My Word: The mourning after

Yona Baumel's legacy is to continue struggle to discover the fate of his son, Zachary, MIA since 1982.

baumel picture 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
baumel picture 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It is hard to say of a man that it's a pity he never got to bury his son. In the normal course of things, there can be no greater curse than to wish for a parent to have to say kaddish for a child. This was the first thought that came to mind when I learned on May 30 that Yona Baumel, a neighbor and family friend, had died the day before, on the Shavuot holiday. It is even stranger to be wishing it on someone like Yona Baumel - a gentle soul who liked to help others, had a good sense of humor, and spent his life trying to do the right thing. When a man dies, relatively painlessly, at the age of 81 it is sad, but not a tragedy. But Yona - so ordinary, so special - was the victim of one of those unfathomable "why me?" situations in which there is an ongoing sadness. As I called the paper to let them know he had died I wondered how best to phrase his obituary: "He is survived by his wife, Miriam, seven grandchildren..." But how many children? He is mourned by his son, Shimon, and daughter, Asi, but is he "survived" by his youngest child? I found myself increasingly hoping that in death Yona found the closure that was so lacking in his life: to know what happened to his son, Zachary (Zacharia), missing in action since the Battle of Sultan Yakoub on June 11, 1982 - 27 very long years ago. I last saw Yona just before Pessah, some two months ago, when I interviewed Miriam in their Jerusalem apartment. He had been in and out of hospital for several months with cardiac problems and was quietly handing over to his wife his role as the main voice behind the struggle for information about their son. Yona stayed in his office while I spoke to her; I don't know how much he heard. When we discussed how she coped ("I know every escape mechanism possible") did Yona hear her add, "That's the difference between us. Yona keeps it all in," with the implication that his heart problems were a result? But it was not the struggle to discover what had happened to Zachary that killed Yona. I got the impression that it was the reason he kept on going even while battling ill-health: He was unable to give up. And he was scathing about those politicians and IDF officers who did. Benny Lau, the rabbi of Ramban Synagogue where Yona used to pray, noted: "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." The last time we discussed it, Yona told me he was sure Zachary was alive and being held in Syria. Miriam also says: "I do believe it is possible that he is alive." At the shiva it was not only Yona who was so painfully missing. Zachary's absence was haunting. People introduced themselves in terms of: "I knew Yona since before Lebanon/after '82." Life for the Baumels would never be the same after that benchmark year. Many other families lost their sons in the First Lebanon War. Twenty-one lost them at Sultan Yakoub. But only Miriam and Yona and the families of Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman literally lost them in the sense that they physically disappeared, their fates unknown. THIS IS the first time I am writing about Yona knowing he will not read it. It's far more difficult than writing something and then waiting to bump into him in the street and hear his comments. Perhaps the hardest thing is that while I want to pay tribute to Yona, the father and grandfather; the proud Jew and Zionist - his obvious disgust in the way the state has handled his son's case notwithstanding - I find myself again drawn back to writing about "Zack," whom I never met. Maybe that is the best tribute after all - a plea to remember both Yona and his son, so that one can rest in peace and the other return to Jerusalem, dead or alive. Most of my conversations with Yona were small talk: the price of real estate in Jerusalem - which Yona as a New York-born former realtor could discuss with his usual sardonic wit and sharp insights; the likes and dislikes of my second-grade son and his youngest grandchild, the same age. On Fridays, he would often walk home from synagogue - in later years, slowly - chatting to my Dad. Watching them, I was struck by a "There but for the grace of God" feeling. It is a sentiment which always increases this time of year, as the anniversaries of both the Six Day War and the First Lebanon War come around. I was in London on a post-army trip when the war commenced. It was there I learned of the deaths of nine of my brother's comrades from the Barak armored division on June 10 (12 more members of his unit fell in the next three months) and the deaths of friends. Sultan Yakoub passed me in a blur of endless names of victims and battles. I cut my trip short and returned home. At Yona's shiva a woman introduces herself as someone whose first husband was killed at Sultan Yakoub. I also meet the parents of Aharon Gross, a 19-year-old yeshiva student gunned down in Hebron in 1983. The Baumels' plight has touched many. Miriam and Yona, for their part, have also always used their experience, extensive contacts, and constant trips abroad following leads to try to help others. And there have been many, many others. MIAs. POWs. Terror victims. Fallen soldiers. Operation Peace for Galilee turned into the Lebanon War and then, three years ago, became known as the First Lebanon War as more hostilities broke out. Over the years, the Katyushas from the North have reached ever further southwards, while the Kassams from the South have progressed to the center. The whole country has, in some form or another, become exposed to the threat of terror and missiles. No wonder we needed last week's Civil Defense drill. When Gilad Schalit was abducted by Hamas in June 2006, Yona was asked whether he would speak to his parents. "I don't think they would necessarily want to hear from someone who has been in their situation for more than 20 years," he replied. For Yona the struggle is now over. And it is up to each and every one of us to think of what we can do to help make sure he - or at least his son - is not forgotten. We need to make sure no diplomatic deal can be concluded without closure for the families of the MIAs. Yona's very ordinariness - and extraordinariness - reinforces what we all know deep down. It could have been us. Yona, may you rest in the peace you so deserve. Miriam, may you have the strength to continue the fight until you either have a grave for your son or have your child back to hug and cherish. And to paraphrase the traditional words to a mourner: "May you - and all of us - know no more sorrow."