May 28, 2024
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Har Herzl: The Cemetery That Restores Lives

On the morning of Yom Hazikaron, a zefira, siren, is sounded throughout Israel at 11 a.m. The country stands at attention for one full minute, remembering those heroic soldiers who gave their lives protecting our country throughout its many wars for survival. Vehicles come to a halt and an eerie silence prevails. On Har Herzl, the military cemetery in Jerusalem, throngs gather from early morning to visit the gravesites of loved ones and often strangers. They too stop for the moment of silence and then resume their somber visits.

Shortly after the siren concludes, the national military memorial ceremony is held on Har Herzl, this year in the newly dedicated Hall of Remembrance. Circular in shape, its pale walls are built of individual bricks, each bearing the name of a fallen soldier along with a ner zikaron, memorial light, embedded into the brick. Visitors can visit the names, which are arranged chronologically according to the dates on which the soldiers fell. The walkway ascends or descends in a circular path. At one point along the path, six free-standing columns rotate the pictures and names of soldiers whose yahrzeits are being marked that day.

Within this hall, the ceremony honoring the fallen includes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Chief of General Staff Rav Aluf Gadi Eizenkot and other dignitaries who place wreaths in honor of all the divisions of the military. Outside, visitors listen to the ceremony broadcast over loudspeakers. At the conclusion of the ceremony, they continue their visits to the gravesites.

We joined an English-speaking tour of Har Herzl sponsored by an organization called “Faces of the Fallen.” Led by a former American, Sharon Benzioni, who made aliyah to Beit Hakerem some 35 years ago, the tour introduced us to the work of this voluntary organization that researches fallen soldiers whose life stories have been forgotten, as well as filling in the missing information on the tombstones of over 800 unknown soldiers. To date, “Faces of the Fallen” has identified 100 unknown soldiers, has had their stories recorded on the website of the Misrad Ha’Bitachon, Office of Security, as well as in the archives of Yad L’Banim, the archives of all fallen Israeli soldiers. Through their research, tombstones, formerly empty except for names, have been filled in with the names of parents, date of birth, country of origin and date and site of sacrifice—information listed on every tombstone on Har Herzl.

“Faces of the Fallen” came into being through a chance encounter on Har Herzl between Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi in 2012. Sagi, a young father of three from Neve Daniel, had just completed a booklet dedicated to three of his former classmates from Merkaz Ha’Rav Kook who died in action in Jenin, a major Palestinian stronghold in the northern West Bank. Perry, a mother of four, working as a social worker as well as an urban community planner, met Sagi by chance at the grave of an unknown soldier killed in 1948 near Jenin. The only information recorded on his grave was a name and location of death. It was at that moment that Sagi and Perry decided to jointly pursue a search for the missing information about Yosef Lehana.

Their nine months of research reads like a detective novel. It took them to a small village in Greece where Lehana’s widowed mother worked in a shoe factory. It traced Lehana’s involvement in a Zionist youth movement, his service as a partisan in Greece until his aliyah, his arrival in Haifa with no mention of him on the boat’s roster, and his supporting himself as a day worker doing odd jobs. Records were located of his volunteering for the Israel Defense Forces in 1948 at age 24, and finally his death while in action in Jenin. Over 400 phone calls were made to Greece and France, and finally to Haifa, where a granddaughter of his brother Gershon, now over 90 and living in Brazil, was finally located. Even a picture of Lehana surfaced from a former friend with whom he had done odd jobs in Haifa before enlisting. Many shekalim were spent on this search, put up by the volunteers themselves with little hope of reimbursement.

The final results can be seen today at the gravesite of Yosef Lehana. He was born in Arta, Greece, in 1909, the son of Esther and Nissim, a resident of Kiryat Motzkin in Haifa, and was killed in battle in 1948 near Jenin. The full story of his life can be found in the Yad L’Banim archives online as well as in the national files of the Defense Ministry. After all the newly found information was recorded on a replaced gravestone, a formal ceremony was held in Lehana’s memory, attended by Israeli military officials, his late brother’s granddaughter and relatives from France, as well as the voluntary researchers, Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi.

“Faces of the Fallen” is mostly involved with the 660 soldiers who perished between the years of 1940-1950, many whose life stories are unknown or incomplete. Most were born in the diasporas of Europe or in the Middle Eas, and were immigrants to Israel during and after the Holocaust. Many are the last remnants of their families. They have no visitors to their gravesites and nobody to recite the Kaddish in their holy memories. “Faces of the Fallen,” through its network of 28 volunteers, some native Israeli and some olim, have dedicated themselves to restoring the identities of these forgotten heroes through genealogical research. They are currently expanding their project by establishing a database through the use of the internet and social media so that more of the fallen can be “given a face.”

If you are interested in joining “Giving a Face to the Fallen” as a researcher or wish to learn more about the project or contribute in any other way, please contact Dorit Perry, project coordinator, at [email protected] or at 052-263-1262. You may also contact Stephen Glazer, American oleh and volunteer researcher, at [email protected] or at 02-5619213.

By Pearl Markovitz

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