My personal story begins and ends on the particular day of Yom Kippur:
Abraham Shomroni - "Not Hopeless Revenge But Reconciliation"
Despite the many years, I have vivid memories of my childhood in Vienna. Until the end of the First World War, only nine years before my birth, Vienna was the capital of a great empire where people of different nationalities and speaking different languages lived. Amongst these, the Jews comprised about ten percent of the total population. There was no other minority group with such organized community structures: impressive synagogues and temples and also shtiblach (little rooms for prayer), sports associations, Torah schools and a prestigious Hebrew high school, the Chajes Real gymnasium, where I myself studied, welfare institutions and the famous Rothschild Hospital. All in all, Jewish life was exciting, with politics, music, theaters for drama and entertainment, restaurants and cafes.
When the Nazis came, I was exactly 11 years old. A week before, my brother celebrated his Bar Mitzvah. We were an orthodox family: father observed the 613 Commandments and we celebrated all the Jewish festivals with their religious traditions and special food delicacies at which mother was an expert. At the same time, mother dressed according to the fashion and father, clean shaven, wore a suit – in contrast to my grandfathers, who looked like today’s ultra-Orthodox Jews in Me’a She’arim in Jerusalem. After school each day, we would go to the cheder (Jewish elementary school for Torah studies for boys) to learn the weekly portion with Rashi (medieval commentator) together with our Jewish friends. But unlike most other Jewish children, we were also a part of a street gang where we played soccer with non–Jewish boys and did things that “good” Jewish children are not supposed to do. For example, we would sneak into the soccer stadium without buying tickets, because we had no money, or run away from policemen who showed up when we played soccer in the street. One of those gang members is my friend to this day. (After forty years, I went to Vienna for a few days for work and found him in the phone directory and we met. Since then, whenever I come back with son or grandson to show them the family roots, he spends much time with us and shows us around in his car).
Our family mingled with Jews and non-Jews but that didn’t help us after the Nazis invaded Austria. A week later, walking home with my father after he had finished work, from quite afar we saw crowds in our street, laughing and cheering . On our street there lived two aged Admorim – highly respected Hasidic rabbis. When we got closer we could see those white-bearded Admorim, along with their sons – and my own mother among them too – on their knees, scraping old election slogans from the streets with just their nails. Nearby stood SA men who jeered and shouted at them, “Faster!” or “This is not clean enough!” along with crude epithets. We got close to my mother, called out to her and she quickly got up; with her between us we entered our house.
As far back as I can remember, I felt anti-Semitism in the air in Vienna but, as it turned out, this was mild by comparison with the new, frightful, Nazi era. In a matter of days, the Austrians learned to do all those cruel deeds that it had taken the Germans years to develop.
In November, after a secretary of the German embassy in Paris was shot by a young Polish Jew, desperate about the fate of his parents, (ironically enough, the victim was one of the few anti-Nazis in the foreign service), the Germans abandoned all restraint. Word came from above and mobs went pillaging Jewish institutions and businesses, breaking down doors and shattering windows (from the glass in the streets they coined the euphemistic term ‘crystal night’) and put the torch to Jewish synagogues and temples until the skies of Vienna turned red from the many fires. The following morning Jewish neighbors came to our apartment and told father that the Nazis are going from house to house and door to door in order to pick up all the Jews and send them to concentration camps. “Come and hide with us,” they said but father answered, “What? I, who volunteered to fight for homeland and Emperor, I should hide? I am a full citizen, not second class. I won’t hide.” It wasn’t long before they came. I remember how mother helped father on with his hat and coat which she quickly brushed so father wouldn’t embarrass us with a speck of dust on his coat. Then he embraced and kissed us all and that was the last time we ever saw our father.
Mother redoubled her efforts to get her two boys out and we followed the daily rumors about escape routes – to leave Vienna, to find a haven – but without success, usually because of lack of money. Then, in wake of the international shock after Krystalnacht, some prominent Jews and non Jews in England petitioned the British government which agreed to allow children to come. Exactly a month after my father was taken to the infamous Dachau concentration camp, mother – with great sadness which the 11 year-old eager to get out kid that I was couldn’t fathom – managed to get my brother and me on to the first Kindertransport for England. My parents did not survive. We do not know for certain what befell my father. My mother was sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto and from there to Auschwitz. After leaving Vienna in 1938, we never saw our parents again.
We arrived in Harwich, England on December 12th, 1938. One of the sights engraved in my memory: long rows of hundreds of children and at their end an Englishman, usually sucking a pipe, writing down the children’s personal details. My brother, two years my senior, was asked for his name and whether he was Orthodox or Liberal. I understood the word “orthodox” but the word “liberal” was beyond me. My brother, in his ‘wisdom’, said “liberal”; although that was completely counter to our lifestyle back home in Vienna. There we were strictly orthodox but thanks to his answer we were lucky enough later to be sent to a small village, Bentham, with about 3000 people, in the North of England where a Quaker woman took the initiative and organized a committee with the local gentry, the managers of the two banks, the village priests and the principal of the Grammar School (the local high school which was founded in 1726), where we were intended to study and board.
The years went by and after my matriculation exams, I was 15 and the principal of the school called me to his office and said: “Alfred, the committee has decided that you will continue studying for another two years for your Higher School Certificate”. I replied: “Thank you but I feel I must join the war effort and in any case…” I mumbled (the way embarrassed boys do) “you have already done above and beyond….” He cut me short and said: “If the boot was on the other foot, you and your family would have done no less for us.” I do not let myself forget his words which have remained with me ever since. I often wonder whether my own people always conduct themselves in this manner – with compassion. After all, those who saved me were neither my family nor my people; just decent human beings who in their humanity refused to turn a blind eye when they saw injustice and need.
I finished school and went to a hostel for young Jewish refugees in Bradford and found a job in ‘essential war work’ in a laboratory for the analysis of metals used for war purposes, airplanes in particular. I continued doing the things that interested me – playing soccer, dancing on Saturday nights and studying on occasion. I was active in the Reform Synagogue in the city and became a member of the national executive of the junior section of the Reform Synagogues in England but also had warm relations with the rabbi of the Orthodox Synagogue. Life was full and in the evenings I studied for my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, Physics and Mathematics. A year before graduating, I got a job in the Dunlop Research Centre in Birmingham.
It was a dramatic time, violent struggles in Palestine, the terrible plight of the Jewish DPs (displaced persons) in Europe trying to enter Palestine but prevented by the British navy. In Birmingham, I completed my degree and, with a good friend from work, I joined the Young Zionist Society of which I later became chairman and then, together we set up a group of Mapam (United Workers Party) after deciding that this was the party which fought for our ideals. Close to a year later, I realized I was talking about Zionism and Halutziut (pioneering) with great enthusiasm without doing anything and that it was time to act on my words. I traveled to London where I presented myself at the office of the Jewish ‘Youth Guard’ (Hashomer Hatzair) and said: “Here I am. Send me to a young Kibbutz on the border.” They agreed, but ‘requested’ that I first do a stint as secretary of the movement (after all, they said, I did have experience working with Jewish youth). And so, after study at the Youth Leaders’ Institute in Jerusalem and half a year working on a Kibbutz I became the secretary of Hashomer Hatzair in England.
My departure for Israel aroused interest in the Research Centre. I remember the conversation with the director of the lab. He said to me: “Alfred, why leave? You’ve got your foot on the ladder ; you’ll get your Ph.D. and you’re doing well, socially, culturally, even financially and you can help Israel from here like many Jews. I replied: “My parents did not live where they were born, nor were they allowed to die where they lived. I was not allowed to live where I was born. I want to ensure that my children should be able to choose. Personal emancipation is not enough. The Jews need sovereignty, the freedom to shape their fate”. (I had not felt any anti-Semitism in England, although I knew it existed. In any case, this was not one of my considerations). Furthermore, I added: “The Jewish people didn’t suffer because of lack of good chemists; the vital need today is for pioneers who are willing to do what is most necessary and what others can’t or won’t do. I am willing to be a pioneer and that, I think, is more important than completing my doctorate.”
After three years of activity in Hashomer Hatzair and the Zionist movement in general, I made Aliya to Kibbutz Barkai where I built a family with my wife Dalia who bore us two sons – Jonathan and Avner.
Jonathan fell in 1974. In 2004 we had a commemoration and we – the family and friends who arranged the event – were amazed when more than 200 people showed up for whom Jonathan’s name still touched their hearts after thirty years. In the evening, in the kibbutz dining hall, Jonathan’s friends – from childhood, high school, Hashomer Hatzair and the Air Force – spoke of ‘their’ Jonathan. One of them, Ra’anan, called Jonathan a great Zionist at a time when Zionism was referred to with irony and even ridicule. He told of one of their friends who deliberated whether to join the army or not and read a letter Jonathan wrote him from the Air Force: “Like you, I too am curious to see the world and meet other people but today, when we are being called, I see no alternative but to do like your parents and mine who came here from the Holocaust to build a new home and protect it.”
One of Jonathan’s old teachers, Amram, spoke of how he met an expert on diamonds and the big question was how to tell a real gem from a fake. The expert held a stone up to the light, turned it slowly and said: if I see that it is even in all directions I know that it’s a real diamond. And that, said Amram, was Jonathan. His head, his heart, his mouth – all even. The former commander of the Israeli Air Force flying school, Ya’akov Turner, also spoke. He said that Jonathan stood out in his course and was chosen to be interviewed on television on Air Force Day, as the representative of the young pilots, after the commander of the Air Force. Another friend said that Jonathan was like a giant wave, a source of force, inspiration, vision and faith.
I don’t want to describe Jonathan like a placard of a model boy. In talks in schools, I tell the youngsters that he was at least as impudent as the children of their parents. For example, I had to learn the Hebrew names of flowers and weeds and Jonathan knew everything that grew, flew or crawled in the field. I was a young farmer and what I sowed in the field was supposed to be green from end to end but, sadly, here and there were clumps of red anemones, blue corn flowers and delicate, yellow mustard flowers. However beautiful, that was a professional disgrace. I had to spray and to chose the right pesticide I needed the Hebrew names. One evening we were walking and, as usual, I asked “What have we here?”, and the little boy, grade one, turned, shook his finger at me and said, ” I told you that yesterday; you will never learn Dad!” But with all that chutzpah – or independent thinking, as I like to call it – he learned to play cello and guitar, and once a week he would travel to the Technion (Haifa Institute of Technology) where he took a physics course – Quantum Theory and Relativity – for bright high school students. Much more important for him, he led the school team to the national volleyball finals for high schools, and was altogether very active in school and in the youth movement.
There’s so much to be said about Jonathan and with all the pain, I like for people to hear about him, but here I’ll mention only one special characteristic. From early age, with any group he belonged to – family, school, youth movement – he felt not only involved but committed, responsible as though, without his efforts, things might cease to exist. This commitment went beyond what was close to him. It covered the entire Jewish people and included all the citizens of Israel like in our Declaration of Independence, irrespective of religion, race or sex. Aged about 17, Jonathan encountered Peace Now and he became very enthusiastic about this idea. It didn’t seem reasonable to him that a smart nation like us should not be able to find a way to end the permanent insecurity and fear and reach a settlement with its neighbors. His conviction stemmed not just from a good heart and good will to all men. He did have a good heart and good will but he was also not without knowledge. Our kibbutz was surrounded on three sides by Arab villages. We had Arab friends whom we would invite to the kibbutz for festivals and they would invite us to the village for weddings; above all, Jonathan knew how I would blow my top off if I caught a young shepherd leading his flock on to a cultivated field. Knowing the good and the less than good sides, as a firm Zionist, Jonathan was sure that reconciliation should and could be reached.
Jonathan volunteered for another year of intensive activity in the youth movement where he felt he could still contribute before joining up. He completed all but the last stage of his pilot training, cut short by the terrible accident in an aerial maneuver. Ya’akov Turner, the commander of the flying school, told us that this type of accident could have happened to a more experienced pilot as well but naturally, there were higher chances of it happening to a younger pilot. When he came to speak to the kibbutz, Ya’akov Turner said that when Jonathan got up at meetings of the officers and the trainee pilots, there was complete silence for the spokesperson of the course. Turner added warmly that Jonathan was respected and loved by his friends and the staff alike.
Since the tragedy, I have forced myself, with great effort, to persist in my activities, not to regress and not to shrink into my own shell, as would be so natural simply to surrender to grief. It was hard for me to emerge at first. I did not shave and only after thirty days did I go back to work; I simply could not do so before. But then I made the effort, almost as if hearing Jonathan at my side urging me on, telling me I simply must. Almost seven years after Jonathan died in action, my wife Dalia passed away. I have no doubt that the loss played a crucial role in her passing. For Avner, Jonathan’s younger brother, Jonathan’s death was a heavy blow. They were brothers, friends and also partners in many ways. I said to Avner that in certain respects the loss was even greater for him because in spite of all Avner’s unique capabilities and independence, he also felt the need to follow in Jonathan’s footsteps; they were active together in the Gadna (air force cadets), the Kibbutz volleyball team, doing physics in the Technion, playing in the regional orchestra. Avner also volunteered for an extra year in the youth movement before joining up and after he had relinquished his ambition – for the sake of his parents –to become a pilot. As far as our daily lives are concerned, have Avner and I got back to routine, if this is at all possible? In truth, nobody really gets over a loss like this, like a limb that has been amputated and will never grow back. The expression ‘time is a great healer’ should be taken with a large grain of salt. But even if I could stop the pain, I would not choose to do so. Through the pain, Jonathan is with me every day, every moment.
Avraham – Jonathan’s father