Major Peter Lerner is the spokesman for the Central Command. The following post is an epilogue of his series of posts describing experiences from the “Witnesses in Uniform” program in which he participated. “Witnesses in Uniform” is a special program run by the IDF as a way to contribute to commemorating the Holocaust and heroism in the army.
This week I walked the streets of Warsaw and Krakow saw the walls of the ghettos where Jew were rounded up. I have seen the Jewish heritage of hundreds of years in Poland, its graveyards that stand proud with rabbis like Rabbi Moshe Ben Israel Isserlish the “Rama”, famous civil society leaders and creators such as Zammenhof that invented the universal language Esperanto, and cultural icons such as Ester-Rokhl Halperne, the mother of the Yiddish Theatre in Warsaw. I have visited the hundred year old synagogues in Tycocin, Warsaw, Kracow and sung “Am Israel Hai”. I have visited the death ditches in the Lopuchowo forest where nameless mass graves lie in the midst of the tress. I have visited the memorial sites of Treblinka death camp and its rocks that remind us of the communities erased from the face of Poland. I have breathed in the air of the Majdanek camp in its shocking gas chambers where the Nazis watched as they murdered Jews and wheelbarrowed them through the camp to the crematorium and I have walked from the gates of Birkenau to the steps where 2000 Jews at a time disappeared down in to the belly of the Nazi death machine. In all these places I have stood head held high in my military dress uniform bearing the blue Star of David and the Israeli flag. When, in the not so far away future, the survivors are no more, the responsibility to remind the world of the atrocities will be ours. I, Major Peter Lerner, am the Israel Defense Forces Spokesman in the Central Command and now I am a Witness in Uniform.
Aliza Landau’s last words to me
While wondering around Auschwitz I met Aliza Goldman-Landau, and as promised she agreed to say a few words to the camera. Goldman is her maiden name and the family name of her father and brother that were murdered in a ditch near Lodz.
She took a seat on the steps of the entrance to Barracks Number 5. As always she was pleasant and positive. Later at the closing session of the mission, Aliza got a standing ovation while Brigadier General Avishai Levi awarded her with a small token of our appreciation – a picture of the mission participants with the inscription, “Aliza – a little lady, an enormous Jewish heroine and a leader”. Her modesty was apparent as she was literally speechless and overwhelmed.
Here is the video of my short interview.
Closing Ceremony speech in Auschwitz Birkenau by Brigadier General Avishai Levi
“Members of the 149th witnesses in uniform mission, Mrs Aliza Landau, families of the fallen soldiers, Israeli Air Force hero Lieutenant Colonel Kochav Hess, Yad Vashem guides, non-commissioned officers, civil servants and officers of the IDF – Mission 149 – ‘Jewish Leadership’.”
“The trees here in Birkenau are quiet. Their branches which move in silence recall what happened. Their roots find a route through the dirt and touch your ashes and your reminiscence.”
“We have come to this place that was once bustling with your life. This place was a rich culture of Jewish congregations that you gloriously established. Here you studied, bloomed and bred wisdom to the world with your talents.”
“From the synagogue we continued and marched with you on a journey of horror, the route of your last breath here in the camp of the devil at the heart of human darkness.”
“And if you asked in your last breath of air that we will not let anti-Semitism raise its monstrous head once more and send its brutal arms, if you mumbled with your last strength that you wish that the Jewish people will have a shield of its own to defend and that we will not need the mercy of a Polish neighbor or Polish farmer, I am here to fulfill this wish, and maybe, all you wanted was for us to remember your names and who you are. We are therefore here to remember and never forget.”
“We are not here for revenge or for hate. Nor are we here to seek help or a savior. We came to see, to feel firsthand to understand the incomprehensible. We are here to respect our brothers – the father of the family that was humiliated in front of his son, the mother of the family that was ordered to remove all her clothing and expose her soul before terrible evil and imperviousness, the boy who lost his childhood and innocence.”
“We here are the sons and daughters of the Jewish State. We stand here humbled by you and say ‘We came to you, you are our heroes.'”
“And our flags are held high. The yellow star is replaced by a Star of David blue, proud and safe. The thin torn garments you wore are replaced by the shining uniform of the Israel Defense Forces and we carry with us the Torah scrolls. Your Torah scrolls. With all our values and our strength we have come to you to pay respects to your heroism.”
“Here we complete a circle by standing on this cursed land, the slaughterhouse of Birkenau. Our boots carry dirt from the land of Israel and this dirt binds with your ashes, ties you closer to us and tells our combined story.”
“The story of our wonderful state that Aliza and her friends reached to with their last bodily powers is an example of heroism and leadership built by them. Their roots are now deep and wide and have strengthened the renewed building of the Jewish people in the land of Israel. And from the roots grew a tree. And we are the branches of the tree and the same spirit of the people is with us here again.”
“Aliza we learned from you what it is to be a heroine and the meaning of leadership. We stand here thrilled and are wondering how so much hope and good can be born out of the tragedy you suffered. Your victory is the home you built, your grandchildren that smile calmly and the happiness of your many students. And we, the soldiers of the IDF, are proud of you and salute you.”
“Our voyage for freedom is not over. Our shield of defense is compiled of Jews and our allies, our brothers the Druze that have committed to the State of Israel.”
“This shield of defense is on-guard day and night and we are unfortunately sometimes required to pay the heaviest price of all. The families of the fallen are here with us today. For them, a regular day evolved into chilling darkness, as did your reality change in an abrupt way. My friends, families of the fallen soldiers, your presence here with us strengthens us and gives each of us meaning. We lower our heads in respect to your pain, embrace you, and together with you know that your pain is our strength.”
“On a personal note, in a few days I will remove my blue uniform that I have worn as a fighter pilot in the Israeli Air Force with great pride for many years. I am proud that my last mission in uniform, as an officer, I am carrying out here on Polish soil. This is a mission of values, sadness and bereavement. But I am also proud and full of faith that this is the route for us.”
“Together with me on this mission is my daughter Lieutenant Nir Levi, an officer in the Israeli Air Force. If I have to pass on to her and to all of you a suitable flag of values and morals then here in Auschwitz I pass on to you the essence of my beliefs as a Jew, a Zionist Israeli, a combat officer and a commander in the Israel Defense Forces. Remember what we have seen and experienced here. Remember that it is our obligation to ensure the continuity of the Jewish people. Remember to be proud to belong to this glorious people.”
“Friends and comrades, in a few moments the mission will be completed and we will fold our flags here in Poland. When we raise them again in our country we will know that nothing we see will ever be taken for granted. Not the democracy and not our independent government, not our culture and not our family members. Our mission now is to return home and continue to provide for our people security in soul, in culture and in values. I have complete faith that when we each return to our homes, we will want to be better citizens. I salute those that perished and in our eye there will be a constant tear but in our heart there is love, faith and resolve to remember this and secure our future existence.”
“He makes peace in his heavens, he will make peace on us and on all Israel, and say Amen”