Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day for fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism began a few hours ago at sundown, signalled by a one-minute siren during which everyone stood to attention and traffic came to a standstill.
The annual ceremony took place at the Kotel, where President Shimon Peres told the audience “Our joy is always incomplete” at the huge losses we have suffered:
Israel came to a standstill Sunday evening at 8 p.m. for a minute-long memorial siren during which Israelis stood at attention to commemorate the 23,169 fallen soldiers and 2,495 terror victims who have fallen throughout the history of the State of Israel and the Zionist movement.
The siren was followed by the lighting of a memorial flame to the fallen at the Western Wall, the site of the official state commemoration ceremony.
“It wasn’t a declaration that founded this wonderful country. It was founded upon the blood of its sons and daughters, upon the sweat of the pioneers and the vision of its prophets,” President Shimon Peres said at the Western Wall ceremony. “Israel today is a strong country, a miracle in the eyes of the Jews, a wonder in the eyes of the world. We, the Israelis, are not like any other people. For a generation already the sadness does not release us, even for joy. Our joy is always incomplete. A cloud of sadness envelops us. It is hidden deeply but stares out of our eyes,” the president lamented to an audience of IDF soldiers and families of the fallen.
IDF chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz recalled the sacrifices of Israel’s fallen soldiers, adding that more sacrifice will be needed in the future to defend the country.
“Here, tonight, we promise we will stand alert, prepared to respond to any flare-up, and will perform any mission required to ensure Israel’s security. We cannot promise that all our troops will return safely. We are committed to send them to battle trained, armed with the best equipment, led by the best commanders. But this isn’t enough. The nation’s support is needed as well. Your recognition and appreciation are the most precious ammunition our soldiers carry,” Gantz said.
“We know the relative security calm we’ve experienced in the past years is an illusion,” Gantz added.
The first official event began at 4 p.m. Sunday at Yad LaBanim, or “Memorial for the Sons,” in Jerusalem. The event was attended by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose brother Yoni fell during the IDF’s rescue of Jewish hostages in Entebbe, Uganda, in July 1976. It was also attended by other families of the fallen, Israel’s chief rabbis, Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, Supreme Court Chief Justice Asher Grunis, Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat and other top officials.
“On this day, the nation adopts us and unites with us, and with the heroes of the nation,” Netanyahu said, speaking for the families of the fallen. “They came from all parts of the country, from all segments of Israeli society, and the simple and most concise truth is this: We would not be here if not for their sacrifice. We would not be here without their readiness to give their lives so we could be here. This right, this sacrifice, the ability to risk their lives in the face of the horrors of war — all this was not available to us before the founding of Israel.”
Commemorative events for Yom Hazikaron began already on Sunday afternoon, when Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu visited the grave of his brother Yoni Netanyahu, the fallen hero of the Entebbe Rescue. Earlier this evening I saw an interview of Binyamin Netanyahu together with his other brother Ido, where they spoke about their memories of their brother Yoni. One of the most touching moments was when Bibi said that they had very few recordings and photos of Yoni, and he appealed to the public asking that if anyone had any such items could they send them in. It was a request that was both very unexpected and one that humanized both the heroic slain brother and his powerful younger brother.
Two beautifully moving stories in the Israeli press illustrate the huge sacrifice that was required of, and freely given by those who had barely escaped utter destruction during the Shoah – all in order to ensure that the newborn State of Israel should live and its citizens survive.
Israel Hayom has the dramatic story of a boy who was switched at birth while still in Russia, and although he was eventually returned to his biological family he never fully adjusted. In the end the family made aliya to war-torn pre-state Israel in order to get away from the trauma. In the saddest turn of events, Raphael lost his life in defence of Gush Etzion:
Refael was deployed to man a post near the Russian monastery which was located on a ridge of the so-called “Russian mountain,” whose altitude reaches 960 meters above sea level, east of Kfar Etzion in a region adjacent to the main highway connecting Jerusalem and Hebron.
A defensive post was built in the area, and the fighters were tasked with preventing enemy forces from surrounding the ridge from the south. The area was fortified, ditches were dug, and barb wire fences were put up. The strategic significance of the post was obvious to everyone — Jews and Arabs alike — due to the fact that it ensured control over internal highway in the village, the northern ridges, the main highway leading to Jerusalem, and Beit Fajr and Emek Habracha. That is why this area was the staging ground for numerous attacks against enemy convoys. The operations included mining, sabotage, assaults on convoys, and prevention of free transport for enemy vehicles in the region in hopes of enabling the forces from Jerusalem to move freely to and from the Etzion bloc of settlements.
On May 4, 10 days before the end of the British Mandate over Palestine, mobs of Arabs stormed Gush Etzion with cannons and armored vehicles. With the active assistance of the Arab Legion and the British Mandatory forces, they sought to evict the defending forces from the posts lined up along the main highway. Following a lengthy battle which left 12 soldiers dead, among them Refael, who sustained bullet wounds to his throat, the Arabs succeeded in taking control of the monastery. By evening, the monastery was re-taken by the defenders of the Gush. The post was reconquered by the Jewish fighters.
Kissing 12 tombstones
On May 12, 1948, the last, decisive battle was waged for Gush Etzion. As sunrise, the Arab Legion forces, various gangs, and Arab gunmen from surrounding villages stormed the defense positions in Gush Etzion and their settlements. In a battle waged near the Russian monastery, the commander of Gush Etzion, Moshe Zilberschmidt, was killed. The Jewish fighters, who were outmanned by thousands of Arabs, retreated toward the settlements. One by one, each defensive position was taken over by the Arabs. Gush Etzion was surrounded. On the second day of the battles, without the commander of the Gush, with ammunition running low, and with no way of communicating between the settlements, the battles resumed.
In the afternoon hours, the fourth day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar, on the eve of the declaration of the state’s founding, Kfar Etzion was overrun by the Arabs. The final communique from the settlement to Jerusalem read: “The queen has fallen.” After the fall of Kfar Etzion, the Arabs brutally massacred 127 of its defenders. Only four survived. The Arabs mutilated the dead bodies, desecrated and destroyed the homes that were left, and vandalized the tombstones.
Shoshana would later say that her parents, who only learned a short time earlier that their son was fighting in Gush Etzion, turned on the radio and heard about the assault. Her mother immediately yelled, “Rafi was killed.” She had no idea how right she would turn out to be. When army representatives came to her door to deliver the bad news, the parents were not home. It was left to the young Shoshana, who was barely 18 years old at the time, to take on perhaps the most difficult task of all — telling her parents that they had lost their oldest son, this time for the second time.
Just 18 months after the fall of Gush Etzion and following lengthy negotiations with the Arab Legion, the task of gathering the remains of the fallen soldiers of Gush Etzion was allowed to proceed. They were brought for burial to the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Landau, Tzipora’s grandson, says that every year, with the conclusion of the ceremony honoring the war dead, after saying goodbye to Refael’s tombstone, his grandmother would often hold a ritual of her own.
“Since she wasn’t certain that Refael’s body was really buried underneath the tombstone that bears his name, she would sit near every tombstone, kiss it, and bid farewell to Refael before going on to the next tombstone,” he said. “She would do that 12 times, for 12 different tombstones. This went on for hours, and we would wait patiently until she would finish.”
Today I am proud to say that my younger daughter lives in the beautiful region of Gush Etzion which was liberated from its Arab occupiers in 1967.
The IDF Spokesman’s blog tells us of “The Last Descendants – The story of those who can’t speak“:
European Jews who were able to miraculously survive the barbarity of the Holocaust later immigrated to Israel. Unfortunately, many of these survivors’ families were not so lucky. Parents, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters were all lost, leaving behind a single family member: the last descendant.
The Last Descendants are those who came alone to Israel – the only place where they could live their lives without fear – because the rest of their family perished in the Holocaust. Later, these individuals lost their lives defending the State of Israel and the Jewish people, leaving behind no family and effectively ending their family legacy.
The following is the story of two “last descendants” who fought together in Israel’s War of Independence, and died together in the same battle.
An Auschwitz Survivor
Mordechai David Gantz was born in March 1928 in a Maramure Jewish community in Romania. The community of 40,000 was composed of mostly Orthodox Jews and many well known rabbis, scholars, and writers.
Along with various others, Mordechai’s entire family was deported in May 1944 to Auschwitz. By the end of the war he was the lone survivor of his family. In June 1947, Mordechai immigrated to Israel with a Youth Aliyah program. He was educated in a religious village and established a life near Kfar Hasidim.
A Resistance Fighter
Born in 1925 near the city of Radom, Poland, Shalom Tepper grew up in a Jewish community where he was active in the movement “Torah and Work.” Shalom was one of more than three million Jews that lived in Poland before World War II. In September of 1939, Germany invaded Poland and Jewish life changed drastically. The Białobrzegi Ghetto was established in 1939 to separate the Jewish community and by October 1942 all of its residents were systematically sent to the Treblinka extermination camp.
During the outbreak of the war, Shalom’s father died of natural causes. The rest of his family was killed in concentration camps. Shalom himself was deported to Auschwitz and Majdanek concentration camps but remarkably survived. He managed to escape from the forced labor and joined the Partisans in the Polish forest. Shalom fought actively against the Nazis until the end of the war.
After the liberation, Shalom joined a Youth Aliyah organization and immigrated to Israel in 1946. He eventually moved to Petach Tikva and made a living working with his hands.
The War of Independence
At the outbreak of the War of Independence, Mordechai and Shalom both joined the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization that later became the IDF. They served together in Battalion 33 of the “Alexander” Brigade, which took on an important operational role in the center of the country in stopping the encroaching Jordanian and Iraqi armies.
During the operation, the Alexander Brigade captured a southern part of the village but the forces in the northern sector were repelled. Little by little the Egyptians recovered ground and eventually forced the Hagana troops to withdraw. Unfortunately during the fighting, 90 soldiers were killed, including Mordechai and Shalom.
The Last Descendents
Mordechai and Shalom were just two of the many “last descendents” who fell in the War of Independence. Their contribution is commemorated at the Memorial for the Last of Kin at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. Overall, these survivors and soldiers made the ultimate sacrifice for Israeli independence but sadly they have no family to carry on their legacy.
May the memory of our fallen be for a blessing for all of Am Yisrael, for in their death they have commanded us life. Yehi zichram baruch.
יהי זכרם ברוך