The end of the world

On February 4, 1997, while my wife and I were traveling in South America, two helicopters collided in mid-air in northern Israel, killing 73 IDF soldiers, including my son Shahar.

May 8, 2011 23:25
Shahar Rozenberg

Shahar Rozenberg 311. (photo credit: (Courtesy of the Rozenberg family)

On the day I lost my son, I had just landed in Ushuaia, Argentina. The airport was small and full of muchaleers (youngsters with backpacks), and my friend Momo and I managed to find a public phone to call home to Israel and say that we had finally reached the southernmost point on the globe.

After several rings, an unidentified voice answered. I asked to speak with my son Sagi. After long moments of silence I was surprised to hear him say, “Daddy, where are you?” Jokingly, I told him to go to the atlas, go down the length of Argentina and there I was, at the southern point near Antarctica. I didn’t understand why he was asking and didn’t give it much thought. Only later did I hear that, at that moment, there were many people at my house together with my daughter Einat, who was in the last month of her pregnancy, and Sagi, waiting to hear what had happened to the IDF soldiers who had flown in the two helicopters that crashed in northern Israel on February 4, 1997.

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We left the airport, asking the driver to take us to a small but clean hostel, most importantly a cheap one. After a few moments we were already in our room and, as usual, I switched on the television to watch the news. I saw “breaking news” flash across the screen and footage of orchards near Dafna and She’ar Yashuv.

The reporter was talking about two helicopters with 73 soldiers on board that had crashed into each other in mid-air.

While the reporter was talking, the camera zoomed in on an army beret of the Nahal unit. My heart skipped a few beats.

I turned to Momo and said, “My son is gone!” Momo replied that I was talking nonsense and that there were many units being flown by helicopter into the various posts in Lebanon. He suggested we try to call home again. I spoke with Sagi, and this time I asked him straight out whether Shahar was on the list of missing soldiers. “We don’t know anything yet,” he answered.

A buzzing sound filled my head and I tried to think what I should do next. I gave him the number of the hostel where we staying and told him to contact me as soon as they heard anything. All I remember after that is Momo trying to calm me down. Two hours later, the phone rang. My legs were numb, and it seemed like hours before I reached it. My tongue also felt numb.

I heard my son-in-law’s mother say that it was hard for her even to say the words. Somehow I found myself saying, “I understand that I have to come home.” She said yes and burst into tears.

I threw the telephone down and ran outside into the darkness.

Alone under a solitary street lamp that gave out an eerie yellow light, I looked up into heaven. Momo joined me and put his arms around me. He burst into tears and said, “Oh Arie, you have no idea what path awaits you now.”

He himself had lost his brother in 1954 in a conflict on the Gaza border.

I remember thinking to myself that I didn’t know why he was crying. My son had just died and I hadn’t even shed one tear.

IT WAS midnight by now, and I had to tell my wife Dvora, who was with Momo’s wife Ilana at a hotel in Rio de Janeiro.

We were supposed to meet up in the following days to continue our trip together.

Roni, the army officer from Rehovot, asked if I wanted someone from the embassy to go to her, but I answered that as the two of us were partners in creating Shahar, I was the only one who would tell her.

It took me a while to find the hotel they were staying at near the airport. Over the phone I tried to tell her. At first, she was so happy to hear my voice, and until today I can remember her words: “Mamush, I love you.”

I was unable to tell her the truth and said that Shahar had been killed in a car accident in Tel Aviv. I could hear her scream and, unable to comfort her, I just said that I would get to her as soon as possible.

I carried on on automatic, speaking again to Roni and asking him if someone should meet us all in Buenos Aires.

Momo and I returned to our room, and I found myself taking a shower and putting on the white clothes that I had with me, in some kind of purifying ceremony. That night I didn’t fall asleep, and pictures of Shahar flashed in my head.

Toward noon the next day, we landed in Buenos Aires.

The Israeli consul was waiting to take us to the ambassador’s home, where Dvora and Ilana were impatiently waiting.

Only toward midnight did we find ourselves on a flight to Madrid. The military attaché had taken care of everything and took us straight on board. We sat silently almost the whole way. Sometimes our shoulders shook with grief, and sometimes our eyes spilled over with tears. We asked ourselves over and over again how we were going to carry on living. It was then that I came to the decision that life must go on and that we had other children and, soon, grandchildren.

In Madrid, someone from the embassy was trying to get us a connection to Tel Aviv. In the afternoon we finally boarded a plane to Israel, and the first thing I did was to ask for an Israeli newspaper. Among the pictures was a photograph of Shahar looking at me from the front page, and I burst into tears.

The flight to Israel had to land in Geneva because of a storm, and then they discovered that there was a problem with the airplane, and until it was repaired the flight was put off. Despite the continuing worry that we would not get to Israel in time for the funeral, I tried to find out from the El Al employees what our options were, as Roni had notified me that they were delaying the funeral until the last moment possible, at 11 a.m. on Friday. I asked for a further delay, and they agreed to 2 p.m.

I phoned the Israeli security official in Zurich, who is an old friend of mine. He said that at 7 a.m. there was a flight from Paris that would get in on time. We arranged a taxi to take us from Geneva to Paris and drove throughout the long night.

At 6 a.m. another embassy official was waiting for us at Orly airport and immediately put us on board the flight that was about to depart for Tel Aviv.

WE LANDED in Israel, and on the runway an army military minibus was waiting together with our two older children, Einat and Sagi. We all fell into each other’s arms, crying and sobbing. Together we started our journey to the cemetery of Ness Ziona. On our way, at the Beit Oved crossroads, we met up with the command car carrying Shahar’s coffin, and it was thus that all the members of the family arrived together at the cemetery.

Thousands of people filled the cemetery. I remember nothing.

I was led forward, I said kaddish, and then we went home, leaving Shahar forever on the hill where he was buried.

Several hours later, the reporter on TV announced that the last of the fallen soldiers who had died in the helicopter crash, Shahar Rozenberg, had been laid to rest.

The writer is the father of fallen soldier Shahar Rozenberg., [email protected]

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