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We The Living, and They The . . . .

To see a world in a Grain of Sand

And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And Eternity in an Hour 

I was going to say They the Dead, but my friend says, They the Heroes.

I watched him as he moved from one tombstone to another. He kicked some leaves on the road and looked as though he were studying each and every tombstone. I knew it was he - Abrashka, veteran kibbutz member. His gait was so familiar to me. All the members of the kibbutz had already left the cemetery a few hours before. Only he was missing. Friends were all worried about him, but I knew where to find him. I jumped on the tractor, back to the cemetery to fetch him.

There were many names engraved deep on the tombstones, names of our beloved boys and girls, the children of the kibbutz. Yoav, Gad, Yigal, Danny, Esther, Ronen. They grew up together, played and laughed; they kissed, joked, studied, graduated, joined the army and fought for their country. United they lived. Then wars came. United they fought. United they died, but divided they lay there row by row, fresh wreaths of flowers on their graves.

He was there. He looked again and again at that small piece of soil. YOAV 1953 -1973, it read. Tears welled from his eyes. This holds everything you treasured in your life, he reminded himself and choked back his tears. He put the flowers on his son's grave, sat and thought and wept. Then he got up and walked along the long rows of graves, remembering in deep sorrow, whispering half to himself: The Return of the Flesh to the Soil …

Back home, memories hurt again. Thousands of memories that refused to recede and scorned burial. It was only yesterday, or so it seemed. Yoav had answered the call at the door. 'Tis for me,' he had said, then took a few things and departed. The young, innocent and boyish smile was still fresh in the old man's memory. Every time he looked in the mirror, there were those wrinkles, those sad eyes, those grey hairs. Only a few years had gone by, and now he looked older, falling shoulders, bent back and weary looks that came from drooping wrinkled eyes, popping out of a weary, heavy forehead, propped by veiny, bony temples. Sometimes he could hardly recognize his own image. He was well aware that life had to go on, but with little meaning. Everything around him had long become colorless, pale and meaningless.

Himself a Holocaust survivor who had lost his parents in the concentration camps before his arrival to Israel, Abrashka, now a member at the kibbutz, had lost his wife Ruth, in the Six-Day-War, on June 9th, 1967, shot by a sniper,; and now, in the Yom Kippur War, 1973 , his only son, Yoav, crashed in his plane. Tragedy, you say. The history of Israel is built on tragedies.

The man felt guilty, guilty because he has lived his full life, though he was just over 60, and his son's ended before it had really begun. Guilty, because he survived all the wars, and cheated on the SS of the Nazis and survived, while his son fell just like a fly. Guilty, because he was not at his son's side in his last moments, when he might have needed him most, just like when Yoav was a child at a kindergarten, at the school and higher studies, and even when the boy had lost his mother in 1967.

Abrashka was a great believer in God and Fate. Many a time, other members would hear him murmuring to himself: "What Death takes away, no man can restore; what Heaven has blessed, no man can punish. What love has joined, no man can divide, what Eternity has willed, no man can alter…" - passages he had learnt a long time ago, God knows where.

He was a man who loved the soil of his homeland. He also learnt the philosophy of life that laws are like spider-webs: if some poor creature comes up against them, it is caught; but a bigger one can break through and get away. He was so happy to pass on those lessons to his son, Yoav, but no more … he was taken away from him too soon.

I watched him, and read his thoughts, then offered him a hand to get on the tractor.

"Abrashka, it is getting late. The chaverim at home are worried about you. Let's go. Tomorrow is another day."

He eyed me with appreciation for saving him the trouble to go all the way on foot to the settlement. "The chaverim shouldn't worry about me, I am among heroes!" "Heroes?" I asked as we drove back home.

"Yes, he said. "We the living have to prove our achievements, and justify our existence on earth. They, the dead, most of them are heroes who died in the wars of Israel. They have already proved, and each one of them is entitled to a special salute and citation of honor. The State of Israel owes them its existence."

Abrashka asked me to join him for a cup of coffee. I thought it would do him good to have company at that very delicate hour. His living room was neat and spacious. A large photograph of a young cadet officer that hung on the wall attracted my attention. "Yoav," Abrashka said in a low voice, staring at the photograph, but then he was silent again. There were no words in his mouth, there were more than words on his mind. The color of his face suddenly changed, and I thought that he was living in a different world, different times.

He put two cups of coffee on the table. I noted that he was hovering somewhere else. He began to tell me a different story of a different person at a different time. Germany 1937-38: Abrashka was only twelve years old, a very happy child loved dearly by his parents. The best times at home for him were those nights when there were no visitors and the whole family would sit together round the fire. In 1938, many strange things began to happen that Abrashka could not understand. People were afraid and spoke only in whispers. There was wild talk, printed accusations and insinuations, boycotting Jewish businesses and public humiliations such as beating or beard pulling. The night terror of the Brown Shirts followed. Everyone was against the Jews. All the Jews had to wear a yellow armband with the Star of David. In November 1938, Abrashka was chanting from the Holy Book preparing himself for his barmitzvah. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. His father urged him to go help his mother packing. They were leaving soon. Between sobs and sighs, he told Abrashka that he had to escape with a Mossad Aliyah agent. The boy wanted to see his mother, his grandma, but the father said there was no time for final farewells. He shed many tears, but to no avail. It was already December 1939 and there was war in Europe.

All Abrashka could remember was that he had to live with the sad fate never to meet his parents and family again. There was talk among the boys and girls who were put in the hands of the Mossad Aliyah agents to be smuggled to Palestine where they would escape death. Abrashka was a young boy when he joined the kibbutz in Israel. He could never see his parents, he cried and he knew not what happened to them. Years later he learnt that they all had perished in the crematoriums of the concentration camps.

"Heroes!" Abrashka coined the word in his mouth. I listened to him with rapt attention, and began to understand the meaning of what he had said about Yoav, all the silent others in the cemetery, and his folks back there in the Land of Death.

"We the living … they the heroes!" I repeated to myself with another sip of my coffee.

He looked at me and said, "It is not tolerable, it is not possible that from so much death, so much sacrifice and ruin, so much heroism, a greater and better humanity shall not emerge." Abrashka then added, as if apologizing, that he was quoting that from a speech delivered in Ottawa, Canada on July 11th, 1944. He had memorized that part of the speech because it meant so much to him.

I had to say something to console, and a part of an old speech of 1876, "Vision of War", came to my mind: "These heroes, for this is what you call them, are dead. They died for liberty. They died for us. They are at rest. They sleep in the land they made free under the flag they rendered stainless, under the solemn pines, the sad hemlocks, the tearful willows, the embracing vines. They sleep beneath the shadows of the clouds, careless alike of sunshine or storm, each in the windowless palace of rest. Earth may run red with other wars -- they are at peace. In the midst of battles, in the roar of conflict, they found the serenity of death …." Abrashka's eyes glowed, and I could feel his admiration at my reciting the passage I learnt in school.

Every time I visit at any cemetery, I think about the dead who are heroes, those who fought diseases, wars, calamities, adversity and misfortunes. We the living, they the heroes, in the eyes of the angels! 



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Thursday, 18 July 2024

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