The ties that bind

More than 14 years after Nachshon Wachsman was kidnapped by Hamas and killed, his mother has been active in trying to secure the release of Gilad Schalit.

Esther Wachsman 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Esther Wachsman 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Esther Wachsman knows what it is like to hear a plea from a kidnapped son held by Hamas. Her son, Nachshon, was captured in 1994 and then killed six days later during a botched IDF rescue mission by the Palestinian gunmen who held him. Within two days of his disappearance on October 9, Hamas released a videotape of her bound 19-year-old son still in his khaki army uniform. Standing behind him was a terrorist who had a red keffiyeh wrapped around his face and a rifle slung over his soldier. "I am Nachshon Wachsman. Those who kidnapped me want their prisoners released or they will kill me," her son said when prompted to speak by the terrorist. Twelve years later, when Hamas captured 19-year-old soldier Gilad Schalit in a border raid and took him to Gaza, the initial similarity with her son's story prompted Esther to call Gilad's parents, Aviva and Noam, to offer them her support. At the time, she said: "It is the same record playing over again." Last month, she and her husband Yehuda went to the protest tent the Schalit family had set up outside former prime minister Ehud Olmert's Jerusalem residence. Noam and Aviva sat in the tent for two weeks in March to pressure Olmert before he left office to conclude a prisoner exchange with Hamas for Gilad's release. Visitors to that tent were often greeted by a simulated sound of Gilad's voice, pleading: "Save me!" Although she has been an opponent of prisoner releases, Esther said she could not bear to think of another young man in a similar situation to that of her son. "I can't separate from the mother in me. Nobody can understand this, unless they have experienced it," she said. Esther called Olmert during the Schalit's two-week protest when it seemed as if a deal was possible. She told him that if it would help free Gilad, she would even be willing to have her son's kidnapper released from jail. But, she added, "I hoped he would do it with some sense." Esther said she was among those who believed that those prisoners responsible for murdering Israelis should be deported if they are released. This is not an easy stance for her to take, she said. "Thank God, I do not have to make these decisions," Esther said. "I understand the fear of letting all the killers out because they are going to kill again." There are other measures beyond a prisoner swap or a rescue operation that could be employed, such as shutting down electricity in Gaza, Esther said. At the invitation of Gilad's mother, Esther sat next to her in the visitors' gallery in the Knesset earlier this month to hear Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu's first address, in which he promised to make Gilad's release a priority. As someone who knew something about the price that can be paid for rescuing hostages, Netanyahu read from a letter that his brother, Yonatan, had written to the family just before Pessah. It was one of the last letters the family received from "Yoni" before he was killed leading a successful mission to free over a hundred hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in Entebbe. In the letter, Netanyahu said, his brother wrote of his belief that he was an inseparable link in the chain of Jewish history that spanned from biblical times to the modern state of Israel. As children of Holocaust survivors, Esther and Yehuda Wachsman are fully aware of the weight of that history. She was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany in 1947 to parents who had been in Nazi concentration camps. A Catholic woman hid her older sister. In 1950, the family immigrated to New York. Esther left the United States for Israel in 1969, where she met and married Yehuda in 1970. Yehuda had made aliya with his family from Romania in 1959 at the age of 11. Together they raised seven sons in Jerusalem, six of whom have served in the army. The first two were named for relatives who perished in the Holocaust. The third, Nachshon, was born the day after Pessah in 1975. With an eye toward history and the Bible, they named him for the person who spurred the ancient Israelites into crossing the Red Sea after fleeing from Egypt. As the Israelites stood on the sea bank terrified to head into the churning waters, Nachshon jumped in. Only then did the sea part for everyone to safely cross. During Pessah 1948, it was Operation Nachshon that opened the road to Jerusalem during the War of Independence, Esther noted. Her son, Nachshon, Esther said, "was a very fun-loving and peace-making type who went to yeshiva." Outside their home, he volunteered with Ethiopian Jews and Magen David Adom and was very active in the Ezra youth movement. Inside, he had a special relationship with his youngest brother Rafael, who has Down Syndrome. Nachshon would take him to his afternoon program at the Shalva Center for children with special needs and pick him up, said Esther. Out of all her other sons, "he was the one who played with [Rafael] the most." Both Nachson's older brothers served in Golani. He followed in their footsteps and then tried to outdo them by gaining acceptance to the elite Orev Golani unit. Two days before he was taken, Nachshon had just arrived home on Friday for a week's break from serving in Lebanon. After Shabbat, the army called him to say they were sending him up North for a one-day course on Sunday. He left later that night with his friend, Moshe, who had received the same call. There was nothing unusual about his departure, recalled Esther. She gave him a hug and a kiss and said, "See you tomorrow night." When he had not returned by 9 p.m. the next day, his parents became nervous. They called Moshe, who had already arrived home. He said he had dropped Nachshon at the Bnai Atarot Junction, just outside Yehud. Nachshon told Moshe that he would take what ever came first - a bus or a ride. By midnight, she and her husband telephoned the IDF's liaison officer in Jerusalem. When he told them that nothing could be done for 24 hours, she and her husband began phoning police stations all over the country. Her children knew to call when there was a change of plans, said Esther. She became certain that harm had befallen him because otherwise, he would have found a way to contact his family, she said. By Monday, she told herself that he must be dead and if anything was found, it would be his body. While she was contemplating the worst, the army was busy looking to see if Nachshon was absent without leave. They called hotels in Eilat and checked his bedroom for love letters. "I told them, 'No, this was not our lifestyle,'" said Esther. Friends and neighbors put together their own search party and scoured around Bnai Atarot. Friends and relatives also gathered in her home to give their support. Then suddenly, on Tuesday, Israel Television called. It said it had a tape of Nachshon to show the family before it was aired, Esther recalled. A Hamas terrorist said in the video that if their demands were not met and the group's spiritual leader Ahmed Yassin and 200 prisoners were not released by 8 p.m. Friday night, Nachshon would be killed. The room was full of relatives. Everyone was crying, she said. Still, the tape raised a flicker of hope for her. "I felt like, okay, he is not dead, there is still a chance we are going to get him," she said. Since the tape had been released to a Reuters photographer in Gaza, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin declared on television that if anything happened to Nachshon, it would be the fault of then Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. To Esther, it was an infuriating statement. She called Rabin and said, "My family and I are Israeli citizens. My son was wearing an Israeli uniform when he was kidnapped. No way will I accept that Arafat is responsible for his death. All the responsibility will be yours," she said. The family had received a message from Arafat that week through Ahmed Tibi, who at the time served as his political adviser. Tibi quoted Arafat as saying that if their son was in Gaza, the PLO leader would leave no stone unturned until he was found. Esther said that she viewed the call with a certain amount of cynicism, given that he had just been given a Nobel Peace Prize that same week, together with Rabin and foreign minister Shimon Peres. For the next 72 hours, she and her husband spent every waking moment doing everything in their power to secure Nachshon's release with the help of Israel, the US and religious leaders. It never occurred to them not to lobby for their son. "What were we supposed to do, sit still and wait?" she asked. "What we could do we did. We never stopped acting for one second." "We announced his American citizenship and we turned to [former US president Bill] Clinton who sent the secretary of state to the area," she said. They also tried to use back-channel diplomatic contacts and spoke with people who knew Muslim leaders in various Arab countries to see if that could help. On Thursday, Ashkenazi chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau held a prayer for Nachshon at the Western Wall to which 100,000 people showed up. Throughout the week, they received an incredible show of support from the Israeli public. "You do not know how many restaurants delivered foods and sent drinks, all anonymously," she said. On Friday evening when she lit candles, Esther said, "I invited the press who were parked outside the door to watch. I said, I am talking to you, Nachshon. We are all working as hard we can to get you out of there." "I asked every Jewish woman to light an extra candle that night for my son who could have been anyone's child or brother or friend," said Esther. In the weeks that followed, Esther said, she received some 70,000 letters in response to her request. "We had to build a closet for the letters," she said. "Women sent pictures of themselves lighting candles. People who had never before lit said they had done so that week for her son." As she uttered the blessing over the candles, she was not aware that at that moment, the IDF was in the midst of a rescue operation for Nachshon. "We knew nothing," she said. "We did not know that [the driver of the car which kidnapped Nachshon] had been apprehended. We did not know that he was in a house [in the Palestinian village Bir Nabala] only ten minutes away from mine. I live in Ramot." The deputy defense minister at the time, Motta Gur, had told them that there were talks going on, so they believed the IDF was looking to strike a deal for Nachshon. At 8 p.m. - the deadline Hamas had set for their demands to be met - the family was sitting around the Shabbat table. "I was staring at the door and truly, I expected it to open and for Nachshon to walk in," Esther recalled. Instead, three top IDF officers walked in, including OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Yoram Yair. Once the family saw them, "We knew what message they brought," she said. Yair called them into a separate room and for the first time gave them details of the kidnapping. The terrorists had dressed up as haredim and had placed a Bible and a prayer book on the dashboard. They stopped at the Bnai Atarot junction, where Nachshon had been thumbing a ride home. Once they had him in the car, they took him to Bir Nabala and held him there. But their plan started to go awry when the IDF caught the driver. He was able to give the army enough details of where Nachshon was held to allow for a rescue operation, said Esther. But what had worked in Entebbe did not work here. This was a totally different situation from the operation in Entebbe, which involved many people in a large area, said Esther. "You were talking about a plane full of hostages, a dozen terrorists and an international airport. The dynamic is different." "Here you are talking about a house with one boy," said Esther, who is of the belief that a military rescue of one person under any circumstance is impossible because it is harder to execute a surprise in such a small space. But that was only one of the problems with the raid. The IDF tried to blow its way through the main entrance to the house with inadequate explosives, which only dented the iron door. When the second charge tore down the door, the soldiers' way was blocked by a second door, which took four minutes to open. The terrorists then shot at the soldiers as they came through the door, wounding several of them and killing the head of the mission, Capt. Nir Poraz. When the soldiers entered the room, Nachshon was slumped dead in a chair, still bound in the chair on which he had been killed by his kidnappers as the IDF raid began. Esther and Yehuda learned more details of the failed rescue mission on Saturday night from Rabin and chief of staff Ehud Barak, who was one of the architects of the Entebbe mission. After hearing them speak, Yehuda asked everyone to leave the room, including his wife. Yehuda told Esther later that he had argued that other options had been available. At the very least, the government, he said, should have done something to delay the Friday deadline so that the soldiers could be better prepared. "I am angry with what happened," said Esther. "On the other hand, I am a believer. What happens occurs by divine intervention. His [Nachshon's] time was up." Rabin left the room crying after speaking with her husband, said Esther. A year later, according to the Hebrew calendar, Rabin was assassinated, she added. Soon after the visit, later that Saturday night, they buried Nachshon at the Mt. Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem. The funeral was held on the eighth birthday of his twin brothers, but one of them, Rafael, did not attend. Since Rafael does not speak as a result of Down Syndrome, it was hard to say for certain what he understood of Nachshon's loss, said Esther. The day the tape of Nachshon was shown on television, the head of the Shalva Center came to their home with a suitcase and took Rafael. When Rafael returned home at the end of the seven-day mourning period, he took a picture of Nachshon off the wall and smashed it, said Esther. "It had to mean something," she said. Esther never told her father, who lived in New York, about Nachshon's death because his doctors feared it would be too traumatic, given that he had already lost most of his family in the Holocaust. Each time he came for a visit to Israel, they told him Nachshon was on a secret mission. "It was not such a lie. He is on a secret mission," said Esther. "When one sustains a loss like this, there are only two ways to go on. You can get under the covers and not function" or you can do something, she said. She took early retirement from her job as an English teacher at Hebrew University High School. Her husband stopped his real estate work, went back to school to study psychology and does volunteer work. "It turns out that God gave me a voice. I have chosen to be a voice for two of my sons. One who is no more and my other son who has Down Syndrome and can not ask for help for himself." Fourteen years ago, she raised money for a new building at the center, which was named for her son. She and her husband have also pursued those responsible for their son's death in court. In 2006, they filed a law-suit against Iran for providing funds and training to Hamas. On March 27, in New York, a federal judge ordered Iran to pay $25 million plus interest to their family; a ruling that is mostly symbolic since it is difficult to collect payment in these cases. "I'm happy that it showed the world that Iran is responsible," said Esther. Time has not made her son's absence easier. "There is not a minute when I do not think of him," she said. His friends still come to the house to visit and she has been invited to their celebrations. "I go to the weddings. I see the children being born. I am delighted for them and stricken with grief that my son will never be one of them," she said. Esther pictures Nachshon at the Friday night table or the Seder table. This year is her fifteenth Pessah without her son. For the Schalit family, it is their third Pessah without Gilad. To symbolize Gilad's absence and his continued captivity during the festival of freedom, Jews around the world were asked to leave an empty chair at their Seder table. Esther, who already has an absent family member, said that she too had planned to set aside an empty seat for Gilad. As time has passed and Gilad has spent more than a thousand days in captivity, his situation has weighed heavily on her, said Esther. She thinks of missing airman Ron Arad. One year after his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, his captors sent to Israel a photograph of him and a letter he wrote. Arad went missing in May 1988, before the government could conclude a prisoner swap. His story hangs like an ominous cloud over the struggle for Gilad's release. Not only have intelligence reports confirmed that he is alive, but since he has been held in Gaza, his captors have sent his family two letters and a cassette from Gilad. "We messed up with Ron Arad and that is what is going to happen to Gilad. This thought appalls me. It makes me sick. I identify with Gilad because I am Nachshon's mother. I am sleepless over it," she said. "Gilad has become very close to me," said Esther. "He is alive and he must come home."