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Seeking Kin: Gathering lost relatives to honor a soldier

Ben-Zion Shmueli, shown here, "gave his life to ensure the next generations of a better future," his friend on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin wrote.  (Evelyn Weber Wade)

Ben-Zion Shmueli, shown here, “gave his life to ensure the next generations of a better future,” his friend on Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin wrote. (Evelyn Weber Wade)

The “Seeking Kin” column aims to help reunite long-lost friends and relatives.

BALTIMORE (JTA) — Pnina Kohen Rossenblatt was thrilled when she was asked to organize Kibbutz Kfar Ruppin’s annual Yom Hazikaron (Memorial Day) ceremonies. But something was troubling Rossenblatt.

The educator, who has lived on the kibbutz in northern Israel since 1986, knew that seven men killed in battle and buried in the community’s cemetery had relatives living on Kfar Ruppin or elsewhere in the country. A member from each soldier’s family recites a short passage at the ceremony. 

But no one was coming to honor the eighth soldier, Corp. Ben-Zion Kahane Shmueli. So Kohen Rossenblatt set out to locate his relatives. She quickly found a man who lives in Haifa. Little did she know that she was about to meet many more of Shmueli’s kin and to unite them.

In August, just four hours after being interviewed on the Israeli radio program “Hamador L’chipus Krovim” (Searching for Relatives Bureau), Kohen Rossenblatt received a call at home from a listener who said that he was a friend of Shmueli’s late sister, Rivka. He provided the phone number of the Haifa resident, Eliezer Avraham, whose father had been married to Malka Kahane, another of the soldier’s sisters.

When he spoke with Kohen Rossenblatt, Avraham said, he “got very excited” and began crying. He was born four years after Shmueli was killed in Israel’s War of Independence and grew up hearing stories about him. 

Earlier this month, during Sukkot, Avraham drove to the kibbutz and met with older residents who remembered Shmueli. He did not see the cemetery because such visits traditionally are not made on holidays, but Avraham plans to be there on April 15 to participate in the Yom Hazikaron ceremony. 

Meanwhile, Avraham mentioned a New Jersey resident and relative, Evelyn Weber Wade. When “Seeking Kin” found her, it learned that she was planning an upcoming visit to Israel to see her brother, Chanoch Weber of Netanya. Neither sibling knew of Kohen Rossenblatt’s search, and they had lost contact with Avraham; their mother, Henia, is another sister of the fallen soldier.

Weber Wade said that she and her brother would visit the kibbutz and that they have been to Shmueli’s grave. Like Avraham, she grew up hearing about her uncle, with whom her mother — now 88 and suffering from dementia — had been very close. 

“In my dining room, I have a picture of him on my wall,” Weber Wade said. “I’m looking at it now.”

Another photograph of Shmueli resides in Kfar Ruppin’s archives. A note there states that he could be counted on for guard duty to stave off Arab intruders. One person wrote that Shmueli was a familiar sight riding atop his horse, Yair.

Shmueli, according to the archives and the Israel Defense Forces’ website section on fallen soldiers, was born in Hust, Czechoslovakia, in December 1920 and attended a Jewish school. He apprenticed as a carpenter and joined HeChalutz (The Pioneer), a Zionist movement. At age 18, he was among 700 members of youth groups who fled to the Slovakia region following Nazi Germany’s invasion of the country.  Still, in unclear circumstances, he was caught and imprisoned for nine months.

Eventually he made his way to a Bulgarian port from which he sailed to Palestine. But the British authorities prevented his entry and deported him to Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean.

In early 1942, Shmueli and eight friends volunteered to fight the Germans in the British-led Czech Brigade. After training in Alexandria, Egypt, he and his fellow soldiers were transferred on Yom Kippur to prestate Israel. Shmueli came to Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha and eventually settled on Kfar Ruppin. He soon joined the mandatory-era government’s Jewish Brigade and was sent back to Europe, fighting the Germans in Belgium and Holland. After the war he assisted Holocaust survivors in internment camps in Cyprus. 

“Who else but he could understand the Jewish soul: wandering and chased,” Moshe Zayit, a kibbutz resident who first met Shmueli in Czechoslovakia in 1939, wrote in a summary kept in Kfar Ruppin’s archives.

Finally, back in Israel for good, Shmueli returned to Kfar Ruppin. During the 1948 War of Independence, he fought in the Golani Brigade. He was killed in an Egyptian counter attack near Gaza on Dec. 23, 1948, a week short of his 28th birthday. Shmueli, a bachelor, was buried in a temporary grave; two months later he was laid to rest at Kfar Ruppin.

“This is the life story of a Jewish boy who … gave his life to ensure the next generations a better future,” Zayit wrote at the end of his entry on Shmueli.

For Weber Wade, the kibbutz’s memorializing of Shmueli every Yom Hazikaron strikes a personal chord.

“I always felt somehow connected to that place because of my uncle, and I never met him,” she said. “The way my mother spoke of him with such love and respect — and how devastated she was by his death — had a huge impact on me.”

In fact, Weber Wade gave her son the Hebrew name Ben-Zion.

She thinks her uncle may have adopted his Israeli surname in memory of his older brother, Shmuel, who along with a little sister and brother and their parents, were murdered in the Holocaust.

By chance, Shmueli found Henia and her husband, Zvi, just after the couple reached Israel in 1945. When their eyes met in one of the country’s tent cities in the North, the siblings “ran into each other’s arms,” Weber Wade recalled. 

Henia pleaded with Shmueli not to fight in the War of Independence, arguing that he’d already done so much to save Jews. One day, seeing two military officials walking on the street near her then-home in the Haifa area, Henia “went unconscious, knowing they were coming to tell her he was dead,” Weber Wade said.

Then she paused and said, “It’s very unusual to feel so connected to someone you’ve never met. I think about him quite often. … As a teenager, in situations, I would wonder, ‘What would Benzi do?’ ” 

Back on Kfar Ruppin, Kohen Rossenblatt said Thursday that the previous night she had an unusual dream in which the families of the eight soldiers had gathered beside her at the foot of their loved ones’ graves. With them at the cemetery were relatives of each of Israel’s more than 22,000 war dead. 

“Everyone connected with Ben-Zion Shmueli was there with this precious man,” she said. “He was not alone.” 

(Please email Hillel Kuttler at seekingkin@jta.org if you would like “Seeking Kin” to write about your search for long-lost relatives and friends. Please include the principal facts and your contact information in a brief email. “Seeking Kin” is sponsored by Bryna Shuchat and Joshua Landes and family in loving memory of their mother and grandmother, Miriam Shuchat, a lifelong uniter of the Jewish people.)

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