I am alive because of Vladimir Jabotinsky. True, I was born nearly two decades after the Revisionist Zionist leader's death, but that is a mere technicality, a wrinkle in time.
The facts are not in dispute: Jabotinsky inspired my beloved uncle, Zvi Lichtenberg, who became a leader of Betar (the Revisionist youth movement) in Warsaw and left Poland for Palestine. When the War began, Zvi obtained a
Palestine student visa for my father, thereby enabling him to flee Warsaw one stop ahead of the invading Germans and make his way to Palestine.
I first became aware of this story over a quarter century ago when I brought my then new wife to meet my Israel family. My uncle greeted us by asking in Hebrew, "Do you know how your father was saved from the Holocaust?" Small talk was not his generation's strong suit.
These memories came rolling back as I recently read Hillel Halkin's remarkable new biography, “Jabotinsky: A Life”(Yale University Press), which deftly traces and provides new insight into Jabotinsky's journey from Odessa
childhood to Italian University dandy to renowned journalist to Zionist icon. Reading Halkin's book confirms Jabotinsky’s place as the 20th century’s most prescient Jewish political thinker.
My uncle made aliyah in 1935 and was promptly wounded in the 1936 Arab revolt. My grandparents were erroneously told that Zvi had died of his wounds.His successor as leader of Betar Warsaw, Eliyahu Meridor (father of former Likud minister Dan Meridor), organized a memorial service for Zvi, who was hailed as a martyr for the Revisionist Zionist cause. About a month after the eulogies, Zvi returned to Warsaw to convalesce. Family lore has it that Meridor never forgave Zvi for embarrassing him by returning alive.
Zvi's parents urged him to remain. But Zvi heard Jabotinsky's clarion call for "evacuation" and was convinced Polish Jewry was doomed. He returned to Palestine and became an Irgun fighter. My grandparents too heard Jabotinsky speak on Warsaw's Nowolipie Street. They returned home visibly shaken but remained. Halkin writes that in a Warsaw speech two months before the German invasion, Jabotinsky criticized his audience for "behaving as if their doom had already been sealed." But where could my grandparents go? Where would they leave their elderly mothers?
So today, Israel Independence Day, this Zionist left-winger acknowledges his family's debt to the father of right-wing Zionism.
Today, I celebrate the birthday of the country I continually return to and love, even as I mourn the grandparents I never knew.
Barry Lichtenberg practices law in Manhattan.