Last week, we celebrated the anniversary of one of the greatest miracles of modern times, the rebirth of the State of Israel. First and foremost, we give thanks to Hashem. But we also need to remember and show our gratitude to the soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces for defending the Jewish people and the Land of Israel. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l said that when he feels the need to pray at the graves of the tzadikim, he goes to Mt. Herzl, where the soldiers of the IDF who fell al kiddush Hashem – for the sanctification of G-d’s name – are buried.
In the days leading up to Yom HaZikaron – Israel’s Memorial Day – for the fallen soldiers, I had the privilege of visiting Mount Herzl with General Aviv Kochavi, the former Chief of Staff of the IDF and Lemaan Hanoflim – For the Fallen, an organization devoted to honoring the memory of Israeli soldiers who paid the supreme sacrifice.
In 1949, Israel honored the wishes of Theodor Herzl by reburying his remains on a mountain in Jerusalem that was renamed for him. During the War of Independence, Prime Minister and Defense Minister David Ben-Gurion decided that fallen soldiers should be buried as close as possible to where they fell. Israel lost 6,000 people during that war, almost one percent of the total population. Ben-Gurion felt that having so many people buried in one place would demoralize the public. But a place was needed to bury soldiers who fell in the Jerusalem area. With the Mount of Olives in Jordanian hands and Mount Scopus inaccessible, Mount Herzl was the only available location. It has since become the main military cemetery in Israel.
In the United States, Memorial Day is marked by barbecues and going to the beach. In Israel, Memorial Day is observed immediately before Independence Day. It is a somber occasion marked by everyone standing at attention as a siren sounds in memory of the fallen and by visits to military cemeteries like Mount Herzl.
Visitors to Mount Herzl, usually go to the graves of Zionist visionaries like Herzl and Ze’ev Jabotinsky, or prominent Israeli leaders like Prime Ministers Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, Yitzhak Shamir, Yitzhak Rabin, and Shimon Peres. But during our visit, General Kochavi emphasized that there are more than 3,400 people buried on Mount Herzl, with 3,400 stories. For every one of the fallen, there are 1,000 Jews living in Israel today because of their sacrifice. Our mission was to honor their memory and tell the stories of as many of the fallen as possible.
Elisha Ben David is the youngest person buried on Mount Herzl. A 12-year-old elementary school student, he excelled in math and Hebrew language, and was a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement. Realizing what was at stake, he became a courier for the Haganah, delivering messages between various defensive posts in Jerusalem. He was killed by an enemy shell, only days after Israel proclaimed its independence, while carrying an important message.
Two cousins, both named Yehuda Mizrachi after the same grandfather, were members of the Jerusalem Brigade. On March 4, 1948, their platoon was sent to ambush an Arab transport on the road between Jerusalem and Ramallah. The platoon was surrounded by an Arab mob, and most of its members, including both cousins were killed. A grieving father wrote a letter to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion saying that Ben-Gurion had given the order for the platoon to be sent out and was thus responsible for the deaths of his son and nephew. He realized that Ben-Gurion had given the order to protect the fledgling Jewish state and blessed Ben-Gurion for giving the order. Ben-Gurion replied, “Happy is the nation which has such courageous parents.”
Moshe Perlstein was a graduate of Yeshiva University and served in the American Army during World War II. He and many members of the Hashomer Hadati (the predecessor of Bnei Akiva) youth movement, including my mother, prepared for aliyah at a hachsharah (training farm) in New Jersey. He made aliyah in 1947, living first at Kibbutz Ein HaNetziv and later in Jerusalem, where he studied at the Hebrew University.
On January 16, 1948, Moshe Perlstein was part of a relief of 35 that set out to bring supplies to the besieged settlement of Gush Etzion, south of Jerusalem. Because the road from Jerusalem was blockaded, the group went out on foot at night. When daylight broke, the relief party was still an hour away from Gush Etzion. They were spotted by Arab villagers. A battle between heavily armed Arab villagers from the village of Surif and militiamen from a nearby training base ensued. All 35 were wiped out and their bodies were mutilated beyond recognition.
Chaya Vasertil was born to a chasidic family in the Polish town of Oswiecim. The town would later gain infamy as the site of the largest mass murder complex in the history of humankind, Auschwitz. At the age of 17, Chaya was separated from her family by the Nazis. She spent the Holocaust years as a prisoner at several Nazi forced labor camps. Her parents and three brothers were killed at Auschwitz. After the war, Chaya returned to her hometown. Local Poles made it clear the Jews were not welcome. She made her way to a refugee camp in the American occupation zone in Germany. On October 9, 1946, Chaya was one of 626 Holocaust survivors who tried to enter Israel on an “illegal” immigration ship. Many of them were brutally beaten as they were deported by the British to a Displaced Persons camp in Cyprus. In June 1947, Chaya entered Israel on another “illegal” ship and was sent to a Displaced Persons camp in Atlit. Upon her release, she settled at Gush Etzion.
Gush Etzion was under siege and beat back several attacks from the moment that the United Nations voted to support the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Moshe Silberschmidt, the commander of Gush Etzion, said, “What are we and what are our lives? Nothing at all. Meaning is to be found in the life project to which we dedicate our efforts. We will strike the enemy wherever we can reach him. We shall not permit him to carry out his designs. Our steadfast reply is ‘the eternity of Jerusalem.’”
On May 12, 1948, Gush Etzion was attacked by the Arab Legion and several thousand Arab villagers. Attack after attack was beaten back by the courageous defenders. But the situation became untenable. The settlement fell and a terrible massacre ensued. But the heroic last stand saved Jerusalem. Moshe Silberschmidt and Chaya Vasertil were among those who fell in the defense of Gush Etzion.
Akiva Englander made aliyah from Czechoslovakia in May 1936. He settled in Petach Tikvah and joined the Haganah to defend the village during the Arab riots of 1936-1939. He later moved to the religious kibbutz of Be’erot Yitzhak near Gaza. The women and children, including Akiva’s wife and family, were evacuated in anticipation of an Arab attack in May 1948. Within moments of Israel proclaiming independence, the Egyptians began bombarding the kibbutz. The main attack was on July 15, 1948. The Egyptians attacked with infantry, tanks, artillery, and bombs. Eighty-five kibbutz members held out against 850 of the best troops of the Egyptian Army. The Egyptians cut the fences and entered the kibbutz. The water tower was hit, and the communications equipment was destroyed. An attempt to reinforce the kibbutz was stopped by Egyptian bombs. In the afternoon, a second attempt at reinforcement was successful. The Egyptian attack was beaten back. Be’erot Yitzhak, a key outpost blocking the Egyptian advance towards Tel Aviv was saved. But Akiva Englander’s wife and children would never see their husband and father again. He died with three bullets in his lungs.
These are just a handful of the 3,400 stories that are to be told on Mount Herzl. Last week, a ceremony was held there to mark the end of Yom HaZikaron, the Memorial Day for Israel’s fallen, and Yom HaAtzmaut, the 75th anniversary of Israel’s independence. Looking back on the past 75 years, there is much to celebrate. Israel has become a high-tech, economic, and military power. If present trends continue, within our lifetimes, a majority of Jews in the world will be living in Israel, something that was not accomplished in the entire Bayis Sheini – Second Jewish Commonwealth era. Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia have streamed into Israel, the largest mass rescue of Jews since the Exodus from Egypt. Countless acts of chesed are being performed each and every day. The shuls and batei midrash are full, with Torah being learned by more people at a higher level than ever before. We need to thank Hashem every day for this miracle.
But there are other things we must do. Healthy debate over public policy is the very essence of democracy. But we must not allow it to descend into the kind of baseless hatred that destroyed the Second Jewish Commonwealth.
And we must honor the memory of those who made the ultimate sacrifice defending the Land and the People of Israel.
Do not wait for next year’s Yom HaZikaron. Honor the memory of one of Israel’s more than 24,000 fallen heroes through acts of t’filah (prayer), tz’dakah (charity), g’milus chasadim (acts of kindness) and/or Torah study by going to www.honorisraelsfallen.com.
By Manny Behar