Travels with Blondi

A bereaved father keeps his murdered son's memory alive and asks others to live out his dreams.

By ARYEH DEAN COHEN
August 21, 2008 15:32

 
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As they head out on their summer vacations, hundreds of travelers around the world are adding something to the toiletries, bathing suits and suntan oil they're packing. It's a picture of a smiling, blond teenager they've never met, but whom they're taking along with them to realize his dream and to gain a margin of victory over the scourge of terrorism. Sometime during their trip, they'll stop, reach into their backpacks or wallets, pull out the boy's picture and take a snapshot of themselves with it, overlooking Machu Picchu, in a marketplace in Zanzibar or on a beach in Hawaii. Then they'll e-mail it back to his father, Yossi, becoming part of "Blondi's World Tour," a campaign to keep the memory of Asaf "Blondi" Zur alive and to put a face on the information battle against the terrorists. Some even stop for a moment to tell the story of the 17-year-old who died in the No. 37 bus bombing in Haifa in March 2003 on his way home from school. But even by just taking the picture and mailing it back, they'll become part of a very special effort launched by Zur to memorialize his son, one of several such campaigns he's become involved in to celebrate his son's life and the lives of other terror victims. Moreover, says Zur, who's already viewed more than 100 pictures sent to him since he launched the campaign in June, those the travelers encounter will "see the personal side of our country, and not just what they see on the news... that there is also a face and a family and a life" behind any terror attack. ASAF ZUR, Blondi to his friends and family ever since a kid stuck him with the nickname when he was playing soccer in his Haifa neighborhood, loved loud music, hanging out with his friends and, more than anything else, the sea. "He'd get up and look out the window and decide whether he was going to school or the beach," says Yossi, gazing out the window of the family's apartment in the Ramat Eshkol neighborhood recently. Asaf hadn't even gotten his initial call-up from the army, where his brother Arik was serving, but he and his friends were already thinking about their post-army trip. For Asaf, that naturally meant the search for the perfect wave, Yossi recalls - Australia, California, Hawaii. All that changed forever on March 5, 2003. Asaf was on his way home from school with his girlfriend. She and her friends got off a few stops earlier, and he continued on his way, having spoken to his dad, who was on business in Germany, earlier in the day. Moments later Mahmoud Kawasme cut Asaf's life short, along with those of 16 others, most of them young people. Yossi got the first news from his older son, then from his wife. That evening he returned to begin preparations for the burial, but almost instantly knew this was not just an ending, but a beginning of a commitment to tell the world not only about his son, but other terror victims as well. "I think that this desire or understanding or need that you have to do something was with me from the first day. I said to myself: How can a boy of 17 who was going to finish school, do the army, study at university... it was inconceivable that the whole thing had ended like this... How can we know what a 17-year-old boy would have accomplished? Maybe he would find a cure for cancer, maybe get the Nobel Prize... But since we will never know, at least I will do my utmost so that people will get to know him. I felt, and I still feel, that it's my role to take his picture and go out into the world from person to person and say: 'Look, this is Asaf, my son; look what the world lost when this happened.' And that really was something I felt right away." INITIALLY, THERE were other memorial projects. The family set up playground equipment in the neighborhood in his memory, and Yossi was active in ensuring a proper memorial was set up at the site of the attack along with two other fathers who lost children that day, Yossi Mendellevich, whose son Yuval died, and Ron Kehrmann, whose daughter Tal, 17, died there as well. Their shared fate would forever bind them together in efforts on behalf of terror victims under their organization, Three Fathers. But Yossi wanted something more to memorialize Asaf. He built a Web site, www. Blondi.co.il a few months after he died, with pictures and stories "so people could go in and read about him and see pictures... But we understood it wasn't enough, that we had to something a bit more proactive." At first that took the form of getting involved in a protest against the Oscar nomination of the movie Paradise Now, which told the story of suicide bombers and won a Golden Globe award in 2005. Yossi launched a chain letter on the Web site, collecting 37,000 signatures. But shortly afterward "I understood that we needed to go in another direction, that an Internet site was fine, but it wasn't enough." So began the Stones Project. Traveling frequently as part of his job with Amdocs, Yossi had begun to bring stones home from wherever he was and put them on his son's grave. "So I put a letter on the Internet at the beginning of 2006, in which I said: 'Asaf can't get to the world; I'd like the world to come to him,' and I asked people to send me stones from all over the world." He also placed his request on Internet forums and passed it on to other organizations. Then the flood began. "A few weeks later, the whole house filled up with packages, envelopes, sacks and boxes," he recalls, showing a visitor some of more than 1,000 stones the family received from more than 70 countries, and which continue to arrive. People on treks in Nepal sent them. Someone sent him a piece of the Berlin Wall. Lord Andrew Stone of Blackheath, from the British House of Lords, sent a personal note. A Rehovot man personally delivered an Indian headstone that had been unearthed during the digging of the Mexico City subway. Along with their contributions to the campaign, which Yossi launched to mark what would have been Asaf's 21st birthday in April 2007, people also wrote in about why they were sending the stones. Adina, a young woman from Jerusalem just back from a trip to the Far East, wrote: "Like many other young people I traveled to forget... and to mainly get away from it all. But your special request to collect stones for your son added a special something to my trip. "Every new place I discovered, I was thinking of Blondi. I never met him and had never heard about him, but it was important to me to preserve his memory during my whole trip." Ultimately, Yossi took all the stones, placed them in a large flowerpot and set them next to Asaf's grave, which is shaped in the form of a surfboard and wave. But something inside the boy's father still wasn't satisfied. 'IN THE STONE campaign, I said: Because he can't go out to see the world, I will bring the world to him... Now the stones are with him, but I still want him to take his trip, to see the world." So in June he sent out thousands of e-mails to various forums and Web sites, with the hope that readers would "see his picture, read his name and know his story. Whether they send a picture or not - at least now they've gotten to know him. "Anyone who takes his picture and puts it in his bag will be thinking about Asaf. And even if he doesn't send a picture, the fact that someone is thinking about him means I've accomplished what I set out to do, and people world over will know about him." A few weeks later, the first photo came in, from Melbourne, then from New York, San Francisco, Tokyo. He's had promises from hundreds of summer travelers that they'll participate. "Everyone does it his own way," says Yossi, as he fires up the computer to show off the pictures that have already arrived and which he catalogs on the Web site, along with the often moving comments the photographers send with them. Some even Photoshopped Asaf's face onto camels or placed him in other settings, while an Israeli cartoonist early on sent a caricature that is featured on the site. A woman got photographed proudly holding Asaf's picture at a James Taylor concert at Tanglewood, Massachusetts, while another simply stuck Blondi's picture in front of an incredible view of Machu Picchu, Peru. "He's already gotten to quite a few places," Yossi says proudly as he scans the globe in a few clicks of the mouse, the one constant being Asaf's smile. "Some get photographed holding the picture, and others hold the picture out so as to remain anonymous," says Yossi. Even more moving, he explains, is "when people get other people involved whom I could not reach with the campaign." For example, a young Israeli working in Tanzania took Asaf with him to a marketplace in Zanzibar and photographed a Pakistani working at one shop with the boy's photo, and Farida, a Muslim Indian, who said after hearing Asaf's story: "He is such a beautiful boy, when will all wars and killing stop in the world?" Touching people in such a way, says Yossi, makes him feel his project is "like a tree that spreads branches, like a ripple effect," making him confident others will join the campaign. As of the first week in August, he had received photos from Australia, Canada, Ecuador, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Japan, Jordan, the Netherlands, Peru, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Tanzania, Turkey, the UK and the US, with this writer taking Blondi along to Istanbul after hearing of his story on-line. For now, it appears Blondi's off to a fine start both in terms of pictures received and the impact his campaign is having on the photographers and those around them. Judy Rudin, whose family sent pictures back from their cruise from Vancouver to Alaska and who had lived in Israel for an extended time, said in an e-mail that the campaign was "a great opportunity to show our support for a family that has really suffered, and also to educate my children about the more personal impact of a terror attack... When it is personalized like this, with a photo of the victim and a mission to take him places he will never get to go, that touches the heart in a way that no news report can. I knew this would add a special dimension to our trip - and I was right." Z.O., who sent back the pictures from Zanzibar, said that hearing the story had reminded him of how, in his youth in Israel, he had grown up not far from a cemetery, where he often observed a father crying over his soldier son's grave. "I would see him come to the grave daily, wash it, talk to his dead son, cry... for hours. He'd abandoned the rest of his family and business and was more attached to his dead son than to his living family. So when I read about Blondi, I knew where Yossi was coming from, and I decided that if I could even help a little, I would," he wrote in an e-mail. "...I don't think Blondi can 'enjoy' the places I am visiting, but two things are happening here: I am easing the father's pain (and I hope that of his family) and I am spreading a 'call for peace and prevention of terror' everywhere I go." Inbar Perez, an Israeli teacher in Hamburg, took up the campaign, sending in a picture of herself with her Hebrew class, all holding the picture with the words: "Shalom from Hamburg" written on the board. "Terror is far away from the Germans," she said. "They do not know what it is, how it feels, how deep is the pain, how the society in Israel lives with it, how we are so close (and yet so far apart) from each other. Therefore it was important for me to not just help Yossi's project, but also to bring in to the 'I am Israel' show that I carry around with me something more personal, with a name and a face, a story about one kid, a blond kid they could read about on-line, a kid they could match face to name, hear the story, etc." When a picture pops into his e-mail, says Yossi, "I think: 'Asaf has made it to another place.' All these things that I do. I say that it keeps him with us a little longer, for a little more time."

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