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Jewish Journal

These Soldiers We Remember

by Gaby Wenig

April 22, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Yom Hazikaron is commemorated at the Western Wall with a flame and the flag at half-staff. Photo by Jack Hazut

Yom Hazikaron is commemorated at the Western Wall with a flame and the flag at half-staff. Photo by Jack Hazut

Yigal Shaked warned his mother that if she told the enlisting officers of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) that he should be excused from service because of his asthma, he would never speak to her again.

"And be it as it may, he never did," said Miriam Nash, Shaked's first cousin. "He was killed the first day of the Yom Kippur War. He was 19. He was the commander of a tank and he was called to give two other tanks cover. The other two tanks were able to survive, but he was blown up along with the rest of his friends who were serving with him."

Nash, a child of Holocaust survivors, considered Yigal to be "the brother she never had." She is now the executive director of the Southern California Friends of the Israel Defense Forces. According to estimates from the Israeli consulate, hers is one of at least 50 Los Angeles families that have lost close relatives in one of the Arab-Israeli wars. On Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Rememberance (April 25, 4 Iyar), Israel, a country that conscripts its youth and calls up its older men for compulsory reservist duty, will commemorate the soldiers who died fighting for its existence with a three-minute silence. In Los Angeles the fallen will be remembered, too, in various ceremonies throughout the city.

"There is a reason why we commemorate Yom HaZikaron, and the next day we celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut [Day of Independence, April 26, 5 Iyar]," said Shoshana Milstein, a Westside nurse who lost a brother in the Israeli navy in 1968. "We wouldn't have Yom HaAtzmaut without Yom HaZikaron, and for me that it not just a saying, but I really feel that way."

Milstein's brother, Yosef Zohar, was part of a 69-person crew that was working to update the World War II-era submarine, Dakar, which Israel purchased from the British in 1968. While returning to Israel, the Dakar disappeared -- without warning or subsequent explanation.

"On the way back to Israel [from England] they had communications with the Israeli navy in Haifa, then all of a sudden the communication was broken and they didn't know what happened," Milstein said. "I was in school then and we were supposed to go Haifa for parties and celebrations to welcome them home. Nobody knows what happened to [the submarine]. Thirty years later in 1999 the remains were found near the Island of Crete."

Milstein was 18 when her brother died. She said he was a "phenomenal person" who was called "the rabbi" by his unit because he was Orthodox, serious and felt he had the whole world on his shoulders. For years she and others speculated about what might have happened to him, imagining that he might have been kidnapped and was still alive somewhere.

"When you don't have a dead body you develop all of these wishful theories," she said. "Of course affected my parents terribly -- they were Holocaust survivors. They were so proud that they could make it to Israel. So on Yom HaZikaron I feel sad. It is a very meaningful day for me. I think about my brother a lot, and on Yom HaZikaron everybody joins in with me."

But others who lost relatives in the wars feel less connected to Yom HaZikaron.

"I think Yom HaZikaron is mainly for people who didn't lose their close relatives," said Tzvi Vapni, the deputy consul general of Israel, who was 3 when his father was killed fighting in the Six-Day War in 1967. "For the bereaved family, we don't need this day to remind us of the loss or the tragedy. When you lose a father or any close relative the loss is with you every day of the year. On Yom HaZikaron, the rest of the society joins you for one day."

Vapni's father, Moshe, was 31 when he was killed. Outside of the army, he was a schoolteacher, and now a school in Ramat Gan is named after him. In the army he was part of a small armed battalion fighting in the Sinai Desert the day before the war ended. Egyptian forces surrounded his unit, and Moshe Vapni died during the fierce battle that ensued.

"In Israel it is not an unusual thing [to have a relative who died fighting]," Nash said. "When the sirens go off on Yom HaZikaron, no matter where you are, and what you are doing, you stand still. And when you look around you and see the tears of the people, whether it is for their father, their husband or their best friend, there is always someone who knows someone who was killed. It is a small, tightly knit family."

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles' Yom HaZikaron service will be held April 25 at 5:30 p.m. at Temple Adat Ari El, 12020 Burbank Blvd., Valley Village. For information, visit www.israeliconsulatela.org .

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