Hillel Lodge resident Joel Berkovic survived the Holocaust and went on to participate in the founding of the State of Israel.
Joel Berkovic, 92, was born in Dubové, Czechoslovakia (now the Slovak Republic) on May 25, 1925. While both of his parents had passed away before the Second World War, much of his extended family perished in the Holocaust.
Berkovic himself survived Auschwitz and was liberated from Dachau while his sister survived Auschwitz. Both of his brothers fought the Nazis: one as a soldier in the Soviet army, the other as a partisan.
“We had the will to live, we knew we couldn’t lose. We had no other choice,” Berkovic told the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin about the determination he and other Holocaust survivors displayed during the darkest time in modern Jewish history.
“When the U.S. army liberated us, we believed that everything would be OK from then on. Of course, it wasn’t. The war never really ended for many of us. And back then, there was no one we could ask help from.”
After the war Berkovic attempted to follow his brothers to British Mandate Palestine.
“We never forgot that we belong in Israel,” he said.
However, the ship carrying Berkovic and other Jewish refugees who had survived the Holocaust was intercepted by the British and he was confined in Cyprus until after United Nations voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states 70 years ago on November 29, 1947.
In Israel, Berkovic joined Kibbutz Afikim and fought in the 1948 War of Independence. During the war, his right shoulder was wounded by shrapnel.
“We hoped for a miracle, but miracles are not easy, so we just tried our best, and we’re still here,” he said of the fight to establish the Jewish state.
“In the end, we won. Not because someone gave us Israel, but because we fought for it, because we believed that we deserve this. That’s the main thing: we’re here to stay – and no one could believe that at the time.”
Berkovic was an agricultural worker on the kibbutz after the war. It was a hard life, he said, “but we had each other. We shared whatever we had: food, clothes – everything.”
Berkovic’s sister had made her way to Montreal after the war and he joined her there in 1957 where he married and worked in the textile industry. He eventually moved to Ottawa after his wife passed away and is now a resident of Hillel Lodge.
“I’m not special,” he said modestly, “not a hero. I did what everybody else, all the chaverim did.”
But Joel Berkovic’s story is the story of the Jewish people in the past century: a story of pride, bravery and hope.