IAF Holocaust Survivors11.04.2018 | Yael Fuchs | Photography: Courtesy of the interviewees
Col. (Res') Yeshayahu Harsit was born in 1934 to a rich Jewish family in Warsaw, Poland. He remembers the beginning of the war: "I remember seeing how the Germans cut off the hair of the Jewish. I was around seven years old". Yeshayahu's father was a fruit & vegetable importer from Palestine and a board member of a religious Zionist movement. This allowed the father and two of his sons to escape Warsaw before the Nazis entered the city. For two and a half months, the mother and the other brothers – Yeshayahu among them – stayed at home before receiving a message from their father telling them they had two days to prepare for their escape. "He sent a Polish smuggler who loaded us up on his cart and we left Warsaw", recalled Harsit. "We crossed the border to the Soviet part of Poland".
Col. (Res') Harsit and a MiG-17 aircraft
The family was sent to a gulag. "Those days were very difficult – it was cold, the hunger was too much to bear and there were lice everywhere", said Harsit. In July of 1941 the Nazis invaded the USSR as part of Operation "Barbarossa". "We woke up one day and saw that the entire labor camp was abandoned. We travelled to Kazakhstan, but the hunger continued to get worse and my father took me to an orphanage against my mother's will", said Yeshayahu. Harsit decided that he couldn't stay there. When the right moment arrived, he left the orphanage after lights-out with his feet wrapped in rags and began walking.
"I didn't know where I was going. I wanted to go home to my mom", he recalled. "On the road to the orphanage, I saw a river to my right. I realized then that I had to walk with the river to my left. I somehow managed to get to my parents' house before noon. I knocked on the door and my mother opened it. She called my name and then she fainted".
Col. (Res') Harsit in front of burnt Egyptian aircraft, Six Day War
A Survivor, An Officer
In 1944, the Harsit family learned that the two brothers who ran away with their father were killed, and the family returned to Warsaw at the end of the war. "My dad decided that we had to leave for Palestine even though his family offered us to come to America. He thought that a Jewish person had nowhere else to go". Yeshayahu and his family set sail for Palestine aboard the SS Exodus immigration ship, and were put in custody after the ship was commandeered by the British. The family immigrated to Israel following its foundation in 1948.
"My dream was to be a paratrooper. I have no idea how I arrived at the flight course", said Harsit laughingly. "At first, I was dismissed and transferred to the WSO (Weapon Systems Officer) course". At the end of the course, Yeshayahu wasn't excited by receiving his flight wings but mainly by his status – an official IAF officer. "The Hebrew term for 'officer' wasn't significant for me yet, but I became an oficer in Polish", he recalled with pride. "It was incredibly important to me, going through what I went through and then becoming an oficer". He served in the 103rd ("Elephants") Squadron, served as Head of Routine Operations during the "Six Day" War, commanded a fighter jet squadron and then became Head of the Planning & Organization Department at the IAF Headquarters.
Col. (Res') Harsit and his three daughters in front of the Auschwitz concentration camp
In 1940, within Warsaw Ghetto's walls, Marian Skowronski – today Lt. Col. (Res’) Moshe Harel - was born. “My mother and father had an Aryan façade. I inherited these from my mother”, he pointed to his blue eyes. “It allowed them to freely walk in and out of the Ghetto. My father decided to escape to the Soviet side and promised my mother that he would pick her up when he was ready. He got caught on his way – either by Nazis or by cooperators - and was killed”.
Hinda, Moshe’s mother, decided to do anything to protect her son. “She handed him over to a Polish family in a village near Warsaw for a lot of money”, recalled Moshe. “Sometimes she would visit me for a couple of hours, and then escape back to the Ghetto”. One day, the Nazis began spreading false news. “Anyone who had a passport belonging to either a neutral country or related to Palestine would have to arrive at ‘Hotel Polski’, one of the only hotels in Warsaw that stayed intact, where they would be set free”, elaborated Harel. “The price for fake passports skyrocketed and people truly believed the news”. 3,500 people arrived at “Hotel Polski”, amongst them Moshe and his mother.
Lt. Col. (Res') Moshe Harel
“The Camp Was Horrible”
3,200 of them were put on trains headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp where they were killed. The remaining 300 Jewish people were led to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. “The camp was horrible, replete with murder and hunger”, said Harel. “This camp was different than the others. Its purpose was to populate itself with Jewish people that were destined to swap the Nazi Germans from Palestine”. During those years, German Templars were situated in Palestine until they were deported and arrested by the British with the outbreak of World War II. The 300 Jewish people, who would later be named the “Palestine List”, were destined to swap the Germans captured by the British in Palestine.
Harel studied aerodynamic engineering and enlisted in the IAF as a flight school instructor. He later transferred to the department which develops modifications for technological aircraft innovations. “One day I was called by Benny Peled, the IAF Commander during those years, who tasked me with a special project”, remembered Moshe Harel. “Establishing a school for experimenting pilots and engineers (today the Flight Test Center). During the first class’ graduation party, I talked to Benny and asked to fly light aircraft in the IAF”.
At the age of 33 and as a father of two, Moshe began the flight course. Harel was stationed as a pilot in the 116th ("Defenders of the South") Squadron. He later became the fourth commander of the FTC (Flight Test Center). “One of my biggest dreams was to partake in the IDF's arranged trip to Poland, as part of which IDF service members visit historical sites related to the Holocaust", declared Harel. “I met current IAF Commander Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, who was then a Brigadier General. I showed him a certificate indicating my release from the concentration camp and asked to join the trip in uniform”.
Spread the Word
Harel left for the trip around Poland alongside 180 IDF service members. When they arrived at the Warsaw Ghetto, he read the plaque on the ghetto walls and told himself: “Here stands an IAF pilot ranked Lieutenant Colonel with a release certificate in his pocket. There, on the other side of the wall, I was born".