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In Memory of the Jewish Soldiers Who Fought the Nazis

Sonja Gershaft shares her story as a member of Dror Israel working to immortalize the courage & heroism of Jewish soldiers who fought in the Red Army against Hitler

by: Sonja Gershaft, a Dror Israel Educator from the Petach Tikva Educators' Kibbutz

Today, I went with some friends to visit Avraham Greenzaid, Chair of the Union of WWII Veterans who Fought the Nazis. We met him in a park near his home, where we thanked him and congratulated him, and we raised a glass to toast L'Chaim. This man, who is an educator through and through, asked one thing of us: Don’t let this story be forgotten.

Dror Israel Educators with Avraham Greenzaid, chair of the Union of WWII Veterans who Fought the Nazis

A million and a half Jews fought against the Nazis with the allied forces. Nearly half were soldiers in the Red Army. Every Russian-speaking household in Israel commemorates the loss of somebody who fell in the war. The Jewish fighters – both simple soldiers and senior officers – fought on the front lines, liberated ghettos and concentration camps, and returned home heroes. After the war, the Soviet authorities declared May 9th as Victory Day.

At the same time as Jews were fighting in the allied forces, 1.5 million Jews were murdered in the Soviet Union in improvised killing pits outside towns and villages. However, after the war the Soviet authorities insisted on erasing any memory not only of their murder, but also of the existence of Jewish victims altogether. Official remembrance in the USSR was restricted to the general fate of Soviet citizenry and the heroism of the Red Army during the war – all references to the unique religious, cultural and national identities of the heroes and the victims were erased. Therefore, for decades Jews in Russia remembered two stories on this day – the Soviet heroism celebrated publicly, and the Jewish Holocaust remembered quietly at home.

Growing up in a family of Russian olim in Israel, every May 9th we would light a candle for my grandfather Michael Gershaft Z”L, who fled Poland with his family for the Soviet Union when the Nazis invaded. At the same time, all day the TV would be set to the Russian-language channel broadcasting the military parade from Red Square in Moscow, in bright orange and black, with Red Army band renditions of war songs, dramatic speeches, and big shows of honor and respect for those who gave their lives and those who survived.

Right picture: Sonja Gershaft. Left picture: Sonja's grandfather Michael Gershaft Z"L

This is the background with which Russian Jewish veterans of World War II made aliyah (immigrated) to Israel. Aging former soldiers brought with them prized military medals as remnants of their former glory. Most came with a Jewish spark in their hearts. Their Jewishness, after all, was their major motivation to fight the Nazis. It is also what led them to leave everything they had known behind and move to Israel as adults. They hoped that in Israel they would find a home where their heroism in fighting for the Jewish people, and the destruction of their families and communities, would be honored properly.

In Israel today, there is a vast chasm between the significance granted to Yom HaShoah (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day) in April and Victory Day on May 9th, on which the veterans commemorate both the tragedy of the Holocaust and their own bravery fighting the Nazis.

The number of living veterans dwindles every day, and the story of their heroism is at risk of being lost and forgotten with them.

Over the years, the veterans and their families have worked tirelessly to create a large-scale memorial effort worthy of their heroism and capable of keeping their stories alive. In the USSR, the anti-Semitic government deliberately ignored and erased the Jews from the memory of Soviet heroism. Therefore, here in Israel, they built museums and monuments, founded clubs and organizations, and led marches and events – hundreds of endeavors big and small – an inspiring effort to reach us, the younger generation.

We, members of Dror Israel’s youth movement, the Federation of Working and Studying Youth, have been inspired and fascinated by their stories and their heroism, and we commit to bringing it to the younger generation each year.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis. But the coronavirus pandemic has meant that we could not hold any marches or public events. Nevertheless, this year, as every other, we must share (online) with thousands of children and young people in Israel the story of Jewish heroism in the Red Army, a source of pride and honor for us all.

Let us raise a toast to still remembering their courage and heroism 75 years into the future, just as Avraham wished us today.

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