Fighting to preserve a victory
It was 30 degrees in the shade and there sitting on a bench along the Bat Yam beachfront, south of Tel Aviv, was an old man with a brown suit jacket plastered in Russian Second World War medals – the shiny bronzes and silvers pinned to his chest in tight rows.
I stopped my car, jumped out, and ran over to him. “Sir, I want to thank you for what you did,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes as his crinkled, ancient face looked up at me. His brown eyes immediately filled with tears of their own as he shakingly took my hand and kissed it.
“Sbasiba, sbasiba,” I kept repeating the Russian word for “thank you”. As he puffed out his chest, he told me his name was Sasha. For hours he sat alone on that boardwalk in the early morning of May 9, paying silent homage to the victims and heroes of the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany 72 years ago in the Great Patriotic War.
Throughout that Tuesday of May 9, the day the war with Nazi Germany officially ended, dozens of Second World War Soviet Red Army veterans – many of them over 90 years old – gathered in commemorative events across Israel. Each of them proudly donned his or her medals, while many held photographs of sons, brothers and fathers killed in action.
Amid the larger tragedy of the Holocaust, these are some of the one-and-a-half million Jews who fought in Allied armies against the Nazis. According to Yad Vashem, a quarter of a million of them died in battle or fell into German captivity – most of them soldiers from the Red Army.
Those who survived built a life after the war in the former Soviet Union and when it collapsed in 1991, many of them emigrated to Israel. Today only some 5 000 are still alive in Israel and receive medical and financial benefits from the State. But it wasn’t always this way.
Only in the last two decades has Victory Day been officially recognised by Jerusalem. For years Israeli schools taught that it was the United States that won the war on May 8, ignoring the fact that it was actually the Red Army that liberated almost all the large concentration camps.
“What is important to acknowledge is not only people who died in the concentration camps and battles,” a Russian Member of Parliament told me, “but to remember the importance of victory. Our parents and grandparents were victors and that’s what former Soviet Jews have brought to Israel – the meaning of this victory.”
But, as Napoleon Bonaparte once observed, it is the winners who write history.
Two years ago, the Polish government saw fit not to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to attend the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The Polish foreign minister explained that “the first soldiers who stood at the frontline and were responsible for the release of the concentrations camps, were Ukrainian”.
What he failed to point out is that they were part of the Soviet Army as were countless other nationalities – Poles, Russians, Byelorussians, Kazakhs, and more. But politics is politics and with Polish-Ukrainian-Russian relations now seemingly ruptured beyond repair, Red Army veterans have been encouraged not to wear their medals in public in Ukraine and civilians have been attacked for marching in support of the Soviet victory in 1945.
In Ukraine, the honouring of the Red Army is seen as tantamount to supporting Russia. Of course, this is heart-breaking to many war veterans for whom the memory of that common fight is too strong to be suppressed and the sense of pride in its victory too powerful to forget.
Behind closed doors, inside a Soviet-built Kiev apartment, 90-year-old Boris Israel tells me he was not only surprised but also humiliated by the announcement.
“Our pride is hurt,” he whispered, the tears falling down his cheeks. “We were fighting for the sake of the Soviet people and almost every family in the post-war Soviet Union has people who died during the fighting. It’s extremely important for us to celebrate the day,” he reflected sadly.
As we sat around a tiny table in his living room, Israel opened a bottle of vodka and poured generous helpings for the camera crew. We drank while chewing on dark chocolate. Israel fought in the Siege of Leningrad after the Germans imposed a prolonged military blockade against the city for 872 days. His mother died of starvation.
“It’s always been a dream of mine to go to Israel,” he enthused and a month later his daughter phoned me to ask if I could help with travel arrangements.
Another veteran, Avraham, who once headed up the Union of World War Two Veterans in Israel, told me: “Life in Israel isn’t easy. Our grandsons are serving in the Israeli army as officers and soldiers and they are serving as honestly as we did all those years ago. Victory has to be preserved – everybody needs peace – the old and the young.”
His eyes too filled with tears as he recounted religious Jewish children once pointing to his medals and asking how much they cost.
“This is how much they know about the war,” he groaned quietly. “I told them you can buy these medals… but the price is blood.”
Which brings me back to Sasha, that dear sweet old man on the Bat Yam Boulevard. He didn’t speak a word of English and I know no Russian. So, we bonded in Yiddish. “Zei gezunt mein kind (“Be healthy my child”) he blessed me as we hugged and both smiled at the memory of a bittersweet victory still fighting to be preserved.
Paula Slier is the Middle East Bureau Chief of RT, the founder and CEO of NewshoundMedia and the inaugural winner of the Europcar Woman in Leadership Award of the South African Absa Jewish Achievers.
Libya’s destroyed Jewish graveyards being rebuilt online
(JTA) During a visit to his native Libya in 2002, David Gerbi saw something that he says still haunts him almost 20 years later.
“I was horrified to see children playing atop the ruins of the Tripoli Jewish cemetery, scampering about debris littered with human remains,” Gerbi, who left Libya many years ago for Italy, told the Behdrei Haredim news site in Israel last week.
The experience turned Gerbi into an advocate for what are known as heritage sites in his old community. But over the years, his efforts to preserve or restore communal Jewish sites in war-torn Libya, where no Jews remain, came to naught.
So Gerbi began to consider alternatives. And now, the psychologist who lives in Rome has announced a new effort to set up a virtual cemetery to replace each of the physical Jewish ones that have been devastated in his country of birth.
“Especially in Tripoli and Benghazi, the Jewish cemeteries were obliterated,” he told the news site. “So I decided to make a virtual cemetery for our loved ones buried in Libya.”
The virtual cemeteries will have sections for prominent rabbis and commemorative pages for victims of the Holocaust – hundreds of Libyan Jews died in concentration camps operated by Nazi-allied Italy – as well as other pages recalling the victims of three waves of pogroms, in 1945, 1948, and 1967, he said.
Users of the website will be able to light memorial candles virtually and dedicate Kaddish mourning prayers through the website interface. “It will be a way to remember the dead of a community gone extinct,” Gerbi said.
The initiative is a collaboration with ANU – The Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, which seeks to document the experiences of Jews around the globe and over time. Together, they’re asking people with information about Jews buried in Libya to reach out.
Their effort is in line with other initiatives that aim to rebuild extinct Jewish communities online because their former homes are so inhospitable to restoration efforts, such as Diarna, a massive website that allows users to explore the cities in North Africa and the Middle East where Jews used to live.
Gerbi’s effort is narrower, focusing exclusively on the cemeteries of Libya, where, during World War II, 40 000 Jews lived in communities with a centuries-long history.
The Holocaust and the antisemitic policies of the independent Libyan government that followed, as well as hostility toward Jews by the local population, drove all of them out. By 2004, Libya didn’t have a single Jew residing in it, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust museum.
Gerbi’s family was part of that migration. They fled Libya in 1967 when he was 12 years old, making them among the last Jews to leave the country. By 1969, the country had only 100 Jews.
The decades that followed, under the iron-fisted rule of dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi, offered few opportunities for preservation. But the central government collapsed after he was overthrown and executed in 2011, and the last decade has been marked by intermittent fighting among clans and militias with competing claims to leadership.
While those conditions have been harsh for Libyans, Gerbi said he hopes the shake-up could eventually give rise to a government that would be willing to address the country’s Jewish history and possibly normalise relations with Israel, as other Arab nations in the region have done in the past year. But he knows that could take many years, and he has essentially given up hope of having officials facilitate physical restoration work in the near future, Gerbi told Behadrei Haredim.
The situation of those sites was poor even before Libya erupted into civil war, he said.
It’s been 19 years since his visit to Tripoli’s Jewish cemetery, but “the gruesome sights and chilling images I saw won’t let go of me”, he said. In 2007, Gerbi visited the site again, “and I was shocked to discover that even the debris had been cleared out. They built a highway on the ruins of the Jewish cemetery and high-rise buildings. There’s isn’t a shred left.”
In Benghazi, Gerbi saw a warehouse full of boxes with human remains stuffed into them haphazardly. They had been collected from another Jewish cemetery before it was destroyed, he said.
Old synagogues are also at risk, said Gerbi, a prominent member of the World Organisation of the Jews of Libya, which promotes the interests of people whose families have roots in Libya.
Earlier this year, he told Italian media that an abandoned and ancient synagogue in Tripoli is being turned into an Islamic religious centre without permission.
“The Sla Dar Bishi in Tripoli is in the hands of the local authorities [read: militias] since there is now no Jew living in Tripoli,” he told Moked, the Italian Jewish news site.
“It was decided to violate our property and our history,” he wrote. “The plan clearly is to take advantage of the chaos and our absence.”
Accusations of antisemitism absurd, say Ben & Jerry’s founders
(JTA) In an interview that aired on HBO, both of the founders of the Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand reiterated that they stood behind the company’s decision to stop selling their products in the West Bank.
But for Jerry Greenfield, being accused of antisemitism is “painful”. For Ben Cohen, it’s “absurd”.
“Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever are being characterised as boycotting Israel, which isn’t the case at all. It’s not boycotting Israel in any way,” Greenfield said in an interview with Axios that aired on its HBO show on 10 October.
The Jewish duo, who founded the company in 1978, are no longer its owners, but they remain the most recognisable public faces of the company. They had previously defended the West Bank decision in a New York Times op-ed shortly after the move took place in July, but the Axios interview gave them a chance to expound on the human side of the aftermath.
“It’s a very emotional issue for a lot of people and I totally understand it. It’s a painful issue for a lot of people,” Greenfield said.
They were also asked how it felt to be “wrapped up in accusations of antisemitism”.
“Totally fine,” Cohen said, laughing. “It’s absurd. What, I’m anti-Jewish? I’m a Jew! All my family is Jewish, my friends are Jewish.”
Ben & Jerry’s had long been engaged in social issues when it decided to pull its product from the West Bank after months of pressure from pro-Palestinian activists in the wake of Israel’s latest armed conflict with Gaza. The decision prompted calls to boycott Ben & Jerry’s and its parent company, Unilever, along with accusations of antisemitism from some pro-Israel activists. The state of Arizona divested nearly $200 million (R2.9 billion) from Unilever in September, and several other states have since reviewed their investments in the conglomerate.
Unilever has also said in public statements that it doesn’t believe Ben & Jerry’s is boycotting the state of Israel, and that it plans to keep selling within the borders Israel established after the Six-Day War in 1967. However, Israeli law outlaws business that boycotts the West Bank, so it remains to be seen whether the company will be allowed to follow through with its plan.
When asked why Ben & Jerry’s continued to sell its ice cream in states with policies that aren’t in line with Cohen and Greenfield’s values – such as Texas, where access to abortion is now limited, and Georgia, where voting rights have been curtailed. Cohen didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know. I mean it’s an interesting question, I don’t know what that would accomplish, we’re working on those issues of voting rights and … I don’t know. I think you ask a really good question, and I think I’d have to sit down and think about it for a bit,” Cohen said.
Greenfield suggested that the answer had to do with international law.
“One thing that’s different is that what Israel is doing is considered illegal by international law, so I think that’s a consideration,” Greenfield said.
Jewish Zambian freedom fighter laid to rest in state funeral
It’s not often that one finds a Jewish freedom-fighting 96-year-old in Zambia, but Simon Zukas was one such man. Born in Lithuania and profoundly influenced by the events of the Holocaust, he played a pivotal role in bringing democracy to Zambia. He passed away on 27 September, and was laid to rest in an official state funeral on Tuesday, 5 October.
“Simon was profoundly influenced not just by the moral-ethical teachings of Judaism, but by the historical experience of the Jewish people with whom he never ceased to identify,” said African Jewish Congress (AJC) spiritual leader Rabbi Moshe Silberhaft in his eulogy. “In large part, his abhorrence of injustice, particularly when based on race, was informed by the tragic fate of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe including his own home-town during the Holocaust.” Silberhaft was flown out by the Zambian government to officiate the funeral.
Describing Zukas as “a devoted patriot, freedom fighter, and heroic pioneer of the nation of Zambia”, Silberhaft said that he was born Shimon Ber Zukas “in a small Lithuanian town in 1925, and had just entered his teens when he arrived in what was then Northern Rhodesia just before the outbreak of World War II. For the rest of his long and productive life, he would devote himself to furthering the well-being of his adopted country.”
He landed up in the British colony of Northern Rhodesia because it didn’t have quotas limiting Jewish settlers, unlike South Africa and Southern Rhodesia, later Zimbabwe.
Zukas studied civil engineering at the University of Cape Town, and got involved in student politics. He later joined the struggle for Zambian independence, and was eventually deported to the United Kingdom.
“He was declared a ‘danger to peace and good order’, and, after a fruitless appeal to the high court and eight months in jail in Livingstone, he was deported to England, a country he had previously neither visited nor lived in,” wrote Sishuwa Sishuwa in the Lusaka Times. “Though constituting a risk to his own life, his decision to confront those who perpetuated injustice and become an active participant in the struggle for independence was a statement of his commitment to equality.”
But in 1965, following statehood, new Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda invited him to return. By now a qualified engineer running a successful consultancy in England, Zukas said he moved back to offer his professional expertise to major infrastructure projects. A career in politics also followed: his efforts to persuade Kaunda and his United National Independence Party to abandon a one-party state failed and, in 1990, he broke ranks and joined the drive towards multiparty politics, playing a leading role in its subsequent return. He was most recently leader of the Forum for Democracy and Development, an opposition political party. He retired from politics in 2005.
Alongside his political and engineering endeavours, Zukas was committed to his Jewish identity. He was chairperson of the Council for Zambian Jewry, and vice-president of the AJC.
AJC President Ann Harris wrote to Zambian President Hakainde Hichilema on Zukas’s passing, describing how the AJC “represented the interests of all the Jewish communities in the countries of sub-Saharan Africa of which Zambia is a proud leader. Simon Zukas was an active member of our organisation. His pride in his nation of Zambia and the excellence and fortitude with which he served his country in many different public spheres created a glow of honour which reflected on our congress.”
Calling Zukas a “father figure”, she wrote that “he had the strength and loyalty to be at one and the same time the proudest of Zambians and an outspoken example of his Jewish identity. To us, the loss is immeasurable, and we are quite sure that all of Zambia feels the same.” She wished the president and the people of Zambia “long life” on his passing.
Writer Cynthia Hartley described in her blog how she found herself “crying hopelessly at the news of his death. We met through mutual friends in Zambia as well as work, engineering, politics, and art. Mike, my husband, was Jewish, and that was an important initial connection. Neither Mike nor Simon were observant Jews, but both cared deeply about the Jewish community and its continuity.
“There are excellent obituaries of Simon Zukas but not all explain how extraordinary his moral principles were, given the universal background of racism he faced,” she wrote. She advised reading his autobiography, Into Exile and Back.
Alongside Zukas every step of the way was his loving wife, Cynthia (nee Robinson). Together, they had two sons. A painter by profession, she was awarded an Order of the British Empire in 2012, “for promoting visual arts in Zambia and for creating a historical archive of Zambian art”.
In his eulogy, Silberhaft described her as a “true partner” in her husband’s life’s work, and “an outstanding citizen in her own right”. Hartley said that “they were an extraordinary couple in their support for and understanding of each other. It was a relationship I have long envied.”
Silberhaft said, “Regardless of his foreign birth and the fact that he wasn’t just white but a member of a small religious minority, Simon Zukas was a Zambian to the core, and so was he regarded by his fellow citizens, regardless of race of creed.
“As spiritual leader to the AJC, I was privileged to have had many opportunities of meeting and working with him, and can attest to how strongly the teachings of his Jewish heritage underpinned his approach to everything that he did,” he said. “I’m bidding farewell not only to a member of my own far-flung African congregation, but also to a true colleague and friend. May the memory of Shimon Ber Zukas be a blessing, and may the example he set be a source of inspiration for all the generations to come.”
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