As I write this, it is 10 a.m. Krakow time (4 a.m. in Baltimore), on Friday, April 28, and we are aboard IAF 002, our flight from Krakow to Tel Nof Air Force Base in Israel. IAF stands for Israel Air Force. We will be the very first civilian group of passengers ever to fly into an Israeli Air Force base. What a completely unique experience.
These past few days have been some of the most emotional I have ever experienced. It’s one thing to read and learn about the Shoah — the Holocaust — from books and films. It’s another to see it up close and personal.
On Wednesday we drove by bus from Krakow to the town of Tarnow in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. Here a vibrant Jewish community flourished for more than 600 years, from the year 1330 until World War II — and was the birthplace of some of Judaism’s most important historians.
We visited the site of the Old Synagogue, whose battered bimah is the only surviving remnant of the city’s many synagogues. And then came one of the most emotional experiences of my life — the Zbylitowska Gora Forest, where 6,000 Jews, including more than 800 children, were executed and buried in a mass grave. We stood in silence, the tears streaming down our faces as we tried to imagine the horror.
Late that afternoon and back at our hotel we cried again as we sat in stunned silence listening to the personal stories of Gita and Bronia, two Jewish women who as children survived the horrors of Auschwitz-Birkenau, the main Nazi concentration and death camp.
I thought I could never be more emotionally impacted, but then came our Thursday visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau whose very name has become a symbol of the horrors of the Holocaust. The camps are two contiguous sites that together comprised the largest concentration camp the Nazis created as the “final solution of the Jewish problem in Europe.” We paid tribute to the approximately 1.3 million men, women and children who lost their lives there, about 90 percent of them Jews, by marching into the camp led by 50 IDF soldiers proudly flying the Israeli flag.
And now we’re flying to Israel, the country that has arisen from the ashes of the Holocaust to become a beacon of democracy, independence, freedom and liberty for the entire world. A country whose very existence is proof that the Jewish people is eternal. With its many accomplishments and contributions to humanity over its short 69 year life, proud, strong, vibrant Israel has truly become a light unto the nations.
Am Yisrael Chai! The nation of Israel (and the Jewish people) lives — forever.
William Fox is chairman of the Friends of the Israel Defense Forces Mid-Atlantic Region and a national board member.