Between Gaza and the Gas Chambers

Between Gaza and the Gas Chambers

Remember a fallen soldier by helping the next generation of Israeli leaders.

Yaakov Selavan carries the Torah to lead an IDF delegation into Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Yaakov Selavan carries the Torah to lead an IDF delegation into Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Growing up as the grandson of a Holocaust survivor gives you a strong historical orientation. Since my early teenage years, I was eager to go to Poland and observe with my own eyes what the Nazis did to my family and to millions of other Jews.

Four years ago, it finally happened when I was an officer in the Israel Defense Forces. For a month I thought about the trip and the way we memorialize the Holocaust. My survivor grandfather, Ben Hirsch, helped me develop the right attitude to go.

As we landed in Poland, I immediately recognized that I was unenthusiastic about this journey, and I realized why.

In my eyes, the Israeli education system and the IDF fail to build a strong and proud Jewish identity among teenagers. That failure affects their motivation to be soldiers and to be motivated IDF soldiers.

The medicine for treating this failure is taken as Poland and the Holocaust. I’ve heard many nonreligious Israelis say that only in Poland do they feel Jewish. Dozens of soldiers under my command pointed at their high school visit to Poland as the key reason for drafting to combat service.

If Poland is the cure to this failure, I don’t want to be part of it. One thing kept me going along the journey: the understanding that, as a proud captain in the army of the Jewish state, I would step into the death camp where my family was slain.

It was the day before the highlight of our IDF mission to Poland: entering Auschwitz-Birkenau, the biggest and most terrifying death camp.

I approached the officer in charge and requested to lead the march into the camp with the Sefer Torah. I explained the importance of this, being that my grandfather, who survived the Holocaust, lost his parents and two siblings in this camp. “I understand,” he said, “but there is just one problem: Someone is already assigned to the mission. I will check with him what can be done.”

So the night before the Auschwitz visit, Capt. Tzvika Kaplan gave up on his dream and allowed me to give the biggest tribute I could to my slain family members.

Would have I acted the same? Few would. Tzvika was one of those special few.

In a pitched battle three summers ago, Tzvika entered Gaza to fight terrorists on their turf and left behind a young widow and two children.

In my own first night in that Gaza battle, I faced a challenge I’ve never had, even under fire: I was scared to death. My fear was holding me from fulfilling my mission.

Tzvika was there for me, yet again. Instead of thinking of how he died, which is partly what frightened me, I focused on how he lived. This brave, courageous, dedicated person viewed himself as a servant and lived that way — a servant to the people, nation and land of Israel.

I came out from Protective Edge with two friends fewer than I entered. After the first wave of pain, I realized that Yom HaZikaron must be used to remember how the fallen soldiers lived. To look back and then right away to step forward.

As we stand between Yom HaShoah and Yom HaZikaron while I write this, I cannot stop thinking of Tzvika and what I owe to him. Together with his amazing family and a group of friends, we decided to move forward and to build instead of mourning. We call it “Force Tzvika.”

Several projects have already successfully affected youth, and now we are ramping up to a national scale: building an educational center reflecting Tzvika’s vision in his beloved home region of the Bet Shean Valley and the Springs of Mount Gilboa.

This project creates a connection between the importance of educating the young generation, the soldiers and leaders of the future, and the need to move forward and not sink into the darkness of loss and mourning. This is giving his mother, father and family new strength as well.

I’ve vowed to do anything I can to continue spreading the light of his legacy. Please join us in commemorating Tzvika, a true hero of Israel, at (Res.) Yaakov Selavan was recently discharged as an armored corps combat commander in the Israel Defense Forces. An experienced lecturer in Israel and abroad, he is an official IDF motivational speaker for soldiers and draftees and is a 2002 alumnus of Torah Day School of Atlanta.

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