My great-grandfather saved Jews during the Holocaust. Now I’m in jail for refusing to enlist in the IDF

Helman says his family’s history of resistance to oppression inspired his decision to refuse to enlist in the Israeli army.

By Matan Helman

Matan Helman and Ayelet Brachfeld. (Courtesy of Mesarvot)
Matan Helman and Ayelet Brachfeld. (Courtesy of Mesarvot)

Two Israeli draft refusers were sent to jail last Tuesday. Ayelet Brachfeld, 18, from Tel Aviv, and Matan Helman, 20, from Kibbutz HaOgen. Helman, who has already served 90 days in military prison, faces another 20-day prison term. Brachfeld, who has already served 40 days in military prison, will spend another 30 days behind bars.

Before his imprisonment, Helman wrote a letter about his family’s uncommon story during the Holocaust. Helman’s father is Israeli, born on the kibbutz. His mother is Dutch. She moved to Israel to volunteer on the kibbutz, attracted by its socialist ideals. Helman’s mother’s grandfather — his great-grandfather, Richte — refused to enlist in the Nazi work camps during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Richte escaped and joined the underground resistance.

This is the letter Helman wrote.

When I was in grade 11, I traveled to Poland with Hashomer Hatzair [a socialist-Zionist youth movement]. Before the orientation before the trip, my mother told me her family’s story during World War II for the first time. On the fourth day of the trip to Poland, I read my family’s story at a ceremony commemorating the Righteous Among the Nations [non-Jews who saved Jews during the war].

My father’s family is Jewish, from Eastern Europe. My mother is Dutch. When the Germans invaded the Netherlands in 1940, my great-grandfather Richte Taklenbroch was 28, married with three children. The Germans conquered the Netherlands in three days and quickly forced all Dutch young men to enlist in work camps to serve the German army.

Richte, my great-grandfather, refused to enlist, and joined the underground resistance. He hid in the family’s house in their village. At the same time, he attempted to join the resistance, to look for other ways to fight back against the Germans. Through the resistance, he met an old, Jewish couple and a Jewish woman. The three spent the last two years of the war hiding in Richte’s house. They would hide in a large closet, along with my great-grandfather. They could only leave the house at night to get fresh air. The resistance provided food rations for Richte’s guests. His wife would purchase food at different places in the area to avoid arousing any suspicion.

During the war, Richte’s family hid other Jews who would come to the house for one or two nights. Richte’s daughter, who was 10 at the time, was angry at her parents because she feared the punishment that awaited them if they were discovered hiding Jews. My grandmother was young then and didn’t understand the danger.

When the German occupation ended in May 1945, the old Jewish couple returned to the city of Groningen. They stayed in touch with the family until they died a few years after the war’s end. To this day, my family in the Netherlands still has a landscape drawn by the old Jewish man who hid in their house; he gave it to the family as a token of gratitude.

After I decided to refuse to enlist in the IDF, I still had occasional doubts about my decision. I asked myself what my great-grandfather would have done in my place. What would he have done were he required to serve in an army that occupies and oppresses another nation?

He wouldn’t enlist, his consciousness wouldn’t allow it. Richte would resist, he would refuse to enlist and he would face the consequences — time in prison.

The Shoah was the most murderous event in history. It stands alone. The Israeli occupation does not at all come close to what happened during the Holocaust — there is no comparison.

However, oppression is oppression is oppression. Saving Jews and resisting Nazism and refusing to serve and resisting the Israeli occupation are different ways, in different times, of fighting the same struggle: the struggle against occupation and terror, against slavery, oppression and bondage. The struggle for a world of peace, justice, and equality for everyone.

My family’s story made a strong impression on me. It inspires me. Richte taught me a lot. He taught me that the majority is not necessarily right, that morality and conscience are greater than the law. Most of all, he taught me that the answer to injustice is resistance. My great-grandfather is an exemplar, and I feel proud to follow his example. In the face of injustice, conscientious objection is a moral obligation.

Matan Helman, 20, from Kibbutz HaOgen, is one of the signers of the 2017 Refusers Letter. He is currently in prison for refusing to enlish in the IDF. A version of this post first appeared in Hebrew at Local Call. Read it here