Giving a face to the fallen

What about the 811 “faceless soldiers” who pledged their lives to Israel’s defense between 1940 and 1950?

By ROBERT HERSOWITZ
May 5, 2016 13:31
Holocaust

Michal Pomerance Slonim visiting the grave of her cousin Bella Papirowicz for the first time. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 On Remembrance Day, during the two minutes of silence while the sirens are sounded all over Israel, hundreds of families will stand at the graves of the fallen, ready to recite the kaddish prayer.

But what about the 811 “faceless soldiers” who pledged their lives to Israel’s defense between 1940 and 1950? They are “faceless” because there are no known photographs of them and almost nothing is known of them other than their names and the dates on which they died. We do not known the names of their parents and their dates of birth, places of birth and – if applicable – dates of aliya. Their tombstones are incomplete, and their memories not fully honored because of the lack of information about who they were and where they came from.

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Many of these young people were volunteer soldiers or Holocaust survivors who disembarked from immigrant ships, only to find themselves being hastily recruited and trained, bearing arms and fighting enemies whose mission was to destroy the Jewish people and the fledgling state.

In April 2010, on Remembrance Day, Dorit Perry, a native of Jerusalem, was visiting Mount Herzl to pay her respects to her fallen fellow citizens. She noticed an unattended grave, that of Yosef Lehana.

There were no details about the soldier on the gravestone. She felt sure that there were no relatives to take care of the grave and decided to take responsibility for the burial site so that every year a minyan would be organized on Remembrance Day to recite kaddish.

She began to suspect that there were probably other graves that were in a similar state of virtual anonymity. Further research proved that she was correct.

She approached the Defense Ministry to obtain a list of such names so that she could try to obtain the missing details.

She discovered a long list of names.

At that point there were not enough people available to stand by each grave.

That year, Perry’s goal was to ensure that every “faceless” soldier would have someone in attendance at the grave on Remembrance Day each year. Furthermore, she began to think about how to honor each of these individuals by finding out more about their identities.

PERRY’S MISSION began with the grave of Lehana. His gravestone lacked his parents’ names, his birth date and his birthplace.

It mentioned only that he had fallen in the Battle of Jenin on June 3, 1948.

She decided to launch an investigation into his full identity. She was joined by Uriel Sharabi Sagi, who had written about the battles at Jenin, after having lost a friend in Jenin in 2002 in Operation Defensive Shield.

Their extensive research determined that Lehana was born in Greece in 1921 to Esther and Nissim Lehana. After surviving the Holocaust as a partisan, Lehana immigrated to Mandatory Palestine in 1945.

Perry and her team eventually succeeded in locating some of Lehana’s distant family members and friends who were living in Israel, France and South America. Subsequently, a new tombstone was unveiled for him in May 2011, in the presence of then-Knesset Speaker (and now President) Reuven Rivlin.

The discovery of Lehana’s complete identity gave birth in May 2012 to the project called Giving a Face to the Fallen.

His case inspired Perry to do more.

She approached the Department of Families and Commemoration at the ministry. Together with it, she began her painstaking work of honoring the “faceless” fallen, paying tribute to those who had given their lives so that forthcoming generations could enjoy a life of freedom and independence in the newly established state.

Thus began the work of 18 volunteers who give of their time to Perry’s organization.

Assisted by new technological tools, the Internet, the Zionist Archives and a network of contacts around the world, the group has succeeded in restoring the full identities of at least 80 fallen soldiers.

Of the soldiers researched, a high percentage were European immigrants, many of them Holocaust survivors who were the last remnants of their families with no one left to fill in the blanks.

Also included in the list of casualties are Jewish residents of Mandatory Palestine who fell while serving in the British Forces during World War II and Jews who fell while fighting with the underground movements.

ONE OF the most moving cases, which has now been solved, is that of a young woman by the name of Bella Papirowicz, the daughter of Shmuel and Alta Papirowicz. Formerly, the only thing known about her, other than her name, was that her father’s name was Shmuel.

With the help of US-based genealogist Mark Halpern, some members of Bella’s family were found in America, yielding important information about her background.

Bella Papirowicz was born in the town of Augustov in northeastern Poland in 1918. She was a member of the Betar Jewish youth movement in the town.

At the age of 21 she left her family and made her way to Palestine, where she studied mathematics and humanities at the Hebrew University. She was clearly an impressive student, to the extent that recently some of her writing was found among documents commissioned by the philosopher Martin Buber, who held her in high regard.

Documents show that soon after her aliya, Papirowicz joined the Hagana in Jerusalem. She was engaged to be married.

On December 31, 1947, she was traveling on a No. 9 bus from the Hebrew University on Mount Scopus back to the city when the bus was attacked in Sheikh Jarrah by Arab sniper fire.

Papirowicz was one of three fatalities.

She was buried a week after her 27th birthday on the Mount of Olives. She was the only member of her family to have escaped the Holocaust. There was no one left to honor her memory. Her parents and all the rest of her family were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices in Poland.

Not much was known about her until Perry and her team began their research. The team uncovered a significant amount of material about the young woman, including many documents, newspaper articles and photographs of her and her family. Their efforts were rewarded when a cousin of Papirowicz was located in Israel. The relative turned out to be none other than Prof. Michal Pomerance Slonim of the Hebrew University. A fully documented presentation was assembled and handed to her. One month ago Prof. Pomerance Slonim visited Papirowicz’s grave for the first time. Until now she had no idea where Papirowicz was buried.

The Papirowicz case is one shining example of the work that Giving a Face to the Fallen undertakes.

“Time is of the essence,” Perry says.

“We need to find family who may still be able to identify pictures of the soldiers. These pictures are put on their Yizkor page on the website. Many of these relatives and family connections are now in their late eighties and nineties. We are trying to accelerate our efforts to do justice to as many of these souls as possible.”

Perry and her team are anxious to publicize their work. They still have many cases to solve and welcome the input of those in Israel and the Diaspora who think that they may be able to shed more light on the identities of these young men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice for their people. 

For more information contact Dorit Perry at [email protected] The writer and his wife, Annie Zlotnick Hersowitz, are recent olim who have joined the group of volunteers at Giving a Face to the Fallen.


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