Israeli war orphans meet to discuss their experiences

The four featured individuals never forget the pain of their loss, but do not allow it to determine how they live.

By YUVAL PAIS/ MA'ARIV
September 22, 2015 13:01
IDF Widows and Orphans Organization

From right: Ehud Lipshitz, 50; Orly Nativ, 47; Assaf Amitai, 16; and Emily Nesterenko, 15. (photo credit: AVSHALOM SHOSHANI)

Shortly before the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and soon after the memorial days for the fallen soldiers of Operation Protective Edge and the Second Lebanon War, the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization brought together two generations of orphans from Israel’s wars.

The meeting was an opportunity to hear about what the generations share, and how they differ. The four who participated in the meeting are: Ehud Lipshitz (50), who is a married father of four, and works in the field of insurance; Orly Nativ (47), who is a married mother of two, and is a social worker; Assaf Amitai (16); and Emily Nesterenko (15).

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Lipshitz was nine years old when he lost his father; Nativ was six; Amitai was seven; and Nesterenko was only one-and- a-half years old when the tragedy struck her family.

“I don’t know my father,” she says with tears.

Lipshitz tells us that in an attempt to protect him and other children like him, families spoke little about the father who lost his life.

“It’s not like today. Then they didn’t talk about the person, but only protected us all the time. Therefore I don’t have a lot of memories about my father,” he says. “I was nine when my father was killed, and I don’t really have a memory of him. I remember him in these sorts of flashbacks. I say this with sadness. I don’t have anything solid, an image of a person.”

“This is very typical of our generation,” says Nativ. “I became an orphan at the age of six, and what I felt then was that they were bringing us back to routine, because they thought that it was healthy for us to participate in our regular activities, as we had done before.

“I have memories of pictures and moments, but today I am not sure what I actually remember and what they told me or I saw in pictures. Really clear, defined memories have not remained with me, but more bits and pieces of them instead.”

“I would like to relate to what Ehud and Orly said,” adds Amitai. “They went through a period of time that is very different from ours. We do speak about the death and the loss, and at school they also make sure that the orphans are not forgotten.

“But for some reason, all the memories I had slipped away from me. The last day of the shiva [mourning period] was my seventh birthday, and it is still on my mind. They did not try to protect me, and I am not a person who tries to distance myself. With every opportunity that they will give me to talk about my father and about what happened, I will do so gladly. I only want to talk, to speak about what happened.”

“I don’t blame anyone,” Lipshitz clarifies.

“That was the approach at the time, but in the end, you don’t have an image of someone,” he adds almost in tears.

“I remember that as a child I was so very much loved by my father. I imagine that he had special thoughts about me. He saw me in a certain way. As children, we grow up in the way our parents see us, and with me something has remained open. It is a relationship that is just beginning and is suddenly severed. A void remains. This is not just a word, but it is a void that remains no matter what. There is a lot of sadness and loss, and not knowing. It is a place that cannot be filled. It is like a meteorite that hits all at once, and from then on it remains.”

AMONG THE four there are agreements and disagreements about certain things and about the approaches to life, but on one thing they agree unanimously: Their fathers are always missing, and especially at the milestones of life.

“If you want to preserve the memory well, you need to know more,” adds Lipshitz, “and if I don’t know enough, I can’t pass on enough to the next generation.

It is part of a chain, and therefore it is more difficult for me today. It is a very significant part of the lack of knowledge.

“I see around me people who are 75, still active and working, and I say, ‘How wonderful it is for others; their parents accompany them all along the way.’ This doesn’t exist for me.”

“And there is also no image for your children, there is no grandfather to pamper you,” says Amitai.

Lipshitz confirms this. “Of course this is missing. Superficially, everything is all right. I was in the army, I work, but for me part of what is lacking most is for my children, not so much for myself.

I already managed. They don’t fully understand what is missing, but I know what they lost.”

“What is primarily missing is the male role model at home, and I am not talking about a brother, even if he is older than you,” says Amitai.

“It is a lot to depend on one person all the time, and you know that if mother should fall, God forbid, you will fall with her. And if father were here, he would pick her up instead of me. Today, if there is a crisis at home, the first one who hurries to take care of things is me.

In the meantime I’ve taken on this role because only my mother and I are at home.”

“My father is missing even in the smallest ways – sitting and talking, going on a trip, and even eating a family meal,” Nesterenko shares. “Those things were missing. I have a very supportive and helpful environment, but yes, this absence is felt.”

“My father is missing in the most exciting moments in life – at the significant life events,” adds Nativ. “I have been through many happy and exciting events, in which I always would sort of look out among the participants to search for him. Where is my father to share with him, to rejoice with him, to be excited together with me? The completion of a course in the army, the graduation from school, a wedding, a birth, etc. – there the absence is especially strong.”

Orly and Ehud, from your experience, if you had to offer one piece of advice to the families of Emily and Assaf, what would it be?

Lipshitz: “I think that the most important thing is to preserve the memory in the most open way possible. To be involved and to talk – even about the things that are not as good. It is to make the image very legitimate so that everything can be preserved in a much better way. Every family acts differently, and that is all right and legitimate. But they must preserve and talk – so that it will be natural at home.”

Nativ: “I think that the loss, the bereavement, and the terrible tragedy impact children exactly like adults. It is something strong that comes like a punch in the stomach and the heart.

The difference is that somehow adults have a few more tools for coping, life experience, a bit more perspective. I am not saying that it is easier. I saw my mother fall apart. As a child, I don’t think that I had the slightest idea of how to understand it and live with it. I don’t think that my mother had the ability.

Despite all of her tremendous love for me, she was unable to be completely available for me with all that it requires.

“And I think that this is exactly the place in which one has to see the children, and to work with them in this new place of the loss. I think that I had to overcome many hurdles along the way.”

“In my opinion there is a need, which is beyond the ability of the family, to relate to the emotions of the children and to processing the loss, for which there are no words and no ability to explain. But it is terrible, a disaster. I don’t think a family always has the tools to cope with this, and I would expect that some assistance be given to the young people. This is significant.

“The home that the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization [IDFWO] gives, on the one hand, and that the army gives, on the other hand, helps a lot and lends a hand to children, but it cannot replace professional emotional assistance. One of the most significant things that I felt after the tragedy happened, and here I relate to Assaf, was when I became really afraid of what will happen if something happens to my mother. The whole household stands on one pillar, and this is terribly frightening.”

‘MY ENVIRONMENT is very supportive,” says Nesterenko. “But the loss is still felt.”

Amitai adds, “There is no replacement for my father. The difficulty is always with you. What helps me is being with my good friends, most of whom are older than I am. The family is most important, my siblings and my mother.

They encourage me the strongest and help me when I feel troubled.”

Lipshitz was a battalion commander in the Paratroop Brigade, and Amitai plans on joining a combat unit, just like his brother. The mothers, who didn’t hide the difficulty, gave the children a green light to develop as they wish, despite the tragedy.

“My mother gave us the freedom to choose,” explains Lipshitz. “Clearly, it would have been more comfortable for her if we wouldn’t have been there, but she accepted it, maybe as part of the dialogue.

As I said in the beginning, there wasn’t a lot of conversation. She simply spoke little about this and did not involve me in her difficulties. It’s possible that if she would have involved me, I would have looked at this differently.

Maybe in order not to make it difficult for me, she chose to keep her feelings to herself. She said to me, ‘Whatever you want. You know it is not easy for me,’ and from here I continued on.

“I’m also not sure whether I really internalized her difficulty. My goal was to quickly and energetically move forward and to look less at the emotional aspects. I wanted to develop and to contribute.

I am the kind of person who looks ahead, not to the past. The loss was not a factor in my decisions and considerations.”

Amitai also aspires to enlist in an elite unit of the IDF (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit). “My brother serves in the Paratroop Brigade. I see my brother’s service and it very much encourages me.

On some level I say, ‘Leave high school alone, I already want to get to the army.’ If I can, why shouldn’t I be there?”

And how did your mother react?

“The first day of the shiva, my mother took me aside to talk to me and said that if I would want it, she would sign written consent for me to be in combat service. I was seven years old. I didn’t yet understand at all what signing written consent meant. I am sure that it is difficult for her, but she is with us, very supportive.”

DESPITE THE overwhelming tragedy that befell the families, the four chose to continue their lives with greater strength. They never forget the pain of their loss, but do not allow it to determine how they live.

“Today we are in a place where we laugh more than cry about death,” says Amitai. “I sometimes say to my mother, ‘If father were here, I probably wouldn’t be with this friend now, I wouldn’t have known the amazing people whom I’ve met. A lot of good things also have happened since my father died. Life goes on, and you just have to choose to continue living.

“A month after my father was killed, I went to an event hosted by the Paratroopers’ Foundation, and I had a wonderful experience there. I came home and said to my mother, ‘It’s fortunate that father passed away.’ She of course was immediately all choked up, but in many places I feel that my path in life brings me to people and places that I wouldn’t have encountered if not for the tragedy.”

“I can relate to what Assaf said,” adds Nesterenko. “Our coping is through laughter, cynicism, even with regard to the supportive environment. I have friends from the IDFWO, friends that I wouldn’t have had the privilege of meeting if my father were alive. I very much agree with this.”

Lipshitz says, “In our day the IDFWO didn’t exist yet. We had activities, but not this wonderful thing that Emily and Assaf are receiving. We had activities, but a relationship such as this one and support such as this were not available.

“Regarding the matter itself, on a personal level, this is a question that is very difficult to answer. I think I have a certain internal peace, spiritual strength. I was hit by the worst tragedy in life, so everything else seems small in comparison.

Perhaps that is where it comes from, but apparently more on an unconscious level. Also, in the relationship that was created with my mother, in the way in which I developed myself – perhaps in the acceptance of life, the loss perhaps helped.”

Nativ explains, “It is hard for me to connect to the words ‘good’ or ‘positive’ in the context of the loss. But if you are asking where this has taken me and what it has added to my life, it has added a type of clarity.

“We often evaluate what there is as compared with what there isn’t. When you don’t experience loss, routine life goes on. But when death is present, when it happened to me, I was at a kind of intersection. I had to decide whether or not to continue life, as Assaf and Emily chose to do. I think that one of the things that happen to us is that we live life with greater intensity, without being embarrassed that we are doing something inappropriate by experiencing life.

To the contrary, we have to be thankful for and be happy with this, to connect to and value life, because it is not taken for granted. Every moment that we live is a gift. It is a sort of will for life: Live the best you can, even a bit for your father as well.

“When I became older than my father, who was 42, the feeling that surrounded me most was missing out – how much he had missed out. In addition, it is enjoyable for me to participate in special occasions, to see my family and my children, and to be able to be there for my mother – to connect with life. I am thankful that we are privileged.”

THE POLITICAL-SOCIAL situation in Israel came up, almost as in every conversation, but this time in the shadow of the loss that all four experienced.

“I am very disappointed with many things in Israeli society, and perhaps the disappointments also become stronger because of my loss,” says Lipshitz.

“Every time that people are killed here, we need to act differently. We are not Switzerland, and this is supposed to impact many things in our society, which has changed a lot.

“We are no longer in the period of the Yom Kippur War, a time of wars without any other choice. Today there are wars of choice. Society sees it differently. We are strong. The Israeli nation will remain here for generations, but the very fact that there still are orphans here is what obligates us as a society. We have social gaps, gaps in income levels for example, politics without modesty and humility.

I sacrificed, so I can legitimately say this.”

Nativ continues, “I say to the young people – because you have even more of a future ahead of you – war comes from a place of fear, of hatred, of negative feelings that motivate. And look at what happened, what a price we and many others are paying. I invite you to follow your hearts, and to go with love. War sends us to the opposite side.

“When we want goodness and come with love, we can resolve disputes, disagreements, and not only among states but also on the personal level among ourselves and those who are close to us – friends and families, couples and children.

“This is like a sort of will to take action in a different way, because look at what happens when engaging in war. Love cannot end in war. Connect to what joins people and not to what is different and distances them. ‘Live and let live’ is much more than a slogan.”

About the fathers

Orly Nativ – daughter of MSG Gedalyahu Tsins
Gedalyahu – an insurance agent who worked for the establishment of personal accident insurance for employees. As though he had a premonition of what the future held, he dedicated his efforts primarily to ensuring the rights of widows and orphans. During the Yom Kippur War, Gedalyahu served with his unit as a Sergeant. On February 6, 1974, several months after the fighting and while still serving in the military reserves, he lost his life in a traffic accident. He left a wife, Channa, and three children.

Assaf Amitai – son of Sgt.-Maj. Yaron Amitai
Yaron – served in the military reserves despite his age and volunteered until the last day of his life. He was called up to serve under an emergency order on August 7, 2006. That was the second time he was recruited during the Second Lebanon War.

On August 13, 2006, the eve of the cease-fire, he lost his life from friendly fire during a battle in the village of Kuneitra in southern Lebanon. Yaron died at the age of 45, the oldest combat soldier who lost his life in the war. He was buried in the Zichron Ya’acov military cemetery. Yaron left a wife, Merav, a daughter, and two sons.

Ehud Lipshitz – son of Corp. Yedidiah Lipshitz
Yedidiah – called up to serve in the military reserves before the Yom Kippur War and sent to the Lituf post on the banks of the Suez Canal.

When war broke out, the post was attacked by Egyptian forces and the Israeli soldiers at the post prepared to defend it. Few fighting against many, they were not strong enough. When the post was surrounded they had to surrender and became prisoners of war. On October 7, 1973, one day after the war began and when they were being taken as prisoners, they realized that some fellow soldiers were missing, among them Yedidiah. He was declared missing until 10 months later, when his body was found in August 1974. He was buried in the Mount of Olives cemetery. Yedidiah left a wife and three sons.

Emily Nesterenko – daughter of Corp. Alexander Nesterenko
Alexander (Sasha) – immigrated to Israel in 1994 with his wife and daughter, and the family settled in Netanya. Emily was born six years later, on September 1, 2000. Alexander was first called up to serve in the military reserves in the Gaza Strip in February, 2002. The next month was referred to as “Black March,” because during that month Israel suffered more losses than any other month of the second intifada. Terrorist attacks were occurring daily; 105 Israeli citizens and 26 Israeli soldiers were killed in one month. On the last day of his life, Alexander managed to talk by phone with his daughter, Emily. She agreed for the first time to speak the few words that she knew how to say. Previously Emily had never spoken with him by phone because she had been angry that he was not at home with her. Alexander lost his life in a military operation near Gush Katif on March 6, 2002. In his last patrol he traveled in an IDF vehicle near the fence along the border, south of the Kissufim crossing. When a group of terrorists fired on the patrol vehicle from an ambush, Alexander was mortally wounded in his head.

He later died from his wounds. Alexander was 37 years old and left a wife and two daughters.

For more on the IDF Widows and Orphans Organization, visit http://www.idfwo.org


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