From Rebirth to the Skies

 

“From Rebirth to the Skies” – Dr. Lea Ganor

 

This research study focuses on Holocaust survivors who became air crews and who served in the Israel Air Force, whose foundations were laid by members of the major pre-state Jewish underground, the Haganah; members of the Mahal (Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad) of the Israel Defense Forces and persons who had previously served in the Royal Air Force. The infrastructure and overall structure of the IAF were built on those foundations. Of the 300 air crews who served in the IAF in the mid-1950s and during the Sinai Campaign of 1956, 120 were Holocaust survivors; the survivors filled various capacities: fighters, pilots, squadron commanders and air base commanders. They were present at critical decision-making junctions in the IAF. The “people of the rebirth,” as they were called then, are an integral part of the tradition and birth of the IAF.[1]

Today there are only a few dozen of these airmen who are still living among us. Some of the air crews who were Holocaust survivors fell in combat; some of them died prematurely and others died of old age.[2]

Most of the individuals who came “from there” (that is, who survived the Holocaust) never talked about their past. Most of them maintained absolute silence concerning their previous experiences “there” and wanted to be like their Sabra (native-born Israeli) comrades, even if that meant not sharing their past experiences and instead constructing a new identity. In his book,

A New Sky and a New Land (in Hebrew), Shaya Harsit talks about this phenomenon:

 

I kept my personal history close to my chest, like playing cards, and shared my personal experiences with no one…. I was not the only one who kept his mouth shut. All of the members of that terrific group generally did the same, although there were some who talked very little about what they had gone through, while there were some who talked at length about what they had seen and experienced during the Holocaust. For all of them, life in Israel was very new and very strange and they all tried very hard to forget the past, to be like their Israeli friends and to adopt a thoroughly Israeli identity. Some of them succeeded in this task, but some failed….[3]

 

Harsit notes: “My recognition of Israel as the only place where a Jew should live led me, when I completed my studies, to volunteer to serve in the Israel Air Force…. When I received my officer’s rank and my pilot’s wings, I was the happiest and proudest person on the face of the earth. During my 22 years in the IAF, I served my country loyally and devotedly; however, I was also aware that Israel and the IAF gave me much more than I gave them.[4]

The suffering they had endured during the Second World War and the Holocaust, the family members they had lost and the personal upheavals they had experienced forged the spirit of these young men. Each of them had his own particular reasons for wanting to sign up for the IAF’s flight training program. What motivated them to volunteer to serve in the IAF and to be airmen? Were the program and the meaningful period of service in the IAF, to some limited extent, consolation for the loss of their family members and their childhood? In what way did their experiences during the Second World War influence their decision to volunteer for the flight training program? How did what they went through during the Holocaust determine the nature of their contribution to the IAF?

In his book, SMA ISRAEL… Tishrei Heshvan Kislev (in Hebrew), Arieh Oz, writes about his experiences during the last waning stages of the war when he was hidden by a Dutch family:

 

The planes of the Allies flew over our heads every day, one formation after another, making a tremendous amount of noise. The sound of their engines was monotonous and yet somehow orchestrated. At night I would listen to those engines for quite a while before I finally managed to fall asleep. I could distinguish the different makes and models of the planes by the sound of their engines … The engines played their tunes but each tune was different. By the sound of the engine, I could distinguish whether the plane was flying with three active engines or only two.[5]

 

He further recalls:

 

In the fields of the farm on the other side of the fence, the Canadians had laid iron plates that were joined together and which formed a makeshift tarmac on which light planes could take off and land and on which they could be parked. Pilots in blue uniforms with sergeant stripes on them stood beside the planes and chatted. Standing beside the fence, I was so excited and I day-dreamed: “One day I am also going to be a pilot.” Less than 11 years later, on January 5, 1956, Major General Dan Tolkowsky, who was commander of the IAF at the time, pinned my pilot’s wings to my chest. At the center of those wings was a blue Star of David.[6]

 

The late Yosef Ofer writes in Permission To Take Off (in Hebrew):

 

As a result of the lessons I learned in the Holocaust, my worldview was formed. I believe that it is forbidden to judge others, especially your enemies, through generalizations; that, in view of the wrongs and anti-Semitic injustices we – the members of the Jewish nation – have suffered and are still suffering, we must treat the minorities living among us more fairly than we ourselves were treated as minorities living among other nations; that revenge cannot correct injustices; that a declarative, raucous patriotism is no substitute for a true, constructive love of one’s homeland.[7]

 

In the sixth and seventh decades of the lives of these air crews -survivors, some of them have begun to open up and to tell their stories; at the same time, Israeli society’s attitude toward the Holocaust, Holocaust survivors and the Holocaust’s images has changed and has shifted from arrogance to empathy.  Their rebirth enabled these air crews to reach for the sky and the contribution of Holocaust survivors to Israel’s security and to its national values constitutes an important chapter in Jewish history.

 

Goals of this research study:

 

  1. 1.Documentation of the experiences of Holocaust survivors who became airmen and who served in the Israel Air Force: their personal story, the story of the IAF and the national story from the standpoint of moral values
  2. 2.Analysis of the contribution of these individuals to the IAF and to the State of Israel

 

Central questions to be discussed in the research study:

 

What motivated these Holocaust survivors to volunteer to serve in the IAF and to be air crews? Were the IAF’s flight training program and the meaningful period of service in the IAF, to some limited extent, consolation for the loss of their family members and their childhood? In what way did their experiences during the Second World War influence their decision to volunteer for the flight training program? How did what they went through during the Holocaust determine the nature of their contribution to the IAF?

 

Manner in which the research study will be conducted – Stage 1: Group of surviving air crews (43 individuals)

 

Gathering of personal details by the project’s volunteers

 

Recording of testimonies by Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority

 

Gathering of photographs and archival materials, conducting of personal and group interviews with Holocaust survivor airmen who are still living among us, and analysis of the personal interviews by the researcher



[2] Shaya Harsit, A New Sky and a New Land, co-authored and edited by Yehudit Rotem (Kibbutz Dalia, 5773 [2012].

[3] Shaya Harsit, A New Sky and a New Land, pp. 292-293.

[4] Ibid., p. 295.

[5] Arieh Oz, Hear O Israel … Tishrei Heshvan Kislev (Yehud, 2011), pp. 32-33.

[6] Ibid., p. 35

[7] Yosef Ofer, Permission To Take Off (Ministry of Defense, 5752 [1992]), p. 11.

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