Letters from Ukraine, continued

Jefke Mendelevich Closes a Circle
by Nathan Roi

When Jefke Mendelevich, son of Sheine and Yankel, was six months old, on 22 June 1941, Adolf Hitler launched his blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union, at the commencement of “Operation Barbarossa.”

70 years later, in the framework of Limmud FSU for Russian-Speakers, Jefke Mendelevich, now a government minister, Maj. Gen. (ret.) Yossi Peled, visited Hitler’s eastern command bunker near the small provincial town of Vinnitsa, 150 kilometers south of Kiev.

Peled was born Jozef in Belgium in 1941. (Jefke is the diminutive form of the Flemish nickname for Jozef/Joseph). During the Second World War, he was adopted by a Christian family together with his sister, and lived as a Christian until the age of six. After the war, his mother returned to take him to Israel, and their immigration was made possible through the Jewish Brigade. His father and most of his family died in Auschwitz. He studied history at Tel Aviv University, gaining a BA, and later settled in Kibbutz Negba.

Peled, an armored corps brigade commander and later commander of Israel’s Northern Front, was told in Vinnitsa that Hitler had launched 150 armored divisions and 3,500 tanks supported by 4000 planes in “Operation Barbarossa.” On the first day of the invasion, the Luftwaffe destroyed 1200 Soviet tanks, and on 16 June 1941, Goebbels wrote in his diary, “The Fuhrer estimated that the operation would take some four months; I estimate less – Bolshevism will collapse like a house of cards.”

Yossi Peled standing on the remains of Hitler's bunker, Vinnitsa.

Visiting Hitler’s bunker, Peled was surprised at its size and prominence above the landscape. He climbed the ruins of the bunker and said, “I wonder what my father would have thought if he had seen me here.” During his military studies, Peled had written a thesis on the military tactics of General Erwin Rommel, commander of the Afrika Corps in its confrontation with the British Eighth Army under General Bernard Montgomery in North Africa, culminating in the Battle of el Alamein, one of the major tank battles in history. But here on Europe’s eastern front was the most horrific bloodbath of all. From 1941 to 1944, over three million Jews were murdered on the territory of the Soviet Union.

Speaking to the Limmud FSU audience, Peled spoke about his life in Israel, especially about the capture and trial of Adolf Eichmann. “I visited Wannsee, the beautiful suburb of Berlin, where in January 1942, the plans were drawn up for the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question.’ I found it impossible to grasp that in that pastoral lakeside villa, such a barbaric topic could be calmly discussed. Even before that I was unable to comprehend the dimensions of the Holocaust. Standing here in Ukraine, I still find it impossible to understand how the Jewish people was virtually wiped out. But the important thing is – we, the Jewish people arose from the ashes; we live again and will do so for ever.”

“I remember when I visited Germany together with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Even though I actually never knew him, my father again arose in my memory when I heard the German national anthem played on the soil of Germany and I, an Israeli general, together with our Prime Minister, inspected a German guard of honor.”

The mayor and governor of Vinnitsa at a ceremony in memory of those who were murdered.

Peled’s emotions reached a peak when Vladimir Groisman, the mayor of Vinnitsa, and Nicolai Djiga, the governor of the district, laid flowers on the memorial to the 25,000 victims while children of the Jewish community placed stones and small teddy bears on it.

Jefke Mendelevich watched the scene and wondered to himself, what might have been his fate if he had not been saved by a Christian family.

Photos courtesy Nathan Roi
Translation by Asher Weill