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Remembering a fallen brother 50 years on

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ALLAN LEIBOWITZ

I was nine years old at the time, living in East London, and aware of my brother’s activities in Israel from his weekly letters and frequent audio tapes, although I have no real memories of him as he left home when I was much younger.

The 50th anniversary of his death stirred a huge sense of loss for me, and in the lead-up, I became increasingly aware that I knew so little about a sibling who had been more than twice my age at the time of his passing – in the prime of his life.

The only record of his life I had was a book about him published shortly after his death by his kibbutz friends. That publication reflects the profound loss experienced by all those who had been close to him, in the Habonim movement in Johannesburg, on Kibbutz Tzora, and in the army.

Harold rushed to Israel when the Six-Day War broke out in 1967, but missed the war and decided to stay on as a volunteer. When his six-month stint came to an end, he recognised that he was “home at last”, and after settling his affairs in South Africa, he returned to Israel to join Kibbutz Tzora, 20km from Jerusalem, near the city of Beit Shemesh, where he was warmly welcomed. In July 1968, he was drafted into the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). After basic training, he served in Nachal Golan, and in August 1969, he was posted to the Suez Canal zone where his life ended tragically just weeks before he turned 23, and shortly before his military service was due to end.

Harold is one of almost 90 South Africans who have lost their lives in defence of Israel. Over the years, I have received several invitations to attend memorial services, either organised by South African community organisations in Israel or the Israeli embassy in Canberra. (I emigrated to Australia 28 years ago).

As the anniversary of his death approached, I felt a growing need to learn more about my late brother. My quest to fill in the blanks began in earnest late last year, when I reached out to Harold’s former kibbutz mother on Tzora to find out if there were plans for any special memorial service this year.

That led me to Alan Hoffman, the former chief executive of the Jewish Agency. Hoffman made aliyah with Harold, studied at ulpan on Tzora, went into the army, and did basic training with him, and then served with him in the Nachal settlement of Nachal Golan in the winter of 1968-1969. They then went separate ways. Harold joined an artillery unit, while Hoffman went on to join the elite paratroopers.

Since Harold’s passing, Hoffman has made a point of attending the annual Yom Hazikaron memorial ceremony at Tzora, and going to Harold’s grave on the anniversary of his passing.

Not only has he honoured Harold’s memory, but in his official capacity with the Jewish Agency, Hoffman was also instrumental in creating an annual commemoration ceremony for Israel’s fallen immigrant soldiers.

The annual service, which attracts more than 5 000 visitors from around the world, was a spin-off of the Masa programme Hoffman started 15 years ago together with then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, which now brings close to 13 000 young Jews aged 18-30 to Israel on programmes of between five months and a year.

“In the second year of the programme, we realised that Yom Hazikaron was a difficult day to be in Israel for these young people because all the ceremonies are in Hebrew, and Israelis all go to their own personal memorial services,” he recalls.

What started as a small gathering of 300 people on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem has grown into a touching service now held at the amphitheatre at Latrun each year. This seemed like an ideal event to attend, and in May, I visited Israel with my wife and younger daughter, and my sister, Maureen, and her older son who live in Des Moines in the United States.

We timed our visit to coincide with Yom Hazikaron, and my effort to get to know my departed brother began with an intensely moving meet-up at Tzora of a dozen of Harold’s friends, organised by Hoffman. Now in their 70s and older, his former kibbutz and army colleagues shared memories of their short but meaningful relationship with my brother.

They recalled his musical talent. Harold had been a gifted accordion player who was always ready to provide accompaniment at any simcha. They shared stories about the hard work bailing hay in their volunteer days, about his gift of a Fisher-Price toy when the first of their group had a baby, and about his love of Israel. Like the assassination of President John F. Kennedy or Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, everyone remembered exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news of Harold’s death. As we fought back tears, we were all struck by the enduring impact he had had on their lives. While I don’t have my own memories of my brother, I came away from that encounter with a deeper understanding and appreciation – and perhaps an even greater sense of loss.

After the meet-up, we made our way to Latrun to join 5 000 young people and listen to stories of heroism, with families and friends recounting the losses of loved ones in the army, and in terror attacks in Israel. The common themes were unfulfilled potential, and the sense of loss for children growing up without knowing their siblings.

Maureen and I were asked to lay a wreath in Harold’s honour.

Among the most touching accounts was the story of Sean Carmeli, a 21-year-old lone soldier. The American was killed in a shoot-out with Hamas terrorists in Gaza. He had been a fan of Maccabi Haifa, and the soccer team, fearing no-one would attend his funeral, posted a request on its Facebook page asking fans to go along. That appeal resulted in tens of thousands of people showing up at Carmeli’s funeral.

On Yom Hazikaron, we made our way back to Tzora for the kibbutz’s memorial service. We’ve all seen footage of Israel coming to a standstill as the sirens wail at 11:00, but the emotiveness of it was quite unexpected. We were driving on the highway when the siren sounded, and every single vehicle – cars, trucks, and motorbikes – came to a stop, and their occupants jumped out and stood with bowed heads. As if frozen in time, they remained motionless until the two-minute siren ended, and then, as quickly as they had stopped, the vehicles were back on their way.

The memorial service at Tzora was a solemn event, bringing together several bereaved families who gathered with the broader kibbutz community to remember their losses. Unlike most Western memorials where mourners wear black or dull colours, almost everyone at the Yom Hazikaron service was wearing a white shirt symbolising the white background of the Israeli flag.

Harold’s grave, once the only military grave on the kibbutz, was thronged by family, including our Israeli cousins who have diligently attended since 1970, kibbutz friends, and several East Londoners living in Israel. And as the ceremony came to an end and we made our way to the dining room for a Middle Eastern dinner provided by the family of another fallen kibbutz soldier, we could see the kibbutz children honing their dances for the Yom Ha’atzmaut festivities a couple of hours later, festivities that 50 years earlier would have been accompanied by Harold’s accordion.

Israel holds fallen soldiers in enormous esteem, and the country is dotted with memorials to its war dead either marking particular battles, the fallen in local communities, or individual army units. We visited one of these, the Nachal Memorial in Pardes Hanna in the north of Israel. The stark and imposing concrete structure commemorates more than 1 000 soldiers from Harold’s military unit who have fallen in battle.

We were also fortunate to visit the national military monument opened last year at the Mount Herzl national cemetery in Jerusalem. The dramatic monument is constructed of thousands of uniform bricks, each bearing the name of a fallen soldier. If anything brings home the tragedy of Israel’s loss, it’s having to search on a computer for the location of the brick designating your loved one.

We were met by a serving soldier who led us to Harold’s name, and read out some documents from his memory box. Again, the efficiency of this process is a reminder that military deaths are now commonplace in Israel (at last count, the tally was 23 741). The army is practised and skilled in dealing with the bereaved – a skill set one would rather was not needed.

As the 50th anniversary of Harold’s death approaches, I’m reminded that our brother is very far from his siblings and immediate family. But at the same time, having come to know the people who still remember and love him, I appreciate that he’s where he wanted to be, and he’s not alone.

  • Allan Leibowitz is a journalist based in Brisbane, Australia. He’s the former deputy editor of Radio 702 News, and has worked in print journalism in Europe. He specialises in business reporting, and contributes to specialist publications around the world.

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Edward EPSTEIN

    Sep 6, 2019 at 5:28 pm

    ‘Such a heart warming article about Harold , very emotional to read through it, although I never had the privilege of meeting Harold a very close friend of mine Issy Peimer had mentioned his passing 50 yrs ago and have never forgotten the supreme sacrifice that Harold made for the state of Israel.’

  2. Gary Lawrence

    Sep 7, 2019 at 8:52 am

    ‘Thank you Allan. Your beloved parents were always very generous and caring.to the people they served in their business in Vincent. 

    Be blessed.’

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