From Vision and Dream to Fulfillment: Israel Yearning During and After the Holocaust

“On that day Hashem made a covenant with Avram, saying, “To your offspring I assign this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates” Genesis 15:18 (The Israel Bible™)

A new Yad Vashem (The World Holocaust Remembrance Center) exhibition marking Israel’s 70th anniversary has opened.

“They Say There Is a Land” highlights how Jews yearned for the Land of Israel during and immediately following the Holocaust in the years 1933-1948 – from the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany, through the outbreak of World War II and the destruction of European and North African Jewry, and until the end of the war and the establishment of the State of Israel.

“The longings for Zion and the Land of Israel has been a cornerstone of Jewish identity for generations, manifested in many different forms,” Yad Vashem Chairman Avner Shalev said at an event marking the exhibition’s opening on May 29.

Before the Holocaust, and for the past 2,000 years, “The affinity to Eretz Israel was expressed in prayer, philosophy, poem, and song, in life-cycle events and on Jewish holidays — not in a political or active manner, but by individuals and groups who immigrated to Eretz Israel, and settled there,” a release about the exhibit explained. “Others visited and wrote about the Land, and for hundreds of years, there was a consistent, albeit limited, Jewish presence in Eretz Israel.”

Shalev said that while the Zionist movement was not embraced by the majority of Jews in Europe during the Nazi rise to power, through the course of the Holocaust and in its aftermath it became increasingly popular. The exhibition, he explained, “portrays the ways in which Jews before, during and after the Shoah expressed their dreams for a brighter future in the Land of Israel, and their fervent hope to rebuild their lives here.”

The title of the exhibition comes from a poem by celebrated Hebrew poet Shaul Tchernichovsky, “They Say There Is a Land,” written in 1923 in Berlin.

“The poem brings up existential questions that characterized the Jewish people’s struggle with its future, as well as the forces of dream versus reality, and hope versus despair,” said a Yad Vashem spokesperson.

The opening of the exhibition featured the stories of Holocaust survivors as well as artworks artifacts, diaries, letters and testimonies collected by Yad Vashem over the years.

“I am so moved to see my map and the story of my family displayed here at Yad Vashem,” said Ilana Karniel (née Elina Landau), one of the “Tehran Children” rescued during the Holocaust.

“My brother Emil-Emmanuel [who created the map and gave it to Elina] was truly a special person,” she said. “Despite his young age, he understood very well the world he lived in. In his diary, which he kept throughout our journey, he writes about his dreams of coming to Eretz Israel, despite growing up in a secular family in Warsaw.”

Holocaust survivor Baruch Milch, who thought he would never see the Land of Israel, wrote while in hiding in Poland to his cousin in Eretz Israel: “I am writing this letter to you as one who has been condemned to death before my execution, since this is my situation right now […] The Jews need freedom […] Only in [Mandatory] Palestine will they be granted independence… Do not be silent; work day and night until you achieve this goal.”

Baruch Milch (Eliana Rudee)

Milch’s family was secular. But he told Breaking Israel News that his father was in a Zionist movement, and the land of Israel was always important to his family.  

The exhibition is divided into three chapters, thereby documenting the change in how Jews yearned for the land over time, often transforming from an idealistic yearning to a more practical one as atrocities grew.

The first chapter of the exhibition presents how Jews viewed their connection to and longing for the Land of Israel during the time of the rise of the Nazi party to power in Germany until the outbreak of World War II. It was during this period that Jews searched for asylum in various countries, including the land of Israel. The exhibition notes that “at the time, Eretz Israel was increasingly perceived as a possible solution for the Jewish people, as a place for building a future home, and as the hoped-for protection from the present harsh reality.”

Also during the Nazi rise, the land was gradually built up.

“New settlements were established, agricultural branches and industrial plants were developed, and the population increased significantly,” according to exhibition literature. Out of this movement was born the “New Jew” that became a driving force for immigration and settlement in the Land of Israel.

The second chapter focuses on the years 1940-1944 from the period of the ghettos to extermination. During this stage, the Jewish communities in Europe dwindled, and under their daily struggle for survival, many Jews found themselves distanced from the Land of Israel to the point of disengagement, however, their hearts’ yearning for the Land was never stronger.

“During this period, Jews experienced the breakdown and destruction of the entire fabric of life for both the individual and the community,” explained Exhibition Curator and Director of Yad Vashem’s Museums Division Vivian Uria. “Yet documents, diaries, letters, artifacts and artwork documenting the period testify that even during those terrible times, in the midst of the struggle for life that focused on the here and now, Eretz Israel held a firm place in the hearts and thoughts of Jews.”

The third chapter focuses on the period of the aftermath of the Holocaust, the displaced persons camps in Europe and the detention camps in Cyprus, until the establishment of the State of Israel.

“At this time, many survivors felt that in the Land of Israel they would be able to regain their stature and build a full Jewish communal and personal life,” said a Yad Vashem spokesperson, who noted that while the remaining Holocaust survivors still face many challenges today, even in Israel, there is no doubt that a strong Jewish communal and personal life is a reality for all, as the Jewish State celebrates its 70th year of sovereignty.

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