In the winter of 1945, a time when 10-year-old Yitzhak Perlmutter spent his days pushing wheelbarrows full of coal from train to factory in Möllersdorf saving his extra piece of bread each day for his little sister, the youngster could not possibly have envisioned that he’d have children of his own someday, much less grandchildren. And certainly not that his grandson would be a soldier for a Jewish state he could never have dreamed would exist.
But last week, the Hungarian native had the opportunity to tour a brand-new center designed to show Israel’s soldiers the horror that he and other Jews experienced during the years of World War II and the Holocaust. And alongside him was his grandson, Matan, an officer in the Israel Defense Forces.
As such, he is part of a family legacy. In the early years of the state, Perlmutter served in the IDF. “And now, my grandchild is continuing in our way,” he adds. “Seeing my grandchildren in uniform is a source of tremendous pride and the greatest form of victory over what we endured during the Shoah.”
Now, timed to coincide with Yom Hashoah—the day all of Israel stops to remember the Holocaust—“Before My Very Eyes,” the Yad Vashem Educational Center for Holocaust Remembrance, is opening at the Ariel Sharon IDF training campus in the Negev Desert.
Here, thousands of IDF trainees each year are expected to learn more deeply about the Holocaust through a series of interactive exhibits and workshops connecting them in new ways with the Jewish experience during those terrible years.
At a time of increasing global anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial, along with the disappearance of the remaining survivors who bear witness and set the record straight, the establishment of the center approaches the Holocaust as a pivotal event in the history of the Jewish people, says Shani Lourie Farhi who directed its content for Yad Vashem’s International School for Holocaust Studies.
In addition, says Farhi, the center—the culmination of a multi-year partnership between the school and the IDF’s Educational Corps—invites the soldiers to explore such enduring values as Jewish identity, mutual responsibility, leadership, heroism, and attachment to the land and people of Israel.
“Though for years, Yad Vashem has worked with the IDF to raise Holocaust awareness among its soldiers, this is the first permanent structure on an army base,” explains Farhi. “These young adults have put their own lives on hold for years to protect Israel and the Jewish people, so from the beginning, we needed to ask ourselves what’s important for them to know at this point in their lives, and what will inspire them?”
In addition to a historical context of what was going on in the world and in the lives of the Jews at that time, the center is replete with personal stories. “We wanted to introduce them not just to how they died but how they lived in the years before, who they were as people,” says Farhi, “to open a window in the minds and hearts of these future leaders of Israel and the Jewish people to a deeper understanding.”
‘Past, present and future in one building’
One natural connection is the love many Holocaust-era Jews held for Israel, a land where they dreamed of being free to live as proud Jews. One photo at the center features a woman in the Lodz Ghetto teaching children with a map of Israel on the wall. “Imagine that of the few things they were allowed to take to the ghetto someone chose to take that map—the dream of Israel meant that much to them,” notes Farhi. “A woman who had lost everything teaching children who may not have a future to love a land that must have seemed so far-fetched, but still, they clung to it.”
As they explore the core values that bridge the Holocaust generation with today’s IDF soldiers, one that struck Pvt. Tom Abutbul was “the value of friendship, of helping one another.”
Such shared eternal values also brought Rachel Shnay and her family into the project as donors. “As soon as we heard about it, we realized this was the perfect way to memorialize our grandfather,” says Shnay, co-chair of the American Society of Yad Vashem Young Leaders whose grandparents were all survivors.
Her grandfather, Symcha Horowitz, who died last year and for whom this gift was given, witnessed his father being hung, and lost his mother to starvation in the ghetto and four of his six brothers in the camps. Yet he went on to help found Israel’s Air Force and fight in the War of Independence. Though, as an entrepreneur, he subsequently lived in Bolivia, Argentina, London, Miami and New York, Horowitz’s passion for Israel and the Zionist dream never faded, his granddaughter reports; indeed, one of his most treasured possessions was his Israeli (pre-state Palestine) identification card from 1945.
“Basically, the center puts the past, present and future together in one building,” says Shnay. “And the soldiers who spend time here will see it’s because of the courage of survivors like my grandparents, who loved Israel and were so proud of it that they are here in this country today. They’ll know what they’re here for.”
Yad Vashem chairman Dani Dayan agrees. “Against the backdrop of rising global anti-Semitism, Holocaust distortion and trivialization, and fewer survivors remaining among us, our responsibility is to inspire young men and women at different stages of their military service through an in-depth study of the Holocaust, and highlight several individuals who can serve as role models to the leaders of tomorrow.”
As such, the future is as much in the spotlight as the past, adds Maj. Gen. Michel Yanko, who heads up the IDF’s Technological and Logistics Directorate. “This center is not only a commemoration to those who were murdered; it is also a promise to the survivors—to carry the torch and to pass it on,” he says. “For me, the son of Panel Yanko, a survivor of the deportations and the Holocaust, it is not only my family’s legacy but also the closing of a circle, a symbol of the transition from Shoah to rebirth and an important contribution to educating generations of soldiers and military personnel.”
‘The fact that Jews are in Israel is a miracle’
All of which greatly pleases survivor—and now great-grandfather—Perlmutter, who came to Israel in 1946 after being liberated with his mother and sister, and returning to Hungary long enough to learn of the murders of his brother and the rest of their family in Auschwitz. “I feel that every Jew, and of course, every soldier, has to know exactly what happened and know the story of the Holocaust,” he says. “A nation that does not know her past has no future.”
That is something that makes one IDF soldier particularly proud. “Not only as a grandson of a Holocaust survivor but as an officer,” says 24-year-old Matan Perlmutter. “I think the soldiers’ connection to the Jewish people’s past is very important in that we are the continuation and future of the State of Israel and the Jewish people.”
“It strengthened my connection to my history and my people,” is how Cpl. Ayala Zilbershtein puts it. “I felt like I was able to connect with the people and with their world, and relate to their experiences. And at the same time strengthen my mission as a soldier—not just from reading their experiences and from seeing the photographs, but rather by walking through the center and really feeling them.”
This piece of Jewish history—and destiny—is brought home for Shnay each time she hears a particular line in “Hatikvah,” Israel’s national anthem: L’hiyot am chofshi b’artzenu—“To be a free nation in our land.”
“That always reminds me of my grandfather and all the others who went through that hell, and yet were willing to put their lives on the line again, but this time for something that meant everything to them,” she says with evident pride. “From destruction to rebirth, the fact that Jews are in Israel today is a miracle; they’re there on the fruits of the survivors’ labor and their sacrifice. And you can’t move forward unless you know where you come from.”