The grave of an unknown soldier on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
As of Israel Independence Day last year, 23,741 Israeli soldiers had died during their service. The country has come to memorialize its fallen soldiers in one of three ways: 1) most commonly, it provides a grave and a headstone in a military cemetery, with information provided on the soldier, 2) when there is no official grave (that is, when no one really knows where the body of the deceased is), it inscribes the name either on a memorial wall or marker, and 3) it furnishes a grave and a headstone, but little or no information about the deceased is engraved on the stone.
Today, when a soldier dies, the following identification is to be established: the name of the soldier, their army identification number, national civilian identification number, army rank and army unit, as well as their job in the army. When they are buried, the headstone notes the full name of the deceased, their parents’ first names, country of birth (if outside of Israel), date of birth (according to both the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars), aliyah date, date and place of death and age at the time of death. The stone also contains the emblem of the Israel Defence Forces. In a military cemetery, the tombstone’s content reflects a high degree of uniformity. One monument pretty much contains the same details as the next one.
In pre-state Israel and in the War of Independence in 1948, these practices were not yet in place. Young men and women – many of whom had just survived the Holocaust – fought to establish the state. They (and all other soldiers) had little military training. They might not have known Hebrew very well. Not uncommonly, they were the only survivor of their families.
Times were tense, at times verging on the chaotic. The fighting left limited time for socializing, for establishing relationships. So, if a soldier died, it was not surprising to have known them only by their first name. Under the circumstances, most fellow fighters would not have been acquainted with the soldier’s parents, would not have even known their names.
At the end of the War of Independence, about 1,000 of the 4,500 fallen were considered missing. It was the chief rabbi of the IDF, Rabbi Shlomo Goren, who initiated an intensive project of identifying the dead. The establishment of military cemeteries helped the identification process move forward, but, even after that, there remained anonymous soldiers, and headstones with missing information.
Recognizing this situation, Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi started Giving a Face to the Fallen. The organization has been in existence fewer than 10 years. Its team of some 52 volunteer investigators and activists comes from a variety of backgrounds. It includes bereaved family members, friends of fallen soldiers, judges, former career army officers and others. As the organization’s website states, all volunteers believe there is “a duty to remember and, in so doing, to … repay the debt we owe to those who gave their lives for the establishment of the state of Israel.”
All of the volunteers are in a race against time, trying to piece together information on 500 soldiers who fell fighting either in pre-state Israel or in the War of Independence. They ask the following questions: Did you (or maybe your grandfather or an older neighbour) know the fighter we are researching? Maybe you fought with such person either before the creation of the state or in the War of Independence? Maybe you still have pictures of your fighting unit?
The volunteers also try to fill in blanks by asking to see old photos of youth movement activities, aliyah preparation groups (aliyah registration cards have provided investigators with correct birth dates and with the names of relatives, see blog.nli.org.il/en/baumgarten) and family albums. Some soldiers do not even have a photo on file.
Besides trying to find people still alive who were acquainted with these fallen soldiers, volunteers search archives. It is real detective work. When successful, there is the rededication of a tombstone with the added information. To date, out of the more than 800 “untraceable” soldiers, they have pieced together the missing information for 120 of them.
The stories of the fallen soldiers of this period are poignant. Take the example of Tobias Marmolstein, who came from Bitshekov, Czechoslovakia. His father had died in Tobias’s arms at Mauthausen concentration camp. Twenty-year-old Tobias was killed as his Haganah unit fought to open the road to Jerusalem. He had been in Israel for just nine days. He is buried on Mt. Herzl.
Each life story has its twists and turns. For instance, over two decades passed before Shaul Yekutiel Urbach came to be buried in Israel. He arrived in Palestine in 1939 to visit Tel Aviv relatives. When the Second World War broke out, he was unable to return to his large family in Kielce, Poland, so he volunteered to fight for the British. The British sent him to fight in Greece. There, the Germans took him prisoner. The Nazis sent him to do hard labour in Schlesien, Germany. In a revolt against a Nazi camp officer, Shaul was wounded, and he died in a German hospital. After the war, his only surviving brother, Raphael Fishel – the rest of the family had been murdered at Treblinka – tried to have Shaul’s remains brought to Israel. For 22 years, the British stalled in releasing his body from their military cemetery. Finally, in 1967, Shaul was reinterred, on Mt. Herzl.
Uri Sagi has maintained that a blank headstone or one that is missing information makes the soldier invisible. A fallen soldier, Sagi said, should not be invisible.
As time passes, it becomes harder and harder to find acquaintances and family who can fill in the blanks with firsthand testimony. For more information on Giving a Face to the Fallen, visit latetpanim.org.il.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.