JERUSALEM -- Zvi Zelinger arrived in Israel at the birth of the state in 1948. He was only 11 years old and had already survived the ordeal of a lifetime as a precocious and daring Jewish boy, dodging soldiers in basements and attics outside of Warsaw.

When he got to Israel, he had a story to tell. After liberation by the Russians from a cellar in rural Poland in 1945, he had walked back to his home, wearing one shoe and starving, only to find his family had perished. But, Zelinger recalled recently, no one in Israel wanted to listen to him. The War of Independence was underway.

"They were fighting for their immediate survival," Zelinger said. "They wouldn't listen. We were close to another Holocaust, right here."

Zelinger's experience was not unique. More than two-thirds of the Holocaust survivors eventually came to Israel, and today there are an estimated 300,000 living here. They were scorned and laughed at on their arrival, seen as weak victims at a time when the state was being led by domineering fighters.

Although the death of 6 million Jews has long figured prominently in the ideology of Israeli political leaders and in the very existence of the state, those Israelis who actually experienced the Holocaust often bore the memories of their suffering in silence.

The Israeli author Tom Segev describes this anguished secrecy in a book being published in the United States this week, "The Seventh Million: The Israelis and the Holocaust" (Hill & Wang). The book, a bestseller in Israel when it was released in Hebrew last year, recalls one of the earliest chroniclers of the Nazi atrocities, Yechiel Dinur, an Auschwitz survivor.

Dinur wrote under a pseudonym, his picture never appeared with his book, he never gave interviews, and he always wore a long-sleeved shirt in sultry Tel Aviv so he could hide the number imprinted on his arm. According to Segev, Dinur wanted to keep a barrier between his life in Israel and his earlier suffering, a barrier that Segev said was a metaphor for much of Israeli society in the early years after the war, but a barrier that has been crumbling.

"Our own society had a conspiracy of silence," said John Lemberger, director-general of Amcha, the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation. "At the beginning of the state, people didn't want to know. They didn't want to hear of the weak Jews. Now, many of the survivors are opening up 50 years later. They want to talk."

Segev said in an interview that the survivors' desire to speak out is part of a larger transformation in Israeli society, reflecting a more mature examination of the Holocaust. "The Holocaust survivors always start by explaining why they couldn't have resisted, in a very apologetic tone," he said. "This is what they carry from the 1950s. They were blamed for not having resisted. This was a very heroic period in our history.

"Young people today don't even ask that question," Segev said. "People today have a much more refined and mature attitude. They have developed the capability of sympathizing with the victim. The survivors are still living in a period when the country was ashamed, and the kids today are no longer ashamed.

"At the beginning, the Holocaust was presented as something demonic and satanic, the emphasis was on acts of fate," he said. "The more time passed, Israeli textbooks have taken the much more difficult task to tell the students as human beings that we all share responsibility for things that happen in modern society. It is a much more troublesome message."

In the past few years, Israelis have been debating the Holocaust as never before. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has provided opportunities that were long denied for Israelis to return to their old home towns and the sites of the concentration camps. The Arab uprising in the West Bank and Gaza Strip plunged many young students and soldiers into moral debates about the limits of their actions, debates that invariably reached back to the Holocaust. A series of Israeli political leaders, led by Menachem Begin and later Yitzhak Shamir, tried to invoke the Holocaust as a powerful symbol of the isolation of the Jews. And Israeli culture has increasingly probed the outer limits of debate about the Holocaust; a recent play drew criticism when it depicted a puppy named "Shoah," the Hebrew word for the genocide.

In one such debate, some parents and educators recently questioned the wisdom of a government-funded program started in 1988 that has sent thousands of Israeli teenagers to visit Auschwitz. The critics said the trips would only result in the youths feeling more vulnerable or hateful.

"What do we teach the students in Poland?" asked Segev, who describes one high school visit in his book. "They can come back and say, 'We learned how antisemitic the world is,' they can come back and become very closed, very xenophobic. Or they can bring back universal values." Segev's argument is that Israelis need to "place Holocaust teachings into history, and take them away from national mythology."

"It was not the act of some Satan," he said. "It was the act of man -- social and political conditions made it possible. It is our responsibility to make sure they do not repeat themselves."

From their schoolbooks, Israeli students learn that Israel's mission is to ensure that the Holocaust never be allowed to happen again. This lesson, according to Segev, contributed to three of the most weighty decisions taken by the Jewish state after its creation: the massive inflow of Jewish immigrants, the program to build a nuclear weapon, and the Six Day War.

"You cannot understand Israel without understanding the role of the Holocaust in our biography," said Segev. "But it is very difficult to distinguish between the genuine feeling we have, and the political manipulation of the Holocaust. ... When Begin sent the Israeli army to Beirut to capture 'Hitler' in his bunker, this was a clear case of a manipulating argument. Also, when people on the far left say they cannot serve in the Israel army because it's like the Nazis, this is a clear case of using the Holocaust for political manipulation."

The evolving struggle of Israelis to come to grips with the Holocaust recently has included more survivors coming forth, spurred on by a combination of events. Many of them are simply frail and decided to speak out before they die. But life in Israel also has put these survivors through their own recent traumas -- the war crimes trial of John Demjanjuk and the subsequent controversy over his conviction; the fears generated by the Persian Gulf War; the emotions sparked as they recently watched television reports of the rise of neo-Nazis in Germany. Some also have been prompted to open up because of a lengthy and detailed new questionnaire they must fill out to qualify for German reparations.

Karla Pilpel, a 61-year-old retired public health nurse in Jerusalem, said that for more than 30 years she didn't talk to her children about her experiences as a Jewish child in prewar Germany. "I thought they weren't interested, and they didn't want to hurt me," she recalled. "I felt I had no right to complain -- I survived and I didn't go through the concentration camps."

But in recent years, she finally told them of the horrors she endured, including how she was sexually molested as a child refugee. (She escaped the Nazis when she was evacuated to England, and later married a native-born Israeli.) She opened up, she said, because "the clock is ticking away."

Yitzhak Mendelson, a clinical psychologist who works with survivors who seek help at Amcha, said many of them, only children at the time of Hitler, are now reaching a point late in life where they have to let go of the painful recollections. "At first, people were building their lives here, worrying about their economic security. You cannot do {several} emotionally complicated things at the same time. It's not by chance that now, many of them are feeling it's time to speak."

Segev said the 1991 gulf war was a vivid turning point for many Israelis because it brought the fear of the Holocaust into their daily lives.

"The state was not in danger, and everyone knew it. But every individual was in danger, when you saw the missile leaving Baghdad, and you waited, five or six minutes, to see if it would hit you. We were all sitting in sealed rooms wearing gas masks, completely isolated and helpless. This is the ghetto. This is what not many people realized at the time, but afterwards it became clear," he said. "In all previous wars, we were riding tanks. This time you did nothing. And we were talking about gas that was made in Germany. While we were sitting in our sealed rooms, we could see {on television} Herman Wouk's 'War and Remembrance.' "