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A Song of Hope in a Time of Despair

Young Holocaust survivors hold a Zionist flag, on a train from Buchenwald to the Holy Land (Photo: USHMM)

This week was a time of both pain and pride for Israel, as the Jewish state observed its Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, followed by its celebration of 68 years of independence. The history of the Jewish people has also been one of both mourning and joy, and in recent times, writes Dr. Rafael Medoff, the source of hope has often been "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem:

A national anthem written more than 50 years before the birth of the state for which it was composed, “Hatikvah” has served as a source of hope and inspiration for Jews who have found themselves in the most dire of circumstances. During the darkest hours of the Holocaust, Jews defied their tormentors by singing the song’s powerful lyrics.

Filip Muller was a Sonderkommando in Auschwitz—a Jewish slave laborer who was kept alive because he helped take corpses from the gas chambers to the crematoria. One of the very few Sonderkommandos to survive the Holocaust, Muller later described the remarkable behavior of one group of Czech Jews who were being marched towards the gas chambers and were told what was about to happen:

“Their voices grew subdued and tense, their movements forced, their eyes stared as though they had been hypnotized… Suddenly a voice began to sing. Others joined in, and the sound swelled into a mighty choir. They sang first the Czechoslovak national anthem and then the Hebrew song ‘Hatikvah.’”

Enraged SS men tried to halt the singing by beating the Jews into submission, Muller wrote. “It was as if they regarded the singing as a last kind of protest which they were determined to stifle if they could.” But the SS was unable to stop them. “To be allowed to die together was the only comfort left to these people… And when they sang Hatikvah, now the national anthem of the state of Israel, they were glancing into the future, but it was a future which they would not be allowed to see. To me the bearing of my countrymen seemed an exemplary gesture of national honor and national pride which stirred my soul.”

Overwhelmed by feelings of remorse, Muller tried to join the group as they entered the gas chamber, but they pushed him back out. A woman implored him, “Your death won’t give us back our lives. That’s no way. You must get out of here alive, you must bear witness to our suffering and to the injustice done to us..."

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