Monday, April 15, 2013

Memorial Day: an IDF officer's perspective



Last weekend, at a Tel Aviv cafe, I met Shani.  At 24, she is an intelligence officer with the IDF.  I was introduced to her through her father, who suggested I speak with her in my quest to understand more about the Israeli observance of Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day).  Over coffee, she told me the story of why she’s chosen a career in the army.

“My grandparents,” she began, “were a big influence on me”.  Holocaust survivors who met after the war, they lived with Shani when she was young.  She and her grandfather were extremely close. He was a brilliant doctor who spoke 8 languages and who had spent the war in a forced labor camp in Transylvania, after an informant turned him in for honoring his Hippocratic oath despite the ban on Jews’ practicing medicine.  “He couldn’t deny someone help,” she says.

Her grandmother had been taken from Hungary in the dead of winter and left to freeze or starve to death in the woods of Sibir.  A farmer offered to save her if she would marry him; she was a very beautiful woman.  She agreed, and her family lived; later, she ran away.  

Her American maternal grandfather was a pilot with the Air Force who spent a year in a German prison during the war.  (When he asked for something to read, the only book they had was Grey’s Anatomy; he read it so thoroughly and so repeatedly that when he enrolled in medical school after the war, he skipped his first year.)

These stories didn’t come to life until Shani was in 7th grade, when she interviewed her grandparents for a Jewish roots project at school.  Four years later, she and her classmates took a trip to Poland.  She showed me a handmade scrapbook from that trip: it begins with a group of girls striking goofy poses in the airport, and it ends with photos of the gas chambers, the ovens and the bunks at Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Majdanek.  

In between are photos from a visit to a beautiful old synagogue in Poland.  The class visited the synagogue, and then they took a short walk down a path into the woods, where there is a memorial.  The Nazis had come to this synagogue, marched everyone out to the woods, and executed them en masse.  At age 16, Shani and her classmates reenacted this march.

Five years later, Shani came back to Poland as a second lieutenant with 50 people in her charge.  Having absorbed the initial shock of seeing the death camps in high school, she was able to move beyond shock when she returned.  Before she left, she recalls, her commander told her that “When you come home, we’ll meet you at the plane with two things: a piece of land, so that you can kiss the ground, and a contract {to sign on for long-term service}.”  She did. 

Shani says she is “very happy and fulfilled” by her position in the army.  The intelligence work she does is interesting (though she can’t talk about it.)  Her boyfriend has it harder; as a combat soldier, he is stationed in Gaza.  Because of her position, she knows what he is doing; she knows when he is in danger.  When I brought up the Palestinian question, Shani answered it simply: “In the army, you can’t talk about your political thoughts… Israel is surrounded by enemies.  We have to survive.”  

She thinks of her grandparents, of the things she saw at Auschwitz – and she carries a responsibility to defend the state of Israel so that these atrocities can never happen again.  But she also worries that she isn’t doing enough.  On both of her trips to Poland, a survivor came with her group.  In 20 years, who will come along?  She feels her grandparents’ experience receding from the collective conscience of young Israelis and resolves to do more to keep it alive.

As an officer, Shani follows a scripted ritual on Yom Hazikaron: she visits the grave of a soldier from her unit and performs a military ceremony.  She’s uneasy with the day; she feels as if it “makes it look very good” to die.  Still, given the alternative, she agrees: “Of course it’s very important to honor.”  It is a somber holiday in Israel; no retail establishments have Memorial Day sales.  The day is dedicated to remembrance.

Yesterday, the cab driver taking me to the airport pointed at the strings of colorful flags and lights going up around Tel Aviv.  “Too bad you’ll miss the fireworks,” he said.  “Independence Day.  Big parties.”

I had noticed the decorations.  “What about Yom HaZikaron?” I asked.  

He nodded.  “Yes, very sad,” he said.  “For all the people who died.  But then, big parties.”  Israel's Independence Day begins the minute Memorial Day ends.  For those reliving the loss of loved ones, it is not an easy transition.

It seems to sum up much of my experience of Israel: the juxtaposition of extremes.