A few years ago, From Rebirth to the Skies was created to commemorate 138 Holocaust Survivors who became pilots and formed the pillars of the Israeli Air Force. A representative from this organzization, Shaya Harsit, came to share his story with the students of Cohort V.
His story begins in the 18th Century. Shaya’s family was Italian, but moved to Poland in the 1790’s because King Stanisław August Poniatowski allowed Jews to own land. In 1934, Shaya was born in Poland to wealthy, traditional Jewish family. In 1938 Shaya’s father had a foreboding sense about the horrors that would befall Jews in Poland, so he fled to Russia with Shaya’s brothers. A year later, the Germans invaded Poland. On September 29, 1939 the Germans bombed Warsaw. For the first time, at the age of five years, Shaya saw a dead man; many dead men and dead horses crowded the streets of Warsaw. Soon after, his father sent a professional smuggler to rescue the rest of the Harsit family. The smuggler told them to gather what they could, in 24 hours they would leave for Russia. Shaya said he remembers the house being swarmed with tailors and shoemakers to hide valuables in their clothing and shoes. He never saw this as serious but a game, as any five year old would. His brother had studied medicine in Genoa, and in Russia he mobilized in the Russian Army as a Doctor, along with his wife, a nurse.
About a year later, in March, the KGB knocked on their door, very early in the morning. They told the whole family to take only what they could carry, a cattle car would be leaving shortly to take them to a camp for political prisoners. He never saw his brother and sister again, who stayed in the Russian Army.
There was nothing in the train car but a bucket for a toilet. They were in the train for days, occasionally the soldiers would throw in bread, “really a brick,” and some soup. “Something I never want my friends to experience is lice, hunger and cold.” His mother could not make herself use the bucket as a toilet, so once when the train stopped she ran outside to urinate there, but with more privacy. The train left her, but Shaya’s brother and his friends jumped out of the train car to save her. They picked her up and threw her in the train before they jumped in.
They arrived at the camp and there were small huts with no heat. Two to three families were supposed to live in these huts. At the camp, Shaya went to a kindergarten. At the school they practiced indoctrination, teaching the children that their new father was Stalin and their mother was Russia. The lived at this camp for more than one year. His father employed himself as a “fixer” and his mother worked in the kitchen. She would hide food in her clothing when she came home, and this is how they survived.
On the twenty-second of January, 1941 Operation Barbarossa started, the nazi invasion of Soviet Russia. Two to three days after the invasion the Harsit family woke up to no guards, no guns, and the gates to the camp were open. They walked through wilderness, when they came to railroad tracks they followed them. Different families jumped on different trains. First, they went first to Uzbekistan, then to Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan they lived in a small town that was a crossroads for many different railways. He was then seven years old, and weighed only ten kilos because he had nothing to eat. He was hungry all the time.
His father decided to take him to an orphanage, what he called a “children’s home” because he felt that he and his wife could not care for him as they should. At the orphanage his father left quickly, so they Shaya would not see him cry. The orphanage was not welcoming, on the first day Shaya decided he would run away. He started to hoard food and rags for his journey home. He left in the night two to three weeks later. He was only seven and half years old. Without any shoes, he traveled the twenty or more kilometers back to his parents. He remembered that there was a river on their left coming to the orphanage so he kept the river on his right on the way back. Then he saw the towers for the crossroads of the railroads, and he knew that they would lead him home. He fell asleep several times, sometimes he had to crawl on his knees, but he kept going through the night. When he arrived at home his mother looked to her husband and said “you never take my son from me again”
His father and brother obtained jobs putting tar on roofs. But the family was still hungry. At the time in Soviet Russia, food spoiled a hundred kilometers from where you were, but you were still hungry. From the roofing job, his father spotted a chicken coop, and took eggs from there periodically. These eggs saved the family’s lives.
One of his father’s friends was the person in charge of distributing food from the United States to the surrounding area. One day she was very upset because she was just told that in a few weeks there would be an inspection of her office. She knew she would fail this inspection because people had been stealing from her. His father had been an accountant before the war, and he worked on the books for her, which saved her life. As a result, she gave him extra food and vodka every week afterward. Shaya said, “This is very important. The vodka was very important.”
In 1943, the Harsit family found out that Shaya’s brother and sister-in-law had died. The nazis bombed the hospital they had been working in. This changed the family forever. After the war, the family made their way back to Poland. The car they took was absolutely filled with vodka. All over there were obstacles but the vodka solved them. He bribed the officials at different checkpoints and over borders. When they arrived in different towns, people said “Who said all the Jews were burned and gassed? This can’t be true. Here they are.”
When they arrived in Warsaw they decided to immigrate to Palestine. The Joint and Mossad LaAlyiah Bet helped them with these goals. First, they were smuggled to Munich. There they lived in a settlement for SS men and their families. “They we had luxury, even more than luxury, but there were a lot of Naxis,” Shaya said. His father started police organization for the community and ensured his family’s safety. Then one day he said “it’s coming, we are moving to Palestine.” They had heard of a ship for the elderly and children going to Palestine. They thought that the British would not stop them on this ship. Jewish American Soldiers helped them get to the port in the South of France. There they boarded a huge black ship made out of wood, called “Exodus.” The ship came to Haifa, but it was turned around and taken to Cyprus, then back to the shores of France. The French would not accept them either. They went to Gibraltar and finally disembarked in Hamburg. Altogether, they were on the ship for two to three months.
In Hamburg, they were taken to camps. These camps were not concentration camps, they had no gas chambers or crematoriums, but they had dogs, fences, towers, guards. A camp for displaced peoples. Shaya had his Bar Mitzvah in this camp. Then just like the camp in Russia they woke up one morning without guard or dogs. The Jewish British Brigade brought his family, again, to the south of France, and they made their way to Palestine. At first they lived on Mt. Carmel and in tents, among orange orchards; he ate his fill everyday.
After the War of Independence and then they bought a house in Jaffa. For the first time Shaya went to a real school, a Jewish high school. He started school in the seventh grade, and had to compete with sabras, who had been in school all their lives. After school, he volunteered as a paratrooper. Subsequently he was invited to take exams for flight school. He did well in the exams and became an airman. He was in the Israeli Air Force for 24 years, and fought in the wars of ‘56, ‘67, ‘73 and ‘82. He became the Head of Planning and Organization of the Israeli Air Force. Upon retirement he had 4,200 flight hours.
When asked about his parents and how they handled this trauma he replied “They danced, they enjoyed life. But when you looked in their eyes you never saw a smile in their eyes.”
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Here you can find more stories about the other 137 pilots.
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