It is no secret that the eyewitnesses to the Nazi death camps, the Liberators from the U.S. and Allied Armies, are themselves quickly dying off. They did their duty, most having no clue that the day they walked into the camps that the devastation and utter horror they would see, smell and touch- would linger with them permanently.
The Mahalniks, the 4000 volunteers from all over the world, who helped Israel fight for its independence a few years later in 1948-49, are similarly dying off. Their service, often heroic, has yet to be fully realized and truly recognized.
Unfortunately, it seems there has been small, sporadic, and not largely organized acknowledgement of the services these groups have performed for the Jewish People and the State of Israel. Some of us have recognized a real need to actively and definitively coordinate an effort to honor these efforts and put it “on the map” before it is too late.
My friend Ed “The Sage” Snyder has spearheaded an initial effort, with my assistance, to see if this was possible, and perhaps, ultimately, create a holiday in Israel to commemorate them. Several years ago at our synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, Wynnewood, PA, we held special services during Veterans Day to honor liberators, veterans and prisoners of war. It was a resounding success. That was followed up with a Veterans Day program with a local black Baptist church to honor the Red Ball Express, black American soldiers in the transportation army units, who liberated camps. We also brought liberators together for programs with students, at schools, civic associations, and documented the filmed their stories. As important as these programs were, they are not enough.
So, in my capacity as co-President of the Zionist Organization of America- Philadelphia Chapter, I contacted ZOA’s Israel Director, Jeff Daube, who expressed real interest in our mission. Jeff indicated he had some important contacts at Yad Vashem, which is the Israeli organization that would be most likely to lead such programming. This past August, Jeff met with Dr. Susanna Kokonen, the Director of Christian Friends of Yad Vashem’s International Relations Div. and Sara Granitza, the Deputy Managing Director of the International Relations Division. According to Jeff, they spent close to three hours discussing the question of Yad Vashem’s involvement. They do understand the urgency of this matter because of the advanced age of the few liberators still alive.
Jeff proposed three major questions to them:
1. Could Yad Vashem be helpful in terms of facilitating educational experiences (speaking opportunities) for the liberators?
2. Could Yad Vashem be helpful in documenting, i.e., taking testimony and recording, the liberators?
3. Would it be possible for Yad Vashem to play a role in an official recognition of the role they played?
In response, the Yad Vashem officials wanted to know whether there exists any umbrella organization that could help us identify surviving liberators. If there was not such a clearinghouse, they wanted to know if we had any way of finding them, such as taking out newspaper ads. They also wanted to know about existing material, film footage and documentation about the liberators. We do know there exists some grainy black and white footage of Eisenhower and US GIs in one of the camps.
Susanna said that it was important to reach out to Christian leadership. She wanted to know if we have been in touch with significant church leadership, of which she has contacts. She said we should not underplay the importance of that sector since Israel support is eroding even among the Christian Zionist Evangelical sector, especially among the young.
Whatever way the project develops, both wanted to know about covering costs, including travel, hotel, and perhaps special needs for an elderly speaker has to be anticipated.
In terms of filming and documentation, they indicated they would speak to the historian at Yad Vashem who has been in charge of taking the testimony and recording the Shoah survivors for the Spielberg project. Again, the question of covering the costs for such a project arose.
They also wanted to know about accessing family members of the liberators for their second hand reports. They suggested that there may be diaries, photographs and other memorabilia that could contribute to a better understanding.
Sara pointed out that official recognition should and could be accorded for those liberators who may have exhibited some extraordinary effort beyond the call for the survivors. While each GI who witnessed the horrors should be tapped for educational purposes, she did not, however, think the group should be recognized as a whole: after all, they were soldiers who happened to be in a certain place at a certain time. I get her point.
Of course, any official day of recognition would have to go through the Knesset as a resolution. And that can take a long time, perhaps too late for liberators and Mahalniks.
They had several other questions: a) whether we had been in touch with the Holocaust Museum in Washington, the one in New York, or the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles? b) whether the Jewish War Veterans association has been contacted and helpful? c) Whether the Department of Veterans Affairs has been contacted?
They also suggested that we reach out to survivors who had experiences with liberators. If kids can be identified who were liberated, we may be able to tap into a larger group. For example, they cited was Rav Meir Lau, Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv and Yad Vashem, who as a child survivor had an interesting experience with Rav Schachter z”l, a liberator, during the first Shavuot. Unfortunately Rav Schachter passed away last year but Rav Lau is still very active and very sharp and speaks a good English.
Finally, they said they would ask for the involvement of American Friends of Yad Vashem. Perhaps they can give an opportunity to a liberator at their annual dinner in the US in November.
The devil is clearly in the details. Tremendous work needs to be done to get this off the ground, many of these questions need to be answered and researched. The takeaway: If it is indeed an important core mission to remember the special service of the Mahalniks, Liberators and others who have helped defend and save the Jewish People and give birth to the State of Israel, we must act expeditiously before it is too late.
Lee S. Bender, Co-President, ZOA-Greater Philadelphia District, is the co-author, with Jerome Verlin of the book, “Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z.”