November 20, 2023 - 6:00 am
No sense is as evocative as the sense of smell. It is powerful enough to summon memories whose sights and sounds were long forgotten.
What I smelled in Kibbutz Nir Oz went further back — far, far further, to a collective memory that we Jews desperately prefer not to revisit.
The acrid, choking pungency of torched furnishings. The sickly-sweet reek of rotting flesh. The searing, iron-filing stench of bloodshed.
Nir Oz was among the Israeli border communities overrun by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7 in what was the worst massacre of Jews since the Holocaust — and also, per capita, the worst terrorist attack in world history.
The marauders’ methods were modern enough: motorbikes and pickup trucks with mounted machine guns; Kalashnikovs and thermobaric grenades; information on where to find their victims, gleaned online. But their motivation was ancient, fueled by twisted religion and misdirected resentments: to murder Jews, and to go well beyond murder, with rape, torture and immolation designed to eradicate the victims’ bodies along with their souls.
Like too many of my fellow Israelis and Americans, I had thought this could not happen nowadays. So it was with a heavy heart, wearing a flak jacket against the threat of Palestinian rocket fire, that I came to pay respect at Nir Oz, almost half of whose residents were killed or kidnapped on that awful holiday weekend.
And as I paced through the burned husk of someone else’s home, I suddenly felt myself communing with my own family members who perished similarly in the past. There were the grandparents, uncles, aunts and cousins I never knew, murdered by the Nazis in eastern Poland, their remains lost forever. Before them were untold ancestors who disappeared into the maw of pogroms over the centuries.
Israel had broken faith with all of them, by not providing Jews with the promised haven from such horrors. So had the international community, by paying lip service to the idea of “Never Again” while indulging or ignoring the feverish hatred of the sole Jewish state among its neighbors.
And I, too, had broken that faith.
Like so many contemporary Jews, I took our safety for granted. I may have even poked fun at the Jewish tradition which I so cherish, with its fixation on genocides averted in our annals, from Passover to Purim. The old joke is that Jewish holidays can be summarized with: “They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.”
But that joke is over, gone along with the 1,200 innocents who died Oct. 7 and all those killed in Israel’s military counter-offensive in the Gaza Strip.
Our sages were right when they warned, a millennium ago, that in each and every generation there are those who will strive to wipe out the Jews. Perhaps they were also right when they counseled that God would protect His people. But still, His people have to look out for themselves.
Israel will recover from this unprecedented violation, and rally. That will entail remaking Israeli borders and relations with friends and foes alike. We will expect and demand full support from our Western partners. And anyone who fails us, we will not forget.
For we Jews are dust no more. Unlike my family in Poland, the victims of Nir Oz and the other ravaged communities were lovingly collected and buried with dignity, even if it took weeks to locate and identify their shattered remains. And unlike my family in Poland, their murderers are being brought to justice in short order.
But still: When I returned from that traumatizing tour, I decided not to clean my shoes. They will forever keep the ash and soot they gathered in Nir Oz. “Never Forget” begins anew, right now.
Dr. Miriam Adelson and her family own the Las Vegas Review-Journal.