A soldier, lost and found

A funeral service at a military cemetery provides a note of hope

December 10, 2010 15:35
Pvt. Dov (Doveleh) Haberbeg's grave in Jerusalem.

Doveleh grave_521. (photo credit: (Liat Collins))

It was a funeral service strangely not dominated by a sense of loss. Standing next to the grave of Private Dov (Doveleh) Haberberg a week ago, I felt that I had gained a long-lost (almost) cousin. True, it was more than 62 years after his death. He should have been a much, much older cousin.

Doveleh, in fact, had poignantly taken a secret to his grave: The marble headstone at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl Military Cemetery still records him as being 18 years old when he fell in the Battle of the Castel in April 1948. He was, however, only 16 and a half. He had lied about his age to join the Palmah.Permit me to call him Doveleh. “Pvt. Haberberg” seems too formal for a teen – even one as brave as he was, even for a boy soldier who was finally receiving a proper military funeral service with full honors.

A grave with a name is not something to be taken lightly. Ask the officers who serve in the IDF Unit for the Location of Missing Soldiers who spent the last six years in a concentrated effort to find Doveleh and the remains of two other soldiers who fell in the same battle, Eliahu Mouansa and Ze’ev Mandel. Ask Eliahu’s brother, who sobbed as he at last delivered the eulogy for the sibling he had lost before the state was born and recalled how his father had always believed his child would one day return home.

Ask the families of any other of the more than 180 soldiers missing since the War of Independence. Or the families, like our friends the Baumels, who still do not know the fate of their son, Zachary, missing along with Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub in Lebanon in June 1982.

The same IDF unit is working on all these cases and others, and as I looked at the roses laid on three old-new graves, I said a silent prayer that these families should be granted closure, too.

It is touching to know that the unit is still sticking to its aim of locating and identifying missing soldiers, even those whose parents died long ago.

DOVELEH WAS born in Tel Aviv. His mother, Rahel, was from the Old City of Jerusalem. With Jerusalem under siege, Doveleh knew what he was fighting for: survival.

My uncle, Herbert Haberberg – widower of my mother’s much-loved sister, my Aunt Mil – was Doveleh’s first cousin. They never met, although I now know that relatives cherished a photo of my uncle and his brother in their Jewish Brigade and US Army uniforms respectively.

Born in Germany but expelled to Poland, Herbert and his brother managed to escape to England (leaving their parents behind) about a week before the outbreak of World War II. He only discovered the probable circumstances of his parents’ deaths two years ago. Ask my uncle about closure.

When one of his granddaughters needed a family tree for a school project, I asked the only other family member I knew for help. Motti Kirschenbaum, an Israel Prizewinning media personality, is first cousin of both Herbert and Doveleh. His mother drew up a list of names and details, a chilling testimony of what befell the Jews in the last century.

At the head of the family tree were the grandparents Hava and Ya’acov Haberberg, who immigrated to the Land of Israel in 1937.

They had eight children. Six perished in the Holocaust, along with most of their offspring. Only the two who had immigrated and remained in the Yishuv survived: Doveleh’s father, Elimelech, who arrived in 1924; and Motti’s mother, Batsheva.

The woes of Job did not end there. Doveleh had a sister, Malka, who was killed during the War of Independence when she was accidentally shot by a friend.

After the war, Elimelech Haberberg used to drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem regularly to visit Mount Herzl, where there was a stone for Doveleh in the section for soldiers whose burial place is unknown. Those gathered at last week’s service told how he also used to visit the graves of those killed in the Castel, unaware that his son had been buried alongside them all the time in one of the unmarked graves.

Was it a sense of solidarity that guided him there, a gut feeling or simply the need for a place to mourn? Who can say? How can you tell what went on in the mind of someone who had lost both his children, six siblings and numerous nieces and nephews within less than a decade and yet had only one marked grave to visit?

At Doveleh’s final resting place, I thought of what Haim Gouri, the quintessential fighter-writer of the “Generation of 1948,” has pointed out: “Israel was not born because of the Holocaust but in spite of it.”

FUNERALS IN Jerusalem generally take place within hours of the person’s death, not 62 years later. I had a month’s notice of the time and place, yet the service was more emotional than I was prepared for. I hadn’t considered what it would be like gathered with my mother and son among those for whom these names had once been real live people.

“He was a hero,” declared Kirschenbaum who, despite being one of the country’s premier satirists, spoke without even a hint of cynicism. His sister, Ruti, agreed.

Doveleh’s story was truly one of self-sacrifice. Not only had he lied about his age – “He was always scared he would be found out and not be allowed to serve,” said his friend and cousin from his mother’s side, Israel Parmet – but he also carried on fighting when wounded.

Although evacuated from the site at an early stage in the battle, Doveleh ignored doctors’ orders and rejoined the desperate few defenders of the strategic Castel lookout. He fell during a retreat, when thousands of Arabs launched an attack, incensed by the death of their commander Abd Elkadir el-Husseini. Doveleh’s mutilated body remained in the field and was retrieved only a day later.

Among those laying a wreath and saluting at the graves was Col. Guy Halevy, commander of the Etzioni Brigade, the unit in which Doveleh served in the Palmah.

The battle for the Castel was particularly bloody – 41 Jewish fighters fell in the five days of fighting – but it was considered a turning point in the War of Independence and allowed supplies and reinforcements to reach Jerusalem.

Also attending the service were kibbutznikim from Ma’aleh Hahamisha and Kiryat Anavim, two communities saved by the courage of people like Doveleh and his comrades.

Lt.-Col. Gabi Almishali, head of the unit for locating MIAs, led the prayers and psalms; an IDF cantor sang “El Maleh Rahamim,” and relatives gave eulogies and recited the Mourner’s Prayer.

The final words of Kaddish – “May He who grants peace in the heavens, grant peace to us and all Israel” – always resonate particularly strongly at military funerals. But these were not the last words that echoed there.

As the families and friends started to disperse, someone – a kibbutznik, I think – began to sing “Hatikva.” It started quietly with that one person, but soon some 200 of us were standing next to the rows of graves on Mount Herzl – one day away from Hanukka, under uncannily blue skies – singing the anthem: “To be a free people in our land, the land of Zion and Jerusalem.”


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