Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Menachem Begin and Mordechai Ronen

'I soon realized I had made the right decision'
An Auschwitz survivor recalls his turbulent welcome on the shores of the fledgling state, Matthew Fisher writes from Tel Aviv.

The Ottawa Citizen , May 03, 2008

Having endured the Nazi death camps, Mordechai Ronen arrived in Israel when the country was a few weeks old and fighting for its life. The diminutive Holocaust survivor is back with six family members to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary on Thursday. It promises to be a much happier occasion than when, in 1948, he washed up in the Land of Israel, clad only his underwear.

Mr. Ronen, who had been known to the German SS as Moritz Markovich, was barely 16 when he sailed from Europe to Tel Aviv aboard the Altalena with former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and other members of the Irgun paramilitary. But in a story that was to become an immensely controversial part of Israel's history, the freighter, which was carrying weapons, was shelled and sunk by the newly formed Israel Defense Forces, whose troops were loyal to Begin's archrival, David Ben-Gurion.

When Mr. Ronen, now a 75-year-old Torontonian, and his brother, Shalom, swam ashore -- near where he and his family are staying at a posh beach hotel for this week's celebrations -- they were immediately taken prisoner.

"Having survived Auschwitz-Birkenau, I couldn't believe it," Mr. Ronen, who took that as his Hebrew name in 1954, vividly recalled. "Incredibly, my brother recognized one of the guys with the guns was from the town in Hungary where we had been raised. The guy looked at us, said, 'What are we doing?' and dropped his gun in disgust."

A short time later, Mr. Ronen and Shalom were freed and ordered by Menachem Begin to join the IDF, which quickly sent them to the Golan Heights to fight in the first Arab-Israeli War, which Israelis often call the War of Independence.

When the IDF discovered Mr. Ronen's age, he was kicked out of the army for being too young. As his parents, his two sisters and hundreds of other relatives had died in the camps, he was sent to live in a dormitory for youths without families south of Tel Aviv.

"I soon realized that I had made the right decision by coming to Israel," Mr. Ronen said. "I was not a Zionist, but I knew about Eretz Israel, of course, and ... my father always told me that we were going to meet one day in Jerusalem."

Two years after leaving the IDF, Mr. Ronen rejoined the army to train recruits. He subsequently joined the Golani Brigade and served in the anti-tank artillery for 16 years.

The still-dapper septuagenarian found time to fall in love with Ilana, a Jew from Poland whose family had escaped to Soviet Uzbekistan during the war. They met during the 1956 Arab-Israeli War when the school where she taught visited his unit.

"I was wearing two pistols at my side," he said blushing at the memory. "Ilana told me her name and that she lived in Ramat Gan. It was love at first sight ... but it took me two or three months before I finally found her again." They married two years later.

His other brother, David, who had settled in Canada, suggested after he left the army in 1966 that it was time for them to be reunited. Mr. Ronen, his wife and their two young sons emigrated to Toronto in 1968, where he established a wholesale silver-importing business.

But Mr. Ronen already had a good opinion of Canada before he got there. A few Canadian soldiers had been among the Americans who had, in May 1945, liberated the notorious Gunskirchen Lager near Mauthausen in Upper Austria where he had ended up as a slave labourer in a cement factory.

"From the first day we arrived in Canada, my wife and I agreed that we would always speak Hebrew at home," said Mr. Ronen, who also speaks Yiddish, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, Italian and English.

"Canada was very good to us. I have always felt that I could do anything that I wanted to there. They were willing to let us in and I thank them for it. We stay there now because that is where our children and grandchildren are."

Nevertheless, Mr. Ronen retains close ties to Israel and its politics. One of his sons, Moshe, heads the Canada-Israel Committee and is a frequent visitor to the corridors of power here. A few days ago, the family had a private 40-minute meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

"Olmert has proven he is one of the best politicians anywhere because he has been able to hold together a coalition government in Israel," Mr. Ronen said. "That's difficult here. Menachem Begin always said that he was not the prime minister of Israel, but the prime minister of three or four million other prime ministers!"

The limber, good-humoured Israeli-Canadian grew up in a strict Orthodox home in a part of Hungary that now belongs to Romania. He was only 11 when he was seized by the Nazis at the end of 1943, along with his parents and his four siblings. They were taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and sisters "were ordered to the right" and he, his father and his brothers were "ordered to the left."

Mr. Ronen will never be sure why he survived several of Hitler's most notorious death camps when millions of Jews didn't, but he had some theories.

"The Germans didn't give me a number," he said extending an arm that was not marked with one of the tattoos that became one of the most chilling symbols of the Holocaust. "If they had I given me one, I think that I would not be here today."