‘There’s no one like him in Israel to this day’

Former soldier remembers ex-Sayeret Matkal commander Col. Uzi Yairi.

Col. Uzi Yairi’s grave at Tel Aviv cemetery  370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
Col. Uzi Yairi’s grave at Tel Aviv cemetery 370
(photo credit: Ben Hartman)
For Arnon Nachmani, it feels like only yesterday that he held his commander Col. Uzi Yairi as his life faded away on the concrete outside Tel Aviv’s Savoy Hotel, which PLO terrorists had seized the night before.
Yairi, a storied former commander of Sayeret Matkal (the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit) and the Paratroop Brigade, was on leave from the army when PLO terrorists from Lebanon landed in pontoon boats on the Tel Aviv beach near the beginning of Allenby Street on March 4, 1975. The gunmen made their way inland to Geula Street, where they found the Savoy Hotel with its lights on at 11 p.m. and quickly took control of it, threatening to kill hostages unless 20 Palestinian prisoners were released from Israeli jails.
When Yairi, then 39, heard of the hostage situation, he found a way to get in on the Sayeret Matkal raid the next morning, and was killed along with eight hostages and two fellow soldiers.
Now 57 years old, Nachmani visited Yairi’s grave at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, alone as always, holding a bouquet of flowers and reading a letter he had written to his former commander.
As a 22-year-old paratrooper, Nachmani had been part of a back-up contingent of troops supporting the Sayeret Matkal soldiers, and along with two fellow paratroopers he carried Yairi’s body out of the hotel and onto the sidewalk, where he tried in vain to revive him.
“You’ll probably laugh at me, but I like to come here and talk to him. It’s quiet here and I can tell him about the things going on in my life. I tell him that he’s missed here, and that there’s still no one like him in Israel to this day.”
In his letter, he told Yairi, who loved flowers, about the community garden he had joined in Tel Aviv – in part, he said, so that he could grow the flowers that he brings to the grave three to four times a year.
He spoke of his former commander with a measure of adulation and love that if anything only seemed to have grown over the years. He said Yairi, who had become head of Sayeret Matkal at age 31 and a full colonel at only 35, had been a star who would easily have become the chief of staff someday if he’d lived, in spite of the trauma he had suffered during the Yom Kippur War that drove him to take leave from the army.
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He also described how instead of punishing errant soldiers with weekends on base, he would force them to volunteer at the Tel Hashomer Oncology Ward, which he said had been a jarring experience for the young paratroopers.
Putting out a cigarette before leaving, Nachmani pulled out the letter he’d written and read the last few lines: “My commander, smell these flowers I’ve brought for you. I salute you always.”
Like a few other mourners and loved ones, Nachmani made his way to the military cemetery a day before the main Remembrance Day ceremony on Wednesday, which typically hosts the defense minister or the chief of staff and has an attendance in the thousands, with traffic jams fanning out in all directions into north Tel Aviv.
Tuesday afternoon at Kiryat Shaul enabled those who could get off work to take advantage of the stillness and greater privacy the day afforded. Here and there a few scattered mourners, most of them elderly retirees, kept a vigil next to their loved ones, as soldiers from the Home Front Command affixed flags and memorial candles to headstones one by one, and a group of Israeli Arabs set up the stage for the official ceremony on Wednesday.