|As the siren sounds on Holocaust Memorial Day, Ari Rath reflects on how Israel was founded
On March 11, 1938, German troops crossed the border into Austria. The following day, Adolf Hitler announced the beginning of the Anschluss, or Union, between the two countries – and Austria was swallowed up by the Third Reich.
Ari Rath, an Austrian Jew, was 13 years old at the time. Until then, he had lived a privileged life in Vienna – but that was about to change forever.
|Ari lived a good life in Vienna but that changed
the night German troops crossed the border
“There’s no question that Hitler made me a Zionist. As a young boy, I never thought of coming to Palestine or anywhere else for that matter,” he says.
“But when I came down the night after the Anschluss and I saw the entire Vienna police force already wearing Swastika armbands, I knew then that the life here in Vienna was over for me.”
Eight months later, Rath boarded a ship carrying Jewish refugees searching for a new life in what was then British-mandated Palestine.
He had left behind his parents and most of his family and was heading towards an uncertain future.
Gripped by conflict
He recalls: “When we came off the boat and onto this pier, it was a mixture first of elation, then sadness. The new reality hit us. My childhood was over, I was on my own and I had to make my own way in a new, strange land.”
But the young Rath did not realise that Palestine was gripped by conflict – an ongoing struggle between the Arabs who had lived there for generations and the Jewish immigrants who wanted to establish a homeland.
At first, Rath was sent to work the land, clearing fields – which the Jews had bought from local Arab landowners – of stones and rock. It was back-breaking work – and sometimes the pioneers came into conflict with their Arab neighbours over that most precious resource – water.
The UN eventually addressed the conflicting claims over the land and drew up a plan to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state.
On May 14, 1948 the British mandate in Palestine ended. A few hours earlier, David Ben Gurion, a Zionist leader who eventually became the new state’s first prime minister, proclaimed the new independent state of Israel.
|Ari says the Israel of today is a disappointment
to the founding generation
“Ben Gurion told me that declaring the state was the most difficult decision of his life,” Rath says.
“Heavy American pressure to postpone that, a split cabinet, the army warning that they might not be able to withstand five invading Arab armies – yet still he went ahead.”
The warnings proved right. The Arab countries refused to accept the new Jewish state in their midst and war broke out. By the time the fighting ended, Israel had captured more territory – and hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Arabs had been driven from their homes. Palestinians call it ‘al-Nakba’ – the catastrophe.
But Rath says: “It was a self-inflicted Nakba, unfortunately. Because had the Arab side, had the Palestinians then accepted the partition plan, they would have had a state that was almost double the size of what the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza [are]today.”
Since its first victory in 1948, Israel has fought more wars with its Arab neighbours – and captured more land. It has built illegal settlements – and a wall that slices through Palestinian land.
|IN VIDEO: How the State of Israel came to be
For Rath, it is a legacy tinged with shame.
“Israel today is very disappointing to the founding generation. And as long as we Israelis will not be prepared to go back more or less to the borders of ’67, or the so-called Armistice Lines, we cannot have any peace.”
As the siren sounds on Holocaust Memorial Day, Rath reflects on a journey that has lasted 70 years and on all the other young Jews in Vienna who did not make it.