On April 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suddenly announced on television that the remains of Sgt. Zachary Baumel z’l, missing for 37 years, had been returned to his family in Jerusalem.
As the week passed, we all learned that the Russians and the Syrians had assisted in discovering these remains buried in an unmarked grave near Damascus.
Zachary was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 17, 1960. His parents were Yona z’l and Miriam Baumel. In 1970, the Baumel family made aliyah and settled in Kiryat Motzkin, a suburb of Haifa. Zachary attended a state religious grammar school where he lived and then dormed at the Noam High School in Pardes Chana.
After graduating high school, he chose to do his military service in the Israel Defense Forces Hesder framework. This is a five-year commitment of religious studies and army service. Zachary went into the Armored Corps and became a tank commander.
For his religious studies, Zachary attended Yeshivat Har Etzion in Alon Shevut in the Gush Etzion area outside of Jerusalem. A good athlete, he had basketball skills and played on various teams. He also became a dorm counselor at the Yeshiva for students from abroad.
All went well until the early summer of 1982. Having nearly completed his military service, he was called up to serve in the Lebanon War. As with many stories you have heard, he had been accepted to Hebrew University, and in the fall of 1982, he planned to begin his studies in the field of psychology.
“June 11, 1982,” a newspaper report read, “just hours before the declaration of a ceasefire, Zack and the members of his tank moved into a battle zone near the Lebanese village of Sultan Yaqub. 21 Israelis were killed in the fierce battles that day — many others injured. It was one of the worse days for the IDF in its history. When the battle was over, Zachary Baumel and his two tank mates, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz were missing.”
Zachary’s mother, who is 90, still recalls her son’s last message. It was a postcard written shortly before the battle, in which he asked for a few personal items and assured his parents, “don’t worry, everything is okay, but it looks like I won’t be home for a while.” Then his parents’ worldwide search began.
In the same way that individuals the world over tried to free Natan Sharansky, the Baumel family traveled the world hoping to find a shred of evidence. About 10 years ago, one half of Zachary’s dog tag was passed through diplomatic channels and given to his parents. Unfortunately, nothing more came out of that find. We must remember that the Israel Defense Forces are committed to never allow a soldier to be lost, whether in captivity or missing in action.
When the Russians were in Syria for several years providing military assistance, the Minister of Defense Avigdor Lieberman asked Netanyahu to inform Russian President Vladimir Putin, in one of their meetings, and see if his forces could search for the three missing soldiers.
Since the Russians were working closely with the Syrians because of the various military operations, we now know that two years ago the remains of four individuals found in Syrian graves were secretly brought to Israel and studied but the data did not match.
About six months ago, an Israeli secret service detail was permitted into Syria. Tracing a lead, they dug up some remains in a cemetery outside of Damascus. After testing, it was proven that these were Zachary Baumel’s remains. Found with him were portions of his tzizit. Only then did the Israeli officials notify the Baumel family.
For Shabbat, I went to the home of friends living in Neve Daniel in the Gush Etzion area. They told me that they had been at the funeral at Mount Herzl.
Their son is in the tank commander course and because he looked good when he was clean shaven, he was selected to be in the honor guard at the funeral. They showed me pictures of him standing at attention behind Netanyahu, as he spoke.
That young man was home for Shabbat. He explained to me that his commanding officer gathered a number of the trainees together and explained that a portion of them would be in the honor guard. Initially, they were told that they would fire their rifles in his memory. Then, they were informed that the family specifically requested that not be done.
Truly, I cannot explain how deeply this touched me. It made me and all the population realize that the Israeli military forces will never permit a missing soldier to be forgotten. Every one of our soldiers is precious. May Zachary Baumel’s memory be for an everlasting blessing.