FIDF with Golani Brigade soldiers
FIDF with Golani Brigade soldiersShahar Azran

Over150 Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supporters from across the United States embarked on a mission to Poland and Israel, which concluded on Thursday.

Participating were Holocaust survivors and 50 soldiers and officers representing all branches of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

The mission was the largest in FIDF’s history, and celebrated Israel’s 70th anniversary, as well as the establishment of the IDF on May 26, 1948, two weeks after the creation of the State of Israel.

Joining the delegation was Auschwitz survivor Leon Shear, 91, who was born in Bedzin, Poland, and watched his mother and sister being sent to the gas chambers at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Except for his brother, who also resides in the United States, his entire family perished in the Holocaust. Shear now lives in Beachwood, Ohio. His son, Howard, and grandson, Jeremy, accompanied him on his journey to Poland and Israel.

“I survived two years at Auschwitz, but it was as if time stood still in that hell. To return to this awful place in the presence of our people’s bravest – the soldiers of the IDF – filled my spirit with new hope,” stated Shear, who said a special prayer for those murdered at the camp. “I haven’t forgotten you, and our people will always remember what happened there.”

In one of the most emotional and surprising moments of the FIDF mission, Shear, who never had the opportunity to celebrate his bar mitzvah because of the Holocaust, finally had one during the flight from Poland to Israel. Taking advantage of having a rabbi, IDF soldiers, and a Torah on board, Shear’s spontaneous ceremony symbolized the journey of the Jewish people from Holocaust to independence.

Also joining the group from Israel were Holocaust survivors Eva Lavi, 81, and Arie Oz, 82. At just six years old, Lavi was the youngest person on German industrialist Oskar Schindler’s list, which helped spare the lives of some 1,200 Jews who were destined for Auschwitz. Born in Germany, Oz fled to Holland, where a Christian family hid him. From their attic, he watched Allied bombers attack the Nazis and dreamed of one day becoming a pilot. Oz moved to Israel after the war and joined the Israeli Air Force, flying in Israel’s historic wars and operations and retiring with the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Led by FIDF National President Peter Weintraub and FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, the nine-day “From Holocaust to Independence” mission spanned Jewish history, from its darkest moments to its most triumphant. Israeli soldiers and Holocaust survivors accompanied the FIDF supporters on a trip across Poland, starting in Krakow, once home to more than 60,000 Jews, and tracing the community’s steps from the city’s ghetto to the Buczyna forest, where the Nazis executed more than 800 children, and then to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps.

The entire delegation then flew to Israel, where they visited IDF bases and met soldiers serving on Israel’s front lines, commemorating Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror – and celebrating Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

On Thursday, the delegation also met with Israel’i Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin.

“This historic delegation traces the modern history of the Jewish people through the memories of Holocaust survivors and the eyes of IDF officers,” said Klifi-Amir. “It tells the story of our near-extinction in Europe, the creation of the state of Israel 70 years ago as the Jewish homeland, and the new generation of Jewish defenders who safeguard our legacy today. Marching tall and proud into the dreadful Auschwitz-Birkenau camps together with IDF officers and the survivors who somehow endured there, all while flying the Israeli flag, sends a powerful message to the world that we will never forget; ‘Never Forget’ is the guarantee of ‘Never Again.’ Thanks to a strong IDF – one of the world’s most moral armies – we can make sure that the Holocaust cannot and will not ever happen again.”

“This mission comes at a crucial time, and is one of the last opportunities for survivors to return to Auschwitz and tell of its horrors,” said Weintraub. “We passed through the gates of hell, ignoring the false promise that ‘work will set you free,’ where countless Jews suffered from unimaginable cold, hunger, and despair. We were surrounded by those who survived within the camps’ walls, and also by those who make sure their stories are not forgotten – the brave soldiers who protect their legacy: the State of Israel and the Jewish Diaspora.”