NEW YORK – Last week, 50 Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supporters from across the U.S. returned from an unprecedented delegation to Poland and Israel with Holocaust survivors, G.I. liberators, and Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers.
Led by FIDF National President Peter Weintraub and FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, the eight-day “From Holocaust to Independence” mission spanned Jewish history, from the darkest moments to the most inspiring. The American and Israeli soldiers and survivors accompanied the FIDF supporters on a trip across Poland, beginning at Tarnow, once home to thousands of Jews, and traced their steps, from Krakow’s Jewish ghetto to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps. The delegation then flew on an Israeli Air Force transport jet from Poland to Israel, where they commemorated Yom HaZikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, and celebrated Israel’s 68th Independence Day.
“This one-of-a-kind delegation spanned the modern history of the Jewish people by uniting Holocaust survivors, American liberators of concentration camps, and IDF officers,” said Gen. Klifi-Amir. “It told the story of our near-extinction in Europe, the creation of a Jewish homeland, and the new generation of a Jewish army that watches over our legacy today, making sure that ‘never again’ and ‘never forget’ are not just phrases, but rather promises. By marching with our brave IDF soldiers into the dreadful Auschwitz-Birkenau camps we sent a message to the world that we remember, and that the Holocaust cannot, and will not, ever happen again.”
Joining the delegation were Holocaust survivors from Israel Martha Weiss, who was interned at Auschwitz shortly after her tenth birthday, and Giselle Cycowicz, who survived five months in Birkenau. Alongside them were three former American soldiers who liberated concentration camps during WWII – Sid Shafner, 94, of Colorado, who was one of the first U.S. soldiers to enter Dachau with the 42nd Infantry Division and was awarded two bronze stars for heroism; Cranston Rogers, 91, of Massachusetts, who liberated Dachau with the 45th Infantry Division on April 29, 1945 and retired as a colonel; and William Bryant Phelps, 90, of Texas, who liberated Mauthausen-Gusen with the 11th Armored Division and retired as a lieutenant colonel.
One of the most unforgettable moments on the trip was an emotional reunion on an Israeli Air Force base between Shafner and Dachau survivor Marcel Levy, who now lives in Israel (video of the reunion is included below). After Levy escaped Dachau, he travelled with Shafner’s unit, working as a cook. Shafner and Levy became good friends and have stayed in touch since 1945, and, before this week, last saw each other 21 years ago at Shafner’s granddaughter’s bat mitzvah in Jerusalem.
In Israel, the delegation met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli President Reuven Rivlin. Also joining the delegation to Poland and Israel was former Ambassador of Israel to the U.S. and current Member of the Knesset Michael Oren.
“This mission was one of the last opportunities for survivors and liberators to share their stories together,” said Weintraub. “It was a very emotional experience for everyone involved – I can’t imagine a more bittersweet moment than walking through the gates of Poland’s most notorious death camp surrounded by those who suffered within its walls, those who helped set them free, and those who must make sure they are not forgotten.”
Below is footage from the delegation to Poland and Israel:
Video of the Shafner-Levy reunion in Israel:
About Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF)
FIDF was established in 1981 by a group of Holocaust survivors as a 501(C)(3) not-for-profit organization with the mission of offering educational, cultural, recreational, and social programs and facilities that provide hope, purpose, and life-changing support for the soldiers who protect Israel and Jews worldwide. Today, FIDF has more than 150,000 loyal supporters, and 16 regional offices throughout the U.S. and Panama. FIDF proudly supports IDF soldiers, families of fallen soldiers, and wounded veterans through a variety of innovative programs that reinforce the vital bond between the communities in the United States, the soldiers of the IDF, and the State of Israel. For more information, please visit: www.fidf.org.