A Mission to Remember the Past

August 19, 2020 by Simmy Allen
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Seventy-five years after the end of World War II, the Israeli Air Force, under the leadership of Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, participated in a joint commemorative flypast mission together with the German Air Force over the skies of the notorious Dachau concentration camp.

Peisach Smilg’s belt

The flypast on Tuesday was part of a larger joint exercise between the German and Israeli Air Forces.

The pilots of the Israeli Air Force have taken more than the memory of the six million Jewish men, women and children murdered during the Holocaust on this mission. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center, agreed to loan an original artifact from its collections to make this historic journey back to Germany. A belt once worn by Holocaust survivor and former Dachau prisoner Peisach Smilg, passed over the very place in which he was incarcerated, as his story comes full circle.

Yesterday marked 76 years since Peisach arrived at the gates of Dachau. His belt soared in the sky above Dachau as a symbol of the ultimate victory over the Nazis’ attempt to annihilate the Jewish nation.

Ahead of this flypast, Esther Smilg and several other Holocaust survivors and second generation members met with Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev and IAF Commander Norkin in Tel Aviv last week. Among them was Holocaust survivor and Dachau prisoner Abba Naor, who lit a torch at the State Opening Ceremony for Holocaust Remembrance Day in 2018. Col. (res.) Shaya Charsit and Aviva Plash – whose husband was a prisoner in Dachau and whose grandson is one of the pilots participating in the flypast over Dachau – briefly spoke about their experiences during the war.

In addition to Peisach Smilg’s belt, Yad Vashem also provided the Israeli Air Force with a replica of Hellmut Bachrach-Barée’s drawing, Death March – Dachau to Tölz.  Created in May 1945, the artwork depicts several Jewish prisoners being led on a death march by a Nazi guard.

Helmut Barach-Baree’s Death March

This work was chosen not only for its connection to Dachau, but also because of Hellmut’s association with Munich. In addition to flying over Dachau, the IAF flew above the Fürstenfeldbruck Airport near Munich, where nine Israeli athletes were brutally massacred by Palestinian terrorists during the 1972 Summer Olympic Games. Two other members of the Israeli Olympic team were murdered in the Olympic village on 5-6 September 1972.

Among many copies of artifacts related to Dachau also taken by the IAF team, Yad Vashem has included copies of two original letters sent by Jewish-American officers who liberated Dachau. In one, written on 28 April 1945, Corp. Jacob Goldstein tells his parents: “I just returned from a visit to the place of the living dead… If you ever had any doubt in your mind of the authenticity of German atrocity stories, you can remove it right now. I spoke to the people, I saw the piles of dead bodies, and I went through their living quarters… Dead bodies were laying all over the ground. The Germans had left in such a hurry they hadn’t had time to cremate them. The way in which these people lived, if you could call it living, is indescribable.”

Sammy Popush also wrote to his parents on 1 May 1945: “Three days ago we freed a German concentration camp, the second largest in all of rotten Germany, at Dachau, just outside of Munich. At one point there were 150,000 prisoners here… Now there are barely 13,000 left… Three were young children and women and men who had been lined up and machine-gunned to death by the SS just a few days previously…  A Jewish man came up to me and asked me if it were true that there were Jewish soldiers in the American army. When I told him that I was a Jewish unterofficizier he nearly went mad. Soon I had about 50 Jewish men and women around me, hugging and kissing me. They were starved also for das yiddisher giest and I wanted so much to make them happy. I sang some chazaonish shticklach for them and also a Yiddishe Mame.”

These letters are included in After So Much Pain and Anguish – First Letters after Liberation, an anthology edited by Yad Vashem Senior Historian Dr. Robert Rozett and Director of Yad Vashem’s International Institute for Holocaust Research Dr. Iael Nidam-Orvietto, and published by Yad Vashem.

The stories of Peisach Smilg, Hellmut Bachrach-Barée, Jacob Goldstein and Sammy Popush as well as the tens of millions of letters, documents, photographs, artifacts and artworks housed on the Mount of Remembrance serve as everlasting witnesses to the horrors of the Holocaust. Even as Holocaust denial and distortion continue to plague our global society both in the physical and digital worlds, Yad Vashem’s mission is unchanged – to ensure that the Holocaust is never relegated to the annals of history, and continues to remain relevant to us today and for generations to come.

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