We have a mission for you Peter…

Major Peter Lerner is the spokesman for the Central Command. During this week (April 2-9, 2011), Maj. Lerner will be blogging his experiences from the “Witnesses in Uniform” program, a special program run by the IDF as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.

Carmit, our Personnel Officer. informed me in an extremely impersonal way (e-mail) that I am scheduled to join an IDF mission. Now I know what you are thinking, “why on earth is Peter telling us about going on an IDF mission, aren’t those type of things secret?” This is not just any other mission, this is a mission I was handpicked to join. This mission I have been told is a once in a lifetime experience and one that is beyond borders and will require air support to get there.

I thought to myself – this is something I should volunteer to do. “What are the details?” “What is the action plan?”

“All in good time” was the answer I got. “You are to be in Jerusalem on the 7th of March. Briefing will begin at 0730”.

Unaware of what the plans, target and mission were I jotted down the date and address and continued my schedule as usual, dealing with the daily challenges the media deal me.

I arrived at Yad Vashem late due to horrendous traffic on the way to Jerusalem. I quickly found a parking spot and remember my first visit to the Holocaust museum some 15 years ago. The resemblance of Yad Vashem then to how it looks now is completely different. The amount of investment in the remembrance of those six million Jews has changed the face of this chilling place. One thing always stays the same, the pine trees lining the road to this solemn place.

This is the first time I have participated in an official delegation of the Israel Defense Forces to Poland. “Witness in Uniform” is the name of the mission. Some 250 participants from all over the country, from various backgrounds, from different military units all gathered in preparation to make a historic trip to a place that is so central in the history of the Jewish people and the State of Israel.

Before leaving for Poland the IDF invests three days to further educate us in Holocaust knowledge. The importance of such a mission was not clear to me at first, and to begin with I quite honestly didn’t want to go. I consider myself both well educated and well read on issues to do with the Holocaust, but with each preparatory briefing the importance of such a mission and journey to Poland became apparent to me.

The first preparation day includes a pep talk by the delegation commander. A tour of the new (five year old) museum of “Yad Vashem”, a briefing about the Jews of Poland, a meeting with a survivor.

I seriously recommend visiting the museum. If you haven’t visited it since the reopening, you must go there. Everything we saw is original and interactive. I always remember coming out of Yad Vashem in a deep depressed mood. After my last visit I felt much more enlightened, much more knowledgeable and extremely distant from that old feeling. It was a change for the best.

After the briefing about the Jews of Poland, we had a short recess and when we came back in to the auditorium a small elderly lady was sitting in my seat. I didn’t say anything just moved over and found another place to park by behind.

A few minutes later the little lady named Ariela Palas was asked to take the stage. She told her chilling account of her memories from the war. With a French accent she told us that at the age of about 8 years old she was put in a home for “unwanted children”. Separated from her brother & sister Claude and Nicole brother and sister and placed in temporary homes and lived in a small village in the south of France under an assumed identity believed to be Catholic. She told us of the fear she lived in her longing for her family, her brother and sister. Six years later her father came and found her. Her story left a number of us weeping softly. Today Ariela lives in Jerusalem where she established her family in the late sixties. “I am proud to stand here in front of you soldiers, it is an honor to share my story with you”.

Two more full days from 0730 – 1930 filled with information, visits at various sites at Yad Vashem such as the Hall of Names, Hall of Remembrance, Valley of the Communities amongst others. More and more information dealt to us all to try and prepare us for the trip.

The Commander of the mission concluded the third preparatory day that “we have done our best to prepare you for the voyage, but truthfully nothing can prepare you for what you are about to experience”. Early in the morning I will be flying out of Ben Gurion Airport and heading out to Poland in my military uniform.

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