IAF Magazine Articles

Years Later and Nothing’s Been Erased

IAF planes flew in the skies over the Auschwitz extermination camp, carrying with them a message of an independent state and a strong army. Each of the pilots carried with them a personal object that tells a story and recounts a memory. This is the story of the historic flight. International Holocaust Remembrance Day occurs on 27th January

Asaf Valdan

The prisoners at the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp remember well the image of bombers circling around the camp. But these planes continued their flight without bomb the camp.

In September 2003, combat planes appeared over Auschwitz again, but this time they were planes of the IAF, carrying on their wings the collective memory and the resurrected flag of the Jewish people.

"The message that came with us", says Col. (Res.) Avi Maor, one of the six pilots and navigators that took part in the flyover, "is that we and the State of Israel are alive and strong enough to ensure that something like this will never happen again. An entire generation is gone, for many of them there was not even someone left to say 'Kadish'. This is the debt that we owe them, the six million who perished there".


Over the Death camp

 

The idea to conduct a flyover over Auschwitz was a personal dream come true for the head of the aerial group, Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel. "We're talking about a personal dream of 15 years", says Eshel. "This is the most significant expression of the rebirth of this nation. As the IAF, we are the most concrete expression of the might of the Jewish people and there's no one better than us to express it".

The idea stayed in Amir's drawer for many years, until the day when Maj. Gen. Dan Halutz, then Commander of the IAF, met with the Polish Air Force Commander who gave him an invitation to take part in the 85-year celebration of the Polish Air Force.

That same day Amir presented his idea to the IAF Commander who responded with surprise. "I felt that we simply had to take this opportunity", explains Eshel, "and together with Brig. Gen. Ido Nehushtan [then head of the aerial group now Commander of the IAF] we stitched together a plan just like the IAF plans for an operation".


As the details fell into place for the mission, they discovered just how complex the mission was operationally. Just as in every military mission, the first step is setting a goal. "There were two central questions that we dealt with", explains Eshel, "one was how do we do it from a professional perspective and second, which national and sentimental elements do we want to emphasize? Over where do we want to pass? From which direction? How do we produce the best pictures? What text accompanies the event? And of course, who will fly there?"


Each of the six pilots and navigators that took part in the mission had a personal connection to the Holocaust.


I remember

 

"My father lost two brothers and a sister in the Holocaust", says Col. ((Res.)) Shimshon Rozen, "but the strongest connection is actually from my father-in-law, who was a teenager during the Second World War and is the only person who survived from his entire family. He kept quiet for many years and spoke about it only for the first time in 1994 when we traveled together with a group of survivors and their children on a journey to return to the path that they went through from their home to the ghetto and to the extermination camp. I think about the mere exposure to his birthplace, the elementary school that he studied at, and the table he sat at when he was a student. He didn't tell us everything and some of the things were exposed only after his death by stories from his friends. Some of them didn't want to remember it because the terrible trauma that was left behind and some others feel guilty to a certain extent that they survived and others did not. I remembered all the time that the Jews were humiliated and brought down by the Germans to a level of sub-human and the fact that I succeeded in returning there as a representative of the State of Israel, with our strongest planes, to come and fly the path that they did in trains, symbolized so much for me".


Col. (Res.) Avi Maor, a large part of whose family was destroyed in Poland, went through a different process in dealing with the subject.

"For a long time they tried to convince me to travel to visit my roots in Poland", he said, "I refused to answer, I didn't have anything to look for there, I'd claim my roots are here. I remember, as a kid, that when my parents spoke Yiddish I would raise my voice and yell. I always saw it like a generation of the wilderness that needed to distinguish between the generation of slavery and the generation of freedom, so were the Jews in the Diaspora and Jews in Israel".

When he heard about the developing idea, he decided without hesitation to volunteer. "It gave me the ultimate connection", he said, "I'm not going there to find my roots, not as a guest and not as a visitor, but as an Israeli with a message that represents the State of Israel".

 

One picture, one chance


The preparations for the trip were mostly around the question of getting the best photograph. "The presence there was important", said Col. (Res.) Shimshon Rozen, "but it was also important that we would return from there with some memorial, that is - pictures. Unlike photography on the ground, that you can ask the subject to move right and left and take some trial pictures, in a case like this you have one shot only - or you got it or you didn't.

To this end, we did several advance flights in Israel to train the pilots and navigators in maneuvering the planes with a similar sized object on the ground as the gates to Auschwitz in order to examine different camera angles. We were even assisted by satellite photos. In addition, they also practiced landing with a quick stop in the direction, as the airport in Poland has a small landing strip.

The planes themselves were painted with significantly larger symbols of the State of Israel and the squadrons so that the attendees of the ceremony on the ground could see them".

Everything was ready, except for one thing that is doubtful whether it can be prepared for.

"It was important for me to plan also on a personal level and mentally", recalls Avi Maor, "what was said was for my family's history, or what remains left of it. For the parents it would never be natural to talk about this and I guess that they put some kind of curtain over that period. Even after the war ended, in Russia they would not return to Poland to restore their family or something like this, but just to see everything was destroyed and to continue from there to Israel".

Maor packed his father's Tallit (prayer shawl), one of the only existing today from that period, and on the autumn morning in September three Baz (F-15) planes of the "Knights of the Orange Tail" and "Spearhead" squadrons took off for the first time over the skies of Poland.

 

The Mission

 

The flyover was held as a continuation of the exhibition in the ‘Radom Air Show' that marked the celebrations of the 85th birthday of the Polish Air Force, where the IAF won great attention and much appreciation.

There was a great deal of symbolism in the vicissitudes of fate over time. The people who were at the lowest and weakest point at this place, returned after 60 years to the same place, but this time the European powers took notice of the impressive capabilities of the IAF.

"With the days we were joined by more and more ‘witnesses in uniform,'" explains Col. (Res.) Maor about the interesting combination of the IDF delegation, "we went and gathered at the site of places that strengthen more and more the personal connection to explain what filled us emotionally all week for the flight itself".

The highlight of the trip was the ceremony held near the crematorium at Auschwitz, the heart of the Nazi extermination camp.

"You stand here in the most appalling place in the world", said the then Israeli Ambassador to Poland, Shevach Weiss, "and over this terrible place ruled by the night government, will pass the grandchildren and salute their grandfathers and grandmothers".

The mission of the pilots and navigators became much harder when they woke up the morning of the flight to especially difficult weather conditions, that came without warning after three days of blue, cloudless skies. In the briefing before the flight held inside the Hercules plane, the pilots explained that the many blankets they had to wrap around themselves would not be useful in the bitter cold.

"The plan was that we would fly over ten seconds after they placed the wreath", said Brig. Gen. Eshel about the professional difficulty, "but the minutes before would be spent passing through clouds".

It is important to note that flying in clouds requires ‘breaking' the fear of crashing.

"On the ground was a man who was supposed to give us the two minutes warning", says Col. (Res.) Shimshon Rozen, "while flying in clouds a few kilometers away we got the message on the radio - two minutes to move. Since the weather conditions were so difficult, we did the best we could in order to align properly. Apparently we received our blessings that day because there was a large enough space between the clouds and the ground so that we could identify the place and return to formation".


"I arrived two days before to the Treblinka camp", remembers Maor, "there my family was wiped out and I was full of a tough feeling in speaking about my family. It's grandma and grandpa, it's cousins. It dwarfs everything else and your little needs at that very moment and therefore I had no doubt that we would complete the mission, however difficult. It was a hair's thread", concludes the formation leader Amir Eshel.


"We, the pilots of the IAF"

 

The two last crews in the formation were busy keeping a space of a few meters between them and the leader and their departure from the clouds showed them that they were in the right place only when they heard the ceremony and the voice of Brig. Gen. Eshel.

"We, the pilots of the IAF, flying in the skies above this camp of horrors, arose from the ashes of the millions of victims, and shoulder their muted cries, salute their courage and promise to be the shield of the Jewish people and its land - Israel".


Despite the complexity of the mission, the pilots reconstructed what was going through their heads as they passed over the cursed ground.

"From the cockpit, it was an image of hell", writes Amir Eshel in his memoir of the journey, "but from the cockpit was the power of the Jewish ready to stand up to any test".

Shimshon Rozen explains however that in his head stood an image of his father in law standing and satisfied next to the crematorium on a tour a few years earlier. "I also remembered the words from the song written by my son throughout his journey in Poland", he added, "but beyond that, the thought in my head was that planes like ours with a little bit of ammunition could have stopped the destruction. It's enough for one bomb to destroy the crematorium".


"Something sits on you that you can't miss", remembers Avi Maor, "it's not that all of the squadron sits behind you and not all of your family, but behind the plane is sitting the baggage of six million that pushes you forward and you simply have to get there".

Captain S., the youngest of the participants, concludes in one sentence: "it's proof that we've succeeded".


Together with Amir and Navigator S., in the cockpit were the names of 21 Jews who were found dead on September 4, 1943, exactly sixty years earlier. Jews from France, Algeria, Turkey, Greece, and Poland whose right to live was stolen from them, whose names and memories can be comforted that they were returned over Auschwitz wrapped in the strength of the independent State of Israel stronger than ever. On the ground the song HaTikva (Israel's national anthem) strengthened and united with the voices of the planes and the hundreds of teary eyes looking upwards. Three crews in the planes traveled far to close a circle. We closed it.


"Reason to Live"


After the flyover, the crews, with a heavy heart, turned to return home. Each was absorbed in his own thoughts in a quiet that was unlike any cockpit.

"All of the weight fell on us in one moment", describes Avi Maor, "we realized that we did here something with historic, national, familial, and personal meaning different from any other thing we knew".

The flyover made the headlines in Jewish communities around the world, as one could see it in the press and online, but some pilots received personal responses illustrating the ‘closing of the circle' that many people felt. Col. (Res.) Shimshon Rozen. Members of the Friends of the Lodz Ghetto Survivor's Association of his father-in-law, wept with emotion.

Gen. Ido Nehushtan, then commander of the delegation on the ground, said that as the planes passed over the gate, one of the survivors put his hands up in the air, and after the ceremony came up to him and said that 'today he was born again'.

"When I got to Israel", adds Brig. Gen. Eshel, "there were two messages on my cell phone from people who were at the ceremony, they left messages of them crying: "You flew over us just a few minutes ago...I'm speechless".


However, the most emotional response came from a survivor, Yitzhak Cohen, who joined the delegation to Poland. "We met on the day I traveled to Treblinka", remembers Maor, "and he told me his personal story. When I returned back to Israel, the first thing I did was calling someone in the delegation and asked to speak to him. He told me a sentence that stays with me today: you gave me the power and the reason to live".


"Once in a life time"

 

Today, Col. (Res.) Shimshon Rozen has stopped flying in operations. As someone who accumulated 30 years of operational flights among the highest level of the IAF, even he says that this flight was something different. "It felt like a once in a life time", he said, "it was from my perspective an amazing final note to my 30 years in the IAF".


Avi Maor speaks about a painful point. "Of course in Israel there wasn't appropriate coverage of the event. To the people who survived it might have given them some sort of light and it's a shame that not every survivor of the concentration and extermination camps in the world did not get to see it. Two days after the operation, the evening news in Israel asked me to come and talk about the event and just then a scandal appeared in the news and interest in the story was pushed away. The thought frightens me that in a few years, we'll discuss this issue like it happened thousands of years ago, it's natural but its bad".


Brig. Gen. Amir Eshel, looking at the picture hanging on the wall of his office, where you can see the Israeli Baz (F-15) planes over the Auschwitz death camp.

"This picture", he said with a sense of honor, "summarizes what this nation went through in 60 years. From something terrible and absolute zero to such a power, ability, and resilience. It really shows what our people are capable of going through".

 

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