Prof. Hanna Yablonka

It is rare for a person to reach retirement age and still have his mother around. The historian Prof. Hanna Yablonka has this privilege: her mother, Dr. Viola Torok, was present at the workshop held in her honor recently. If you like, this too is a piece of history.

She has been with us at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev for 34 years. Generations of students and researchers owe her their academic success. She has won an award for best lecturer at least a dozen times and for her, this recognition is no less important than her research and books. In the mid-1980s, she was already a rising star at the University. The students admired Prof. Ze'ev Tzahor's young teaching assistant and gave her commendations. She thinks back and says, "Teaching surveys were not common 30 years ago. The Student Union carried out a survey that was the first of its kind at the time, and the results were published in the Beer-Sheva weekly 'Kolbi'. I received a score of 99. The Student Union leaders had to attend an inquiry held by University management because they had carried out the survey without permission, but later teaching surveys became common and were institutionalized. Incidentally, my father kept a copy of the magazine and was proud of his daughter who knew Hebrew at such a level that it earned her such a high score for her lectures."

Prof. Yablonka is one of the most important contemporary Holocaust researchers, and is considered an authority in the field of research investigating the processes that the Jewish people went through from the Holocaust to revival. She considers the establishment of a track in Israel studies at BGU, together with Prof. Tuvia Friling, one of her most important achievements. The University is appreciative of both her research work and excellence in teaching, to the extent that she was asked to continue her work even though she has reached retirement age. "The University asked me to continue to teach for five more years, and I agreed," she said in a special interview to Alef Bet Gimmel.

The workshop in your honor attracted a large audience. Were you surprised?

"Yes and no. Yes because the workshop was not advertised in the media, and no, because I'm a little spoiled. I feel the love of my students and colleagues. The committee tasked with arranging the workshop included representatives from four universities. Likewise, four senior representatives from leading Holocaust museums in Israel took part."

Hanna was born in Tel Aviv and raised in Beer-Sheva by her Holocaust survivor parents. Her father, Prof. Gabriel Torok, was one of the first orthopedists in the Negev. Her mother, Dr. Viola Torok was the Ministry of Health's District Doctor for the southern region. Hanna chose another path. "I wasn't attracted to medicine," she says. "I told myself that three physicians in the family is enough (in addition to my parents, my brother Yarom Torok also completed medical studies and became a dentist). I turned to history, and I'd much rather be called a scholar of 'the day after' and to engage in the story of the survivors who came to the land of Israel and built their lives here along with the moral and legal dilemmas that arose worldwide after the Holocaust ".

How influenced were you by your parents' stories about the Holocaust? 

"At home we talked about it all the time. I've seen pictures of family members who perished in the Holocaust, so that the names had faces. All the same, I was raised in the home of parents who love life. They were creative, hardworking, and reached remarkable achievements. I guess this affected my vision."

Hanna began her academic studies at the Hebrew University, where she completed an undergraduate degree in English and international relations. At the same time, she studied at BGU in the Department of Behavioral Sciences. Her passion for history was ignited almost by chance. She recalls, "During the second year of my master's studies in psychology at the Hebrew University, I heard Prof. Yehuda Bauer give a lecture in the Keren cinema in Beer- Sheva on the subject of the Holocaust. It was a life-altering event. At the end of the lecture, I approached him and asked where he taught, and I followed him. I enrolled in the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University, and under the supervision of Prof. Bauer completed my master's thesis and doctoral dissertation in history, dealing with Holocaust survivors in Israel. At the time it was pioneering work and it opened up the research field on this topic.

How much does the topic of the Holocaust occupy you today?

"There's not a day I don't ask myself if I and the society I live in pass the Shoah test as human beings and as children of the Jewish people,  the victims of one of the most brutal crimes in human history." 

Do you fear that at some point Israel society will move away from dealing with this issue?

"It is already walking away. Most young scholars don't know Yiddish, Polish, Hungarian, or any other language that Jews spoke in Europe. Objections have been heard about the exclusion of North Africa Jews from the Holocaust story, and this brings the Holocaust into the troubled ethnic discourse of these days. It distorts the essence of the Holocaust and transforms it into something divisive rather than something that could the subject of a humanistic discussion. I am not part of the Polish community, but I will publicly state that the tragedy of Poland's Jews, of whom over three million were murdered in the Holocaust, should be the focus of discussion of the Holocaust ".

Are you aware of the fact that the public discourse on the Holocaust has left the lecture halls a long time ago and moved to social media?

"This is true. Social media has a negative effect on the subject. I was shocked at the comments left in response to the 36 survivors who made public statements against the deportation of African asylum seekers. There were responses such as: 'It's a pity that you didn't all die at Treblinka.' The Holocaust as the generator of a collective memory barely exists here anymore."  

Will Holocaust Remembrance Day still be relevant in another 70 years?

"I'm not an oracle. In the absence of survivors and the absence of consensus concerning the memory of the Holocaust, and because Holocaust Remembrance Day is not embedded in the Jewish calendar, it is possible that its intensity and relevance will diminish."

Do you feel that the Holocaust discourse should also take place between ourselves and the Arab public in Israel?

"Yes. It needs to exist, and I said that in my role as the historian of the Ghetto Fighters' Museum, which has a center for humanistic education where both groups, Jewish and Arab, can learn about each other's catastrophe. There is no comparison between the two (the Holocaust and the Nakba), but rather the mutual recognition that both peoples experienced catastrophe.  Each party's acceptance of the other's tragedy is a crucial part of the process of dialogue. Another subject in the dialogue with the Arabs is the question of where does a society who experienced a calamity take it. In this sense, survivors' stories have  tremendous educational value: they decided not to take revenge, not to be caught up in the circle of hate, but to build. Go ahead and build I say to Arab audiences, whom I appear before and not just to them."

"There's not a day I don't ask myself if I and the society I live in pass the Shoah test as human beings and as children of the Jewish people, which had been the victims of one of the most brutal crimes in human history." 

What about the attitude toward the Holocaust of some in the Haredi community, does it still anger you?

"It is not my place to tell other people what to do when the sirens sound, but someone who wants to be respected must respect the other. I am angered by the attitude of some in the Haredi community toward the sense of collectiveness, especially the pain of survivors for whom the national commemoration is very meaningful. I don't appreciate their attitude, it has no integrity. I would accept their position that they are not part of Israeli society if they would detach themselves from it completely; also financially through the budgets and support they receive. But that's not the way things are."

Do you remember outrageous behavior like this?

"Three years ago I witnessed Haredim demonstrating their apathy and ignorance toward Holocaust Remembrance Day, or maybe their defiance, by lighting bonfires in the Sacher Park in Jerusalem on the Remembrance Day eve. Friends told me that this was not a one-time phenomenon. "

How did your research field develop from the history of the Jewish people to the track for Israel studies?

"In the days when there still were University professors who were Holocaust survivors, like Prof. Israel Oppenheim and Prof. Shimon Redlich, whom had the honor of working with as a young researcher at University, they initiated the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony here, it was in the mid-80s. In the 90s, Tuvia Friling and myself (we had studied together in Jerusalem with Prof. Bauer) concluded that the State of Israel is an interesting subject for interdisciplinary research on issues such as immigration, new culture, national rebirth, and military and security. We decided that would be worthwhile to establish a study track that focuses on the State of Israel through a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective. With support from Prof. Avishai Braverman, President of the University at that time, and at the end of a long process of some six years, we received recognition from the Council for Higher Education for an undergraduate degree program in Israel Studies, which was the first of its kind both in Israel and abroad. Prof. Braverman said at the time, "if the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is the most Jewish and Tel Aviv University is the most international, Ben Gurion University will be the most Israeli". You could say that in Beer-Sheva we founded the field of Israel Studies. "

Israeli rootedness will form only when a generation that loves its country like an Englishman loves England and a Frenchman France grows here. We don't need death and restitution in order to love our country.

What is next for you?

"In a couple of months my new book will be published Kids Who Are Just Fine". The book deals with the collective biography of the first Israelis, born here between 1948 and 1955. It's a fascinating and unique generation, with vivid flavors of bittersweet, laughter and tears. Many of them are the children of Holocaust survivors and immigrants from Asia and Africa. I dedicated 70 pages of the book to the Yom Kippur war, an event that shook their lives."

Can you give me something from the book?

"Certainly. In the IDF there was a unit charged with censoring soldiers' mail. The role of the female soldiers serving in the unit was to go through the mail and copy all the letters to make sure there were no deviations from the rules of preserving security. Once a month these soldiers put a report together on the mood in the military. Reading the letters enables a telling of the story of what the soldiers went through during the Yom Kippur war, from the feeling that it was a rerun of the Six Day War, to the realization that we were in a completely different story. A generation was buried in that war. writing this book was very close to my heart. Around 400 soldiers who fell during the Yom Kippur war were the sons of Holocaust survivors.

Still on the topic of security– how much does the fear of another Holocaust affect how Israel deals with the Iranian threat?

"The Holocaust should not be the basis for a modern nation's choices. It should form its decisions according to the present and the future, rather than an event that took place in a different continent and in a different context. Furthermore, I don't think a society's power is measured only by military strength. The resilience of the home front, which rests on other factors, is no less powerful a source of strength."

Where do we stand in terms of resilience?

"Resilience is the great unknown. It is a consequence of the quality of leadership, of self-confidence, of rootedness, of a sense of righteousness, of social solidarity. Israeli society should ask itself if it meets all these criteria before going to war."

The Holocaust should not be the basis for a modern nation's choices. It should form its decisions according to the present and the future, rather than an event that took place in a different continent and in a different context. 

Many Holocaust survivors live in poverty and the state aid granted does not always honor them. What is your view on this painful issue?

"My understanding is that most Holocaust survivors are successful and don't require state assistance. They worked hard and succeeded, along with many of their children. Nevertheless, an enlightened society should care for all its elders, not only Holocaust survivors. This is one of its key indicators of humanity. Our prayers mention 'don't abandon us in old age'".

What is your opinion on the claim that many 'embers saved from the fire,' survivors of the concentration camps, were "thrown into" the battlefields of the War of Independence without undergoing minimal military training?

"They were not thrown. They came here with a clear understanding that they would have to serve in the army. More than half(!) of the Israeli military in the War of Independence, Israel's most brutal war, were Holocaust survivors. The army was established during a war without combat doctrine or a national draft. They took everyone who was able to take up arms." 

How do you see the contribution of Holocaust survivors to the victory in the War of Independence?

"Fifty years passed until their full contribution in all its splendor was recognized. Of course it's heartbreaking when someone who survived the Holocaust, the last member of his family, fell in the  war to establish the state. But there was no condescension or neglect or abandonment. It was war of survival. 'The whole country was a front and the people an army.' Nearly all of state's leaders lost children in the War of Independence".

Jokes are made, in macabre humor, about "the joy of the Holocaust". Are you familiar with this phenomenon?

"'There's' joy in the Holocaust' not in the sense of happiness, but in the sense that it supposedly strengthens our case around the world, that the world should feel guilty about us because of the Holocaust. We sometimes feel that we are still the ultimate victim, as we were in 1943, at the height of the ' final solution': righteous, pure and murdered. But the reality is completely different today and it is time to internalize it and to develop a little more existential self-confidence." 

Has the establishment of the State of Israel has become "compensation" for the Holocaust?

"I don't believe in this perspective; it's a superficial and incorrect statement. Israel should be a country like any other, a country where there is a connection between the people living in it, paying taxes, working, studying, including the 25% of the citizenship who are non-Jewish. Israel should a country it's nice to live in and to build, to be proud of its achievements, its social solidarity, and its cultural accomplishments; it shouldn't just be a military and nuclear fortress (according to foreign sources). There are no grounds for saying that the country was established as a result of the Holocaust".

What was Soviet Russia's contribution during Stalin's tyranny in establishing the Jewish State?

"My father always said that the Russians saved the world, at a terrible price. They freed Auschwitz. The encounters between Jewish soldiers serving in the Red Army and survivors were heart breaking. Russia supported the decision dividing Mandatory Palestine into two states, and also supported Czech arms sales to the nascent state. The rifles, machine-guns and ammunition that they sent us were a crucial contribution to winning the war. This was during the first few critical days of the war. Over the years the relationship between Israel and Russia has had its ups and downs. I think that now we're in one of those moments."

"Extermination camps are not justification for our existence here"

Prof. Hanna Yablonka is hardly enthusiastic about the program sending groups of high school students to visit death camps in Poland. She summarizes, "I object to some of the elements of the trips to Poland. To the cost and to the monopoly given to certain companies. It's not the age that teenagers should travel to Poland, before joining the army, and they are told that their visit to Poland demonstrates the justification for us living in Israel and increases the motivation for army recruitment. This is a distorted thinking. If after 12 years of schooling in the Israeli education system, our students still do not understand why they are here and they have no sense of belonging here, and they try to connect them through a terrible Jewish experience that occurred in another country on another continent, then something in the basic educational process is wrong. Instead of teaching these young people about the rich life that existed in Poland, they take teenagers aged 17, at the height of their youth, on an experience which is all about death, without undergoing an educational process that would provide them information about the Jewish world which was annihilated. So what is the purpose of these trips? To create a superficial emotional experience with short-term impact? Extermination camps are not justification for our existence here. They are also not a source of Israeli rootedness. It will form only when a generation that loves its country like an Englishman loves England and a Frenchman France grows here, a generation that loves the language, the landscape, the air of this place. We don't need death and restitution in order to love our country."