Israel's 60th Anniversary 'A Jew from Morning to Night'

Holocaust survivor Tommy Lapid, his wife, writer Shulamit Lapid, and their son, journalist and television presenter Yair Lapid, talk about their life, their successes and their day-to-day fears in Israel, which celebrates the 60th anniversary of its founding this week.


New Israeli citizens after arriving from Europe following the Nazi Holocaust of World War II in 1949.
REUTERS

New Israeli citizens after arriving from Europe following the Nazi Holocaust of World War II in 1949.

SPIEGEL: Tommy, where were you on May 14, 1948, when David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in Tel Aviv?

Tommy Lapid: I was living in Yugoslavia, under the Tito regime. When I heard about the declaration of independence, I was very happy that my people had finally gotten a state of their own. But I couldn't have dreamed that I myself would become an Israeli. Tito had hermetically sealed off Yugoslavia. But then something unexpected happened. Tito had a friend, the painter and communist Moshe Pijade. They had been in prison together, and when Tito became president, Pijade said to him: We have been friends for 40 years. I have never asked you for a favor. But now I beg you: Let my people go. In the middle of the Israeli war of independence, my mother and I arrived at Haifa on a ship. It was my 17th birthday. We were still at the harbor when I signed up for the army.

SPIEGEL: Shulamit, where were you on May 14, 1948?

Shulamit Lapid: In my parents' house in Tel Aviv. My parents had a radio, which was quite uncommon at the time. All of the neighbors sat in our apartment, anxiously listening to the radio to find out how the vote in the United Nations would turn out. When a majority voted in favor of recognizing Israel, I was overcome with a feeling of redemption, as if the Messiah were coming. We went into the street and danced. My parents were from Romania. They came to Palestine in 1934. People from Russia, Poland, Germany and Czechoslovakia lived in our apartment building.

SPIEGEL: But you felt at home in Palestine?

Shulamit Lapid: Every child spoke the language of his or her parents at home, but outside we only spoke Hebrew. We were ashamed of the languages of our parents, because they symbolized the Diaspora, the past. We, on the other hand, were the future. We had come into the world as the "new Jews." There is a big difference between those who immigrated before the Holocaust and those who came after the Holocaust. My parents were Zionists who had immigrated out of idealism. Those who came after the Holocaust were, for the most part, seeking refuge -- like Tommy and his mother.

Tommy Lapid: I was originally from Novi Sad, which was occupied by Hungary in World War II and is part of Serbia today. When the Germans came, my mother was visiting her sister in Budapest. It was the night of March 19, 1944. My father, my grandmother and I had gone to bed, not knowing what was about to happen. At 5 a.m. a man from the Gestapo rang our doorbell. He was very polite when he said to my father: "Are you Dr. Bela Lampel? Please get dressed and come with us." I had no idea what this meant, but my father understood only too well. He embraced me and said: "My son, either I will see you again or not." I never saw him again.

Shulamit Lapid: Nevertheless, Tommy always says that compared with the Polish Jews, he had a relatively easy time of it ...

Tommy Lapid: ... because my mother and I were not sent to a concentration camp, Shula. We were taken to the Budapest ghetto. We lived in a cellar. Outside, people were dying like flies from hunger and cold. One morning, the Hungarian Nazis forced us to march through the snow. We knew what was about to happen. They would cut holes in the ice on the frozen Danube, line up the Jews in front and shoot them, so that they would fall through the holes into the water. We were already outside the ghetto when a Soviet plane suddenly came in low over our heads. The crowd scattered, and at that moment my mother pushed me into a toilet building. We waited until the group was gone. When we came out we were standing in the snow in the middle of Budapest, with the yellow Star of David on our coats. It sounds absurd, but my mother smuggled me back into the ghetto, because it was by far the safest place for us. That was where we were liberated by the Soviets a short time later.

SPIEGEL: Many Holocaust survivors complain that no one wanted to listen to their stories in the first few years after the foundation of Israel. How long did it take before you told your wife about it?

Shulamit Lapid: You didn't tell me anything. I didn't hear your story until the children were old enough and you told them about it.

Tommy Lapid: Somehow we were ashamed of what had happened to us. In the early years, we thrived on the myth of the heroic Sabres, as the Jews born in Israel are called. They looked down on us, because they assumed that they would have fought against the Nazis if they had been in our shoes. What nonsense.

Yair Lapid: I grew up with this myth. It was like a flame that was handed to me, to keep the memory alive. We flew to Budapest together when I was 22.

Tommy Lapid: I showed him the cellar and the toilet building.

Yair Lapid: We both wept there. The Hungarians walking by were wondering why two grown men are standing in front of a toilet building, weeping.

SPIEGEL: You once said that you lost God in that cellar in the Budapest ghetto.

Tommy Lapid: The bible is not a religious experience for me. This book bundles together the entire culture of Judaism: our language, our history, our geography. God is merely a byproduct of the bible.

Shulamit Lapid: In the Diaspora, the Jews mainly studied the book of rules known as the Talmud. In Israel, they returned to the bible. More recently, young secular Israelis are returning to the roots of Judaism, not because they are becoming religious in the stricter sense, but because they seek spirituality. Yair, you just wrote a book about the bible. Why?

Yair Lapid: Because Dad wanted nothing to do with the bible.

Shulamit Lapid: It's true that you were, in a sense, deprived of traditional Judaism. We don't pray, nor do we go to the synagogue.

Yair Lapid: I had to find my own way to Judaism, and I began essentially with an empty, white piece of paper. I remember a conversation in which Dad asked me: "Why do you believe in God?" and I said: "For political reasons." I believe in a political God. We cannot expect the reason for our existence to create itself. We must develop a foundation for ourselves. It was very easy for my parents' generation, because they had the Holocaust and the threat to Israel's existence. My generation has to strike new roots. The bible is plainly the root.

Shulamit Lapid: I too am interested in religious traditions. It has to do with my childhood. But these yearnings remain unfulfilled, because I am married to a fanatical atheist. However, I do have some sympathy with the world of Orthodox Jews.

Yair Lapid: Orthodox Jews still live as if they were in the Middle Ages. Interestingly, they have made up about eight percent of the Israeli population for decades, even though they have as much as 10 children, or even more. This suggests that there must be many who turn their backs on Orthodoxy.

Tommy Lapid: They discover that there are other things besides the Talmud, including very pretty ones with short skirts.

SPIEGEL: The Israeli writer A.B. Jehoshua picked a quarrel with American Jews some time ago when he said that a Jew can only be complete if he lives in Israel.

Tommy Lapid: It is very difficult to be a non-religious Jew outside Israel. The synagogue keeps Jews together in the Diaspora. In Israel, you are a Jew from morning to night. We don't even have to think about it, just as a Dutch citizen doesn't spend his whole day thinking about the fact that he is a Dutch citizen. It's a given.

Yair Lapid: Orthodox Jews often ask you: "Are you an Israeli first, or a Jew?" I see no difference between the two. After all, I'm also simultaneously the son of my parents, the husband of my wife and the father of my children. Being a Jew and an Israeli are inseparable things. I once went to the United States, where I founded a company. But I could only stand it for half a year before I returned to Israel. I lost a lot of money and the company, which is worth $40 million (€25 million) today. And yet I have never regretted it for a second. I could not live anywhere else.

SPIEGEL: The writer David Grossman recently painted a very gloomy picture of Israel. He said that the values that drove the country forward during its foundation have been lost.

Tommy Lapid: Israel is a tremendous success story. When I arrived, there were 600,000 Jews living here. Today there are close to 6 million. We have one of the world's top high-tech industries and a high standard of living. There is only one thing we haven't achieved: Making the country safer for Jews.

SPIEGEL: Indeed, the situation seems to be getting worse.

Tommy Lapid: That's true. In the past, we had a problem with the Arabs, but today it's with the entire Islamic world. You in the West have the same problem, but you just don't realize it yet. I compare this with the time before the war, when the Jews in Germany warned against Hitler and everyone in the Western world, except Winston Churchill, said that it was a German problem. Nowadays we Israelis are warning against the Muslims, and the world says: That's an Israeli problem. US political scientist Samuel Huntington is right on with his theory of the clash of civilizations. Unfortunately, we in Israel are at the forefront of this conflict.

Yair Lapid: I see this in a completely different way, and it has to do with the first part of our conversation. In the database of your experiences, the possibility exists that someone will come along and take away your world, no matter how stabile it seems. I never experienced anything like that, which either makes me naïve or enables me to see things more realistically. Israel is a long way from facing a threat to its very existence. We are too strong, both economically and militarily, for that. If anything threatens Israel, it is this form of paranoid thought that makes us think: "Oh God, they're going to kill us in two seconds! What should we do?" You brought that with you from the Diaspora, Papa -- along with your terrible accent!

Tommy Lapid: I call that experience!

Praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: "Orthodox Jews still live as if they were in the Middle Ages."
AFP

Praying at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem: "Orthodox Jews still live as if they were in the Middle Ages."

Yair Lapid: I'm old enough now to know that experience is overrated. Your experience is completely irrelevant to our current situation. There is a difference between a small community being herded into a park and murdered and all of these communities joining forces to make sure that something like that will not happen again.

Tommy Lapid: Then my experience from the past is what makes your life today relatively safe.

Yair Lapid: Perhaps. Of course, I too am concerned about the spread of Islamic extremism, and of course the Palestinians want to destroy the State of Israel. It says so in every schoolbook in the Gaza Strip. But that still doesn't mean that they're capable of destroying us. And when they finally realize this, they will choose the next-best option, which is called peace.

Shulamit Lapid: We are controlled by slogans. In Israel, every father and every mother says to their children: "This is now the last war." We believe these slogans and are disappointed when life doesn't correspond to them. But we can read in the history books that historical periods often last 100 or 200 years. Because of our short life expectancy, we find it difficult to see ourselves as part of this history.

Tommy Lapid: It's true that history seems denser than it really is. Nevertheless, I have no hope whatsoever that the Arabs will come to their senses. After the war of independence, there was that head of the US delegation to the United Nations, Warren Austin, who said that Jews and Arabs should resolve their conflict "in a true Christian spirit." I don't know whether Jews can behave like good Christians, but Muslim Arabs certainly cannot.

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