2 US Mahal volunteers killed in '48 laid to rest

'Fifty-seven years is a very long time to have to wait to come together like this and say goodbye.'

mahal volunteer funeral  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
mahal volunteer funeral
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
For 57 years all the families wanted was a grave; a place to lay a stone, rest their heads, to remember, mourn five soldiers, including two American volunteers, who fell in a battle for Latrun in the War of Independence and were never located. On Wednesday, the IDF finally unveiled their tombstones at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl military cemetery after positively identifying their remains in a mass grave. It brought to a close a long, painful mystery for the families. "Fifty-seven years is a very long time to have to wait to come together like this and say goodbye," said Mindy Kornberg, whose uncle, Pvt. Menachem "Mandel" Math, was one of the two Mahal veterans who received a tombstone. Under Jerusalem pine, on a crisp, windy afternoon, aged comrades in arms, siblings, nieces and nephews were able for the first time to gather at the grave of Math, Cpl. Shlomo Berber, Pvt. Yehuda "Jerry" Kaplan, Pvt. Ya'akov Shnawiss (who changed his name to Sheleg Lavan), and Pvt. Moshe Hessman. They were soldiers from the Givati Brigade who were killed by Jordanian Legion artillery fire on May 13, the day before the state was declared, after they occupied an abandoned British prisoner camp near the Ayalon Valley. In August, the IDF's unit for locating missing servicemen announced that they had identified their remains after meticulously cross-referencing testimonies and IDF documents. It seems their remains had been collected after the battle and they were buried as anonymous soldiers on Mount Herzl years after the war. "Though you have lain in this holy soil all these years, no one knew for sure, and only now we know where. And so 57 years later we have gathered here to say goodbye and thank you," said Kornberg. With honor guard at ease, and following the cantor's melancholic song, moving words were spoken by OC Manpower Maj.-Gen. Elazar Stern. He remarked how they died just one day before being able to hear David Ben-Gurion declare independence and, sadly, they were never able to witness the joyous celebration of a nation at its birth. "You were the pioneers," Stern said. "We owed it to you and every one of our soldiers not to rest, not to leave any stone unturned until you were brought to a final resting place." Stern noted that Israel does not have any Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. "There is no soldier without a name. A soldier sent by the state of Israel knows we will never rest, leave no stone unturned, until we find them and return them to a final resting place." If a body is found and not identified their tombstone simply says "anonymous." Warriors whose place of burial is unknown have their name etched on a memorial wall or are given a memorial tombstone in a special place in military cemeteries. Unfortunately, contact with the Kaplan family has been lost and the IDF was unable to inform any of his relatives. Rachel Shorin, another one of Math's nieces, wondered if anyone mourned him after all these years. "We will remember you," she said, referring to Kaplan. Like many of the Mahal volunteers, both Math, a devout, brash redhead who grew up in Brooklyn, and Kaplan, who was from New Jersey, were veterans of the US military in World War II. They answered the call to help establish a Jewish state. All told, about 3,500 volunteers from western and English speaking countries came. They became known as Mahal, which is the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz La'Aretz, volunteers from outside of Israel. There remain five missing Mahal volunteers: Canadian cousins Harvey Avraham Cohen and Ed Avraham Lugech, and aviators Stan Andrews of the USA, Dov Sugarman of Britain and Bob Vickman of the USA. Sharon Ma'ayan, the IDF researcher who solved the mystery of the Givati soldiers said they had determined that Math, Kaplan and Berber were collected in late 1949 during a sweep for fallen members of the Alexandroni Brigade killed during Operation Ben Nun A (May 24, 1948). They had been sent to evacuate a cannon and killed in a bombardment. The remains were buried in a mass grave on Mount Herzl and contained three unidentified soldiers. "They had always told us that Mandel had been killed by a hand grenade and that there were no remains," said his sister Shirley, 79, who moved to Israel 18 years ago. The other two Givati soldiers, Shnawiss and Hessman, had been with a force on the western side of the camp and were killed by the shelling as they tried to escape toward Kibbutz Hulda. Their remains were only gathered after the war. When the War of Independence ended there were some 900 soldiers missing in action. IDF Chaplain General Rabbi Shlomo Goren was determined to solve many of these cases, mainly to allow their widows to remarry. After a few years of difficult, secret and often treacherous work, the number of MIAs was reduced to about 150. Until 1990, the IDF's unit for locating missing servicemen did not exert much effort searching for missing soldiers from the War of Independence, focusing instead on the other wars. This changed when then Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin revived the effort by instructing the IDF archives to open access to the unit. The 150 MIAs disappeared in about 70 incidents. A pair of reservists was put on each incident and began investigating. So far, 25 cases have been solved not including the latest. All of them were confirmed found in either anonymous graves or buried under another name. But the unit still believes there is a chance some bodies could be located yet on the old battlefields and launches periodic expeditions to find them.