner deposited their culture in the slaughter house of savagery. Hitler may have convinced many Germans that Jews were a toxin, but it was these same Jews who built industries and discovered medicines in Germany and around the world.

From the town square to Auschwitz, from the harmony of quotidian life to the ovens, the cobblestones keep talking. As Jews were herded on to the cattle cars, their destination was unknown. Children could be heard weeping, but most were silent, enveloped in their own thoughts and fears. Do you pack for a week or a life time? Where are the allies? Where is the outrage? On these matters, there is only silence.

Now the camps attract tourists – a perverse form of Disney World in which an atrocity breeds a desire for profit. Clearly that isn’t the case for all who come to Auschwitz. Many wish to bear witness, to say we do mean “Never Again.” But the world is myopic. Anti-Semitism is the one “ism” that never dies. It rears its ugly head in the same Europe that claimed it was a stain that must be cleansed. And it is the calling card for radical Muslims wherever they are found.

Yet I walk these streets bound to hope. My ancestors didn’t have defenders; they trembled in the night unsure of their fate. Today there is a force of young, talented and tough Jews who are our protectors: They are the members of the IDF, the Israeli force that defends principles of decency against the barbarians who would recreate the Holocaust.

We are engaged in a civilizational struggle, one whose outcome is unclear. But this time the cobblestones deliver another message. We will not tremble in the presence of your S.S. guards. We will not cower in the courtyards of Europe when rounded up. In fact, we will not be rounded up. We have a formidable force that, like it or not, you will have to recognize. Yes, the cobblestones sing a different tune. Schma Yisrael, we are prepared to defend ourselves.

The FIDF Delegation to Poland & Israel:
From Holocaust to Independence  - Photo gallery
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