In memory of the 67 brave soldiers who died before they could celebrate 67 years of Independence…
One of my roles when I worked for the Zionist Council of Victoria was to put together the booklet for the Yom Hazikaron ceremony, which takes place every year the night before Yom Ha’atzmaut. When I first began, there was a short list of fallen soldiers and victims of terror whose family members and loved ones had, over the years, lit a candle in honour of their memory at the ceremony. One year we decided that we would also put photos with their names, never to be forgotten, and that each year we would add the names and the photos of those who fell in the defence of Israel who had some sort of a connection to our community here in Melbourne.
My heart always broke when I got to this part of the booklet. All of these young men and women, some just boys and girls actually, staring back at me – Dan Zehavi z”l, Oren Zarif z”l, Yair Kiryati z”l, Malki Roth z”l. And then the Second Lebanon War happened in 2006, and Operation Cast Lead in 2009. Those years were difficult years – so many “new” names and faces… Eldad Regev z”l, Ehud Goldwasser z”l, Itay Steinberger z”l, Nir Cohen z”l, Roi Klein z”l, Roi Rozner z”l and from our own Jewish Community here in Australia, Assaf Namer z”l.
It has been a few years since I have worked for the ZCV, a few years since I have had that difficult task of staring at innocent faces taken too soon. Last night I attended the ceremony and flicked through the booklet – again those innocent faces staring back at me. And all of a sudden I realised that it had never occurred to me, even after twelve years of staring at these faces, just how much they have been frozen in time.
Tzafrir Sharoni z”l remains 22 years old, David Appelbaum z”l remains 51, Eliyahu Aluf z”l remains 30, and little Yael Ohana z”l remains just 11 years of age. While we have all moved on with our lives, the men and women who gave their lives for their country stayed the same, forever to remain that way.
The first Yom Hazikaron after a war is always difficult.
The saddest element of Yom Hazikaron in Israel is that we are not only talking about wars that occurred in another world, in another era long ago, the list sadly gets longer year after year. One hundred and sixteen names were added to that list this year, bringing the total number to 23,320, including 67 soldiers killed during Operation Protective Edge last year.
The 116 deaths this year also includes 35 war disabled who died from their injuries over the past year. It includes 3 month old Chaya Zissel Braun z”l, who was killed when a Palestinian terrorist rammed his car into a group of people waiting for the light rail train in Jerusalem, it includes Eyal Yifrach z”l, Gilad Shaer z”l and Naftali Frankel z”l who were kidnapped and killed by Hamas terrorists in the West Bank, and it includes 4 year old Daniel Tregerman z”l, who was killed when a mortar rocket hit his house in the last days of the war with Hamas.
According to statistics released by the Ministry of Defence, the 116 who died last year leave behind 131 bereaved parents, 187 siblings, 11 widows, 26 children, two born after their father’s deaths. This brings the total number of bereaved parents to 9,753, the total number of widows to 4958, and 2,049 bereaved children aged 30 or under.
Having not experienced this level of grief personally, I cannot imagine what feelings Yom Hazikaron conjures up for these families. Or that every day for them is Yom Hazikaron – they do not need a national day of mourning to remind them of the grief they live with day in, day out.
A few nights ago, Israeli television screened a documentary featuring families and comrades of three soldiers who were killed in a tunnel in Gaza after one of the many ceasefires of the Gaza war had come into place – Benaya Sarel z”l, Liel Gidoni z”l and Hadar Goldin z”l. A similar theme ran through all of their stories of courageous men who loved their country, who knew what fate may await them. But these men could not imagine the immeasurable amount of grief they left behind them; the fiancée who was waiting to become a bride just three weeks later; the family for whom the Friday night meal will never be the same after learning their son had been captured by Hamas as they welcomed in the light on one Friday evening in August; the mother who visits her son’s grave every day without fail.
I could not watch, but I could not look away. Benaya’s story hit a chord with me. I had watched a documentary from six years ago which followed a number of soldiers through a course where they trained to become Officers. Benaya was one of them. He struck me as strong, courageous and extremely brave. A true leader. What an awful fate awaited him. And when he spoke to the camera, his eyes pierced through the screen. At his funeral his fiancée Gali said,
“I want to say thank you for the best three years of my life. Thank you for your truth, thank you for coming into my life and teaching me so much. Thank you for your infinite love, your laughter, and your eyes that will accompany me throughout my life”.
On this Yom Hazikaron, I have made a pact with myself to read the stories of as many of the soldiers as possible. To remember them and honour them. So they know that their deaths mean something. To say their names out loud. So that when we transition over tonight into celebrations for Israel’s Independence Day, we remember that it is because of their sacrifice that we have a country that we can celebrate.
יהי זכרם ברוך
May their memory be a blessing.