Am Yisrael Chai

Article excerpt

Shlomo Carlebach's rousing "Am Yisrael Chai, Od Avinu Chai," "the people of Israel lives, our father still lives," has become one of the most popular, identity-affirming contemporary Jewish songs. But the second phrase, in its original form, was not an exclamation but a question. When he finally revealed himself to his brothers in Egypt, Joseph asked, "Od Avinu Chai?" Does our father still live? Why did Carlebach combine these two verses? Perhaps became Joseph needed to know whether he could be reunited with his father, Israel, before he could affirm that the people of Israel lived on.

When the remnant of European Jewry emerged from the death camps, forests and hiding places throughout Europe in the winter and spring of 1945, they looked for their families and, overwhelmingly, discovered that their fathers and mothers, their husbands, wives and children, their brothers and sisters, aunts, uncles, and cousins, had all been murdered by the Germans and their accomplices. And yet, even though their question to the world, "Od Avinu Chai?" had a devastatingly negative answer, they declared that "Am Yisrael Chai," the people of Israel not only had not been destroyed but defiantly remained alive.

From almost the moment of their liberation, the Holocaust survivors' affirmation of their national identity in the Displaced Persons camps of Germany, Austria, and Italy took the form of a political and spiritually redemptive Zionism. The creation of a Jewish state in what was then Palestine was far more than a practical goal. It was the one ideal that had not been destroyed, and that allowed them to retain the hope that an affirmative future, beyond gas chambers, mass-graves, and ashes was still possible for them.

Bergen-Belsen, the largest of the DP camps, was in the British Zone of Germany. There, the survivors elected a Jewish leadership, headed by my father, Josef Rosensaft, who made Zionism the order of the day. At the first Congress of Liberated Jews in the British Zone, convened in September 1945 in Belsen by my father and his colleagues without permission from the British military authorities, the survivors formally adopted a resolution calling for the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine, and expressing their

   Sorrow and indignation that almost six months after liberation,
   we still find ourselves in guarded camps on British soil
   soaked with the blood of our people. We proclaim that we
   will not be driven back into the lands, which have become
   the graveyards of our people.

In December 1945, my father told the leadership of American Jewry assembled at the first post-war conference of the United Jewish Appeal in Atlantic City, according to a report in The New York Herald Tribune, that the survivors' sole hope was emigration to Palestine, the only place in the world "willing, able, and ready to open its doors to the broken and shattered Jews of war-ravaged Europe. …