Shaul and Mina Sterngast, who lived in Krakow, had eight children. One of them, Romek, was my grandfather. He caught the Zionist bug, as did some of his siblings, and together they made aliyah to Mandatory Palestine before World War II. The rest of the family stayed in Poland. They were rounded up in the Krakow ghetto and then, like the entire community, murdered in Auschwitz. Their execution in the gas chambers was also the death of humanity, justice and morality.
I visited the home of my family this week. It still stands. For a moment, I could imagine the kids hurriedly descending the wooden stairs as they headed down to play in the yard, or the special aura one would sense when the household’s Shabbat preparations got underway. But it was also easy to imagine how the family members were brutally struck as they were forced down those very stairs.
When I entered the main hall in the Auschwitz crematorium with 16 IDF battalion commanders standing next to me, I was overcome with emotion. I know those commanders personally. They represent what is best about Israelis. They decided to dedicate their lives to the most important thing there is.
Many had family members who were murdered in the Holocaust, and now—having flown directly from Tel Aviv, with their shoes still bearing dust from the Land of Israel—they stand at the darkest place in human history as the spearhead of Israel’s defense force.
At the very place where our families became ashes, we now stand tall as armed soldiers. In the very place where their clothes had a yellow Star of David, we now have an insignia to mark the operations and wars in which we defeated our enemies. Each of the battalion commanders and officers represents a unique military power. Each has fought and defended Israel and each continues to engage in combat and fight the threats facing our country.
As we stand in the cabins of death, we feel an increased sense of duty. From here, one cannot escape the thought that we have a treasure in Israel—its institutions, its military and its culture, as well as all of its accomplishments—and that safeguarding it must be of paramount concern.
The familial history of each and every one of us takes on a new and special meaning here. My family members, like those of the commanders who joined me, could not have imagined that just three hours away by plane from the very place where Jews were to be annihilated, the Jewish people would have a flourishing and developed state that is based on Jewish values and able to defend itself. We are blessed to have our own military that stands out as one of the strongest in the world—a moral and professional force. We are privileged to serve in it.
Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi is the IDF chief of staff.
This article was originally published by Israel Hayom.