Tuesday, May 7, 2013

with a gun in his hand...

Well worth defending       Times were simpler then. I wasn’t surprised that my Israeli friend pulled over to give a ride to a hitchhiker, a young soldier in Israel’s IDF. Armed with what appeared to be an Uzi (or a Dror or an IMI Negev light machine gun), the young soldier carefully slipped into the back seat. He was in the reserves; he’d been called to report for duty.

We spoke about Syria and the Golan Heights. Seemingly well informed, the young man spoke confidently about the IDF’s preparedness. “We have contingency plans,” he told us. “We could take control of Syria in 24 hours.”

Impressed with his certainty, I listened as he spoke about Israel’s numerous enemies; many were neighboring countries. Despite his David-will-conquer-Goliath attitude, I could see why Israel seemed a scary place to outsiders. Countless times before my trip to Israel, I’d been asked whether it was a safe place to visit.

I thought about that this past Sunday. News reports described apparent Israeli airstrikes against Syrian missile and chemical weapon storage facilities. Although pictures of the results of those successful missions were impressive, what amazed me was the ineffectiveness of Syria’s air defense system. I thought of the young soldier I’d met years ago. Perhaps he’d had good reason to boast about Israel’s capabilities.

Those were my thoughts as I addressed a group of women at a book club in Roanoke. Because we were meeting at the reform Temple, I’d assumed all who were there were Jewish. I was about half right.

Women of all ages were there. Following my presentation, their questions and comments were intelligent and insightful. I enjoyed every minute of my time spent with them.

I’d been invited to tell them about Light One Candle. Rather than review the book, I chose to describe my relationship with its author, my dear friend Solly Ganor. For almost two hours, I spoke about the history of our relationship, how it began with a chance meeting on the Net.

“I responded to one of his essays,” I told them, “never expecting Solly to reply. But he did.” With that, he and I began swapping essays. Eventually, when I first traveled to Israel, I met Solly at a Holocaust survivors’ reunion at Ramat Gan near Tel Aviv.

I went on to describe my Humanities course for which Light one Candle is the required text. “None of my students are Jewish,” I told the group before I knew that many of them either hadn’t been or weren’t Jewish.

That didn’t seem to matter. Each woman had been so impressed with the book that I wasn’t surprised to hear a few of them say that Light One Candle should be required reading for all high schools. Many agreed with my appraisal of the book as being one of the best ever about the Holocaust.

The group was curious and responsive. Their leader had been a teacher; many others were or had been. So were their husbands. I invited all of them to come to visit my class, especially when I show the documentary, Sugihara. In it, Solly makes a cameo appearance to tell about meeting the remarkable ambassador from Japan, Sugihara, in Solly’s aunt’s candy shop in Kaunus, Lithuania.

As a result of that meeting, Sugihara met Solly’s family and learned of the plight of Jews under attack by the Nazis. Deeply moved by what he saw and heard, Sugihara defied his government and wrote visas for thousands of Jews who never would have escaped the Holocaust.

When I was in Israel last month, my daughter and I visited Solly and his wife, Pola. They had prepared lunch for us. As we sat and ate, we talked about Sugihara, about Mrs. Sugihara, a saintly woman. She, too, is featured in the documentary.

Then Solly asked, “Did I show you this?”

He left the table and returned with a picture of him as a soldier in the Israeli army, the first modern Israeli army. I saw the rifle he was holding and wondered whether it was the one in his book, the one that had been used by the Nazis. It was.

“They had been given to us by Czechoslovakia,” said Solly.

Although I wanted to ask more questions, I chose to listen instead. I reasoned that Solly probably had lots to say about current threats to Israel, about Syria and Lebanon and Egypt and Jordan.

“We’re so glad to see you,” he said. His smile was brilliant; it touched me deeply, made me forget for a moment all that I had to know about our very dangerous world. Somehow, Solly had learned how to put aside those realities and his older terror born of Holocaust brutalities.

He’d taught me to do the same just as his book teaches my students. I felt as if I were in the presence of an almost angelic master.

To him and Pola, I raised my glass and toasted, thankfully, “L’chaim!”, to life!

                                                B.Koplen 5/7/13

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