JERUSALEM (VINnews) — A special monument is located at the end of the trail that connects Israel’s Yad Vashem, the official memorial to Jewish victims of the Holocaust, and Mount Herzl, the national cemetery for Israeli leaders and fallen soldiers.
Known as the “Memorial for the Last of Kin,” it commemorates the Holocaust survivors who fought and fell during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
These soldiers were lone Holocaust survivors – the last of their families – whose members had perished in Europe’s death camps. With no one left to continue their family’s legacy, these brave soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for the young Jewish state.
The initiator of this memorial was Yehuda Sternfeld, one of those Holocaust last of kin who fought in the War of Independence. Sternfeld, who died last week at the age of 90, was at a Remembrance Day ceremony in 1998 when former Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan mentioned the Holocaust Survivors who died in the War of Independence and left no family members. Sternfeld, a survivor of the Lodz ghetto, Auschwitz death camp and a number of Dachau labor camps who had immigrated to Palestine in 1946 and fought in the Palmach, realized that time was running out if he wished to commemorate his fallen comrades. He established the “last of kin” memorial and it was later adopted by the Israeli Defense Ministry.
Yehuda Leib Sternfeld was the youngest of five children born to a devoutly religious family in Lodz, Poland. The family’s livelihood came from a flour mill run by his father with another partner, but he was forced to sell his share to help a family member who was injured at the mill. During the war the ten-year-old Yehuda was sent to work daily for 18 hours in a ghetto factory. In his Yad Vashem testimony, Sternfeld said that “when they established the ghetto I grew up swiftlt. Suddenly I changed from a boy into an adult.”
His father died in the awful ghetto conditions in 1942 at the age of 57. Two brothers who had tried to escape to Warsaw and Bialistock were never seen again. One day when Yehuda and one of his two sisters went to stand in line to receive potatos, the ghetto was placed under curfew and his mother and sister were taken away to their deaths. When the ghetto was liquidated in July 1944, Yehuda and his sister were sent to Birkenau and at the infamous ramp they were separated. Yehuda was now on his own. After surviving three horrendous weeks at Birkenau, Yehuda was sent to Dachau’s labor camps, where he somehow survived the rest of the war, weighing 30 kilograms at his liberation.
After recuperating for a while he wandered to Italy and reached the port of Bari, where there were DP camps with thousands of Jewish refugees. Joining the Udim camp, he arrived in Palestine in October 1945 and was sent to Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, a 16-year-old boy with no knowledge of Hebrew. “But I was like a salmon- swimming with the current”, he later explained. He left the Kibbutz and started working but then tried to join the Palmach. His initial attempt failed- he was told by poet Chaim Chefer: You’re a kid, wait a bit,” In December 1947, however, at the beginning of the War of Independence, Sternfeld was recruited and served in the Palmach’s fifth battalion. After the war he worked in the Mekorot water company, married and had four daughters.
After Sternfeld realized the importance of commemorating last of kin who fell in the War of Independence, he pursued all information he could find about them. He drew up a list of nearly 450 such people. Shuki Sharir, a distant relative of Sternfeld, notes that “In Kfar Etzion within a few hours 70 Holocaust survivors fell including 15 last of kin. These were the last remnants of their families and they did not succeed in establishing families. Yehuda’s enterprise for them and for others was a wonderful perpetuation with a deep educational meaning. These are people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country and Yehuda ensured that they would not be forgotten.”
A forest was planted by the JNF in memory of the fallen and a special memorial was established in a forest near Latrun as well as at Mount Herzl. A memorial book was published with pictures of the last of kin and many ceremonies took place in military cemeteries for those who had nobody to visit their graves. In the year 2000 Sternfeld was chosen to light a memorial flame at Yad Hashem on Holocaust Remembrance Day. May his memory be blessed.