By David Saffer
Glowing tributes have been made to Holocaust survivor, resistance fighter, Israel Defence Forces hero and former Yad Vashem chairman Dr Yitzhak “Tolka” Arad following his death.
A historian and award-winning author, Arad’s funeral took place last Friday.
Born Icchak Rudnicki (he would adopt the surname Arad) in Swieciany, Poland in November 1926, Arad served Yad Vashem from 1972-93 and remained involved throughout an astonishing life.
Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, Yad Vashem Council chairman, described Arad as a “noble man, partisan Jew, honest and upright” from the Warsaw ghetto to Yad Vashem.
“In this framework he worked hard to commemorate the Holocaust and established the Valley of the Communities,” Lau noted.
Arad and Lau recently met at the IDF General Staff forum at Yad Vashem for Holocaust Remembrance. “I had the great pleasure of seeing a 95-year-old Jew speak fluently, with a clear mind,” recalled Lau. “It is sad that such figures are leaving the world.”
Ronen Plot, acting Yad Vashem chairman, noted, “It is the nature of the world that a day comes and a person leaves us, but this fact does not ease the sadness when a hero like (Yitzhak) Arad leaves us.” Plot added, “He belongs to a disappearing generation, a generation of survivors, partisans, IDF fighters, memorial fighters. Every farewell to a Holocaust survivor is a reminder that now the work of remembrance rests on our shoulders even more.”
Avner Shalev, former Yad Vashem chairman, noted that Arad reflected many historical aspects that the Jewish people endured from life in Poland to fighting with the partisans, immigrating to Israel and fighting in the War of Independence.
“Through his work at Yad Vashem and his words, Tolka personified the force of life and power of memory, which was also reflected in his private life and the fate of his people,” Shalev noted. “The way he behaved, and the person he was, are an example of the generation that believed and continues to believe in the development of the State of Israel and its influence.”
Ronald S. Lauder, president of World Jewish Congress said Arad’s long and fruitful life symbolised the “miraculous journey from the darkness of the Holocaust to Jewish national rebirth”.
Lauder concluded, “He devoted his life to the remembrance of the Shoah and left behind a prodigious body of scholarship on the destruction of Jews on Soviet territory and on Jewish resistance to the Nazis.”
Arad in his youth belonged to a Zionist youth movement and attended Hebrew schools. At the outbreak of World War Two, he lived with his family in Warsaw.
Arad’s parents perished in the Holocaust but, just a teenager, he escaped into a local forest where he would set up an underground group that stole weapons from Nazi warehouses.
In February, 1943, Arad joined the partisans, fighting the Nazis and collaborators in the Narocz Forest, Belarus and in Lithuania. His efforts brought the highest partisan award.
“I fought the Nazi Germans and their Lithuanian collaborator who were the murderers of my family and my people,” he once said.
On December 15, 1945, Arad’s life took a new turn when he boarded the small, illegal ship “Hannah Senesh’ ship bound from departed Genoa, Italy which landed on the beach of Nahariya later that month.
“All the time, in the ghetto and with the partisans, my dream was one, when the war was finished and if I survived, I will reach the land of Israel,” he told The International March of the Living’s ‘Salute to Israel’s 73rd Birthday’ online celebration last month.
“I witnessed the Holocaust and saw how we were helpless we so for me the most important thing was to establish a Jewish State that would be independent,” Arad recalled. “We are one people with one history and should strive for one future.”
Arad joined the Palmach and became a member of the Harel Brigade in 1947, which fought in the battle for Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. He decided to remain in the IDF as he understood “it would not be the last war”.
Arad became a Company Commander in the 7th Brigade, deputy commander of a battalion and later battalion commander. His last army appointment was Chief Education Officer prior to being Yad Vashem chairman for over two decades.
A renowned historian of World War Two and the Holocaust, Arad was a lecturer at Tel Aviv University, and a visiting professor at Yeshiva University in New York.
He was awarded a doctorate by Poland’s Nicolaus Copernicus University, Torun, in 1993.
Arad received Yad Vashem’s annual Buchman Memorial Prize for his book, ‘The History of the Holocaust: Soviet Union and the Annexed Territories’ in 2004.
Arad’s 2009 book, ‘The Holocaust in the Soviet Union’ scooped the National Jewish Book Award.
Other works included ‘The Partisan: From the Valley of Death to Mount Zion (1979); Ghetto in Flames: The struggle and destruction of the Jews in Vilna in the Holocaust (1980); In the Shadow of the Red Banner (2010) and The Operation Reinhard Camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka (2018).
In 2020, Arad participated in a joint photography venture between Yad Vashem and top photographer Martin Schoeller entitled Survivors: Faces of Life after the Holocaust.
Arad noted of the initiative, “What happened in the past could potentially happen again, to any people, at any time. Be very clear about this. Do not count yourselves among the murderers, and may you never find yourselves among the victims.”
“Tolka” Arad is survived by three children, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
“I am surrounded by my family, all are in Israel,” he proudly MOTL audience.