Today’s IDF soldiers draw inspiration by looking back at the previous generation’s sacrifices and hearing their stories. Many of today’s soldiers have grandparents or great-grandparents who are survivors of the single greatest attack on the Jewish nation of the past century – the Holocaust. This relationship allows many of the soldiers to draw strength from the experiences and stories of their grandparents.
Corporal Ezra Friedman was born to a family with a distinguished military heritage. His maternal great-grandfather was a combat soldier in the United States Navy in World War I, and his grandfather was a combat pilot in Vietnam.
Cpl. Friedman’s paternal grandfather was a fighter in the Jewish resistance movement against the Nazis during World War II. Listening to his grandfathers tell their stories throughout his childhood convinced Cpl. Friedman that he wanted to make a difference for the Jewish homeland. He decided to move to Israel [make Aliyah] and take part in protecting the land.
“Being the grandson of a Holocaust survivor definitely has an affect on me in a very direct way,” Cpl. Friedman told the IDF blog. “The stories are very real and personal.”
“I heard his story for the first time when I was eight years old, and I didn’t really understand it at the time. I heard it again around my bar mitzvah. That’s when I actually said out loud to my parents that I wanted to make Aliyah and join the IDF,” Cpl. Friedman said.
Cpl. Friedman’s grandfather, Fred Friedman, now 91 years old, and his entire family were on their way from Czechoslovakia to Hungary when they were caught by the Nazis and sent to Auschwitz. Only he and his sister managed to escape, but Fred never left the reality of the war. He served alongside the partisans, the leaders of the Jewish resistance movement.
Friedman obtained a false identity and posed as a member of the feared German secret police, the Gestapo. With his Aryan identity established by false papers, Friedman crossed over the border into Hungary, where he lived in relative safety.
In 1944, the large Jewish community of Hungary was no longer able to evade the horror of the concentration camps. Once the Nazis and their allies began rounding up Hungary’s Jews, Friedman found himself in a position to save between 60 and 70 lives. In June of that year, a young mother told Friedman of her two daughters, whom she had left behind in Debrecen. The two girls faced imminent deportation to Auschwitz. Friedman offered his services to save them from death at the hands of the Nazis.
He travelled by train to Debrecen and located the recovering mother’s two daughters. In Debrecen, Friedman took the two girls, as well as a dozen other children and three mothers who had asked for his help, to safe houses outside of Budapest.
While traveling from Debrecen, a Hungarian police officer accused the group with Friedman of being Jews. With a quick flash of his Gestapo I.D., the pseudo Gestapo-man managed to escape the officer’s suspicions. According to Friedman, everyone in his Debrecen group survived the war.
Friedman made many similar trips to various cities in Hungary, rescuing children from the clutches of those who sought to send them to their deaths. Sometimes, says Friedman, he would save people “right off the street” in Budapest.
When he was 19 years old, Cpl. Friedman decided to make his dream of Aliya a reality. He left his family in the United States and joined the IDF as acombat medic in the Armored Corps.
“I love helping people and taking care of people,” Cpl. Friedman says. “The way I look at it is that I want to live here and part of that is serving in the army. And the way that I think I can give my most in the army is to be a combat soldier. So that’s why I’m here. If we don’t protect Israel, who will?”
Friedman is not alone in drawing inspiration from his grandparents who survived the Holocaust. However, it is often difficult for Holocaust survivors to talk about their experiences. One of the amazing things that happens in the IDF is that we can present an opportunity for Holocaust victims to open up about their experiences by telling their story to strangers, or sometime even their own family.
The IDF works closely with Yad VaShem, the world center for Holocaust research, and creates a forum where Holocaust survivors are able to talk about their experiences to groups of soldiers, both active and reserve units, sometimes to platoons or even entire brigades at a time.
It is not unusual for Holocaust survivors to avoid speaking about their experiences. Former IDF Spokesperson Lt. Col. Avital Leibovich said of her survivor father that he was tight lipped about his experiences during the war and his story about his survival. That was until Leibovich’s daughter asked him about it. That is when he finally opened up.
“Perhaps it was easier for him to talk to my daughter than it was for him to talk to me. He needed some kind of trigger, and grandchildren are often that trigger. It was finally time for him to pass on his legacy to the next generation,” she said.
The IDF this year is embarking on a special social media project connecting grandchildren and their grandparent survivors that will pay tribute to Holocaust survivors and their families. Through platforms like Twitter and Facebook, grandchildren from all over the world are sending in pictures of themselves with their survivor grandparents.
Using the hashtag #WeAreHere, the IDF will be creating an index of all of the photos and posts that individuals post and build an interactive map according to location across the globe.
This huge effort is just part of the tribute that the IDF continues to give to Holocaust survivors from which we all draw a huge amount of inspiration and strength!