April 18, 2024
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Memorial Day for Fallen Israeli Soldiers

The day before Yom Ha’atzmaut, Daled Iyyar, was designated in 1951 as a memorial day for those who lost their lives in defense of Israel and its people. Over the years it has come to include those who fell even before the state was established and also victims of terror. Traditions of the day include sounding a siren, lighting memorial candles, ceremonies in cemeteries and schools and broadcasting special programs. A variety of keepsakes has been created for families and the public who wish to honor the fallen soldiers. Due to the emotional connection, they don’t often fall into collectors’ hands.

The earliest I know of is a sterling silver plaque, 1 ¾” x 2 ¾,” issued in memory of Palmach soldiers who fell in the 1948 war of Independence—1,187 of them. Beneath the Palmach symbol is stamped “Gedud 1” (1st battalion). The name of the soldier “Avraham Furstenburg” is engraved below. Then, the site of the battle “Malchiya” and the date he fell “6 Iyyar 5708.” Below, “His comrades who continue in his way stand at attention.” I don’t know if all 1187 families received such a plaque. No one at the Palmach museum in Tel Aviv had ever seen one. Avraham was born in Poland. He was 23 years old when an enemy bullet killed him. Figure 1 shows this plaque.

Another memorial from the 1948 war seems more official. It is a certificate declaring that “Yechezkel Akerman has fallen in battle on the 12 of Tammuz in the Galil. The government of Israel and the Jewish people will preserve his memory.” It is signed in ink by Prime Minister David Ben Gurion. Most remarkably, this entire certificate was written by a sofer in Torah-style letters on parchment that has been scored much like a mezuzah. We are left with the feeling that this is a holy scroll, to be treasured and preserved. Over 6,000 soldiers fell in the war of Independence. I don’t know how many families received such a certificate. Akerman, too, was a member of the Palmach and is memorialized in their museum. He was born in Peru and died at age 19. Figure 2 shows this certificate. (The Ministry of Defense continues to send bereaved families printed official letters each year on Yom Hazikaron.)

In 1963 the Ministry of Defence commissioned a medal that was presented to the families of fallen soldiers. A thick bronze medal, it reads on one side “Memorial Day for the Fallen of IDF” and on the other, “In Memory of Her Fighters Who Fell That She Might Rise.” By 1963, they needed nearly 7,000 medals for all such families. See figure 3.

In 1973, at the 25th anniversary of Israel’s independence, Chief of Staff Lt. General David Elazar presented a medal to the families of fallen soldiers. It is stamped “In memory of our beloved” with space to engrave a name. Below, “In appreciation” and the signature of David Elazar. By now, over 8400 medals were needed for these families. Figure 4 shows this medal.

More recently, in 2003, the Israel government issued a medal that shows three Israeli flags flying at half-mast. It reads: “In commemoration of the fallen of Israel’s Campaigns.” A special family version was not sold to collectors. It has an additional inscription: “In appreciation, to the bereaved families.” This medal is shown in figure 5.

Any number of private medals have no doubt been struck to remember defenders who lost their lives. The one in figure 6 commemorates Jonathan Netanyahu, leader of the elite squad that liberated the hostages held at Entebbe airport in Uganda in 1976. He was the only soldier to die in that successful raid. We see his men behind him and the plane that flew the hostages to freedom. The back of the medal quotes the verse from Shmuel Bet that Dovid Hamelech said upon the death of Yehonatan ben Shau’l: “I am distressed for thee, my brother Jonathan.”

In 1947, Chaim Weizmann was quoted as saying “The State will not be given to the Jewish People on a silver platter.” Soon after, the poet Nathan Alterman published a poem in which the lives of young men and women are described as the Silver Platter on which Medinat Yisrael was given to us. May their memory be a blessing.

By Rabbi Jacob Yablok

 Rabbi Yablok speaks to schools and synagogues on a variety of Jewish topics, all illustrated with original artifacts. He can be reached at [email protected].

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