BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //
I was standing in the hanging room in the former British prison in Akko, gazing at picture of my friend and classmate Yaakov Weiss (whom we called Imre, his Hungarian first name). He was one of the seven people who were captured as they attacked and fought to free the imprisoned Jews in the fortress.
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As I gazed at his picture, tears came to my eyes – in fact, I was crying. Who was I crying for? Was it for Imre, for my personal losses in the Holocaust?
Or was it for the two millenia of Jewish experience?
Considering I am now in the twilight of my life (I am almost 88 years old), I in retrospect believe that this was my Tikkun Chatzot – my midnight ritual. As I stood there in my Jewish homeland, a free nation, I was crying for the suffering that been wrought upon us for the last two millennia as well as for the fact that we are still facing a constant struggle for survival.
Ivri anochi – I am a Hebrew – and I carry in me my people’s weltschmertzen.
My soul still cries out: Ad matai, Hashem? “For how long, oh Lord, must we suffer?”
Imre was born in Bratislava – the present-day capital of Slovakia – but in late 1938, as a 14-year-old boy, came to Munkacs so that he could enroll in the Hebrew gymnasium. At this parochial school, most of the subjects were taught in Hebrew and most students and teachers were Zionists.
After Kristallnacht in 1939, most of us joined the Betar Movement – an organization started by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, whom I had the privilege of meeting in 1934 when he visited my hometown – and became more militant-minded. You couldn’t have blamed us; for two millennia, we had believed that both our individual and collective survival was best protected if stayed invisible and did not “rock the boat” (or, as we referred to it in Hebrew, “give Satan an opportunity to open his mouth”).
But at that time, old attitudes were slowly changing, and many of us subscribed to the notion that it is time to fight back. In addition to Hatikvah, we also sang a song that tells us that far too much Jewish blood has already been wantonly shed. From Dan to Beersheba, from Havat Gilad to the sea, the land had already been saturated with our blood.
Joseph Trumpeldorf, a former lieutenant in the Russian Army who lost an arm in the Russo-Japanese war and afterwards settled in Israel, became our hero. He died defending his kibbutz, Tel Hai, and he left us the motto, “one hand for the plow, and the other for the weapon.”
And there were others who followed Jabotinsky’s view of militancy, most noted among them Menachem Begin, the sixth prime minister of Israel. He – and we who followed in his footsteps – dreamed of Eretz Yisrael – a country where we could stand proudly erect and unbowed to other nations.
In our youth, we still believed in promises – not necessarily in those that G-d gave to Abraham, but certainly in one given by Lord Balfour, the British foreign secretary to Lord Rothschild. On Nov. 2, 1917, Balfour – speaking for the British government – had stated that they looked with favor of the establishment of a Jewish home land in Palestine.
From that point, each year on Nov. 2 we celebrated the declaration. Unfortunately, that promise – like promise the coming of the Messiah – has never materialized.
A few weeks ago, we read in the Torah the portion that describes Balaam’s compulsory blessing of the Jews. One of Balaam’s prophetical statements that struck me intently is his description of the Jews:
“Behold! Here is a people living alone and not reckoning itself among the nations!”
For 2,000 years, we existed in solitude, and no nation stood up for our rights. We were – and unfortunately still are – alone and not reckoned and accepted by other nations. We have been forced to live by Hillel’s adage:
“If I am not for myself, who is for me?”
We no longer need to recount the Dreyfus affair to justify the need for a Jewish homeland. That was a topic for my grandfather’s and father’s generations. Today, we have a much stronger and profound evidence for the need of a Jewish home of refuge: The history of the Holocaust attests most profoundly the need for a home of safety – a home of refuge for a battered and enslaved Jewish people.
I know all too well that Imre and many others gave their lives that other Jews should be able to live in their own land, which we – like all people – deserve.
When Will It End?
And so there I stood in Akko – in the land of my ancestors – where twice we lost our national freedom.
I have always hoped that the new tiny country Israel would be treated like another Switzerland, independent and committed only to our existence. We didn’t wish to be feared by anyone, and we didn’t wish to become a nation of threat to anyone.
We are the people of the Book, the creators of morals, whose ancient and present motto is: “Love and justice.”
But there I stood, and I looked at the seven pictures hung on the prison wall, and I knew that for the same abominable reasons that gave rise to thousands of years of anti-Semitism, the world would not grant us peace. I looked at the pictures of those who the British hung only for trying to make them fulfill their own promise to us – to create a Jewish national home – and all the pictures spoke to me.
When it comes to Jews, the world justifies injustice. There in Akko, I cried for the injustice, for the wanton hatred, for the loss of our historic independence, for the loss of my family and for the 6 million sacrifices.
And I still cry.
Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.