Two sets of Jewish bones were found this past week. One was in Brest, Belarus. The other — after 37 years of waiting — was the remains of IDF Sergeant Zecharya Baumel, killed in the battle of Sultan Yacoub.
At a mass gravesite in Belarus, the remains of over 1,000 Nazi victims were discovered. One female skeleton cradled her baby.
Between the murdered Jews and Zachary Baumel lies the story of the Jewish people. Even after the Holocaust, even with a state of our own, it is still not a foregone conclusion that there is a place for the Jew in this world.
Either way, there will be bones to be buried. Either way, there will be battles, broken hearts and shattered families.
The thousands of Jewish skeletons unearthed in foreign lands are anonymous people, once named and loved but now lost to history as helpless victims of Nazi terror. The brave IDF soldier had a name and a place.
Zecharya Baumel’s name literally means “remembered.” His bones returned for a Jewish burial in his homeland. The Jewish people never forgets its soldiers.
Zecharya, and all missing soldiers, symbolize the price we pay for the privilege of defending ourselves, instead of becoming piles of massacred, nameless bodies shot into pits.
Zecharya gave his life so that we would never become the dead piles of Brest again.
None of this is consolation for his loss.
Many years ago, one of my colleagues was a sister-in-law of Zecharya Baumel. She shared the searing impact of his loss on the family. When Yosef is reported dead to Yaakov, though he was still alive, Yaakov’s grief is described: “He refused to be comforted.”
Zecharya’s father Yona never had closure. He died not knowing. Not that having a dead son to bury is a consolation, but for 37 years, not knowing was a torture all its own.
Relief, even joy, have been the response to Zecharya’s return. Is the news sweet? Zecharya is dead. His father died unconsoled. Unlike Yosef and Yaakov, Zecharya was not returned to his father in his lifetime.
The profound pain of IDF soldiers lost to battle and lost to burial, unable to bring even the painful closure of burial and bereavement to their families and friends, has riddled too many Israeli families.
Rachel, like Yaakov, “refuses to be consoled for her children, for they are gone.” The following response is heard: “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears; for … your children will return to their border.” V’shavu banim legvulam.
To me, this Biblical phrase carries the hope of the return of the living, not the dead. But when the angel of death has already taken your loved one, at least there is comfort in seeing a resting place, a monument.
Once, the names Zecharya Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz — comrades in the battle of Sultan Yacoub — were everywhere. Then, sadly, Ron Arad was added. In 2014, Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin joined them.
But to be part of a nation that never forgets, that values every loss in battle even 37 years later, to know that finally there is some closure for the family — bitter as it is, there is much to be grateful for.
We work toward the day when we will not need to unearth Jewish bones, be they in Brest or Israel, the day there will be no bones or skeletons at all. Just limbs of life.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News