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Remarks at the 68th annual Holocaust Memorial Service: Yaakov Katz

I was only six years old but I remember the day like it was yesterday.

Yaakov Katz is a Chicago-area native and the military correspondent/defense analyst for the Jerusalem Post.

I was only six years old but I remember the day like it was yesterday. We knew it was special and my mother got us dressed in our nice outfits, the ones usually reserved for going to synagogue on Shabbat, and we had to wear our rain coats.

27 years ago, on a rainy April 8, 1986, I had the privilege of standing not far from here, on Oakton Street, together with a group of several hundred others, many of you in the audience here, to break ground for the Holocaust monument which stands there today.

My brother and I were kids, but we knew what the Holocaust was, we had heard about how the Nazis had tried to march here in Skokie several years earlier, and we were nothing but proud of the role our grandparents played then and continue to play now in ensuring the continued remembrance of the 6 million kedoshim.

For years we came to this memorial ceremony. I still remember the years when it was held in the synagogue on Kimball Street, and then when it moved here, to Skokie Valley.

Each year we came, sat quietly in the rows you are now in and listened to the various speakers, but I have to admit, we were most attentive when listening to our grandfather - Charles Lipshitz - who always amazed us with his ability to put into words what other people were sometimes too scared to even think to.

I am honored to stand here before you today, not just as a former Chicagoan, an Israeli journalist and veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, but more importantly as a member of the third generation, a membership I hold dearly.

On one of the walls of my home in Jerusalem is a framed picture, an old black-and-white photo of a few dozen young girls, lined up in row upon row, upon row. It is one of just a handful that my grandparents managed to recover after the war.

In it, towards the middle of the top row, is a girl with curly hair, my grandmother Rene Lipshitz. It was taken of her class in her hometown of Sosnowiecz.

The picture is ripped in half and is taped back together. I guess that it is by chance and that is simply how it survived. But for me, whenever I look at it, I can't help but wonder what happened to the other girls in the picture. Was it one half of the picture that survived or was it the other half or were most murdered?

As a journalist and author, I am often asked about the source for my curiosity and for my love of storytelling. My answer - largely from my grandparents.

My childhood was filled with their stories about their childhood and I was always left with a thirst for more. They did not speak much about their experiences inside the camps, but what intrigued me just as much was their lives before they were taken by the Nazis.

It was like having a window opened into a lost world - What was life like in pre-war Poland? How did things change in the Ghetto? How did they survive when so many others didn't?

In 1995, like many others, I had the opportunity to travel to Poland with my high school class from Israel. The trip helped form me not just as a Jew, but also as a human being.

But while I was there, it was important for me to try and retrace my grandparents' steps. So while I visited Auschwitz, I also went to Pzergomaya Street in Sosnoweicz, and while I visited Majadanek, I also went to Czachelska Street in Lodz.

I got to walk the streets that my grandparents walked, sit on the benches they might have sat on as kids and, for a moment - just a moment - try and feel what they might have felt.

My career as a military reporter has taken me through the battlefields of Lebanon and the Gaza Strip, on late-night counter-terror operations in the West Bank and aboard Israeli submarines and missile ships in the Mediterranean and Red Seas. 

It is no secret that even after 65 years, Israel has not yet reached the stage when it can lay down its weapons. Threats surround us and sometimes even grow, like in the case of Iran, a country bent on obtaining nuclear weapons and which openly calls for Israel's destruction.

But despite these threats, we today have a country of our own, we today can defend ourselves, we today can ensure that what happened 70 years ago will not happen again to the Jewish people. Despite all of the threats - here is an important point often overlooked - Israel today is the strongest country in the Middle East.

I am often impressed by the role the Holocaust plays within the IDF, how it is commemorated and how it simply just feels like it is there, lingering in the room.

That is why, for example, when the Israeli Air Force was invited to attend an air show in Poland in 2003, its two senior commanders - both sons of survivors - asked and succeeded in convincing the Poles to let them fly three F-15 fighter jets over the Auschwitz death camp in Poland.

Under the agreement with the Polish government, the IAF F-15s were supposed to fly high above Auschwitz, and way out of sight.

The day of the flight though, one of the commanders convened the other pilots and announced that they were going to fly below the clouds so they could be seen by the IDF officers who would be holding a ceremony along the train tracks below.

"We listened to the Polish for 800 years," the commander told his pilots. "Today, we don't have to listen anymore."

The picture of the three F- 15s over Auschwitz - a demonstration of Israel's might and independence - can be found today hanging on the walls of hundreds of offices of military officers throughout dozens of bases in Israel.

Most of the pictures were given out personally by the commander of the Air Force at the time. On it, he wrote the following inscription: "To remember. Not to forget. To rely only on ourselves."

This message resonates even louder today as Israel faces a daunting dilemma - to allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon, or to embark on possibly one of the most difficult military operations in its history and try to destroy its nuclear facilities.

Six months ago, my wife Chaya gave birth to our fourth child. After three amazing, beautiful daughters, we had a son.

After he was born, we began the process all parents face - choosing a name. We debated whether to name him for someone from our family or to select a name we simply liked.

In the end, like with our three other children, tradition prevailed. Our lives, we believe, are cycles that start with our ancestors and continue through our descendants. Chaya and I hope we are able to pass that on to our children.

We decided to name our son Eliezer, after Eliezer Welgrin, my great grandfather. Eliezer Welgrin was born in 1902 in Sosnewic, a small town in Poland where, out of the 130,000 residents, some 30,000 were Jewish.

He was the son of Tamara and Abraham and married to Esther Zelinger. Eliezer became a leather merchant and made a decent living to provide for his wife and two children, Henry and Rene, my grandmother. In 1943, though, Eliezer was deported to the Buchenwald concentration camp where he was murdered.

My mother and uncle did not know her grandfather; my grandfather did not know his father-in-law; and my grandmother, Rene, who should live long and be healthy, was traumatically separated from her father at a young age when she and her mother were taken to Auschwitz.

Thank God, today the Jewish people are no long suffering, not like they were in the time of my great grandfather.

Our Eliezer will hopefully not have to know that pain and suffering but, as a member of the third generation, I feel an imperative, an obligation, a duty to instill within him and our other children a sense of history, remembrance and the importance to know our roots so, as our sages said, we will know where we are going.

This is not just my mission, but it belongs to all of my generation, as well as those to come. We must carry the torch forward and ensure that our grandparents' story is never forgotten, never abandoned, and held up high for the world to always see and learn from. We cannot fail.

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