Dr. Yitzhak Arad, a Holocaust survivor who went on to become a historian, brigadier general and longtime chairman of Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Remembrance Center, passed away on Thursday at the age of 94.
“I built a physical site for visitors, which tells and presents the history of the Holocaust. I expanded the education and research of the subject and laid the foundations for making the place a world center for commemorating the memory of the Holocaust and its heritage,” he later recalled about his time at the helm of the museum and research institution. “Despite years of lack of diplomatic relations with the countries of the Communist bloc in Eastern Europe, I have been able to establish working relations with archives in these countries and obtain hundreds of thousands of documents relating to the Holocaust there.”
While serving on a Lithuanian commission examining the country’s history during World War II, local nationalists began a smear campaign against Arad, accusing him of killing “Lithuanian freedom fighters” while fighting with the partisans and prompting an official war crimes investigation.
“I knew the Jewish world in Eastern Europe that was alive and well and destroyed in the Holocaust,” he wrote in his book, “Engraved in Memory.” “I saw with my own eyes thousands of Jews being led to the firing pits. I survived, and fate allowed me to join the partisans, the fighters against the murderers of our people, and in their ranks to blow up German trains.”
Born Yitzhak Rudnicki in Swieciany, Poland (now Svencionys, Lithuania) in 1926, Arad grew up in Warsaw, where he was educated in Hebrew schools and participated in Zionist youth movements. While his parents and over 30 of his immediate family members were murdered by Nazis, he managed to escape and join a Soviet partisan unit fighting the Germans and their local collaborators.
“In February 1943, at the age of sixteen, he escaped to the nearby forest where he joined the Soviet partisans,” a biographical sketch provided by Yad Vashem said of him. “Apart from a foray infiltrating the Vilna ghetto in April of that year to meet with underground leader Abba Kovner, Yitzhak stayed with the partisans until the end of the war, fighting the Germans and their collaborators in the Narocz Forest of Belarus and in eastern Lithuania, for which he received the highest partisan award.”
He immigrated to Mandatory Palestine on the illegal immigrant ship Hannah Szenes in 1945, at the age of 18, and joined the Palmach. After receiving his pilot’s license from the British, he photographed Arab villages from the air to prepare intelligence files before graduating to sabotage and “retaliatory” operations. He served in the IDF’s Fifth Battalion, participating in several important operations during the War of Independence. After the war, he remained in the army as a tanker, eventually rising to the rank of brigadier general as chief education officer in 1968.
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He completed his doctoral studies at Tel Aviv University after the army and researched the history of the Holocaust in Vilnius. He published over the years numerous studies on the subject. He served as Yad Vashem chairman from 1972 to 1993.
“Yad Vashem mourns the passing of Dr. Yitzhak Arad, Holocaust survivor and resistance fighter, renowned historian and former chairman of the Yad Vashem directorate and vice-chairman of the Yad Vashem Council,” the museum said in a statement.
“A noble and honest man has left us, a Jewish partisan hailing from the Warsaw ghetto who headed Yad Vashem for 21 years,” fellow Holocaust survivor and Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, current chairman of the Yad Vashem Council stated. “He worked diligently to commemorate the Holocaust and established the Valley of the Communities. Only last month, we met at the IDF General Staff forum held at Yad Vashem for Holocaust Remembrance Day, where he delivered a lecture. I had the great pleasure of seeing a Jew in his 90s speak fluently, with a clear mind. It is sad that such figures are leaving the world.”
Arad was married to Michal, who died in 2015, and was a father of three children and a grandfather to grandchildren and great-grandchildren.