European Jews who were able to miraculously survive the barbarity of the Holocaust later immigrated to Israel. Unfortunately, many of these survivors’ families were not so lucky. Parents, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were all lost, leaving behind a single family member: the last descendant.
The Last Descendants are those who came alone to Israel – the only place where they could live their lives without fear – because the rest of their family perished in the Holocaust. Later, these individuals lost their lives defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people, leaving behind no family and effectively ending their family legacy.
The following is the story of two “last descendants” who fought together in Israel’s War of Independence, and died together in the same battle.
An Auschwitz Survivor
Mordechai David Gantz was born in March 1928 in a Maramure Jewish community in Romania. The community of 40,000 was composed of mostly Orthodox Jews and many well known rabbis, scholars, and writers.
During the buildup to World War II, anti-Jewish laws and sentiment led to social and economic discrimination of the Romanian Jewish community. When the “Final Solution” was implemented, Jews were gathered into synagogues, their valuables were collected, and they were forced to wear a Star of David on their clothing and live in ghettos.
Along with various others, Mordechai’s entire family was deported in May 1944 to Auschwitz. By the end of the war he was the lone survivor of his family. In June 1947, Mordechai immigrated to Israel with a Youth Aliyah program. He was educated in a religious village and established a life near Kfar Hasidim.
A Resistance Fighter
Born in 1925 near the city of Radom, Poland, Shalom Tepper grew up in a Jewish community where he was active in the movement “Torah and Work.” Shalom was one of more than three million Jews that lived in Poland before World War II. In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Jewish life changed drastically. The Białobrzegi Ghetto was established in 1939 to separate the Jewish community and by October 1942 all of its residents were systematically sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.
During the outbreak of the war, Shalom’s father died of natural causes. The rest of his family was killed in concentration camps. Shalom himself was deported to Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps but remarkably survived. He managed to escape from the forced labor and joined the Partisans in the Polish forest. Shalom fought actively against the Nazis until the end of the war.
After the liberation, Shalom joined a Youth Aliyah organization and immigrated to Israel in 1946. He eventually moved to Petach Tikva and made a living working with his hands.
The War of Independence
At the outbreak of the War of Independence, Mordechai and Shalom both joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the IDF (Zahal). They served together in Battalion 33 of the “Alexander” Brigade, which took on an important operational role in the center of the country in stopping the encroaching Jordanian and Iraqi armies.
The brigade also had an instrumental role in repelling the invading Egyptian Army. With the objective of trapping the Egyptians in the Gaza Strip, the Hagana encircled the Egyptian Army and created the “Fallujah Pocket” around the town of al-Fallujah. The goal was to surround al-Fallujah with thousands of troops in order to force the Egyptians to sign an armistice agreement.
During the operation, the Alexander Brigade captured a southern part of the village but the forces in the northern sector were repelled. Little by little the Egyptians recovered ground and eventually forced the Hagana troops to withdraw. Unfortunately during the fighting, 90 soldiers were killed, including Mordechai and Shalom.
The Last Descendents
Mordechai and Shalom were just two of the many “last descendents” who fell in the War of Independence. Their contribution is commemorated at the Memorial for the Last of Kin at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Overall, these survivors and soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for Israeli independence but sadly they have no family to carry on their legacy.