This is a post from guest blogger, Maj. Peter Lerner, who currently serves as the IDF (Zahal) spokesman for the Central Command.
People that choose to join the military in times of crisis deserve a special notation. Today, “Witnesses in Uniform” showed its respect for those that died while in the armed service. For some reason, unexplained to us we were told to be out of uniform today, all in civilian attire.
We arrived at The Krakow Rakowicki Cemetery. While walking from the buss I noticed that we were walking through a Catholic cemetery, and things didn’t really add up. We were walking through an immaculate cemetery, impressive, flowers and beautiful headstones.
We reached a small gate and entered. Beyond the gate I recognized the layout of another cemetery, in Jerusalem Israel. It was a Commonwealth war grave. Here there are 499 identified fallen soldiers. I know what your thinking, why did they take you, “Witnesses in Uniform” to a Commonwealth war grave? The answer was apparent immediately. Out of the 499 buried here, there are 13 soldiers from mandatory Palestine and that served in the British Army the thirteen served and died during the War fighting the Nazi machine. It was apparent because on the headstones of the Jewish troops there is carved a Star of David. Side by side with the Christian soldiers the Jewish sappers and pioneers were laid to rest. What is interesting is that they are recognized both by the United Kingdom and Israel as fallen soldiers. It was therefore fit that we pay our respects to those that traveled from then Palestine to Europe, usually out of the individual drive to fight the Nazis that were annihilating Jews. At the time Jews from Palestine were not permitted to join combat units but those that joined the army wanted to do their bit against the mutual enemy. In this Polish cemetery thousands of miles from Israel lay 13 Jews that paid the ultimate price. In their honor we placed a small flag of Israel with its blue Star of David and two blue stripes. This is the flag that we salute everyday and they fought for without knowing the outcome of their actions. This to me is pure chivalry.
To our mission we have the honor of seven family members of IDF (Zahal) soldiers that have fallen during their military service. Personally I think this is a noble act that the military does to continue the blood connection that was created on the day their fathers, sons, brothers and sisters joined the army and died during the military service. It was therefore so appropriate to hold a memorial ceremony for the fallen soldiers both from the IDF (Zahal) and those Jews that served the British army.
Each family member lit a candle on memory of their loved one and received a red rose.
Brigadier General Avishai Levi, Commander of the 149th “Witnesses in Uniform” mission concluded that, “the deep loss, and the honor that has been bestowed on me to be here with you, I can only try and understand the extent of this loss of the fathers, husbands, sons and daughters that you so loved and that fell as soldiers of the IDF (Zahal). Know that they served a strong army in a democratic state, but this has no personal condolence to you all. We are a state with a desire to live and our hand is forever stretched in and search for peace but endlessly ready to defend itself. This reality of our life has a heavy price, and thanks to the sons and daughters that chose, like the thirteen heroes that are buried here in Rakowicki, to volunteer and not to stand on the side lines, unconditionally stand up for the liberty and independence of the people and State of Israel. We participants of Witnesses in Uniform 149th mission salute you, love you and embrace you.”
We left the burial grounds and I had an uplifting feeling. This chronology of the continual line between those that died wearing British uniforms on one hand, and those that wore the Israel Defense Forces emblems on the other added to the reasoning of why it is so necessary to visit Poland. We must forever embrace those that pay the ultimate sacrifice, they are entitled to the respect and they must know that Israel will forever be in their debt. When I thought about it later it was appropriate do carry out this ceremony in civilian uniform, after all we are first and foremost civilians.
Peter – Krakow 6th April, 2011