More than 40 Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (FIDF) supporters from across the country, with Holocaust survivors and alongside 45 soldiers and officers representing all branches of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), concluded today the FIDF Mission to Poland and Israel.

Joining the delegation was Holocaust survivor Sophie Tajch Klisman, 89, of Detroit. Klisman, along with her sister Felicia, survived the Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and Salzwedel concentration camps. The youngest of four children, she was only 10 years old when Nazi Germany occupied her hometown of Lodz, forcing the family into the Lodz ghetto of 68,000 Jews. Both sisters were liberated from Salzwedel in April 1945, and immigrated to the U.S. in 1949, settling in the Detroit area. The rest of their family perished.

“If I look at the rest of the family, they were already adults and grown-ups and here was this child; that was just a miracle that I survived; it was meant for me to survive,” Klisman said. “I just hope in conclusion, that nobody, nobody should have to live through such terrors, such horrible conditions at such a young age, or at any age. It was a horrible experience, but I’m glad that I finally was able to tell it.”

Also joining the mission was Holocaust survivor Gizella “Gita” Mann, 89, of Israel. Mann’s community in Hungary was forced into a ghetto and later brought to Auschwitz, where she and her sister were separated from their family. Gita was later separated from her sister and sent to Germany, where she worked for most of the war. After narrowly escaping death, she was taken to Sweden and stayed there until 1946. She returned to Hungary after the war and reunited with her sister and three brothers. In 1948, she moved with her then-fiancé to Israel, where she stayed until emigrating to the U.S. in 1964, and finally returning to Israel five years ago. Mann has two children who live in New Jersey, and she currently lives in Jerusalem.

Led by FIDF National President Bobby Cohen and FIDF National Director and CEO Maj. Gen. (Res.) Meir Klifi-Amir, the nine-day “From Holocaust to Independence” Mission spanned Jewish history, from its darkest moments to its most triumphant. Israeli soldiers and Holocaust survivors accompanied the FIDF supporters on a trip across Poland, starting in Krakow, once home to more than 60,000 Jews, and tracing the community’s steps from the city’s ghetto to the Buczyna forest, where the Nazis executed more than 800 children. The group then traveled to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps.

The entire delegation later flew to Israel on an Israeli Air Force (IAF) airplane, after the IDF Chief of the General Staff granted the FIDF delegation exclusive access to land at an IAF base. The group visited several IDF bases and met soldiers serving on Israel’s front lines, commemorated Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror – and celebrated Israel’s 71st Independence Day. On May 9, the delegation met with Israel’s President, Reuven Rivlin.

“This historic mission surveyed Jewish modern history through the eyes of those who survived the horrors of the Holocaust and those who risk their lives to defend the Jewish homeland,” said Klifi-Amir. “We’ve celebrated our story of heroism – from near annihilation, to the triumph of establishing the state of Israel. When we marched tall and proud through the gates of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camps, together with Holocaust survivors, FIDF supporters, and 45 Israeli officers in uniform, gratefully flying the Israeli flag, we sent a clear message: that we are here, we will never forget, and we will do whatever we must do to protect our country and our people to guarantee – Never Again.”

“This mission serves as one of the last opportunities for survivors to return to Auschwitz and share its dreadful stories,” said Cohen. “We entered the gates of hell, where countless Jews suffered and perished at the hands of the Nazis. We will ensure the stories of survivors live on, safeguarded by those brave soldiers who defend and protect the state of Israel, and Jewish people around the world.”