Marching Through the Gates of Hell With Holocaust Survivors and Israeli Soldiers

Written by Robert Cohen on . Posted in Op-Ed

Next month, I will join more than 150 Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supporters from across the United States on a mission to Poland and Israel with four Holocaust survivors and 50 soldiers and officers representing all branches of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).

Any visit to a Nazi death camp is a powerful and emotional experience, but there is no stronger show of strength than by making this journey with the very people who suffered and somehow survived there, and the Israeli soldiers who make sure our people will endure.

The “From Holocaust to Independence” mission, the largest FIDF has ever undertaken, will take us from Jewish history’s darkest moments to its most triumphant, telling the story of our people’s 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. Israeli soldiers and Holocaust survivors will accompany us across Poland. We will start in Krakow, once home to more than 60,000 Jews, and trace 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. Then, we’ll fly to Israel together to visit IDF bases and meet soldiers serving on Israel’s front lines, commemorate Yom HaZikaron — Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror — and celebrate Israel’s 70th Independence Day.

This comes at a crucial time, and it is one of the last opportunities for survivors to return to Auschwitz and tell of its horrors. When they are gone, how can we ensure that the world will never forget what happened there?

Marching tall and proud through the gates of hell, ignoring the false promise that “work will set you free,” flanked by IDF officers and the men and women who endured inconceivable suffering, all while flying the Israeli flag, sends a powerful message to the world that the survivors’ voices will echo throughout time. Their legacy is the Jewish people — the State of Israel, the flourishing Jewish diaspora, and the brave guardians who watch over every Jew, in every corner of the world: the soldiers of the IDF.

For me, protecting this legacy is the most important work we can do in the name of Holocaust remembrance — and that’s why I’m so proud to be making this journey under the banner of FIDF, the premier organization worldwide supporting the well-being of IDF soldiers.

FIDF’s Mid-Atlantic region, which includes Washington, D.C., Baltimore, and Virginia, raised more than $3 million last year for educational and well-being projects for Israeli soldiers. Through the IMPACT! Scholarship Program, our region sent 171 IDF combat veterans to college for the 2017-18 academic year, ensuring brighter futures for them and for the Jewish homeland. FIDF also supports programs, including flights home, for the more than 6,500 young men and women — including about 70 from DC, Maryland, and Virginia — who volunteered to enlist in the IDF as “Lone Soldiers,” those without immediate family in Israel. FIDF also supports wounded soldiers and the families of fallen soldiers — those who made the ultimate sacrifice for Israel and the Jewish people.

When there are no survivors left to remind the world what happened there, we, their children and grandchildren, will remain. We’ll continue to return to the camps, where the Jewish light was almost extinguished, with the brave soldiers who ensure that “Never Again” isn’t just a platitude or a slogan, but rather our people’s solemn promise.

By Robert Cohen

 Robert Cohen is Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF)’s national vice president and one of the founding members of FIDF’s Washington, D.C., chapter. He chaired the FIDF “From Holocaust to Independence” mission to Poland and Israel in 2017 and will participate in this year’s mission, April 12-20.