At Auschwitz, Israeli leaders take an intimate journey
Holocaust Remembrance Day

At Auschwitz, Israeli leaders take an intimate journey

For survivors and descendants, the Nazi death camp isn't simply evil -- it is a personal memory, full of detail and nuance

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Knesset members and other Israeli dignitaries walk through the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)
Knesset members and other Israeli dignitaries walk through the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2014. (Photo credit: Haim Zach/GPO/Flash90)

AUSCHWITZ — In a small, closed-in courtyard in the oldest part of the Auschwitz death camp complex, an area hemmed in by the brick outer walls of blocks 10 and 11, stands a low wall known to survivors as the “wall of death.” It was the place where inmates were executed by SS officers for disciplinary infractions.

Now adorned with wreaths during the visit of dozens of Israeli Knesset members in honor of International Holocaust Commemoration Day Monday, the site lies still and quiet in the white frost of a Polish winter — until the sight of the wall elicits a muffled chuckle from octogenarian Moshe Haelion.

“They beat me here many times,” he recalled proudly on a slow walk around the death camp with fellow survivors, members of the Knesset and other parliaments, journalists and family members.

Haelion may be a “survivor,” but he speaks with a gleam in his eye, an undefeated pride.

“They caught me writing a note to a girl,” he said cheerfully. “I wrote many times; finally they caught one [letter].”

What did you write? The Times of Israel asked.

“She had written to me, ‘We’re all going to die here. We have no hope of getting out.’ And I wrote her back: ‘The Jewish people are used to being taken [captive]. We’ll get out of here too.’”

When the note was seized, he was taken in for a hearing before an SS officer and sentenced to a beating.

“And when the German officer gave me my punishment in a trial in block 24, he laughed at me. ‘What is this?’ He said to me. ‘You’re getting out of here?’ He didn’t believe what I said in my note.”

Haelion then shook his head, as though pitying the poor SS officer who didn’t understand that Jews always outlive their tormentors.

The incident, the unexpected, matter-of-fact cheerfulness, the way the principled declaration melded seamlessly with the most intimate and personal, set the tone for the visit.

For survivors or their descendants, Auschwitz doesn’t function simply as the icon of categorical evil that it embodies in the world’s imagination. It is a personal memory, full of detail and all the nuance of experience.

Another survivor, Pnina Segal, has a miraculous story to share. Transported to Birkenau in July 1944, alone at just six years old, she survived six months in inhuman conditions until the camp’s liberation. She doesn’t understand how.

Then, “the day after liberation, a woman from a local village came to the camp,” Segal recalled to The Times of Israel. “She wanted a younger sister. She said, ’would you come live with me?’ I said yes. So I went with her.”

But Segal lived with the young woman for only a brief period. “After the war, my mother went looking for me. She had heard that many children were sent to Auschwitz, so she came here. Then she asked after me.”

After six weeks of searching, Segal’s mother showed up at the young woman’s house and took her away.

“How many mothers found their children after the Holocaust?” She asks. “Mine did.”

Terribly close to home

But it wasn’t just the survivors who gave the death camp a human immediacy. The Israeli leaders on the trip shared their own deep-rooted feelings. One after another — at Birkenau in the afternoon or in a joint parliamentary meeting with the Polish parliament in Krakow in the evening — they began to tell of their own ties to the Holocaust.

In speech after halting speech throughout a day of touring and memorial services, it was hard to find an MK for whom the Holocaust wasn’t first and foremost a personal experience, a name of a family member lost in the flames.

Michal Rozin (Meretz) spoke proudly about her father, who survived seven camps, including Auschwitz and Dachau, and then went on to make aliyah on the famous Exodus ship in 1948. He later became a doctor, published books of poetry, and lived to see his great-grandchildren.

Tzachi Hanegby (Likud) spoke movingly about his grandfather, who left Poland just ahead of the Nazi invasion, leaving his entire family behind.

“There’s a chilling feeling to being here,” Hilik Bar (Labor) told The Times of Israel. “We are witnesses here to this atrocity, for my grandfather, his father and mother and his sisters, all of whom survived Auschwitz. It’s shaking me to the core.”

Bar’s grandfather fought as a partisan in the frozen forests of Poland, battling the Nazi occupation that had taken away his parents to die.

MK Menachem Eliezer Mozes (United Torah Judaism) nearly wept when he spoke of the “70 souls from my family” who perished in the Holocaust, including at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Deputy Minister for Religious Affairs Eli Ben Dahan (Jewish Home) recalled his wife’s grandfather, a rabbi, who died with the hope and belief that Jews would continue to be Jews, Ben Dahan said.

“I remember the words of my mother-in-law who for years taught my daughters that we must never travel to Poland, to that impure land. She was herself [an inmate] at Auschwitz. Since then she hasn’t returned. On the other hand, I’m here as a deputy minister now, as an MK, as a representative of the government of Israel. There is no greater revenge. We’re here to teach the world that we live. Here you can feel that fact in the depths of your soul.”

Housing Minister Uri Ariel (Jewish Home) spoke of his grandparents who perished, while opposition leader Isaac Herzog (Labor) spoke of his aunt.

Deputy Interior Minister Faina Kirshenbaum (Yisrael Beytenu) read a list of the names of family members who were killed during the Holocaust. Her husband’s father, she told fellow MKs, was rescued from Auschwitz at the end of the war — by which time he weighed just 35 kilograms.

And Eitan Cabel (Labor) spoke of being “the messenger for a subject that became taboo” in his wife’s family: the family members killed in the Holocaust. “We’re here to retrieve their memory, as brothers and sisters of our people,” he said.

Maybe you noticed…

It was Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein who first noticed the refrain: the incredible closeness of so many MKs to actual victims of the Holocaust.

“Maybe you noticed,” he said to Polish lawmakers when the two parliaments met in Krakow Monday night, “that the Israelis are all telling similar stories. The personal family stories, they’re not coordinated. They come from deep in the heart, from the DNA of our experience.”

And he added his own connection: “Most of my wife’s extended family was lost in the Shoah in Poland. My grandfather and grandmother were shot in a mass grave in a village in what was then east Poland, today Belarus. My own father survived the war serving in the Polish army, and then came to Israel.”

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