The mourners on Mount Herzl were all marked by the deep-seated love that belongs to people whose souls have been touched by the greatness of young men who loved this country and this people so much that they were willing to run into the fire and sacrifice their lives to defend them.
(JNS) The best time to visit Mount Herzl Military Cemetery on Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars) is in the afternoon. The morning rush has ended. The ceremonies are over. There are no jostling crowds craning their necks to see, no politicians, no photographers looking for the perfect picture to encapsulate the day.
The late afternoon is when my husband and I go every year to visit his friends who fought with him in the First Lebanon War in 1982.
I didn’t shoot a photo that would have encapsulated the day. But I wish I had. I saw one.
As we walked up the stairs to leave the Lebanon War section, I took a last look down, and saw a young couple we met as we stood by the grave of a soldier my husband didn’t know, but whom we visit each year all the same. He is buried not far from my husband’s friends, and we happened upon his resting place, and his story, a couple of years ago, as we walked among the rows of young men who fought in Lebanon 41 years ago.
The picture I didn’t take is of a young man named Zvi Besser, holding his infant son Mickey. Zvi is crouched in front of the grave of Cpl. Avraham Shmuel (Avi) Grogan. He is whispering Avi’s story into Mickey’s ear. Zvi’s wife, Kayli, is standing back, at the head of the grave, watching them.
Avi Grogan was a combat medic in the Golani infantry brigade. He was killed in a battle in a southern suburb of Beirut called Bourj el-Baranjeh. On August 4, 1982, Avi’s unit came under massive artillery assault. Instead of ducking for cover, he ran into the fire and began evacuating the wounded. According to the Ministry of Defense’s record, “Avi ran between the shells and evacuated the wounded one by one until he was hit himself. Even after he was mortally wounded, he continued telling his comrades how to give first aid to the wounded until he died from his wounds.”
Avi was a lone soldier. He was born in 1959 in Phoenix, Arizona. He was educated at Jewish schools in Phoenix and Los Angeles and Brisk Yeshiva in Chicago. In 1979, he came to Israel, studied at the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem and decided he wanted to make aliyah. He went back to the U.S. and began saving up money for the move; he didn’t want to take any money from the State of Israel. Avi made aliyah in 1980. After studying Hebrew at an ulpan at Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Beit She’an Valley, he moved to Kibbutz Shluhot nearby.
Avi was drafted into the IDF in May 1981 and volunteered to serve in Golani, where he underwent the combat medics course.
All lone soldiers are given a paid trip to visit their families for one month each year. When the Lebanon War began in June 1982, Avi was visiting his parents in America. Although he wasn’t required to, he cut his visit two weeks short and returned to Israel where he made his way to the front lines to find his unit.
Zvi Besser’s father was from New York, and also a lone soldier. He served in Avi’s unit in Golani and was there in Bourj el-Baranjeh on August 4, 1982, at Avi’s side. After he finished his IDF service, Zvi’s father returned to the U.S., where he met Zvi’s mother and got married. Zvi made aliyah on his own at 17 and served in Golani like his father and Avi. Pointing at Mickey, Zvi told us, “He’ll serve in Golani too, although he doesn’t know it yet.”
Zvi told us the story of the battle as his father had told it to him. A tank blew up by them, he said. Avi ran to the tank and removed the soldiers from the burning vehicle. “He brought the first soldier, ran back, and got the second, then the third, then the fourth, and brought them to safety.”
As he was running through the fires carrying the fourth soldier, Avi took a direct hit to his femoral artery and died shortly thereafter.
Laying there side by side in row after row of graves on Mount Herzl, there are young men from every conceivable background. Yossi Zeitouni grew up with my husband in the Kiryat Hayovel neighborhood in Jerusalem. He was an outstanding athlete all his life and one of the best tennis players in Israel. Yossi served in a paratroopers reconnaissance unit, and later in a counterterror unit. He was released from the army at the end of his mandatory service and began a career as a tennis coach and player.
When the Lebanon War began a few months later, Yossi was recalled to the paratroopers and killed in action in Lebanon on June 10, 1982. My husband was nearby and saw him just after he died. “He had his same smile as always on his face. He looked alive.”
Over the weeks that preceded Yom Hazikaron, the left began co-opting the war dead to its side in its effort to demonize the government. One ad that ran on social media featured footage of graves at Mount Herzl and blasted the lie that they all died for the left’s fight against the government. Nearly every newscast in the two weeks preceding the day opened with threats to disrupt memorial ceremonies at military cemeteries if government ministers dared to follow protocol and speak at the ceremonies.
A row behind Yossi lies Haim Dubkin from Moshav Tkuma in the Negev. Haim was one of my husband’s close friends at yeshiva. Haim was a fantastic student. But his great love was for hiking. He went hiking all over Israel, every chance he got.
When he joined the IDF he put his skills to use in a reconnaissance unit in Golani. Haim was so skilled as a scout that as a second lieutenant he guided forces through Syrian-held territory to reinforce a unit of paratrooper reservists that had been cut off from the main force and were running low on ammunition and food. Haim was killed by a sniper on June 24, 1982, while serving as the point man for a divisional force.
Haim was a gifted writer and artist. After he died, his family found stories, letters and pictures that he had left in his closet and drawers at home. In one of the letters, Haim wrote how his family should respond to his death, in the event he was killed in the line of duty.
“You need to know that I loved you all, and please don’t mourn me forever, that’s not why I sacrificed my life. I gave my life in order for you to rejoice, so that you can live the life that I loved so much, and continue to live normally and achieve my dreams, the things that I loved: the green fields, the open spaces, the land and the homeland, every piece of earth in our land, every single place in our beautiful homeland, the nation that resides in it and its Torah, the Torah of Israel. Then you will know that I didn’t die. No, I live and accompany you always throughout your lives, because you are achieving everything I aspired to achieve in my life.”
There was a family from Beit Shemesh standing at Haim’s grave when we approached. We asked the parents if they knew Haim. They explained that no, they never met him. But their daughter, who was there with them, is a member of a WhatsApp group that learns the life story of a different fallen soldier every day. The daughter, Tali, told us excitedly that Haim was the first soldier whose life story they learned in the group, and that she had always wanted to visit his grave to pay her respects.
“Maybe we were meant to come here at this time, so that we could meet you, Haim’s friend, and you could tell us how he was when he was alive,” the mother said to my husband. And so he did.
“He always had every conceivable tool in his backpack,” he began. “Rope, a knife, first aid, maps, a screwdriver, bottle opener, aspirin, everything. And he knew precisely where everything was in his pack. You could never trip him up. He was prepared.”
As we walked away, we passed the massive section for the Yom Kippur War, and the smaller but still large section for the War of Attrition, and then the Six-Day War. From section to section, we saw people of all ages, and from all walks of life. But the faces had something profound in common. They were all marked by the same love, the same deep-seated love that belongs to people whose souls have been touched, directly or indirectly, by the greatness of young men who loved this country and this people, who loved the life it gave them so much that they were willing to run into the fire and sacrifice their lives to defend and preserve it.