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To Be a Free People in Our Land

By Peter Gorog

As long as the Jewish spirit is yearning deep in the heart, With eyes turned toward the East, looking toward Zion, Then our hope—the two-thousand-year-old hope—will not be lost: To be a free people in our land, The land of Zion and Jerusalem. “Hatikvah” (National Anthem of Israel)

As a survivor who volunteers at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I frequently speak to students about my family’s ordeal during the Holocaust. During the question and answer part of my presentation, I have gotten this question more than once, “Why didn’t your parents immigrate to Israel to avoid the Holocaust?” Unfortunately, this question shows that our contemporary history education needs some fine-tuning, so students can learn that the state of Israel did not exist until three years after the Holocaust was over.

Prior to the Holocaust, many fervent Zionist Jews, mostly young and unmarried, immigrated to the territory that was known as Mandatory Palestine after World War I. Unfortunately, my parents were not among them. I lost my father in the Holocaust, and when my mom and I were liberated from the Budapest ghetto in 1945, we did not use the opportunity to leave the country where three out of every four Jews perished at the hands of Nazis and their collaborators. When the Communist Party took over the government in 1949, the borders were closed. In 1956, after the unsuccessful Hungarian uprising, the borders opened again for a few short weeks but my aging parents did not want to start a new life in an unknown land (my mom had remarried in 1953).

My longing for Israel was not awakened until late in my life when I defected to the United States and I became conscious of my Jewish identity. It was even later that I learned the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah.” Hatikvah means “the hope” in Hebrew and it is about the eternal hope of the Jews to live as a free people in our land. After surviving the Holocaust and living under the oppressive Communist system in Hungary for 35 years, freedom has always had a special meaning for me. The words of “Hatikvah” tied together my identity, the concept of freedom, and the significance of the land.

My first opportunity to immigrate to Israel came in 1981. I was waiting for more than a year to have a favorable decision for my political asylum request in the United States. It just was not meant to be; my asylum request was turned down. I was told to leave the country in 30 days. I panicked, where would I go? My lawyer advised me that I was eligible to go to Israel under the Law of Return and obtain citizenship immediately, or we could appeal the decision and try to get a visa based on my unique professional qualifications. At that time, I had not fully embraced my Jewish identity and, being practical, I chose the latter option. By that time, my English was good enough and I dreaded learning a new language again. It was also an important factor in my decision to stay in the United States that I had an uncle, aunt, and a few cousins in Baltimore who are a surrogate family; while in Israel, I only had a few second and third cousins I had never met before.

It was after my first visit to Israel in 2006 that I fell in love with the Land and her people. That was the time when my Jewish spirit started yearning deep in my heart. I volunteered for three weeks with the Israel Defense Forces and it was a life-changing experience. By that time, I was already 55, father of six girls, the husband of an American wife, a homeowner with a mortgage almost paid off, and a successful career in the high-tech industry. Aliyah (immigration to Israel) was not an option for me anymore. In the subsequent years, all of my daughters, except the youngest one, volunteered for one or two summers in Israel. Without exception, my daughters came back determined that they would ultimately settle down in Israel. My heart was bursting with pride for a few months, until they settled back into their comfortable American lives.

In spite of my disappointment, I never gave up on my dream that someone from our family would settle in the Promised Land. My last hope was and still is my youngest daughter Ilana, who is currently volunteering as an English teacher in Israel for a year. After graduating from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, she is teaching English to economically disadvantaged children. We communicate almost daily using the WhatsApp smartphone application. My heart is bursting with pride again, although more cautiously, as I sense her growing love for Israel. As she makes connections with Sabras (native-born Israelis) and with the children of my friends who immigrated to Israel years ago, she is more and more aware of her identity and I sense that she just might be the one who fulfills my dream.

It is part of our Passover celebration every year that we conclude the reading of the Haggadah with a declaration, “Next year in Jerusalem.” For me, half of the hope expressed in the “Hatikvah” came true as I am now part of a “free people.” I plan to celebrate Passover with my daughter next year “in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”

© 2019, Peter Gorog. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.