Voices from the field

Ha'tikvah: The Threads That Bind

By Alex Feder

Going to Poland this past summer was the first time I had ever been to a place outside the U.S. that my family once called home. I felt an especially strong connection at the Treblinka memorial, which comprises thousands of stones, each bearing the name of a community that was wiped out at the camp. After finding my Bubby’s community stone, I laid my hand on the “Nasielsk” inscription, closed my eyes and saw a loud, happy family crowded around a table full of food in a small, warmly lit home. On a trip full of tears, in a field where hundreds of thousands of murders took place, I was surprised at feeling heartened. The scene was imagined, but that didn’t matter to me; I was struck by a sense of belonging, inheritance, and purposefulness unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Treblinka was not the first or the last place on the trip where we sang Ha'tikvah as a group, and my feelings about that ritual were mixed. But in that instance, I sang without reservation. Just as Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel is the realized hope of our people, could my own life be seen as a realized hope of my family’s past? Here I was, an American in the 21st century, volunteering in the State of Israel for a year, paying tribute to my ancestors’ lives in Poland. The reality could only have seemed a far-fetched hope to my great-great-grandparents.

Singing our anthem in Treblinka unlocked the insight that before I existed, my people were dreaming of their children’s children’s children etc.—in other words, of me. The line in Ha’tikvah about a “hope of 2000 years” reminded me that hope does not have a start or an end; hope and memory are the threads with which we knit our generations together. When we look back, we not only remember—we identify. Every one of us embodies past hope and future memory.

Ha'tikvah expresses hope looking forward, vibrant life in the present, and allows for a window into the past. Remembering the effect Ha’tikvah had on me at Treblinka, I decided to look into other connections between the anthem and the Holocaust. Four stories stood out to me in particular. Two are from the war and two from recent years:

  • Before Israel was a state, Ha’tikvah was already an anthem. There is an account from Filip Muller, a sonderkommando in Auschwitz who saw Jews about to be murdered, singing Ha’tikvah as they were led into the gas chamber. When he tried to follow them in to end his suffering, they pushed him out and told him that he had to live to be their witness. In this one terrible scene, we see people yearning for a future State of Israel, and at the same time asking to be remembered as a part of that future.
  • A short time later, BBC radio reporters made a recording of inmates at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. Those who had enough strength wanted to make sure their voices were carried to the rest of the world, and the message they chose to send was Ha’tikvah. After enduring horror, they proudly proclaimed “our hope is not lost.” Unlike those who sang the anthem as they were led to their death, these men and women hoped for something they might one day see, but the song they sang was the same. It’s interesting to note that they are heard singing the words from Naftali Imber’s original poem, Tikvatenu, whose lyrics were slightly altered when the poem was adopted as Israel’s national anthem.

  • And it was the song played at a 2008 Yom Ha'shoah concert in Jerusalem with restored violins that had been used by Jewish musicians in concentration camp orchestras. To read more about this amazing project, see Violins of Hope: Instruments from the Holocaust.