(photo credit: Courtesy)
Most mothers talk about their sons because they want to. Miriam Baumel talks about her son because she has to. It could make the difference between life and death. Or, at least, it could help her discover whether her son is alive. Miriam Baumel's son Zachary (Zacharia) has been missing, along with two other IDF soldiers - Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman - since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in June 1982.
This will be the 26th Seder night the Baumels - Miriam and Yona, their two older children ("Zacharia was the baby of the family"), and their seven grandchildren - spend without him. Ask most people about Israel's missing soldiers and they'll be able to name Gilad Schalit, captured by Hamas nearly three years ago, and IAF navigator Ron Arad, shot down over Lebanon in 1986. A generation is growing up without knowing about Israel's other MIAs.
Miriam Baumel took time off from Passover cleaning to share her story. It is a personal story, but, she notes, it could just as easily have been any other soldier who disappeared in the battle. It could have been someone else's son and she would be reading about it rather than running around the globe in search of clues to his fate. "It's the not knowing that is the worst," she admits.
Her part in the narrative starts a few days after Zachary, 21 at the time, was captured. "It had happened on a Friday. We went away for the weekend to visit a good friend who was dying of cancer. Basically, we went to say goodbye. On the Tuesday morning, at the door stood what is called a 'kvutzat Iyov' [Job's squad, the personnel who notify families of military casualties] to tell us our son was missing."
Much of that day is a blur but one thing she will never forget: How she felt. "It was like having an iceberg in the heart. Like freezing inside. It's a coldness that you can't imagine."
Her husband and daughter read psalms. She read Ecclesiastes: "Why? I don't know. But I didn't want some sweet, soft consolation. I wanted a reason. And - not at that moment - but ultimately I did find some sort of a thread of evil."
However, there is no closure and even the details are still lacking.
The Battle of Sultan Yakoub was surrounded by terrible confusion. Twenty-two soldiers died, 75 were wounded, and six captured. Three were later returned in prisoner and body exchanges.
The first glimmer of hope came from a Time magazine article dated June 21, 1982, in which it was written: "Israeli crewmen of a tank who were captured in Lebanon agreed to put themselves and their war machine on display as Syrians fired guns into the air in a signal of triumph."
Miriam says this is a sign that her son was alive at the time he was captured.
One of the MIAs was Zohar Lipshitz. "I remember when they brought his body back. At the shiva, I said to [his mother] Devora: 'I envy you.' And she said: 'What are you talking about? You at least have hope.' And I said: 'At least you know.'"
It is the uncertainty that is most difficult: "You don't know what they are going through and this is the thing you have nightmares about."
Miriam says she uses "every escape mechanism possible. I stay away from music so I don't implode. I go to things that are funny so I can forget. I do puzzles. Loads of puzzles. Anything I can to distract myself."
She believes she has been successful in coping: "because otherwise I would go mad."
One of the worst things is "frustration," she says. "When you see what they [the politicians and the army] could do, what they can do and what they won't do."
A particular low point was when the family discovered that a complete wax impression of Baumel's dog tag had been passed on to Israel and they hadn't been told. Much later, in 1995, when the Oslo Accords were signed, Yasser Arafat handed over to Yitzhak Rabin half of Baumel's dog tag. But no information on his fate was ever forthcoming.
Miriam Baumel is not bitter about what happened on the battlefield, when confusion is understandable. She is, however, upset about what she feels are actions, or inaction, for political or personal reasons. "I won't name names," she says. But at the mention of Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was the officer in charge of Sultan Yakoub and in a position of power for many of the years after, her eyes tear up. (Barak has consistently told the media he is doing everything possible for the MIAs.)
"It took time before we realized that we were being lied to and we had to do things on our own," she states.
"I'm not the naive little kid from Brooklyn any more," says Miriam, who made aliya with the family in 1970 and adds, "You can write I have passed my 70th birthday."
Their Jerusalem apartment is comfortable, with signs of Miriam's past as an arts and crafts teacher and the usual photos of children and grandchildren, none of whom ever met their uncle: "He's mentioned but he's not an icon."
"I don't let myself ruminate," she says. "The wound hasn't healed but the pain's not as sharp. Today, it's an ache."
In the past, Yona Baumel has had more media contact, but, with his increasingly poor health, Miriam feels it's time for her to speak out.
Of Gilad Schalit's case, she says: "I feel so in conflict that you can't imagine. I empathize with the pain of both sides, also with those who lost children [to terrorism]. But the people whose children are missing have this terrible, terrible fear that they live with."
Baumel, religious from birth, takes the saying "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" and interprets it in her own way. "My theory is it means: 'The way somebody else looks at something, is the way you're meant to look at it... If someone is coming to shoot you, you have to shoot them back. React only in kind; not overly and not underly."
That's why the family has been calling for Red Cross visits to be withheld from Palestinian prisoners as long as the missing Israelis have not been seen.
How does she feel when there is a prisoner exchange? "Envious. I'm happy for them but envious."
As to Zachary's fate, she says: "I don't know what I believe anymore because so much time has passed." She is sure that he is in Syria and "I do believe it is possible that he is alive."
The Baumels attend Ramban Synagogue near their Katamon home where Rabbi Benjamin Lau and the congregants have taken up their cause. Currently, they are raising money to continue pursuing the search for clues abroad by selling posters of a needlepoint of Miriam's. It costs $26, one dollar for every year he's been missing (http://www.israzon.com/ProductInfo.aspx?productid=PS-ASHREI).
Miriam has a special Passover message: "When Moses went to Pharaoh he said 'Let my people go,' not 'Let those people go.' Each person must ask 'What if this were me?' Each person must think and take everyone else's viewpoint into consideration."