IDF, US Navy surprise Shoah survivor as independence, Dachau liberation coincide

Abba Naor, 92, thought he was just going to talk about his time in the concentration camp, which was liberated 75 years ago today – then the soldiers pulled out musical instruments

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The Israel Defense Forces and US Navy bands surprised an Israeli Holocaust survivor this week to mark both Israel’s 72nd Independence Day and the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp, playing for him a rendition of Israel’s national anthem, Hatikva.

Abba Naor, 92, had believed he was only going to tell the American and Israeli soldiers about his experiences in Dachau during the Holocaust. But when he logged on to the Zoom videoconferencing application from his home in Rehovot to speak to them, the troops took out their instruments and — from dozens of locations — played Hatikva, as Naor stood at attention and saluted.

“It was a big surprise for me,” he said.

Organizing the surprise for Naor presented major logistical challenges for the IDF and US Navy Europe bands. The soldier-musicians recorded their individual parts of the anthem separately so they could all be mixed together in advance and played for Naor in unison on Sunday night, when the call took place, so that the footage could be edited and released by the militaries on Tuesday for the anniversaries of Independence Day and the liberation of Dachau.

The IDF said it was its first joint social media project with the US.

After the anthem, Naor did tell the soldiers his story, from his time in a ghetto in Lithuania — where the walls not only kept the Jews in, but also kept anti-Semitic Lithuanians out — to his internment in Dachau in southern Germany, and finally the camp’s liberation by the US Army on April 29, 1945.

“The American GIs — I’ll never forget them. They saved my life. This is something you can never forget,” he said.

“The first American soldiers we saw were Japanese. We’d never seen people like that before,” Naor recalled.

After the war, Naor moved to Israel in 1947, fighting in the War of Independence. He later joined the Shin Bet security service and served in the Mossad intelligence agency, taking part in its Operation Moses to help Ethiopian Jews immigrate to Israel in the 1980s.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, center, his wife Karen, second from left, and his daughter Charlotte, left, are led by Holocaust survivor Abba Naor, right, as they visit the former Nazi concentration camp in Dachau near Munich, southern Germany, February 19, 2017 (Sven Hoppe/pool photo via AP)

The 92-year-old speaks regularly about his experiences in the Holocaust, visiting 80 to 100 schools in Germany each year — so much that he has his own Wikipedia page in German. In 2018, he lit a torch at the annual Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. The previous year, Naor also traveled with US Vice President Mike Pence to Dachau to tell him his story.

Speaking to the soldiers, Naor reflected on the coronavirus pandemic, which required the remote meeting, instead of an in-person gathering.

“I’m sorry we can’t have coffee together,” he said.

Asked if he had any message for the soldiers, Naor said simply: “Life is a wonderful thing.”

“I’m 92 years old. Some people think its a miracle that I’m still here,” he said.

“Since I have to take care of my 10 great-grandchildren,” Naor declared, “my plans are to go on and still be here, but who knows?”

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