Memorial candles for departed kin were likely to have been lit in most Jewish homes on the eve of Yom Kippur. Did anyone dedicate a candle to Rafael Khirs? By the time his life ended prematurely at 21, he had no immediate family left.
I met Rafael totally by happenstance several months ago, nearly 59 years after his death, and was so touched by him that I vowed to kindle a verbal flame to his memory. At the time, I wrote a Tack (published July 26) which compared the politically-generated expulsion of Gush Katif settlers with the politically-generated violence toward the IZL ship Altalena, just weeks after Israel gained independence and while the desperate war for its physical survival raged furiously.
That's when I chanced upon Rafael. More precisely, I came across a poem he penned after arriving in this country aboard the Altalena. It carried an invaluable load of weaponry for beleaguered newborn Israel's vastly outnumbered and outgunned defenders: 5,500 rifles, 50 anti-tank guns, some 5 million bullets, thousands of shells and bombs, 450 machine guns, five armored vehicles and plenty more. It also ferried over 900 young volunteers - mostly Holocaust-survivor Betar members, eager to enlist in the IDF.
The IZL, which by then signed an official agreement to disband, fully informed the government that the ship had set sail. David Ben-Gurion, through Yisrael Galili, ordered the Altalena to dock in Kfar Vitkin. Negotiations were under way about how its cargo would be divided. It was all destined for the IDF, though the IZL requested a portion for sorely under-equipped IZL veterans.
The Altalena reached Kfar Vitkin on June 20, 1948. Yet before its freight could be fully unloaded, it was besieged and its men attacked. All mediation efforts to prevent bloodshed were disdainfully rebuffed by Ben-Gurion.
The Altalena raised anchor and fled to Tel Aviv, where it was hit by artillery fire. Forces commanded by Yitzhak Rabin targeted anyone who jumped from the blazing deck or swam from shore to help the wounded. Sixteen Altalena men were killed and much of its load destroyed.
Bitterly betrayed, Rafael addressed the state directly through his verses:
We embarked on our voyage
To suffer and fight for you.
We brought you revolutionary courage
And an arms-ship to liberate you.
For years in Europe
We toiled without pause
To bring you Altalena,
The fruit of our labors.
And how you received us!
We'll never forget!
Of brothers-in-arms we dreamt,
But encountered the cannon blast.
And although they sank Altalena,
Raise your heads high, soldiers.
To the whole of Eretz Yisrael,
We remain forever loyal.
THE ORIGINAL Hebrew is flawless, yet unsophisticated, almost naive -clearly written by someone who knew the language but not as his mother tongue. I translated the stanzas and began wondering about who Rafael Khirs was. I discovered his name on a list of 17 Altalena passengers who fell in the War of Independence.
Rafael had been in his new homeland for less than four months when he gave it his life.
From the bits obtainable from Defense Ministry data, it emerges that Sgt. Khirs was deputy platoon commander in Battalion 91 of the Oded Brigade (many of it troops were also new immigrants, fresh off the boat, with Holocaust horrors still fresh in their minds).
According to the brief commemorative bio, Rafael was born on August 31, 1927 in a Transylvanian town called Sasregen by its Jewish inhabitants (Szaszregen in Hungarian and Reghin in Romanian). His very Orthodox family was also fiercely Zionist. His mother visited here in 1936 to buy land to facilitate the family's immigration. British restrictions and WWII foiled her plans. Rafael attended yeshiva after his bar mitzva and, also in 1940, joined Betar, which became his passion.
Nothing is mentioned about his lot during the Holocaust, except that most his family perished. Post-war Rafael headed a group of young Betar members, who made their way to a Betar youth village in Italy, where Rafael excelled at swimming and soccer and where he met the Altalena organizers.
Little more information was available. Next to the name Rafael, the ministry lists Zvi-David in parentheses. Perhaps these were his given names and Rafael his IZL nom de guerre. It took additional research to discover that his surname doesn't transliterate to Kirsch, as I assumed. That came after an attempt to trace remaining relatives, which took me to Yad Vashem's "Witness Pages."
One for his father, Ya'acov, was filed in 1955 by a cousin in Petah Tikva. The father died in the Mauthausen concentration camp. Rafael's paternal grandfather was also Zvi-David.
A "Page," for the Auschwitz-murdered mother, Rivka, came from Petah Tikva as well. Her maiden name was Schreiber, which reminded me that another of Altalena's newcomers was a Schreiber - Shlomo-Zvi. I looked him up too. He was also a Sasregen-native, 1927-born, from a Zionist Orthodox family, a yeshiva student post-bar mitzva, an avid Betar activist who lost most his family in the Holocaust and made his way to Italy and the Altalena with... his cousin Rafael Khirs.
THEIRS WAS a double connection - Rafael's father was Shlomo-Zvi's mother's brother. Rafael's mother was Shlomo-Zvi's father's sister. In genetic terms Rafael and Shlomo-Zvi were like siblings. Shlomo-Zvi's parents, Hillel and Rachel, were also murdered in Auschwitz.
Shlomo-Zvi too was assigned to Battalion 91 of the Oded Brigade. Both cousins participated in the same Operation Yoav battle for the Karatiya outposts which blockaded Negev roads. Both fell on the same day - October 18, 1948.
According to the Hebrew calendar that was 15 Tishrei - the first day of Succot, merely five days after Yom Kippur.
Will anybody light a candle and observe this yahrzeit?
Whether or not these same-age cousins are remembered by any living kin, the Jewish collective shouldn't forget on its holiest day the tragic sacrifice - alas, hardly atypical for that era - of one already-devastated family.