April 14, 2024
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Naphtali Lau-Lavie, Holocaust survivor, Haaretz correspondent between 1956 and 1970, diplomat and public figure, brother of former Chief Rabbi Yisrael Lau, died on Saturday, aged 88.

Lau was born in Krakow, Poland in 1926. As a child, his family moved around often due to the career of his father, who was a scion of an important family of rabbis and was appointed the rabbi of different cities in Europe. He spent his first years in Romania, then Slovakia and Poland.

After the Second World War broke out his family was sent to the Piotrkow Ghetto in Poland. In 1941, at 15, he was kidnapped from his home and sent to forced labor in construction in Auschwitz, side-by-side with Polish criminal and political prisoners. “I didn’t know what it was, I had no idea,” he later testified to Yad Vashem.

After 40 days, he was smuggled back to his family. When he reunited with his mother, she told him that “one day” she would tell him how exactly his rescue came about, and that in the meantime, he must forget he has been to Auschwitz. His father, Moshe Chaim, was murdered in Treblinka. His mother, Chaya, was murdered in Ravensbruck. His younger brother, Shmuel, was also murdered in the Holocaust. Naphtali and his brother Yisrael–later chief rabbi of Israel–who was 11 years his junior, were sent to the Hortensia and Czestochowa camps. In early 1945, they were transferred to the Buchenwald camp, and survived the Holocaust. In October 1945, they immigrated together to British-mandate Palestine by boat, and were detained by the British in Atlit.

Between 1956 and 1970 he worked for Haaretz, covering the Eichmann trial in 1961, among others. Later he held several public positions, including adviser to Moshe Dayan, defense ministry spokesperson in 1977, and general consul in New York in 1981. His next position was as director in Israel of the United Jewish Appeal. In recent years he worked as deputy chairman of the WJRO, the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

His book, Balaam’s Prophecy, is his personal account of Jewish life from 1939 to 1989. In it, seminal events in Jewish history are described through the eyes of an Israeli journalist and diplomat. He didn’t want to write it, but changed his mind after a day in the winter of 1990, when he and Nathan Scharansky were walking in New York City engrossed in conversation, about their lives under totalitarianism. A taxi skidded in the icy intersection, hit another vehicle and knocked Lau-Lavie down. Scharansky kept screaming that Lavie was dead until an ambulance and the police arrived.

“I was lying in Bellevue and realized I could die any day or any night and that I had something to tell, to put on record, and that I shouldn’t postpone it,” said Lau-Lavie. After he recuperated, he sat down and knocked out his story on computer, in Hebrew, in three months. The book, Am K’Lavie (Nation Like a Lion), received positive reviews from a broad spectrum of readers, including politicians, journalists and even Elie Wiesel. Hundreds of Israeli students took the book with them as they followed Lau-Lavie’s footsteps on a very moving pilgrimage from Eastern Europe to Israel.

As a child survivor of the camps, Lau-Lavie was determined “not to let the Germans have a victory over us… We had to have our own place. We decided, individually and collectively, that there must be a renewal of Jewish rights. In our view, that should be in a place where you are your own master. Israel, with all its skirmishes and its wars, is ours. For me, it was also personal. I had an obligation to my brother (Rabbi Israel Meir Lau), who was less than 8 years old. I was his parent–both his parents–and I had been given a mandate to keep him and protect him and deliver him to safe haven.”

The English title, Balaam’s Prophecy, is taken from the Bible, from the story of Balaam, who was supposed to curse the people of Israel but blessed them instead.

When Friedman, who was interviewing him about his book asked if he had any wishes he wanted to fulfill, he said, “I have only one wish which I think is very important. Having lived through … full-fledged wars and wars of attrition and the Intifada, and watching two of my sons participate in one of these wars, I don’t ever want my children or my grandchildren to participate in a war.

“I also had a certain burden on my shoulders. I had to get rid of that burden and vindicate certain things that I suppressed through the years. I had to let it out, so that it could not be said that I had not met my obligation to those in my past. I hope that the people who read my book will learn from these experiences and draw conclusions from them that will benefit their communities and society in general.”

He is survived by his wife Joan and four children, including Dr. Rabbi Benny Lau, and grandchildren.

By Ofer Aderet/www.haaretz.com

(with additional material from Jeanette Friedman)

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