Yesterday, I met my friend Esther Wachsman at the movies. We went to see Green Book in Cinema City Jerusalem. Esther lost her soldier son Nachshon who was kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists 25 years ago. She isn’t driving these days, so she took a cab from Ramot.
“The cab driver recognized me,” she told me. “He asked me if I would be going to Har Herzl (the military cemetery) on Remembrance Day. I said I didn’t know. It depended on whether or not I got a ride there.”
“I would like the honor of driving you there,” the cab driver told her. “Please, no payment, just give me the honor,” he told her.
With haredim entering the IDF in ever greater numbers to fulfill their compulsory military service, things are changing. This year, for the first time, an official ceremony was held at Jerusalem’s Heichal Shlomo to honor fallen haredi soldiers like Yitzchak Tubal, who took time off yeshiva studies to join the army. On Yom Kippur, 1973, he was leading the prayers for his unit. A few hours later, Egyptian soldiers launched a murderous surprise attack. When a grenade landed at his feet, he didn’t hesitate, covering it with his body to absorb the entire impact and save the lives of his comrades.
At this unique ceremony, long overdue, haredi families stood for the siren, sang Hatikvah, but also read Psalms and sang “Ani Maamin,” i.e.: “I believe with complete faith in the coming of the Messiah.” Outside, secular soldiers were busy organizing the ceremony.
The stories of the fallen are broadcast on Israeli television. The young wife of a fallen tank commander, Shai, who died during Operation Protective Edge in Gaza in 2014, shows us the treehouse they built for their children. “But now,” she says, “that won’t happen. There will never be any children.” She climbs up and sits inside. “We were so happy. So very, very happy together. And now all that happiness has turned to sorrow. And I have nothing. Nothing at all. I’m a body that is propelled along, but inside, I am empty.” His comrades-in arms describe the battle which left Shai inside one of two tanks isolated inside enemy territory. They described how the young officer never lost his cool, his sense of humor, his dedication, his shrewd planning skills which allowed others to survive. “He was at his peak, and he gave his all,” the young widow says. “And deep in my heart, I know that was the way he would have chosen to go.”
The story of Rav Miki Mark, head of the Otniel Yeshiva, who was driving with his wife Chava and two of their ten children when Palestinian terrorists who lay in wait for them opened fire, killing Rav Miki, and critically injuring Chava. The two girls were also wounded. This was in 2016. The documentary shows the family struggling to survive without parents, their mother still recovering from brain surgery, leaving the task of raising the youngest children in the hands of their older siblings. The pain of loss, recently doubled when the oldest son was killed in a car accident. Their struggle to keep their faith, their goodness, their everyday lives. The terrible loss inflicted upon them by deliberate evil stemming from Muslim terrorist ideology based on their warped religious views which has caused and continues to cause so much needless grief in the world, and grief of a terrible random accident. And still, they are a family, growing, coping.
Keren Tendler was the child of Romanian immigrants who made history as the first female Yasour transport helicopter squadron flight mechanic. Her commanders absolutely refused to allow her to participate in operational flights in Lebanon during the war. But Keren had other ideas. She was furious, threatening to stop doing reserve duty. She cornered her squadron commander: “I have to take part in the war like everybody else.”
Like all the barriers Keren faced, this one too collapsed in the face of her brave determination. On August 12, 2006, Keren flew with her crew into Lebanon, successfully landing forces deep inside southern Lebanon. But when the helicopter took off for home, it suffered a direct hit from a Hezbollah rocket. All four crew members were killed. Gili Cohen, Haartz reporter, wrote: “Keren’s body was found only a day after the fatal crash. The air force commander at the time, Maj. Gen. Eliezer Shkedi, told the family he had given an order: “Don’t come back without Keren.” Hundreds of fighters took part in the operation to bring her back – among them paratroopers and special operations units. Her body was found in a small crevice some distance from the remains of the helicopter. She was carried back into Israel on a stretcher borne by fighters, on a march that took several hours.
“She is a heroic figure, a ground-breaker,” said her mother, “and the operation to rescue her from Lebanon was also heroic.” Over 535 women fighters in the IDF have sacrificed their lives for their country.
Shmuel Katz was born in 1944 in Europe. The Nazis killed his father, and his widowed mother brought her sickly, malnourished baby on a ship bound for Palestine which was interned by the British in Cyprus. Finally, the young widow reached her destination and settled with her baby in kibbutz. He grew up strong and happy. He didn’t like the army, but said if it was his duty, he’d be the best he knew how. He had big plans: to study in the Technion, to be part of the changing, modern world. And then the country which had held out its arms to him and other survivors, was threatened once again in June, 1967, the Six Day War. He was a commander in a unit that was one of the first to enter the Old City of Jerusalem, freeing the Jewish quarter and the Kotel. He was killed on the second day of the war. He was twenty-two years old. “When he died, something in me died too,” said his mother of her only child.
The headlines in the day’s paper read: To Remember, For Their Sake.
Today, Israel stands united with the memory of the 23, 741 fallen soldiers.
May their memories be blessed. We will never forget. We have a country because of them. Our enemies will never understand that it is this legacy of heroism and selfless devotion that has bequeathed us faith, strength, and courage for unimaginable sacrifice that characterize the Israeli people. We have no choice but to live up to this legacy, which is our heritage. Everyone who joins us in Israel, becomes part of that. You will never be alone and afraid. You will be surrounded by the most amazing people in the world, people it is a privilege to live amongst.
Each year, we remember who they were, and by doing this, who we are.
May their memories be blessed.