The Jewish people’s journey to freedom has not been easy. Lt. Col. Falach Hayib, a Bedouin Muslim officer in the IDF, recently chose to witness this struggle first-hand on his first trip to Poland, participating in the IDF’s Witnesses in Uniform (“Edim Be’Madim”) program.
Lt. Col. Hayib, 45, is from the Jezreel Valley, where he lives with his wife and five children. He has been serving in the IDF for 28 years and is currently an officer in the tracking unit of the IDF’s Edom Division, charged with obstructing illegal breaches of Israel’s southern border regions.
The Witnesses in Uniform program brings IDF soldiers and officers to Poland to commemorate and learn about the Holocaust, providing them with the unique opportunity to experience Poland in an entirely new light – in a way Jews from previous generations perhaps never imagined: proud and in uniform.
During this past year’s Holocaust Memorial Day ceremony, Lt. Col. Hayib’s operations officer approached him and asked if he had ever been to Poland. After discovering that he had never been, the commander of the delegation, Brig. Gen. Roi Elkabatz, made sure that Lt. Col. Hayib was on Witnesses in Uniform’s next flight to Poland.
“Send him with us. There’s no such thing as a lieutenant colonel retiring from the army without going to Poland,” Brig. Gen. Elkabatz said.
A Growing Sense of History and Empathy
Lt. Col. Hayib had first heard about the Holocaust when, at age 7, he began watching the television series Pillar of Fire with his family. He recalls his confusion at seeing images of the gas trucks, vehicles resembling ambulances that were used by the Nazis to murder Jews. “We saw the ambulance that children were placed in [to be killed with] exhaust fumes and gas, and I asked my father what that [the vehicle] was, and he said, ‘That’s how the Nazis killed the Jews.’”
During his 28 years of IDF service, Lt. Col. Hayib has related to the Holocaust in a very different way. “As an officer and educator of soldiers, anything connected to the Jewish people is also connected to me, from the holidays to the memorial days,” he stated.
The experience of visiting Poland with Witnesses in Uniform gave him a powerful new perspective on this chapter in Jewish history. “When you walk in the death camps, in Treblinka, and when you hear the stories as you walk on the same ground – it gives you goosebumps,” he explained.
“As a human being, no matter the gender or the race, one must honor the humanity in humankind,” Lt. Col. Hayib stated. “I see all the horrors that the Jewish people went through in the Holocaust,” he said. “We listened to extremely difficult stories from survivors and, when you think about it, it’s hard to fathom how one human being can do such a thing to another.”
He recalled the difficulty of imagining how humans beings are capable of experiencing the stripping of basic human rights and the abandonment of their personal dignity. “It’s hard for me to describe,” he explained while still in Poland. “Yesterday we were in the Lodz Ghetto, and they spoke of what was done to women. To undress them, naked, in front of everyone is the ultimate invasion of what I call ‘personal dignity’. The basic rights of human beings were taken from them.”
Lt. Col. Hayib firmly believes not only the Jews have a duty to remember and a responsibility to never forget: “Unfortunately, we still hear about a lot of people who deny the Holocaust and threaten to destroy the state of Israel,” he said. “As a country, we need to be united and strong to guard the land against all enemies, far and near. This is our job – to defend the country.”
While he bears no familial ties to the Holocaust, he is familiar with the minority struggle the Jews went through at the time. “I am a Sunni Muslim living in Israel, and it’s important to note that while there are bad people and terrorists, that doesn’t define all Muslims,” he stated. “As a Muslim, I want to make a positive impression.”
Lt. Col. Hayib also sees a particular significance in Holocaust education at this point in history, as the Holocaust is becoming an increasingly distant memory. “A survivor named Yechiel joined us on our program. In a few years there won’t be any more like him, so it’s important to preserve the heritage of the Jewish people and what they experienced,” he said.
He has passed this sense of the importance of remembering on to his children. “When I left, my children asked me, ‘You’re going to see the camps where they killed the children?’ They know what the Holocaust is,” he explained. “It is my belief that it’s not just Jews who need to remember – non-Jews also need to know what the Jewish people experienced during WWII.”
Now that he has returned to Israel, Lt. Col. Hayib is trying to incorporate the stories of bravery in his own life. “I have learned about true leadership in the ghetto revolts. I see how they didn’t give up,” he said.
As a commander, he is looking forward to instilling this sense of leadership in his soldiers. “When you lead a group of soldiers, you lead from the front. I want to teach them that we, as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces, lead the defense of the State of Israel,” he explained.
In his eyes, this defense is both a right and a responsibility in which he takes part. “I think that Jews have a right to defend themselves in the land of Israel,” he said. “I see myself as an inseparable part [of Israel], as an Israeli citizen who defends the state so that it will remain the Jewish state, a state that is both Jewish and democratic, a state that ensures the rights of all minorities.”