In November Holocaust survivor and former member of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) Shaya Harsit came to share his incredible story with our students. Mr. Harsit is the managing director of the From Survival to the Skies organization and author of A New Sky and a New Land. During the 1956 Suez Crisis 144 pilots in the IAF were Holocaust survivors, although this was not known at the time. Forty-four of the pilots are still alive. Once members of the IAF, including Harsit, realized that a significant number of Holocaust survivors served in the IAF they established the From Survival to the Skies organization to collect their testimonies and honor their service.
Harsit primarily spoke to our students about his story of survival during the Holocaust. He was born to a wealthy family in Warsaw and he had older half siblings from both of his parents’ first marriages. Upon the German invasion, when Shaya was five years old, his father fled because he was involved in political and religious organizations that made him a likely target of the Nazis. A few days later Shaya and his mother left Warsaw to join his father in the east in Soviet territory. Soviet forces arrested the family accusing them of being hostile to the USSR because they had Polish citizenship. Shaya was interned in a camp with his parents. Life in the camp was difficult and there wasn’t enough food.
After the Nazi invasion of the USSR on the 22 June, 1941 Shaya and his family awoke to find the Soviet guards had abandoned the camp and they were free to leave. Shaya’s family travelled to Uzbekistan and then to Kazakhstan. Despite both parents being employed the family suffered from hunger. Shaya’s father thought he would be better off in an orphanage and so he took Shaya to one despite his mother’s objections. Shaya escaped from the orphanage that first evening and he walked all night on his own to return to his mother who fainted when he knocked on the door and vowed never to be separated from him again. Interestingly enough, if Shaya had stayed at the orphanage he would have been taken to Palestine as one of the children of Teheran.
After the war ended Shaya’s family returned to Warsaw and were then in a displaced persons camp in Germany. In the DP Camp Shaya remembers meeting General Eisenhower and reciting a poem for him. Shaya’s father had always wanted to move to Palestine and the family boarded the Exodus to travel there. The ship and its passengers were arrested by the British upon arrival in Haifa and were not allowed to disembark. Instead the ship was sent back to Germany. Only after the creation of the state of Israel were Shaya and his family able to make aliyah. Shaya recalled that no one wanted to hear the stories of survival during the Holocaust and he himself wanted to become a true Israeli and leave all of the past behind. Shaya initially wanted to be a paratrooper but he became a pilot instead and served in the Israeli Air force until 1982.
Shaya Harsit’s story fascinated our students. It was uplifting to hear about a family who was able to stay together and survive despite all the odds. It was equally incredible to hear how Shaya Harsit forged an Israeli identity through his dedicated service in the IAF.
Interested in applying for our MA in Holocaust Studies Program? You can find the application and more information at our website: http://holocaust-studies.haifa.ac.il/