Yona Baumel dies without knowing MIA son's fate

Baumel, a native of Brooklyn, New York, immigrated to Israel in 1970 with his wife Miriam and their three children, Shimon, Osna and "Zach."

baumel 88 248 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
baumel 88 248
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Yona Baumel, 81, died on Friday without fulfilling his heart's deepest desire: to discover the fate of his son Zachary, who was last seen on the Sultan Yakoub battlefield in Lebanon 27 years ago. "In the last month of his life he understood that he was dying and it hurt him that he did not know what happened to his son," Rabbi Benny Lau told The Jerusalem Post on Saturday night as he was on his way to Baumel's funeral at Har Hamenuhot Cemetery in Jerusalem. "He never gave up on his faith - not for a moment - not in God and not in the fact that his son had to be found," said Lau. Baumel, a native of Brooklyn, New York, immigrated to Israel in 1970 with his wife Miriam and their three children, Shimon, Osna and "Zach," the youngest who was 10 at the time. In June 1982, as Zach neared the end of his time in the IDF, his unit was surrounded near the village of Sultan Yakoub. Zach - along with Yehuda Katz, Zvi Feldman, Hezi Shai and Arye Lieberman - were unaccounted for after the battle. Shai was captured by Ahmed Jibril's PFLP-General Command, and Lieberman by Syrians. He was returned in 1984 and Shai in 1985. But no clear sign was ever received as to the fate of the other three soldiers, including Zach. Rumors soon began to circulate that they had been kidnapped. Several hours after the battle, Western journalists from Time magazine, the Associated Press, and La Stampa, as well as the Syrian media, reported that three Israeli soldiers from a tank crew were paraded through Damascus in a "victory march." But the visual images from this parade are so unclear that no positive identifications could be made. Over the years, reports indicating that the MIAs are alive have come from numerous sources, including Rifat Assad (brother of the late Syrian president Hafez Assad), ex-Syrian defense minister Mustafa Tlass, French president Jacques Chirac, East German intelligence, Christian clergymen, the Arab and Western media, Amnesty International, and even the late Hafez Assad himself. Working out of a deep conviction that his son was alive, in the last three decades of his life Baumel became a tireless warrior on his son's behalf. In hope of finding his son, he traveled from his Jerusalem home to locations all around the world to collect information about Zach's disappearance. He interviewed hundreds of witnesses and informants. He also lobbied Israeli, American and European politicians, including the Vatican's foreign minister, in hopes that it would help. In 2003, in an article for The Jerusalem Post, he wrote, "To this day we continue to receive reports that Zecharia is alive. I know one ultimate fact: that after so many years and having been through so much we want closure, we want the truth." He spoke bitterly of the government's failure to find his son and successfully rebuffed efforts by the IDF to declare him dead. In the 2003 article for the Post, he wrote, "For all practical purposes the IDF stopped looking for live prisoners almost from the first black day in June 1982." In another article for the Post, in 2006, he added, "Personally, I feel let down and betrayed by members of the army and the government." In describing the particular kind of hell he had been living through, he wrote, "You can't imagine what it's like to wake up in the middle of the night thinking about your kidnapped son. All the time, when you're not thinking about something else, you are thinking about your son." But in spite of all his efforts to locate Zach, Baumel entered Shaarei Zedek Hospital in Jerusalem without ever finding him. After three weeks of treatment in the hospital for heart diseases, he died on Friday, during Shavuot. His daughter Osna said that her father was a "lover of Israel" and "a very kind man." "He believed every individual had the same value, be it the chief rabbi or the poorest Jew. He was a great equalizer," she said.