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‘I never imagined that something like this could ever happen again’: Holocaust survivors share their Oct. 7 experiences

(JTA) — Eighty-four years after Dov Golebowicz fled Poland with his family days before Germany invaded, the Holocaust survivor found himself facing an invasion once again when Hamas terrorists stormed his kibbutz of Nirim on Oct. 7.

For 12 hours, Golebowicz was trapped with his son, Gideon, in his safe room. His son fashioned a basic wooden contraption to secure the door, which does not have a lock. Five people from the kibbutz were murdered and five were kidnapped, of whom two remain hostages in Gaza. Zvi Solow is another Holocaust survivor to survive the attack on Nirim.

In the weeks after Oct. 7, Golebowicz was the subject of multiple news reports, including CNN, which invariably linked his Oct. 7 survival to his experiences in the Holocaust. Others who experienced horrors on that day — when 1,200 Israelis were killed and about 250 taken hostage — made similar comparisons.

Yet Golebowicz has significant reservations about making such a connection, saying it diminishes the memory of the Holocaust as a singular event in history.

“I’ve always felt we shouldn’t mix the two,” he told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “While of course it was vicious, barbaric and horrendous, [Oct.7] was a one-day terrorist attack.”

Dov Golebowicz, pictured here with his daughter, survived the Budapest Ghetto and the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on his kibbutz, Nirim. (Courtesy Golebowicz)

Golebowicz is one of several Holocaust survivors to be caught up in the carnage on Oct. 7. All elderly — the youngest survivors are in their late 70’s — they say they have an important perspective to share, though they don’t all believe the same things.

Haim Raanan, who as a child survived the Budapest Ghetto, has no reservations about calling the Oct. 7 massacre “a second Holocaust.”

A founder of Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the Gaza envelope communities that was struck hardest on Oct. 7, Raanan said it was “pure luck” that he and his family members survived. More than 100 Be’eri residents died that day.

“I never thought that as a Holocaust survivor, I would need to hide for my life again,” Raanan said at an event on Tuesday at the residence of EU Ambassador to Israel Dimiter Tzantchev to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“I was shocked to see that eight decades after the Holocaust, the Star of David symbol has been painted once again on Jewish homes all across Europe and the United States to target and frighten them amid the devastating Oct. 7 massacre,” he said, referring to graffiti found in some cities that in some cases authorities have attributed to Russian agitators.

“It echoes the antisemitic persecution I suffered as a child,” Raanan said. “I never imagined that something like this could ever happen again.”

(L-R, sitting) Aharon Pacirkovsky, Haim Raanan and Menachem Haberman, all Holocaust survivors, pose with Erez Kaganovitz, photographer of the Humans of the Holocaust project, in Tel Aviv, Jan. 23, 2024. (Efi Yosefi)

Raanan called on the European diplomats in attendance to do more to combat antisemitism. The event also launched a new installation of the Humans of the Holocaust photo exhibition, in which Raanan features.

Erez Kaganovitz, the photographer behind the project, said attendees at the event were “awestruck” as Raanan recounted his stories of survival.

“How much suffering can one person go though in one in lifetime?” Kaganovitz told JTA. “Listening to him made me realize that when we say never again, it has to mean something.”

Holocaust survivor Gidon Lev, 88, shot to fame during COVID-19 when he became a star on TikTok. He launched his account, which racked up over 460,000 followers and millions of likes, together with his life partner Julie Gray in an effort to combat Holocaust disinformation and to promote his book. Three years later Lev closed the account, citing antisemitic harassment in the wake of Oct. 7 and the social media giant’s reluctance to take action.

“Before the war, we got antisemitic hate from garden-variety Nazis. Oh, how I long for those days. That was easy to refute and dispute,” Gray told JTA. But after Oct. 7, the “turning of the tide was abrupt and powerful,” she said.

“The same young people who had been following Gidon and cheering on his Holocaust education and messages of tolerance and critical thinking started calling him a supporter of genocide and even a ‘baby killer,’” Gray said.

“We both felt utterly defeated. We saw that many Jewish creators on TikTok stood up to this abuse and stuck it out but for us, living in Israel, dealing with the shock of all of it, and the sirens and the running to our shelter, it was too much,” she said. “It wasn’t the worst thing that happened, Oct. 7 was the worst thing that happened, but it really hurt. All the work we’d done seemed to have been meaningless.”

Elon Musk speaks with Holocaust survivor Gidon Levy at Auschwitz in Poland, Jan. 22, 2024. (Courtesy Julie Gray)

On Wednesday Lev and Gray returned from a trip to Poland, where he accompanied billionaire mogul Elon Musk and the conservative American pundit Ben Shapiro on a visit to the Auschwitz death camp.

After the visit Musk claimed that had social media been around during the time of the Holocaust, it would never have occurred. Like TikTok, Musk’s social media platform, X, has also come under fire for not doing enough to combat antisemitism.

Musk “struck me as a dangerous teenager,” Gray said, “drunk with power. He is of the ‘burn it all down’ ilk.” While he was attentive at Auschwitz, “greet[ing] Gidon politely and listen[ing] to him — sort of,” his talk afterward, in which he described himself as “aspirationally Jewish,” was a crushing disappointment and exposed a “real disconnect,” she said, adding, it was “like inviting an arsonist to a firefighting convention.”

After Oct. 7, Gray wanted to leave on one of the evacuation flights for American citizens. But Lev, whose son and grandson were serving in the reserves, insisted on staying. “I will not run again,” Lev told Gray.

The first time Mira Talalayevsky’s life was saved was on Sept. 29, 1941, when she was not yet 2 years old. Mira’s mother escaped with her from their home in the Kyiv ghetto the night before Jews were ordered on a death march to Babyn Yar.

The second time occurred on Oct. 8, 2023, when Talalayevsky’s home in Ashkelon received a direct hit from a Hamas rocket. Talalayevsky miraculously survived the rocket attack but sustained shrapnel cuts to her face and burns on her body from a fire that broke out in the house after the impact. Her house, and all her possessions, were completely destroyed.

“In my old age I am left with nothing and I have to start over,” Talalayevsky said.

Talalayevsky, 85, was too young to remember the night she was spirited away from the clutches of the Nazis, but said that over the years her mother had revealed every detail to her. When the Jews of Kyiv were rounded up to be transferred to the ghetto, Ukrainian guards were ordered to collect all their valuables. Her mother, an educated woman who knew German, was instructed to record every item that was taken.

Left; Photographer Erez Kaganovitz at work on his Humans of the Holocaust project. (Courtesy of Erez Kaganovitz); Right: Portrait of Michael Sidko, the last survivor of the Babyn Yar massacre, surrounded by bullets. (Erez Kaganovitz)

Her mother built a rapport with a guard she had witnessed secretly pocketing some of jewelry for himself. The guard later warned her that the Germans were coming in the morning to kill everyone in the ghetto and that night helped Talalayevsky’s mother escape on a freight train. “I only remember the constant feeling of hunger and cold from those years. My childhood was taken from me, but at least I stayed alive,” Talalayevsky said.

Eighty-two years later, Talalayevsky climbed into her bathtub when she heard the rocket siren. It seemed like the safest place to be in her apartment, which was old and without a safe room. A violent explosion shattered her house and Talalayevsky lost consciousness. She was eventually rescued from the rubble by her neighbors. The event has left her with lasting nightmares and without eyebrows, she said.

Three months later, Talalayevsky is still waiting for her apartment to be rebuilt. In the meantime, the government has transferred her to a newer apartment in the city. Talalayevsky credits the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews with being the first organization to reach out after the attack, providing Talalayevsky with material and emotional support. “As a woman of faith, it is very moving to hear that there are many Christians in the United States who care for me.”

Golebowicz, too, is living in temporary accommodations — a retirement home near the coastal city of Netanya, together with some of the other evacuated residents of Nirim. He said he fully intends to go back and live in Nirim as soon as possible.

“I shall return to my home where I have lived for 70 years and help in its restoration,” he said. “All the destroyed kibbutzim will be rebuilt and will flourish again, because the determination and spirit in Israel is strong.”

The post ‘I never imagined that something like this could ever happen again’: Holocaust survivors share their Oct. 7 experiences appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Politicians Who Abuse the Holocaust Should Be Sanctioned

Brazil’s new President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva gestures as he is sworn in at the National Congress, in Brasilia, Brazil, January 1, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Jacqueline Lisboa

JNS.orgThe Israeli government was absolutely right in its decision last week to announce that Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—known to the world as “Lula”—is persona non grata in the Jewish state in the light of his disgraceful comparison of Israel’s defensive war in Gaza with the Nazi extermination of 6 million Jews. By the same token, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a grave mistake in proceeding with his meeting with Lula in Brasilia only a few days after the Brazilian leader made his offending remarks.

The key point to bear in mind regarding Lula’s comments is that there was no ambiguity at all; in his view, Israel’s actions in Gaza are a carbon copy of the Holocaust inflicted by the Nazis.

“What’s happening in the Gaza Strip isn’t a war, it’s a genocide,” Lula declared on the sidelines of an African Union summit in the Ethiopian capital of Addis Ababa. “It’s not a war of soldiers against soldiers. It’s a war between a highly prepared army and women and children.” There was only one historical parallel appropriate for the current situation, he continued: “When Hitler decided to kill the Jews.”

Frankly, it feels insulting to have to push back against such an outburst. Insulting and demeaning to have to explain that the goal of destroying the “international Jewish conspiracy” lay at the core of Nazi ideology; that before the extermination began, Nazi Germany initiated the legal degradation of the Jews, conferring subhuman status upon them through the 1935 Nuremburg Laws; that the Nazis built an entire network of concentration and extermination camps dedicated, in the main, to the enslavement and murder of Jews from all over occupied Europe; that the Nazis were so obsessed with murdering every Jew under their control that they actually accelerated the killing even when it became clear that the war was lost for them. There is no comparison here with Gaza. Indeed, there are very few historical events that warrant any kind of comparison with the Holocaust—the 1994 genocide in Rwanda might be one, for example—and absolutely none that justify the exact analogy drawn by Lula.

Nonetheless, Blinken went ahead with his meeting with Lula, fully aware of what had been said. Indeed, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller was asked about Lula’s comments ahead of Blinken’s departure for Latin America. “Obviously, we disagree with those comments,” he responded. “We have been quite clear that we do not believe that genocide has occurred in Gaza. We want to see the conflict ended as soon as practical.”

All very well, but the U.S. government should do more than just disagree. It should condemn. It should point about that abusing the Holocaust as Lula did is as morally repugnant as denying the Holocaust together and arguably more insidious since it mocks the historic victimhood of the Jews by casting them as no different from their murderers.

Perhaps Blinken did tell Lula forcefully that what he said was wrong; we will never know, as no record of their discussion has been published. What we have been told by Lula’s adviser, Celso Amorim, is that Blinken opened that part of their exchange with a reminder that his stepfather, Samuel Pisar, had survived the Holocaust.

Again, we can only speculate, but maybe, to offer a more generous interpretation, Blinken felt that Lula would shift his understanding of the Holocaust if only he had a better grasp of its nature and enduring impact on subsequent generations of Jews. If this was the case, then it was hopelessly naive.

Lula is many things, not least a crook who went to jail for corruption before being exonerated on a technicality, without disproving the original accusations against him. However, he is not an idiot. He knows about the Holocaust and has had the privilege of visiting Yad Vashem in Jerusalem—Israel’s national memorial to the Shoah—while on a state visit to Israel in 2010. Yet this was the same visit during which he insulted his Israeli hosts by refusing to visit the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of the modern Zionist movement. Whatever he gleaned at Yad Vashem, this was either forgotten entirely or repurposed for his vile comments while in Ethiopia.

If American and Western leaders are serious about tackling antisemitism, they must do so first of all among their peers. Just as we expect university administrations to sanction college professors who abuse the Holocaust for the purpose of attacking Israel, we should demand the same from politicians; after all, Lula was far from being the first offender in this regard. In the last year alone, the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, has claimed, “They used to speak ill of Hitler. What difference do you have from Hitler? They are going to make us miss Hitler. Is what this Netanyahu is doing any less than what Hitler did? It is not.” Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, never misses an opportunity to invoke the Nazi analogy. On a visit to Germany last year, he did exactly that while standing next to Chancellor Olaf Scholz at a press conference, sneering in answer to a question from a journalist that Israel had committed “50 massacres, 50 holocausts” since 1947.

At best, we get condemnation. Scholz later declared himself “disgusted” by Abbas’s comments, but he didn’t declare the Palestinian leader persona non grata. Similarly, Erdoğan’s repulsive barbs also meet with rhetorical disapproval, but no more. If anything, those leaders tempted to also make the comparison may well feel emboldened by the knowledge that those who have already done so get away with it!

Just as a university president who can’t offer a simple condemnation of antisemitism doesn’t deserve to be in office, a political leader—whether elected or not—who compares Israel with Nazi Germany doesn’t deserve to be treated as a diplomatic partner. For years now, we’ve allowed Lula, Erdoğan, Abbas and those of their ilk to spit on the graves of 6 million Jews with impunity. Israel, the state built with the blood and toil of survivors, has now said that enough is enough. If there is any decency left in this world, other governments will follow its lead.

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Together, We Are Winning

A view shows Israelis protesting, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist coalition government presses on with its judicial overhaul, in Tel Aviv, Israel March 25, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Oren Alon

JNS.orgIt’s challenging to remember life in Israel before the Simchat Torah massacre of Oct. 7., but it’s possible. We can remember the horrid Yom Kippur, just 12 days before the massacre, that required police to control and then stop a prayer service. For over a year beforehand, Israelis were at each other’s throats over proposed judicial reforms. Lines were drawn between right and left, religious and secular, north and south, the center and the periphery.

On Oct. 7, however, we realized that in a divided society everyone is distracted from keeping us safe and secure. Hamas saw an opening and took advantage of it.

Since Oct. 7, Israel changed in many ways. Most importantly, it changed from a divided to a united nation. Israelis from all walks of life came together to serve in IDF reserve units, send supplies to soldiers and refugees, and pray together in mass gatherings.

In early November, an iconic photo went viral on Israeli social media. It showed attorney Ran Bar-Yoshafat, the vice president of the Kohelet Policy Forum that advocated for judicial reform, standing with his arm over the shoulder of Gideon Segev, an activist with Brothers in Arms, the lead organization opposing judicial reform. They were both dressed in their IDF uniforms, rifles slung from their shoulders. They were united against Israel’s enemies.

This unity was refreshing and inspiring. Over multiple elections over the last several years, Israel’s political polarization seemed irreparable. Yet the impossible occurred: Politics gave way to unity. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Unity Party leader Benny Gantz even set aside their differences and created a landmark agreement to establish an emergency wartime government. Almost all Israeli politicians refused to play the blame game and focused on fighting the enemy together.

The war isn’t over yet, but the question of whether Israel can win is no longer being asked. It’s clear that Israel isn’t just winning the war; it’s crushing the enemy. The IDF has killed over 12,000 Hamas terrorists. Over 70% of Hamas’s fighting force has been demolished. There are few Hamas strongholds left and its leaders are on the run. Israel’s soldiers have experienced unprecedented success.

Israel isn’t only winning on the battlefield; it’s winning the diplomatic war as well. It has successfully staved off the usual demands for an immediate ceasefire. It has also won in the courts. South Africa’s charge of genocide and its request for a court order stopping Israel’s military operations were rejected by the International Court of Justice. There is bipartisan support for Israel in the U.S. Congress, with more than 20 Senate Republicans crossing party lines to vote for a Democratic bill that will help fund Israel’s war effort.

Just as Israel’s division resulted in its devastating losses on Oct. 7, its newborn unity has resulted in its military success. A unified nation is no longer distracted by the divisions that weaken it. It can focus its efforts, energies and resources on the country’s safety and security. Its leaders, soldiers and citizens can focus on preserving the nation’s values. It is strong.

It’s unfortunate that such a devastating tragedy was necessary to unite the people of Israel. It would be easy to allow regret to overcome the nation. Instead, it’s time for the Jewish people to redouble their efforts to preserve our newfound unity.

It won’t be long before Israel’s leaders and the IDF declare victory over Israel’s enemies and the end of the war. There will be celebrations of victory and memorials for the heroes we lost. The post-war recovery will be shortened by convening commissions of inquiry and holding new elections. That is when the Israeli people must apply the lessons of Oct. 7.

If Israel has learned its lesson, it will come together and hold a civilized election while maintaining its essential unity. Thus, Israel will remain strong and secure. But if Israel hasn’t learned its lesson and unity dissipates, it will be weakened and less secure.

To avoid this, the Israeli people must incorporate the lesson of unity into their national soul and ensure that it remains eternal.

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A Strong Europe Benefits the US and Israel

Republican presidential candidate and former US President Donald Trump speaks as he campaigns at the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines, Iowa, US, August 12, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein

JNS.orgWhen former President Donald Trump speaks, exploding heads tend to follow, often for good reason. His recent comments about NATO, saying he would not protect European countries that do not pay their dues to the alliance, set off alarm bells at home and across the Atlantic. In the case of Trump, however, one can despise the messenger and recognize that his message has some merit.

At a recent rally in South Carolina, Trump caused chaos by speaking of a conversation he had with a foreign leader when he was president. Trump claimed he told the leader that not only would he “not protect” NATO members that are delinquent in their payments or fail to meet their defense spending requirements, but he would also encourage Russia “to do whatever the hell they want” with them.

European Council President Charles Michel responded by saying that Trump’s statements “serve only Putin’s interest.” Secretary-General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg said, “Any suggestion that allies will not defend each other undermines all of our security, including that of the U.S.”

These are valid concerns and point to real consequences that could result if Trump’s words become U.S. policy.

At the same time, however, Michel himself acknowledged that Trump’s statements underscore the importance of European investment in the continent’s “nascent efforts” to strengthen its “strategic autonomy” and defense capabilities. European nations have already started that process and well they should.

According to a 2023 NATO report, Russian and Chinese defense spending has increased 277% and 566% respectively since 2000, while European investment remained flat. Despite signing the 2014 Defense Investment Pledge following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, only two of the top five European NATO allies—Poland and the United Kingdom—kept their promise to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. According to 2023 estimates, they spent 3.9% and 2.07% respectively. Only 11 of the 31 NATO countries are expected to meet their defense obligations in 2024.

However, there has been some movement on this issue. Germany will reach its goal of spending 2% of its GDP on defense in 2024 and the E.U. has pledged $54 billion to Ukraine, relieving the United States of some of the aid burden.

The existing NATO-based global security apparatus can be understood as a triangle with the U.S. at the peak and NATO allies together with Israel forming a narrow foundation. Such a triangle is highly unstable. Russia’s war in Ukraine, China’s ongoing power plays and Iran’s malign behavior are proof of this.

The United States, Europe, Israel and all Western-aligned countries are better off with a militarily strong Europe. After decades of neglect, European nations must refortify their military capabilities and reassess their strategic partnerships in key areas such as defense, energy, security, supply chains of essential goods and technology.

European nations that understand this have been forging a deeper and broader relationship with Israel. Germany is now Israel’s largest defense trading partner and has acquired the Arrow missile-defense system.

Led by Poland, Central and Eastern European nations that fear Russian aggression are aligning with Israel due to shared strategic interests. European nations are looking to friendshore essential goods to Israel and the other Abraham Accords countries. There’s hope that Saudi Arabia won’t be too far behind.

What does all this mean for the Western alliance and the United States?

Assuming America maintains its status as the top military power in the world, it will remain at the peak of the global security triangle. However, if Europe and Israel align their strategic interests and invest commensurately in their respective defense and security capabilities, the base of the triangle widens, creating a more stable triad that can better withstand and confront global instability.

Moreover, strengthening Europe and Israel strategically and militarily reduces the burden on the United States.

Trump is often his own worst enemy, relying on over-the-top and insolent rhetoric as his preferred means of persuasion. In this case, however, his language, as outlandish as many consider it to be, contained an important warning.

That is, there may come a day when Europe can no longer depend on the United States to protect it. As a result, European leaders need to look after their own countries’ national interests.

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