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December 11, 2019 11:00 am

A Holocaust Survivor Recalls the Miracle of Israel’s Founding

avatar by Genia Kutner

Opinion

Photograph of President Truman in the Oval Office, evidently receiving a Menorah as a gift from the Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion (center), and Abba Eban, the Ambassador of Israel to the United States.

During World War II, I was lucky to survive with my parents and brother; another died from pneumonia. He was two years old. I was 11. My brother was 13.

When the Nazis neared our town — Pinsk in Poland — in 1941, we fled towards Russia.

We were on the run for two years, barely escaping the Nazis. As soon as we heard they were in the next village, we fled. Starving, freezing, and sickly, we survived on my father’s wits and my mother’s strength.

When the Germans were defeated in Stalingrad and began retreating from Russia, we stopped running and waited another two years in Uzbekistan for the war to end and return to our home in Poland.

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In May 1945, the war ended, and thousands of us “survivors” from concentration camps and ghettos returned from all over to Poland. We found it to be a graveyard. We were at a loss — what do we do now? We knew we had to leave.

Displaced Persons (DP) camps opened in Austria, Germany, France, and Italy. We lingered there, becoming a huddled, homeless mass of humanity. We had dreamed that if we survived the Holocaust, the world would embrace us. The opposite was the bitter reality. Almost no one wanted us.

Most of us decided to go to Palestine — to our promised land. But how?

To our good fortune, the Palestinian Jews — young men and women, and volunteers from other countries — came to our rescue. An illegal immigration organization called “Bricha” (“flight”) crammed us into fisher boats — hundreds of us — to bring us there.

The problem was that the British had the mandate over Palestine, and they were sympathetic to the Arabs who did not want to allow Jews in. The British did everything to intercept our boats. But we were a stubborn people with nowhere to go, and many vessels tried to break the blockade.

Our parents made it to then-Palestine on one of these illegal boats, leaving us in case something terrible happened, and with the hope of setting up a new life. My brother and I waited seven months each in German and Italian DP camps. Finally, at long last, our turn came. We were young men and women, and we called ourselves Kibbutz “Nocham” (“to comfort”).

We started in Germany, went to Italy by train, and then traveled by truck, but mostly on foot. Clandestinely. To say it was a “fargenigen” — a pleasure — is far from it. But no one complained — it was better than being in a concentration camp.

We were fulfilling our dream to be a free people; 794 people and 150 infants embarked at night on a rickety fishing boat. We were 12 days on the sea from Italy to Palestine.

The British intercepted us at the Haifa dock, and without letting us disembark for even one hour, sent us to the Greek island of Cyprus. Many tears were shed. What a shock. From one detention camp with barbed wire to another. Still, our spirits were not dampened. We hoped to reach our goal, to be a free people in a free land. We never lost our hope.

My brother and I remained in Cyprus from 1947 to 1948. We lived in tents. Imagine winter in a tent. Teachers from Palestine came and taught us Hebrew.

On November 29, 1947, the United Nations passed a resolution to partition Palestine. We danced the whole night. We knew that our freedom, our dream to have a homeland, was near.

On May 14, 1948, our first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, proclaimed “the Independence of Israel.” Imagine our joy; we were going home. But, unfortunately, the Arabs did not accept the partition and five countries attacked the nascent state.

Finally, my brother and I were released to legally immigrate to Israel in November 1948. Arriving in the middle of the war for Israel’s Independence, we were drafted.

Despite being heavily out-gunned and out-manned, we won by a practical reality — we had no “braira” (choice), no alternative. Miracle after miracle happened, and Israel prevailed, to the amazement of us and the world.

Learn about the founding of the State of Israel and how much it has achieved in its 70 years of existence, and teach your children. You will be proud of your heritage.

Genia Kutner resides in Delray Beach, Florida. She is a member of Temple Anshei Shalom, where she helps organize the annual Yom HaShoah commemoration.

A version of this column was originally published in The Florida Jewish Journal.

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