Remembering a fallen brother, 50 years on

The 50th anniversary of his death stirred a huge sense of loss for me, and in the lead-up, I became increasingly aware that I knew so little about a sibling who had been more than twice my age.

Harold Leibowitz, the 22-year-old South African-born soldier killed by a sniper bullet at the Suez Canal 50 years ago (photo credit: COURTESY ALLAN LEIBOWITZ)
Harold Leibowitz, the 22-year-old South African-born soldier killed by a sniper bullet at the Suez Canal 50 years ago
A group of elderly Israelis, mostly immigrants from South Africa, gathered in early September at a graveside on Kibbutz Tzora, as they have for the past 49 years, to mark the death of Harold Leibowitz, whose short life was ended by an Egyptian sniper bullet at the Suez Canal in 1969.
I was nine years old at the time, living in East London, South Africa, and very aware of my brother’s activities in Israel from his weekly letters and frequent audio tapes, although I have no real memories of him as he had left home when I was much younger.
The 50th anniversary of his death stirred a huge sense of loss for me personally, and in the lead-up, I became increasingly aware that I knew so little about a sibling who had been more than twice my age at the time of his passing – in the prime of his life.
The only record of his life I had was a book about him published shortly after he died by his kibbutz friends. That publication reflects the profound loss experienced by all those who had been close to him in the Habonim movement in Johannesburg, on Kibbutz Tzora, and in the army.
Harold had rushed to Israel when the Six Day War broke out in 1967 but missed the war, and instead decided to stay on as a volunteer. When his six-month stint came to an end, Harold recognized that he was “home at last,” and after settling his affairs in South Africa, he returned to Israel to join Kibbutz Tzora, 20 km from Jerusalem, where he was warmly welcomed. He was drafted into the IDF in July 1968, and after basic training, served in Nachal Golan. In August 1969 he was posted to the Suez Canal Zone, where his life tragically ended just weeks before his 23rd birthday, and shortly before his military service was due to end.
Harold is one of almost 90 South Africans who have lost their lives in defense of Israel, and over the years, I have received several invitations to attend memorial services – either organized by South African community organizations in Israel, or the Israeli embassy in Canberra (I immigrated to Australia 28 years ago).
As the 50th anniversary of his death approached, I felt a growing need to learn more about my late brother. My quest to fill in the blanks began in earnest late last year, when I reached out to Harold’s former kibbutz mother on Tzora to find out if there were plans for any special memorial service this year.
That led me to Alan Hoffman, former CEO of the Jewish Agency, who had made aliya together with Harold, studied at ulpan on Tzora, gone into the army and done basic training with him, and then served with him in the Nachal settlement of Nachal Golan in the winter of 1968-69. They then went down separate paths – Harold joined an artillery unit while Hoffman went on to join the elite paratroopers.
Since Harold’s passing, Hoffman has made a point of attending the annual Remembrance Day memorial ceremony at Tzora, and going to Harold’s grave on the anniversary of his passing every year.
Not only has Hoffman honored Harold’s memory at his graveside, but was also instrumental in creating an annual commemoration ceremony for Israel’s fallen immigrant soldiers in his official capacity with the Jewish Agency.
The annual service, which attracts more than 5,000 visitors from around the world, was a spin-off from the MASA program Hoffman started 15 years ago together with prime minister Ariel Sharon. It now brings close to 13,000 Jews ages 18 to 30 to Israel on programs of between five months and a year.
“In the second year of the program, we realized that Yom Hazikaron [Remembrance Day] is a difficult day to be in Israel for these young people because all the ceremonies are in Hebrew, and all Israelis go to their own personal memorial services,” he recalls.
What started as a small gathering of 300 people on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem has grown into a touching service now held at the amphitheater at Latrun each year. This seemed like an ideal event to attend, and in May, I visited Israel with my wife and younger daughter, and my sister, Maureen, and her older son who live in Des Moines, Iowa.
We timed our visit to coincide with Remembrance Day, and my efforts to get to know my departed brother began with an intensely moving gathering at Tzora of a dozen of Harold’s friends, organized by Hoffman. Now in their 70s and older, his former kibbutz and army colleagues shared memories of their short, but meaningful relationship with my brother.
They recalled his musical talent, as Harold had been a gifted accordion player who was always ready to provide accompaniment at any simcha (happy occasion). They shared stories about the hard work bailing hay in their volunteer days, about his gift of a Fisher Price toy when the first of their group had a baby, about his enthusiasm for and love of Israel.
Like the assassination of President Kennedy or Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Harold’s death. As we fought back tears, we were all struck by the enduring impact the 22-year-old had had on their lives. While I don’t have my own memories of my brother, I came away from that encounter with a deeper understanding and appreciation – and perhaps a greater sense of loss.
After bidding farewell to the friends, we made our way to Latrun to join 5,000 young people and listen in awe to stories of heroism, with families and friends recounting the losses of loved ones in the army and in terror attacks in Israel. The common themes were unfulfilled potential, and the sense of loss for children growing up without ever knowing their siblings.
The service was particularly meaningful for us as Maureen and I were asked to lay a wreath in Harold’s honor.
Among the most touching accounts was the story of Sean Carmeli, a 21-year-old lone soldier. The American was killed in a shoot-out with Hamas terrorists in Gaza. He had been a fan of Maccabi Haifa, and the soccer team, fearing no one would attend his funeral, posted a request on its Facebook page asking fans to go along. That appeal resulted in tens of thousands of people showing up at Carmeli’s funeral.
On Remembrance Day, we made our way back to Tzora for the kibbutz’s memorial service. While we’ve all seen footage of Israel coming to a standstill as the sirens wail at 11 a.m., the emotions associated with it were quite unexpected. We were driving on the highway when the siren sounded, and every single vehicle – cars, trucks and motorbikes – came to a stop, as occupants jumped out and stood with bowed heads. As if frozen in time, everyone remained motionless until the two-minute siren ended, and then, as quickly as they had stopped, all the vehicles were back on their way.
The memorial service at Tzora was a solemn event, bringing together several bereaved families that gathered with the broader kibbutz community to remember their losses. Unlike most Western memorials where mourners wear black or dull colors, almost everyone at the Remembrance Day service was wearing a white shirt – symbolizing the white background of the Israeli flag.
Harold’s grave, once the only military grave on the kibbutz, was thronged by family – including our Israeli cousins who have diligently attended since 1970 – kibbutz friends, and several East Londoners living in Israel. And as the ceremony came to an end, and we made our way to the dining room for a Middle Eastern dinner provided by the family of another fallen kibbutz soldier, we could see the kibbutz children honing their dances for the Independence Day festivities a couple of hours later – festivities that 50 years earlier would have been accompanied by Harold’s accordion.
Israel holds fallen soldiers in enormous esteem, and the country is dotted with memorials to its war dead – either marking particular battles, the fallen in local communities, or individual army units. We visited one of these, the Nachal Memorial in Pardes Hanna in the north of Israel. The stark and imposing concrete structure commemorates more than 1,000 soldiers from Harold’s military unit who have fallen in battle.
We were also fortunate to visit the national Hall of Remembrance opened last year at the Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem. The dramatic monument is constructed of thousands of uniform bricks, each bearing the name of a fallen soldier. If anything brings home the tragedy of Israel’s loss, it is having to search on a computer for the location of the brick designating your loved one.
Our visit was prearranged, so we were met by a serving soldier who led us to Harold’s name and read out some documents from his memory box. And again, the efficiency of this process is a reminder that military deaths are now commonplace in Israel (at last count in May, the tally was 23,741), and the army is practiced and skilled in dealing with the bereaved – a skill set one would rather was not needed.
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of Harold’s death, I’m reminded that our brother is very far from his siblings and immediate family. But at the same time, having come to know people who still remember and love him, I appreciate that he is where he wanted to be – and he is not alone.
Allan Leibowitz is a journalist based in Brisbane, Australia