Who ‘owns’ Israel’s fallen soldiers?

Published on Haaretz

The story of a mythic family figure killed in a 1946 Palmach operation, when he was only 18, teaches us about how family and national histories intersect in Israel.

Yehiel Slor was a family hero. He was killed at the Achziv Bridge in 1946 during Leil Hagsharim, the Night of the Bridges, a Palmach operation against the British to blow up simultaneously all of the bridges connecting Palestine to its surrounding countries. He died at 18 – decades before my wife was born, and would have been her great uncle. Had he survived, he would be 85 years old today.

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Israelis are profoundly committed to memorializing, and have remarkable stamina for azkarot, annual gatherings to recall lost family members, whether they call forth pre-state harmonicas or words of Torah. We had a cousin from the Bronx who, by contrast, fell on the last day of World War II, one year before Yehiel Slor, but I don’t remember my relatives ever gathering to pay tribute to him.

Recently, 21 members of my wife’s decidedly secular family met on Kibbutz Amiad to remember Yehiel, 67 years after his death. This time it was not part of the annual routine, but because they had just discovered that Yehiel’s name was inscribed on a stone monument that they had never seen memorializing kibbutz members who fell during the British mandate; his photo hung in the nearby archive room. Yehiel had been a member of the garin (nucleus) training to establish the kibbutz. His relatives wanted to talk about him, take pictures of the marker, and meet the few surviving Amiad founders who knew him. No one expected new revelations.

Yehiel’s father, a legendary character in the family pantheon, was the personal physician to the Sultan of Morocco. When Yehiel was seven, his father sent him back to Palestine, a note pinned to his chest that he should be delivered from the Jaffa port to the Slor family in Petach Tikvah.

Yehiel was raised by an adult step-sister, together with her own son, Ron. Yehiel’s parents did not return to Palestine for 11 years, arriving just before the Night of the Bridges and Yehiel’s premature death. The teenage Yehiel met with his mother briefly, but never saw his father again.

I was struck by how this mythic family figure was remembered as a teenager: He loved to play the recorder, his room was filled with Meccano, he was handsome and athletic.

Decades after Yehiel’s death, Ron’s mother became determined to find the surviving artifacts of ‘her’ missing boy, her own form of memorial. Ron tracked down two of Yehiel’s simple wooden recorders, one with Yehiel’s name etched into it, and enshrined them in a case of wood and glass.

When Ron brought out the recorders, my wife’s aunt Esther told how she had also encountered a Yehiel artifact. Esther was a medic in the Palmach during the War of Independence. A Palmach soldier had grabbed a live grenade to protect his comrades and had his arm blown off, and Esther prevented him from bleeding to death. A generation later, that man’s son served in the IDF with Esther’s son, and the boys arranged a reunion.

The former Palmach soldier made the pilgrimage with his wife, but he wanted to be sure that Esther was really the medic who treated him. “Do you remember that we sang Haamini Yom Yavo(Believe, the day will come…) over and over for hours?” she asked. “That was to keep you conscious.” Of course he remembered.

When the Palmach soldier’s wife discovered Esther was originally from Petach Tikvah, she asked her if she knew the Slor family. “I’m a Slor!” Esther answered.

The woman held up her wrist to show off a man’s watch. She told Esther she had been Yehiel Slor’s girlfriend from the Kibbutz Amiad garin, and that Yehiel had entrusted her with his watch before setting out on his final mission. She had worn the watch ever since, a lifelong commitment.

We were charmed by this tale, the interlocking stories of family and Israel, the sons’ encounter, the wife with the watch, the smallness of this country.

But, Ron, now in his 70s, was staggered by the account. His mother had been searching for that watch for years. It would have brought her such comfort, he said, if he had been able to return the watch to her before her death. Ron’s regret filtered through the room. Along with Ron’s loss, it struck me that the survival of the watch seemed more momentous than the fact that Yehiel had had a girlfriend. I felt the subtle contest for preservation of memory, over who gets to decide about how and when.

We took iPhone pictures of the monument on the kibbutz lawn, and drifted into the adjacent archive room. Framed photographs of 10 young men from the kibbutz killed in action during Israel’s founding years were suspended in a row. Yehiel’s photograph was the second to last.

My wife’s mother, however, became engrossed in the last picture, a photo of Nachum Levy. I asked her why. “He’s my mother’s cousin,” she said. “He was killed during the War of Independence.”

We studied the neighboring photos, a cousin and an uncle, shadows of lost young men hanging in tandem for all these years, a coincidental comingling of sacrifice that would have special resonance only for the very people now standing in front of the pictures. In Israel, remembering is an obligation, and a privilege, but the tension between public and private memorialization is always present.

Yehi Zichram Baruch. May their memory be blessed.

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