Our Forgotten Jewish War Heroes
Roses often have thorns, but do not actively attack those who try to pluck them.
Leesha Rose is a different kind of flower.
Rose is a Jewish war hero—or heroine if you prefer—who actively used her thorns to defend herself against the Nazis who invaded her native Holland in 1940, when she was 18. She smuggled and used arms against the people who wanted to kill her
She lost her entire family and nearly all her friends—about 100 people—to the Nazi death machine, but she survived and wrote her chronicle of war-time hardship, entitled “The Tulips Are Red.”
Rose met her late husband Burt (Yitzhak), a Canadian soldier, in the ashes of the war, and raised a family in New York, then moved to Israel where she became a social worker and volunteer helping Yemenite children and Russian immigrants come to the country of her dreams.
She has an amazing energy that belies and defies her 90 years, and, on an amazingly hot day this week in Jerusalem (40 C-104 F), she put this energy on display at a birthday celebration that her children arranged at the King David Hotel.
Outside, the flowers were wilting, but this Rose was thriving, swinging her admirers around as she did a few dance steps on the floor of the historic hotel, even as the King David’s air conditioning system seemed about to collapse and the Israeli Electric Company warned it was using “brown-outs” because of energy shortages.
After everyone else was forced to sit down because of the heat and excitement, Mrs. Rose got up to speak, to thank her friends and to thank God. This was nothing new, because she gets up in front of college and high school students every week to tell them how she survived.
It is a story that inspires young people who can only try to imagine what the horrors of war were, and the unspeakable depravity of the Holocaust.
“‘No’ is an answer that I can always get, but I want to work for ‘Yes,'” her daughter, Rocky, quoted her life-long motto, and everyone who knows Mrs. Rose just nodded.
Most of Mrs. Rose’s friends and colleagues from the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance are gone, but even at five-times-chai (18), she still goes to lecture at Yad Vashem and organizes events for Jewish women’s groups like Amit.
As I looked at Mrs. Rose, I thought of other heroes and heroines who are not here or who do not have the strength to appear in public, many of whom we overlook and sometimes mistreat:
· my late father, Abraham Widlanski, who was a member of the partisans, the underground fighters in Lithuania andPoland, managed to survive, and raised our family in New York. He died 22 years ago.;
· my father-in-law, Mordechai Goldshmidt, almost 90, too, who survived work camps and a death-march in Romania where he lost all the toes on his feet, but recovered and came to Israel to become a fighter in the Palmach, only to be jailed by the British for two years, later becoming a farmer;
· my mother-in-law Tova Goldshmidt, who was barely 12 years old when the Nazis invaded Poland, destroyed her family and her world, but she survived to help fight in the 1948 war.
To this day, my wife Sara and our children—three strong men who have been infantry soldiers—laugh when Savta Tova -Grandma Tova—picks up a rock and shows us how to throw a grenade.
But not everything is laughs.
From close-up, I have seen how Israeli society—particularly Israeli government bureaucracy–has inflicted indignity upon indignity on my wife’s parents, who are heroes like Mrs. Rose but lack her superhuman strength.
To my father-in-law, who can no longer see, hear or walk, the Israeli authorities send notices cutting off or threatening to stop a financial benefit or a medicine unless he comes down personally to give testimony or sign forms in a government office.
Sometimes, they strip the elderly survivors of their dignity at close range. A few times they demanded to see if he could button his pants by himself, as a test for continuing to get benefits.
Mordechai, my father-in-law, served in several of Israel’s wars, including the 1967 war when he directed civil defense in their village of Gedera, south of Rehovoth. Today, he is in a wheel chair, totally dependent on a foreign-born caretaker who is no expert in Hebrew or the Israeli bureaucracy.
Tova, my 82-year-old mother-in-law, has also been growing weaker. She was a voracious reader, but her eye sight is weakening, and now she rarely reads. She can still walk, but has fallen a few times, hurting herself, and her hearing is clearly receding.
My in-laws are supposed to get certain “reparation” benefits because of their war suffering, but there is always some Israeli government agency—the Finance Ministry, the Municipality, and probably the worst, Social Security (this is called Bituah Leumi in Hebrew) working to make them feel socially insecure, trying to take or tax their miniscule payments.
“You need to come here and sign this form,” a nasal-toned clerk, from Ashdod, Rehovoth or Jerusalem will say over the phone, oblivious to the fact that Mordechai and Tova can no longer hear them.
One wonders if the clerks would continue to act this way if they could see the heroes and heroines for themselves or knew their life stories.
One prays they would understand that they are dealing with people who do not want a hand-out, but who deserve a hand’s caress and who merit a hand’s salute.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He teaches at Bar IlanUniversity.