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Jewish Journal

Going Through Hell For The Dead

by Larry Derfner

August 29, 2002 | 8:00 pm

Natan Koenig was blotting up blood from the floor of the cafeteria named for Frank Sinatra at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Koenig worked for two hours on that 95-degree afternoon on July 31, arriving soon after a Hamas-made bomb exploded under a table, killing nine people, including two Americans, wounding some 90 others and shattering the lunchroom.

Koenig handed sheets of blood-drenched absorbent paper to a co-worker, who placed them in a plastic bag. The bag would be buried in the grave of one of the victims. According to Jewish tradition, a person's soul resides in his blood.

An ambitious caterer, Koenig, 25, is also a volunteer with ZAKA, the Hebrew acronym for Israel's Disaster Victims Identification team. Members are best-known for showing up in their black skullcaps and yellow reflector vests at the scene of terror bombings to gather up body parts and blood for burial. Of the 604 volunteers -- all Jewish men -- 570 are Orthodox religious. "Only those with faith can cope with this work," said Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ZAKA's peripatetic guiding spirit.

Most ZAKA members are also volunteer ambulance medics; upon arriving at terror scenes, the first thing they do is treat survivors. They also go on search parties for missing persons. Much, if not most, of their time is spent helping the living. But ZAKA's signature Jewish mitzvah is in showing "respect for the dead" -- going to hellish lengths so people can be buried in a condition recalling, as much as possible, that they were "created in God's image."

Yitzhak Shalita, a computer programmer, saved lives as an ambulance volunteer, but he felt this was a matter-of-fact sort of mitzvah, "nothing heroic." He wanted a more challenging test of faith and dedication, so he joined ZAKA. Now he climbs ladders to scrape bits of human flesh off walls. "With every scrape of the plasterer's knife, you feel a sense of satisfaction," he said.

Shalita was sitting with Koenig and Shlomo Bloch, an Orthodox religious student, one recent night in ZAKA's low-ceilinged, underground bomb shelter in Jerusalem that is its combination equipment room and clubhouse. It's where local volunteers go after a terror attack to evaluate their performance, swap stories, argue, laugh -- there's a lot of black humor in ZAKA -- and vent about the stresses of their day or night.

Shalita is the soft-eyed rookie of the trio (each is age 25), having joined ZAKA only this year. The first terror bombing he worked was the night of March 9, when a terrorist blew himself up at Jerusalem's Moment cafe, killing 11 people. He got there a few minutes after the explosion, before survivors could even begin to wail. "I went inside, and everything was quiet except for all the cellular phones ringing," he said. "The walls were covered with blood. There were broken tables, plates, salads all over the floor -- total chaos. People were lying in a pile, one on top of the other, in a pool of blood."

He saw a woman seated on a chair at the bar, elbow on the counter, head resting in her palm. A man sat next to her with his hand on the bar as if holding a glass. Their eyes were open. "They were both dead, but they looked as if nothing was wrong with them. It was the force of the blast that killed them -- internal injuries," Shalita said.

He worked five hours at Moment, well into the middle of the night. He doesn't remember thinking or feeling anything, just mechanically doing one task after another.

"First, we took the corpses that were more or less whole, put them on stretchers, covered them with black plastic bags, and took them out to the tent that the police ID unit had set up," he said. "Then we did the same thing with the large body parts. Then we went back to get the smaller body parts and put them in bags. Then we scraped off the little pieces of flesh that had stuck to the walls and surfaces. The street outside was just covered with them. Then we blotted up the blood with absorbent paper and put that in a bag."

In the identification tent, police and ZAKA volunteers try their best to "piece together the puzzles" of the corpses, as Shalita put it. They take into account where the body parts were found, their appearance and any clothing that might be on them. The final, decisive "piecing together" is done with DNA tests by forensic pathologists at a Tel Aviv laboratory. Bags of blood, flesh and tiny body parts that cannot be identified are buried with the dead.

Needing to talk to a psychologist is not something that strictly Orthodox Israeli men are going to admit, and it was especially hard for the men of ZAKA. "We're the machos of the community," noted Bloch. (As a rule, the strictly Orthodox, or haredim, do not serve in the Israeli Army, seeing it as a corrupter of morals. The "modern Orthodox" do serve, and both volunteer in ZAKA.) But after the wives of several volunteers began complaining that their husbands had grown emotionally flat, detached from their families and normal pursuits, including marital sex, Meshi-Zahav compelled volunteers to go to group therapy at least once a year. In their ZAKA kit is the business card of a psychologist available for counseling 24 hours a day.

"When I went to group therapy I didn't open my mouth to talk, but I listened, and it helped," Bloch said. "I found that I wasn't the only one who had these reactions." Asked what sort, he replied, "If I smell cooked meat a day or two after a terror bombing, I run out of the house."

There have been no suicides or nervous breakdowns among volunteers, Meshi-Zahav said, but recently, an elementary school teacher in ZAKA -- members come from various professions -- took his class on a field trip to a cemetery. "He's off duty with ZAKA now," Meshi-Zahav noted.

Bloch compares ZAKA to an "elite army unit," and it does have many of the trappings. Volunteers know they are the chosen few; not many people have the fortitude to perform this deed, and consequently they are greatly admired in the haredi community. ZAKA is also respected by mainstream secular Israelis, who tend to resent haredim for the draft deferments and welfare checks many receive for studying full-time in religious schools.

"Most haredim don't go to the army, and they see soldiers and civilians being killed, and they want to do something to help," said Bloch, noting another motivation for joining ZAKA. Haredim are virtually all hardliners about fighting the Palestinian intifada, and when they are literally picking up the pieces of terror victims, they can be in a dilemma over what attitude to take towards a suicide bomber's remains. "You see his body in a thousand pieces, and you want to tear it into a million pieces, but you don't. You're not God, and even the terrorist was created in God's image, so you treat him just like anybody else," Bloch said.

The remains of suicide terrorists are given to the Palestinian Authority for burial, Meshi-Zahav said.

In the cafeteria at Hebrew University, there had been no suicide bomber, just a bomb in a bag; this was why the incident was so "clean," pointed out a ZAKA volunteer. "When there's a suicide bomber, the body parts fly in every direction," he noted. The scores of wounded people had been evacuated, the seven people killed had been taken in plastic bags to the forensic lab, the blood had been soaked up. Koenig's work was finished.

Getting into his car, he noticed traces of drops of blood on his forearms. "I thought I'd washed it all off," he said. "What I want now more than anything else is to go home and take a good, long shower."

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