Yitzhak Arad was a teenage resistance leader in Poland who became an Israeli army general, prominent historian and director of Yad Vashem. As the only member of his large extended family to survive the Holocaust, he devoted his life to making sure the Jews of Europe, and what happened to them, were not forgotten.
Born in Lithuania in 1926, Yitzhak grew up in Swieciany, a village in Poland. He attended Jewish schools and was active in the Zionist youth movement. Shortly before Yitzhak’s bar mitzvah, Germany invaded Poland. Life in Swieciany didn’t change immediately, but in July 1941, Germany occupied the town. The towns 3000 Jews were rounded up to be sent to a ghetto. Yitzhak, then 15, ran off along with about a few other 15-16 year olds and escaped to Belorussia.
A few days after they arrived in Belorussia, they learned that the Jews of Swieciany were not relocated to a ghetto but rather taken to a remote location and massacred. Yitzhak’s parents and 30 immediate family members were killed, along with most of the Jews of Swieciany. Only 250 people were left alive – skilled laborers who were forced to work for the Germans as tailors and craftsmen.
Yitzhak and his companions were safe in Belorussia – for a few months, until the Nazis came for the Jews of Belorussia. A teenage orphan, out of options, Yitzhak didn’t know what else to do so he returned to Swieciany. He found a handful of people he knew among the few survivors, but he was soon captured by the Germans. Yitzhak was sure his life was about to end, but instead he was put to work cleaning weapons the Germans had confiscated from the Soviets. Not one to waste such an opportunity, Yitzhak hid a small pistol under his clothing the first day and nobody searched him. Together he and a few other young Jewish workers stole ten guns over the course of a month, and in February 1943 they escaped to the forest.
They tried to create a paramilitary force but encountered opposition from locals, who informed on them to the Germans, leaving the Jewish would-be fighters constantly on the move and hiding within the forest. They needed people to help them with food and information, but had no success with the local Poles and the situation was dire.
Finally they met up with a group of Lithuanian partisans, people who’d escaped from the Soviet Union during the Russian retreat and were organizing a resistance movement. Yitzhak was a Lithuanian citizen so he was accepted into the group, although with reluctance because he was Jewish. He later said in an interview with Harry J. Cargas, “There were many problems for a Jew to be with the Soviet partisans. First of all, there were anti-Semitic feelings. Then, a Jew would only be accepted in the ranks of the Soviet partisans if he had his own arms. (Any non-Jew, whether a local peasant or one who had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp, would be accepted without arms.) Also, there was the image of the Jew as a bad fighter or a coward. So you fought to prove yourself, to say, “Anything you can do I can do–if not better at least as well.” So in the beginning we had to struggle for our places. But after a few months I was able to prove myself–my courage–and was allowed to take part in mining many trains, in ambushes and other activities.”
More and more Jews joined the unit and by 1943 they had gained more power and influence within the partisan movement. Despite being one of the youngest, Yitzhak had status because he was the one who brought the first arms into the ghetto and he became a leader of the Jewish partisans. During his two years in the forest, he took part in blowing up sixteen German echelons. Yitzhak later said, “I knew the Jewish world in Eastern Europe that was alive and well and destroyed in the Holocaust. I saw with my own eyes thousands of Jews being led to the firing pits. I survived, and fate allowed me to join the partisans, the fighters against the murderers of our people, and in their ranks to blow up German trains.”
After the war, Yitzhak went to Israel illegally, on a small boat. He immediately became active in the underground movement to resist the British occupiers. When Israel became a sovereign nation in 1948, Yitzhak became an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces, retiring with the rank of brigadier general.
When he first arrived in Israel, Yitzhak tried to put the horror of the Holocaust out of his mind but soon chose a different path – to dedicate his life to making sure the Jews of Europe were not forgotten. He enrolled in Tel Aviv University and earned a doctorate in history. Yitzhak became a very well-respected historian specializing in the Holocaust in the Soviet Union. He wrote many books and articles on the subject. In 1972 he became director of Israeli Holocaust Memorial Yad Vashem, and served in that role for 21 years. Under his leadership multiple monuments to victims were created, including the Children’s Memorial.
Yitzhak later said, “I came to Yad Vashem as a historian, as a teacher. I have this obligation to the people who were less lucky than myself. In order to survive, in addition to everything you did, you needed some luck. If you are religious you can say you needed God’s help. What I am doing at Yad Vashem is my obligation to those who did not survive. Fate enabled me to live, and I must do something to commemorate the war, to write about it, to make it more understandable to people. I think there are many lessons from the Holocaust, for us as Jews, for human beings in general–there is a whole universal meaning. If, in some way, I succeed in doing something in this direction – to promote more awareness, more knowledge, the lessons that should be learned – this is for me a great satisfaction.”
Yitzhak Arad died on May 6, 2021 at age 94. He was preceded in death by his wife Michal, and is survived by three children and numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren. May his memory always be a blessing.
For fighting Nazis and making sure the six million Jewish martyrs are not forgotten, we honor Yitzhak Arad as this week’s Thursday Hero.
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our monthly newsletter.