Yisrael Kristal is 112. Yisrael Kristal is a candidate for the title of World’s Oldest Man. Yisrael Kristal is an Israeli Jew and Holocaust survivor.
Born in Poland in 1903, he worked as a confectioner until the Nazis came. They killed his two children in the ghetto and murdered his wife in Auschwitz. He left the death camp weighing 81 pounds but made it to Israel two years after the re-establishment of Jewish sovereignty and settled in Haifa. Yisrael is religious and his family reports that he lays tefillin every day to pray. Guinness World Records is working to confirm if he is indeed the oldest living man.
The audacity of Yisrael’s story is astonishing. His is a life lived in defiance of the 20th century. He is not meant to be who he is, where he is, for as long as he has. And yet he is here, a living miracle.
It seems fitting that news of Yisrael’s actuarial achievement should have reached the world in the run-up to Holocaust Memorial Day. Commemorated internationally every January 27, it is an opportunity for Europe to atone. Politicians reach for the superlatives. Religious leaders unite in sincere prayer. On TV news, the twisted wire, the railway track and the wrought iron arbeit macht frei are looped into the viewers’ minds. We confront a genocide of our making, a homicidal plot devised, implemented, aided, ignored, supported, lamented, and only latterly brought to an end by inhabitants of our enlightened continent. We hear the words we keep locked away the rest of the year and feel revulsion at their grisly cadences, taste their caustic horror on our tongues. Gas chamber. Concentration camp. Extermination. That anyone could have been so wicked, so inhumane, we reproach the past, then add silently: There but for the grace of God and 70 years.
This is as it should be. No society that fails to bear witness to the evils of anti-Semitism can be considered truly civilised. Memory is penance.
Holocaust Memorial Day is also typically an occasion for fretting about The Future of European Jewry. And, yes, there are threats to both the physical and spiritual integrity of Jews in Europe. Anti-Semitism, once considered a relic of Christian chauvinism and racial pseudo-science, is on the rise again, reworked as ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-Zionism’. (Jew-hatred is the progressive prejudice.) European Jews are targets for terrorism, synagogues must be alert to vandals and arsonists, and in some parts of some cities outward displays of Jewishness are risky. Any connection to Israel can function as a bullseye for bigots and boycotters. Shechita is questioned and brit milahwill be soon enough.
Yes, things are bad in Europe. But hear the French prime minister, Manuel Valls: ‘Without France’s Jews, France would no longer be France… When the Jews of France are attacked, France is attacked and the universal conscience is attacked.’
Political leaders condemn anti-Semitism more often and more vocally, and are becoming less reluctant to tackle the sinister motives behind those who dedicate themselves to delegitimising Israel. The centre-left in Britain has been forced to confront the wages of fellow-travelling after the Labour Party chose Jeremy Corbyn for its leader, attracting scrutiny to his long career of disturbing, and often indefensible, associations.
Europe is slowly awakening to the abomination of anti-Semitism in its inner cities and on its college campuses just seven decades on from the Shoah. It will take time but after the initial shock will come more tangible efforts to push back. The lamps still flicker all across Europe.
Ruth Wisse makes a strong case that anti-Semitism isn’t about Jews so much as anti-Semites but the same is not true of resistance to anti-Semitism. That is mostly about Jews, as the remarkable Yisrael Kristal shows us.
Judaism is ‘the life of obedient love’ but it is also a life of rebellion. Against all odds, against all enemies, the Jewish people have not only survived but prospered. They have been driven to the hills of Masada and the gates of Auschwitz but still they endure. Their enemies are gone and yet the Jews live. Not Haman nor Hitler, Amalek nor Arafat has outlasted them.
Nothing captures this quite as vividly as the words of Vehi Sheamda: ‘And this is what kept our fathers and what keeps us surviving. For not only one arose and tried to destroy us, rather in every generation they try to destroy us, and God saves us from their hands.’
The non-religious may quibble about divine intervention — though even the most secular, trayf-chomping, Saturday-kettle-boiling Jew must have their doubts at times — but the grammar of Jewish persecution and survival will be familiar to all. As the old saw goes, every Jewish holiday can be summed up in ten words: ‘They tried to kill us. They failed. Now let’s eat.’
What is the secret of this longevity? Ingenuity? Yes. Stubbornness? Perhaps. Faith? To be sure. Still, there is something else: Jews have a homeland, first yearned for then realised.
The Jewish experience is indivisible from Zionism because the existence of the State of Israel allows Jews to be Jewish, even those who think of Israel with contempt or shame or who never think of it at all. Israel is more than a narrow slice of territory in a hellish neighbourhood; it is a state of mind, a cue to ‘remember the crown/ The crown of pride and challenge’.
Three years out of the camps, Israel returned to Zion. There in the ancient Jewish home Herzl’s dream is willed into being every day. A Jew can grow to supercentenarianism in Haifa, Herzliya, or, the Israeli defence minister permitting, Hebron. France wouldn’t be France without its Jews but Jews can only leave because they have somewhere to go.
In 2003, the Israeli Air Force performed a flyover in the skies above Auschwitz. It was a display heavy with symbolism: The world could promise ‘never again’ all it wanted; the Jewish people and their state would make sure ‘never again’ meant never again. That is why the highest priority for anti-Semites is cleaving Jews from Israel. In exile, Jerusalem was the unifier of the Diaspora; now returned, Jerusalem is the guarantor and enforcer of Emil Fackenheim’s 614th mitzvah: ‘Thou shalt not hand Hitler posthumous victories.’
Europe should mark Holocaust Memorial Day. It should repent and erect monuments and educate its children about what their forefathers did and failed to do. But just as our sins should not define the Jewish experience, nor should our memorials alone record them. The most potent monument to the Holocaust, and to the abject failure of anti-Semitism, will not be found in London or Paris or Berlin but in the home of an elderly man in Haifa. As his daughter told reporters: ‘The Holocaust did not affect his beliefs. My father is someone who is always happy. He is optimistic, wise, and he values what he has.’
Yisrael Kristal lives. Am Yisrael chai.