Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Next Soldier Returns

Somewhere along the way, I realized that while I am the mother of a soldier named Elie, someday soon (too soon), I will also be the mother of another soldier, and another after that. I love the comments people send to me; they encourage me, comfort me, and sometimes remind me that things I take for granted, aren't obvious to those living outside Israel. At some point, I'll try to go back and sum up and clarify, for now, I'll focus on one point.

Elie didn't choose to become a soldier - though there were things he might have done to avoid it (so one could argue that by not avoiding the army, he chose to be a soldier). In Israel, there is a mandatory draft, made necessary by the fact that we have, for all intents and purposes, been a nation at war for 60 years. We all have an obligation to defend this land, if we are to continue living here. There are those who do not serve - and I have now come to believe it is their lose as much as Israel's. To defend your land, your nation, your people, your way of life, your beliefs - is to commit yourself and to say to others that your way is right and just. There are armies built on force or bribery; but the strongest armies are those built on determination and belief. For this reason, Israel educates its soldiers. They are taken to historical places throughout the land of Israel so they understand the ancient (and modern) connection we have here.

They are taken to memorials for other soldiers, so that they are taught the price we have paid to be in our land. And, they are taken to several locations commemorating the Holocaust that cost the lives of more than 6 million Jews during World War II. Here, they learn the cost of not serving, the price of being unable to fight. Here, they learn the meaning of helplessness and despair.

My Israeli friends are often more distressed at having a son in the army than I am. I chose to come here, to bring my sons here, knowing that part of the commitment to move here involved willingly sending my sons to the army. What that meant, in very real terms, has only become real and more understandable in the last year, but the concept was one I lived with even before we moved.

For these Israeli friends, they fought so their children wouldn't have to; they enlisted and served in the army so that the Arabs would understand that we were not going to allow ourselves to be defeated and exiled again from our homeland. They fought for peace, so that their children would never have to fight in a war, as they had. Now, as their children enter the army, they look back and wonder why it didn't work out that way.

For us, it is all new. Elie received his draft letters, as all high school boys do - as his middle brother now has. Elie took the tests that told the army where he excelled, where he could best serve the army's needs and, in turn, what would be best for Elie. I am not naive enough to believe that Elie's needs were paramount, but the army is quick to understand - an unhappy soldier isn't a good one. Elie is not a gun-toting maniac, far from it - but he is enjoying the challenges the army presents to him; the responsibility behind it; the commitment to it.

So, why is this called "The Next Soldier Returns,"? Because - despite these previous paragraphs, what I want to write about is something else. Elie's brother returned from Poland yesterday after spending eight days there. It is an agonizing trip for a young Israeli. It is a humbling trip.

Israel is a relatively small country - tiny, even, compared to most. Roughly the size of New Jersey, one of the smallest states in the United States, it is easy to drive from north to south within a day, from east to west within an hour or so. Poland is, by comparison, so very vast. I was in Poland several years ago on a similar trip with my daughter. That made these last 8 days that much more difficult for me, as I knew what he would be seeing and feeling.

Those 8 days changed me as a person, solidified much of what I have always believed. There is, within mankind, the capacity for unimaginable evil. You know this when you stand in a gas chamber. There is the capacity for sudden anger - you know this when you visit Poland and feel the evil. My son knew this (and I remembered it), when he told me that someone had criticized his group for singing a song in memory of those who died in Auschwitz.

"You aren't the only ones who are here!" my son was told. They did the right thing in Auschwitz - they ignored the rude person who came to visit, but not understand. When I heard this, I felt such anger and words bubbled into my head. Oh, the things I would say to such a person...and then knew I had to leave them unsaid. The place is holy and deserves our respect. That one person would disrespect the holiness of the place does not justify our lowering ourselves to such insensitivity.

What is important in Auschwitz is not what the living say, but what the dead feel. Yes, I felt them in Auschwitz. I came to give them my respect and honor. To tell them about Israel, a place that would have saved them, if it had existed, and a place that shelters those who survived. Perhaps, like me, I told my great-grandmother and great-aunts and all the others, the descendents of those who died in Auschwitz can live in Israel, free as they never were.

You learn about evil and anger in Poland. You also learn an incredible lesson - one of helplessness. There is nothing that can be done to help people murdered 60 years ago. We can remember them; we can honor them. But we cannot defeat the evil that was defeated and yet still thrives in many places around the world. Sometimes, that evil is given a different name, but it is the same as we have always known it.

Shmulik returned from Poland yesterday. Clearly, it effected him greatly and as he looks at the pictures (which he showed to me and then to a friend yesterday), he is continuing to internalize the lessons he learned there.

Being a Jew in the Israeli army is a liberating experience. Had there been an Israel with an Israeli army during World War II, it's first priority would have been to rescue the Jews, to bring them home. They would have had a place to escape; a nation willing to accept them unconditionally and we would all be different. Elie might have a different name - he was named after his grandmother's brother who was murdered just after Passover in 1944 by the Nazis. Newly married, he was pulled from his home. Unarmed, unable to defend himself. I know nothing of his personality; nothing of who he was before his death. Nothing remains but his name, which Elie carries, and perhaps a picture in an album.

Shmulik also carries the name of another of my husband's brothers. He too died helpless and virtually alone. His last act was one of courage. He told his cousin to leave him in the forest when he didn't have any more strength to go on. My Shmulik carries his name, and hopefully his courage and concern for others.

My youngest son carries the name of his grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who was able to go on with his life, marry and bring four children into the world. But all that he did and all that he was, remained shadowed, in part, by his experiences as a very young man during the Holocaust. In a very real sense, today's Israeli soldiers too remain shadowed by the knowledge that once we as a people were helpless.

Yesterday, I stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the last remaining part of what was once our Holy Temple and watched a ceremony attended by parents and family members, who welcomed back the boys who had gone to Poland. In a very real sense, they came back with so much to think about and so much to remember. Many waved the large Israeli flags they had taken to Poland and brought back home. They spoke briefly of what they had experienced, sang the Israeli national anthem with pride, and hugged each other and their parents throughout.

The motions were the same, the pats on the shoulders, the brief hugs. It was the same greeting Elie and his soldiers share each time they part and each time they return. A need to touch. A need to remember. Already, the shaping of the next soldier in our family has started.

In part, it began with an important lesson - once we were helpless. And it continued at the Western Wall - now we have a homeland again, and a state, and an army. As I stood there, with the Israeli flags gently swaying in the wind, my son and his friends standing there at attention as they spoke to those who had come to greet them, I thought - next year or soon after that, they will all be soldiers. It was a heart-wrenching moment for me, thinking of him that way and knowing that I have to find a way to prepare myself.

I had thought it would be easier, and maybe it will, now that Elie has paved the way. I guess we will all find that out. For now, I realized that these young men, tall and proud and so Israeli, had gone to Poland and returned. It reminded me of what our guide had told us moments before we entered the gas chambers in Maidanek.

"Remember," he said, "they went in and never came out. You will come out. You WILL come out." My son came out of Poland - perhaps, a stronger Israeli and a stronger Jew and, perhaps in the future, he will be a stronger soldier in the Israeli army because of what he experienced these past 8 days. The evil he saw, the helplessness he confronted, the commitment he formed there to the future of his people.


George said...

All my children went to Poland in either 11th or 12th grade. My elder son then returned to Poland five years later, this time as part of the Company commander's course (kurs mem pei'im). He said that the experience was totally different and also that it was obvious which participants had been there before.

migdalit said...

Your entry has reminded me of what my landlady in Israel, a holocaust survivor, told me at a couple of occasions. She said that when her son - as a soldier - went to Poland he had her speak over the phone to the young men and women gathered there and that moment, she said, she realized that she had won. That living in a free Israel with a army of it's own who's members can go and see the places and RETURN, means she has won. She's a winner.

I have to confess I cried when she told me ...

- Migdalit

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