This is always a momentous event, and this year even more so, considering all that's been happening in Israel over the past months and years.
When the Israel Defense Forces entered Hebron in June of 1967 they found white sheets hanging from the rooftops and windows. In actuality, the city was captured by one man, Rabbi General Shlomo Goren, then Chief Rabbi of the IDF, who liberated the city single-handedly. He was one of the first Jews to gain access to the second holiest site to the Jewish people in the all the world, Ma'arat HaMachpela – the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs, in 700 hundred years. In 1267, following the capture of Hebron by the Mameluks, who expelled the occupied Crusaders, that holy site was declared a Mosque, off-limits to anyone not of the Islamic faith. And so it remained until the first week of June, 1967.
However, Rabbi Goren was in for a surprise. Defense Minister Moshe Dayan ordered that the Israeli flag, hanging on the side of the Ma'ara's outside wall, be removed and that all visitors entering the building remove their shoes 'because it's a mosque.' Those orders were later rescinded, but the policy was set and, in many respects, hasn't changed to this very day.
Despite the odds, Hebron remained in Jewish hands, and slowly developed. But when the Hebron accords were signed and implemented ten years ago, it seemed that the survival of Hebron's Jewish community was in jeopardy. With the advent of the Oslo War, otherwise known and the second intifada, and the daily shooting attacks from the surrounding hills into the Jewish neighborhoods, it looked like the blackest predictions might materialize. But they didn't. Hebron's Jewish community continues to thrive and prosper in spite of the problems. Our purchase and entrance into Beit HaShalom – the peace house, between Hebron and Kiryat Arba, proves the point.
How does one celebrate such a momentous occasion? Hebron Day itself, was Thursday, and I was privileged to spend most of the day with an old friend and partner to 'the cause,' Nachum Segal, host of the popular morning radio show in the New York metropolitan area, JM in the AM. On Thursday Nachum broadcast live from Hebron his entire show, which was a lot of fun. Using a make-shift studio in the Gutnick Center, just outside Ma'arat HaMachpela, Nachum, together with Hebron Fund director Yossi Baumol, interviewed numerous Hebron residents and personalities, giving listeners a real feel for the joy of the day. In addition the show was broadcast live on internet (audio and video). (Pictures and the sound track can be heard via the Hebron web site.)
This wasn't the first time Nachum broadcast live from Hebron. Over eleven years ago he broadcast via a cell phone and toured the city with Noam Arnon and myself. That too was a show I'll never forget. Nachum Segal is a true friend and associate in everything we do here, bringing Hebron to tens of thousands of people.
However, in reality, I didn't really feel Hebron Day until Friday afternoon, in a very round-about, yet somewhat direct fashion.
One of my friends called earlier in the week and asked if a Shabbat guest could sleep at our apartment on Friday night and I agreed. Friday afternoon a pleasant-looking middle-aged gentleman, dressed in a suit and tie and speaking with an accent appeared at our door. He introduced himself as Mordechai and came in. After a cup of tea and some introductory small talk, he asked if he could use my computer to check some email. Sitting him down next to the computer, I continued about my business, preparing for Shabbat.
A little while later I came back into the living room and found him staring, somewhat blurry-eyed, at a picture on the screen. The photograph, obviously taken decades ago, was of an attractive young woman, with a fur-collared coat and a white blouse. Her eyes stared at me as if she was standing in front of me, at that very moment. Mordechai turned and looked at me and said, 'this is a picture of my aunt. It is the first time in my life that I've ever seen her." And he turned back to screen to continue gazing at her. A little later he told us the story.
'Rosa was born and lived somewhere in Czechoslovakia. In the 1930s she managed to flee and immigrated to Belgium. In the late 1930s she married a widower and gave birth to three childen, living in Antwerp. She and her husband tried to obtain documents allowing them to escape Belgium also, but failed. During the last days of August, 1942, Rosa and her three young children were arrested by Nazis and transported to Auschwitz, where they arrived on September 3, after a three day train journey. Of the 555 women on the transport, only 88 were left alive for slave labor in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. The other 469 were killed immediately. Being that my Aunt Rosa, my father's sister, was with three young children, she must have been gassed that same day. This is the first time I've ever seen her picture.'
'The Belgians saves all the immigration records and transport documents from that era, but they were classified as secret, and no one was allowed access to them. A few years ago, the documents were made public and over a period of time, computerized. I made contact with various officials who assisted me to locate my aunt, and a few days ago received an email containing documentary information and a picture. I was on my way to the airport and for some reason wasn't able to open the attached picture. But here, sitting at your computer, here she is, my Aunt Rosa.'
'My father was the only one of his family who survived the holocaust. We knew that he had a wife and children, all of whom were lost, together with his parents and brothers and sisters. But he never spoke to us about them. We found, written in his books, lists of names and their relationship to him. But he never talked about them. He died 27 years ago. But now, as least, I can see one of his sisters, my Aunt Rosa, who was killed with her three children, in 1942. She was 30 years old.'
Rosa, hy"d ended her life in the gas and flames of Auschwitz. But I have her picture here, next to me, and in a little while I'm going to take it over to Ma'arat HaMachpela. Maybe Rosa never made it to Hebron in body, but she sure did in spirit. We are here to keep that spirit and the spirits of millions and million of others, from the past, and in the future, alive. Hebron, the roots of our existence, continues to provide nourishment to our people. We are here to keep those roots from being destroyed. That's our privilege and our responsibility. This is why I can celebrate Hebron Liberation Day. If we are here, one way or another, all Am Yisrael is here.
Aunt Rosa, welcome home.