This year, just before Holocaust Remembrance day, I had the honor to meet a group of survivors from the ill-fated SS St. Louis ship, which embarked from Hamburg on May 23rd, 1939 carrying close to one thousand Jewish refugees seeking a safe haven from the hellish nightmare erupting in Europe. This year - yes this year - the SS St Louis survivors decided to hold their "reunion" in Jerusalem, at the Mount Zion Hotel, at a time when groups like the US Holocaust Council Board and the March of the Living delegation hesitated to come anywhere near Israel´s shores.
Each of the SS St. Louis passengers carried a visa to Cuba, yet they were nevertheless denied entry there. The United States and Canada also turned away the human cargo, which included families with small children. The ship sailed the seas for three weeks, desperately seeking a country that would give them asylum. For five days, the SS St. Louis sailed along the sea shore of Florida. Yet, nobody wanted the Jews. Instead, the ship turned around and headed back towards Europe where they were granted temporary entrance into Belgium. Nearly half of the passengers of the St. Louis perished in the Holocaust.
The survivors who gathered in Jerusalem were men and women in their seventies. At the time of their voyage aboard the St. Louis they were small children. Some of them toddlers. Harry Fuld, now retired and living in Winsdor, New Jersey, whose father had been murdered a year before the fateful journey, on Kristallnacht, was ten years old when he boarded the ship with his mother and 13 year old brother. During the SS St. Louis Jerusalem reunion, Fuld said that he was getting calls from his nervous daughters in New Jersey to come home. His answer was simple and to the point: "My ship has finally docked in Israel. I see a country which is determined to defend its people. I again reminded my daughters that if Israel had existed in 1939, every passenger on the SS St. Louis would have been saved."
The climate in the world of 2002 is reminiscent of the 1930´s in Germany. Once again, the Jews are being demonized as satans, devils, aggressors and racists. The daily diet of hatred and incitement pouring through the Palestinian schools and media and to the world at large has greatly escalated since the Oslo Accords in 1993. Yet the emergence of the Palestinian Arab human bombs coincided with the era of Israeli conciliation and peace making, recognition of the PLO, repeated concessions of territory, establishment of a nascent Palestine Authority, acceptance of armed Palestinian policemen - culminating in the unprecedented offer of an independent Palestinian state with a capital in a shared Jerusalem. In direct contrast to this most accommodating, conciliatory, most dovish Israeli policy, the Palestinian Arab people have responded with more than 12,000 recorded terrorist attacks over the past 18 months, against Israeli citizens and soldiers. There have been 435 murders of civilians, including babies, nursing mothers and pregnant women, and thousands of wounded. There is hardly a person in Israel who has not been directly or indirectly effected by the Palestinian terror. Meanwhile, the suicide bombers dispatched by the Palestinian Authority were hailed by Arafat as holy martyrs and the Palestinian Authority controlled media sang hymns of praise for the human bombs. Their families were interviewed on PA TV and stated how proud they were of their suicide bomber offspring. Now, Israel has finally concluded that Arafat has no interest in stopping the terror that emanates from the Palestinian Authority. Instead, Arafat calls for a million martyrs to pave the way with blood to Jerusalem.
In the early days of the Oslo process, as in the early days of Nazi Germany, Jewish leaders said that these were "only words". Yet, the massive suicide bombing which killed 27 Israelis and wounded over one hundred at a communal Passover seder in Netanya this year was the straw that broke the camel´s back. Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, who survived a concentration camp as a child, spent the better part of the Passover holiday in search of one Moslem cleric who would denounce the Passover Pogrom. Rabbi Lau took to the airwaves on the night after Passover to announce to the people of Israel that no Moslem would come forward to denounce the murder of Jewish families who sat down to a ritual ceremony.
As Rabbi Lau was speaking, an Arab infiltrated the Jewish community of Elon Moreh and murdered four members of the Gavish family -the parents, Rachel and David Gavish, their 25 year old married son Abraham, and Rachel´s father, Isaac. This was the same Elon Moreh where God had promised the Patriarch Abraham that the Jewish people will inherit the Land of Israel.
Na´ama Gavish, whose husband Abraham died later of wounds from this attack, teaches about the Holocaust at the local high school. Na’ama described what it was like hiding under the kitchen table while forcibly closing the mouth of her three year old daughter so that she wouldn´t make a sound. "I thought of the Holocaust", she said, "From under the table I was able to see the dead body of our grandfather." While the Gavish family and the Elon Moreh community counted their dead, the Palestinian Authority organized celebrations in the nearby village of Ascar, the town of the killer who had afflicted Elon Moreh.
Pressure mounts around the world to stop Israel. Violent demonstrations against Israel are being held all over the Islamic world, but not only in the Islamic world. Yet, there is a difference between the 1930´s and today. The Jews today have a Jewish state, created after the Holocaust, that gives protection to every Jew in the world. Israel is committed to the safety of its citizens.
The SS St. Louis finally docked in Jerusalem this week. Something that it could not do a generation ago.
Sara Bedein is a writer and translator who lives with her husband David and their six children in Efrat, Israel.