I recently attended the third annual gala of the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces (FIDF), Washington, DC, chapter. It gave me great pride to see hundreds of people gathered there with the purpose of raising money for the IDF. I could not help thinking back to my childhood in the 1930s in Polana, Czechoslovakia. As Jews, we were content living in a democracy that gave us hope for a bright future.
Most Jews living in the Carpathian part of Czechoslovakia were observant and Orthodox. We took our religion seriously. Life was simple; most people were optimistic about the future. As Jews, we were always conscious that we were in exile and on the high holidays we prayed “next year in Jerusalem.” That hope had helped us endure centuries of antisemitism and oppression.
In 1936 or 1937, when I was seven or eight years old, Zionism was rising in popularity among many young men and women. My two older brothers lived in the city, so they joined the Zionist movement and sometimes wore uniforms similar to those worn by Boy Scouts. They tried to emulate the style of modern times. I remember being excited about it because our parents raised us to be proud and walk with our heads held high and not to be intimidated by antisemites.
On Friday nights, my brothers’ organization would host barn fires, which was against our Orthodox upbringing. They sang Hebrew songs, mixed with girls, and danced the hora. I remember being proud of my brothers for being in the Zionist movement. The reason it may have made an impression on me is that our rabbi, who was a Hasid, was very much opposed to Zionism and their modern behavior. He felt that they would stray from orthodoxy. The rabbis believed that when the Messiah came, the Jews would be returned to the promised land.
Hearing about the Zionist movement happening in the cities, my friends and I started counting in Hebrew and singing Hebrew songs. The Rabbis felt that Hebrew was a sacred language and should only be used for prayer. However, many of us discovered our own pride and self-esteem, and emulated what we heard about Zionism. Moreover, we did not want to live as victims as our people had lived in the past.
I can see that the generations of today would have trouble understanding that feeling I try to describe here, especially in the United States. After the war, in 1945, most of the people who survived the concentration camps were tired, exhausted, and had nowhere to go. We did not have any hope. Simply put, we were homeless and felt we had no future—we felt beaten. A miracle occurred when young Zionist men and women appeared from Palestine. Many of the downtrodden people with broken hearts, who grieved for the families they had lost, saw the miracle of Zionism as coming to their rescue.
Young men and women who emigrated from all parts of Europe to Palestine in the 1920s and 1930s reappeared and took charge of helping Jews who wanted to emigrate. They showed them that Jews, too, can stand up for themselves and that waiting for the Messiah is a fool’s dream. All of this came about because of one man by the name of Theodore Herzl. He saw the murder of Jews in his own time, and he said, “No more!” He believed that the Jews had to take charge of their own destiny.
My wife, Joan, and I visited Israel in 1973. That visit was very meaningful to me. As someone who experienced the Holocaust and our history, here I was visiting Israel—a Jewish state where the citizens are confident and proud.
One incident stands out in my memory: Joan and I were near the Knesset building. A couple of busses arrived with schoolchildren. As they came off the buses, I saw that the children were full of life and comfortable in their environment. They were not German or Czech—they were Jews, and proud of it. I remember snapping pictures of them for several minutes and my wife asked me why I was doing it. She pointed out that they were not even family. I tried to explain to her my feelings, how for 2,000 years the Jews had prayed “next year in Jerusalem” and that it had happened in my lifetime.
All this happened because of the ideas of one man, Theodore Herzl. When I speak to students, especially in areas where there seems to be little hope for a bright future, I point out how important each person is and how any person can rise to the occasion and contribute to mankind.
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