Yitzhak Arad, who fought as an orphaned teenage partisan in World War II against the Germans and their staff, became a respected Holocaust scholar and long-time chairman of the Yad Vashem Memorial and Research Center in Israel at a hospital in Tel Aviv on May 6. He was 94 years old.
Yad Vashem announced the death but did not give the cause.
Mr. Arad was not even bar mitzvah when the Germans invaded Poland and what is now Lithuania in 1939 and began to drum up Jews, murder them and force them into ghettos. His parents and 30 close family members would perish before the end of the war in 1945.
But he first survived as a forced laborer – he cleaned up captured Soviet weapons in an ammunition dump – and then felt what awaited fate by smuggling weapons to partisans in the nearby forests and forming an underground movement in the ghetto. He, his sister, and their underground colleagues eventually stole a revolver and fled to meet with a brigade of Soviet partisans.
He earned the lifelong nickname Tolya (diminutive for Anatoly) and took part in raiding German bases in what is now Belarus and building mines that blew up more than a dozen trains carrying German soldiers and supplies. His exploits included fighting pro-German Lithuanian partisans in snow-covered fields and forests in the village of Girdan.
“We fought with them for a whole day, but none of them stayed alive in the evening,” he wrote in a treatise in 1979: “The partisan: From the valley of death to the mountain. Zion.” “The next day we counted over 250 Lithuanians dead.”
A Zionist since childhood, Mr Arad set out for Palestine, then a British mandate, aboard a ship, the Hannah Senesh, filled with immigrants who entered the country in violation of a British blockade.
He changed his Polish name Icchak Rudnicki to Hebrew Yitzhak Arad and joined the struggle for an autonomous Jewish country. He served in the Palmach, the elite force that eventually joined the Israeli army after Israel declared independence in 1948. He was assigned to an armaments brigade and rose to the rank of brigadier general who retired in 1972.
He devoted himself to research into the history of the Holocaust and received his PhD from Tel Aviv University with a treatise on the destruction of the Jews of Vilnius, Lithuania’s capital now known as Vilnius. He was among the first scholars to study the Jewish partisans in the forests and ghettos and the systematic murder of Jews by killing troops as the German army advanced deeper into Soviet territory.
“What gave Yitzhak Arad credibility was both the fact that he was a survivor and a historian,” said Abraham H. Foxman, former National Director of the Anti-Defamation League. “He was able to discuss and teach about the Shoah from a very personal perspective.”
In 1972, when another Palmach veteran, Yigal Allon, became Minister of Education and Culture, he asked Mr. Arad to lead Yad Vashem – which means “a memorial and a name” and is taken from a verse in Isaiah.
Yad Vashem, a complex of museums, archives and memorial sculptures on a hill in Jerusalem, is considered the world’s leading archive for Holocaust documents, survival interviews and other material. He was chairman of the board for more than two decades until 1993.
“He never forgot,” said Avner Shalev, Mr. Arad’s successor as chairman. “He was part of the most important event for Jews in the 20th century – the Shoah – and he understood that exploring and commemorating this event is an important mission in his life.”
During most of his tenure at Yad Vashem, the Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries in their bloc severed diplomatic relations with Israel. But Mr. Arad was proud to have established working relationships with archivists in these countries and to have secured hundreds of thousands of documents describing the scope of the Holocaust.
Under his leadership, Yad Vashem added a number of monuments including the Valley of the Communities, 2.5 acres of crisscrossing walls made of rough-hewn stone blocks bearing the names of 5,000 Jewish communities, most of which were destroyed in the Holocaust.
He lectured at Tel Aviv University and wrote several books considered essential for scholars, including “The Holocaust in the Soviet Union,” which won the National Jewish Book Award in 2009, and “Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps “. that recorded the murder of millions in these death camps.
In 2006 he was briefly the target of a war crimes investigation in Lithuania. A prosecutor alleged there was evidence that a Soviet partisan gang, of which he was a member, killed 38 civilians, mostly women and children, in the village of Koniuchy in January 1944.
Mr Arad denied ever killing anyone in cold blood, pointing out that the village was defended by a Lithuanian militia that worked with the Nazis. In the international outcry that followed, historians noted that at that point, despite the thousands of Lithuanians who collaborated with the Nazis in the slaughter of 200,000 Jews, Lithuania had never charged non-Jews with war crimes. The case was dropped in 2008.
Mr. Arad was born on November 11, 1926 in the ancient city of Swieciany, then in Poland, now part of Lithuania and known as Svencionys. (Another prominent resident was Mordecai Kaplan, the co-founder of Reconstructivist Judaism.) His father Israel was a synagogue cantor and his mother Chaya a housewife. The family moved to cosmopolitan Warsaw and sent Yitzhak to a Hebrew school. He belonged to an association that was part of the Zionist movement.
After the German Blitzkrieg, his parents sent him and his older sister to live with his grandparents in his hometown of Swieciany to believe that they would be safe there. But the Germans occupied the city in June 1941, ordered all Jews to a ghetto and soon began deportations to extermination camps and labor camps.
Mr. Arad’s wife, Michal, died in 2015. He is survived by two sons, Giora and Ruli, a daughter, Orit Lerer, 11 grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren.
Mr. Arad remained active at Yad Vashem until his final weeks. Last year he took part in a photo exhibition about Holocaust survivors and their life after the war. When it was his turn to speak, he confronted the audience with a harsh truth borne by his own trials.
“What happened in the past,” he said, “could potentially happen to anyone at any time.”