Kobi was the youngest of three children, born seven years after the second of his two older sisters. Mordechai, his father, was a building contractor, a self-made man: He had made his way, alone, to Israel at the age of 15, because even then he believed that Israel was the only place where he could be the master of his fate.
Despite – or perhaps because of – the age gap, Kobi was close to his older sisters. Shula, the older of the two, often babysat him when he was an infant, and still recalls ruefully an accident that happened whilst he was in her charge. “He fell out of his chair and suffered a nasty gash on his face.”
The scar never completely faded. “I always felt guilty about it,” she says.
Kobi was much like most other boys of his age and his time. He liked music and photography, and later parties and girls. His sisters moved away, to study and to marry, and he lived alone with his parents in Tel Aviv. He threw the occasional party – without permission, of course; he squabbled with his mother about the length of his hair. He was charming and friendly, but not particularly academically minded.
Shula has a mental picture of him in high school, “sitting at the back, his feet up on his desk.” His parents thought about sending him to live with relatives in the States to finish off high school, but nothing came of it.
Kobi was generous with the advantages that life had given him. On furlough from army service in the armored corps, he invariably brought along a friend or two to enjoy a weekend’s hospitality with his family in the big city. Breaks like this were invariably short, too short, but he squeezed out enough time to babysit for his sister, newly married and with children of her own, as she had babysat for him a generation before.
Shula remembers him as being sensitive, reliable, always available as a brother and as a friend. “You could always trust him, depend on him.”
Kobi was injured in the Yom Kippur War during early skirmishes on the Golan Heights, a slight wound to the hand. “They joked that he’d be sent home injured, a war hero,” Shula says. But he wasn’t. The next day, his convoy was caught in an ambush set by the Syrians.
Not everyone was killed: One colleague lay, temporarily blinded, in a trench for a day and a night before making his way to a nearby kibbutz. He tried to make contact with central command, to report what had happened, find out what to do next. But no one could tell him anything. No one could comprehend what was happening.
“It wasn’t fair, I couldn’t understand, no one could understand. No one knew anything about the war, what was happening, what we were doing. No one could explain to us what had happened to Kobi.”
Kobi was just 19 years old. Everyone took his death hard, Mordechai the father perhaps harder than the others. “He had left his family behind, his parents, his sister...” – all were taken in the Shoah.
Kobi, a son born after two daughters, connected to an almost primeval belief that the family line flowed through the male. For Mordechai, Kobi had kept his family alive.
“He came to Israel because he believed in Zionism, because he believed in Israel. And his son died for Israel.”
Shula was pregnant with her third child. “My father wanted me to call the child Kobi if it was a boy. I prayed that it would be a girl. I wasn’t ready, I couldn’t face it.”
Mordechai lived on for another five years, but never recovered. He died of a heart attack. Or of a broken heart.
Kobi’s story is not unique. But it is a special story, special to the family and friends whom Kobi left behind – special as are the stories of the 22,000-odd men and women who have died wearing the uniform of this country, whom the country will remember this week.
Not many people seek to be heroes; many – perhaps most – of the departed simply did what was asked of them, what was expected of them, hoping they could afterwards pick life up where they had left off.
It is proper and correct for the country to remember these people on Memorial Day – and, indeed, every day. But it is also right to remember them as they were, rather than as, perhaps, one might want them to be.
War, sadly, is sometimes unavoidable. So is the death and the
bereavement that must necessarily follow in its wake. When a country
decides to go to war – and Israel has known more wars than most – it
takes upon itself a very heavy burden. It needs to be sure that the
decision was right; that there was no other option. It needs to be sure
that every life taken will not be one lost in vain, but rather one that
was lost because there was no other way.
Israel does not need any more heroes. With
gratitude and appreciation to Shulamit Epstein for sharing her memories
of her brother. The opinions expressed are the author’s alone.