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Gone, but Not Forgotten: Israel Mourns Its Fallen Soldiers

April 27, 2004
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It’s the eve of Israel’s Memorial Day, Yom Ha’Zikaron, and also the day Omri Atzmon was born 51 years ago.

But it’s the smooth, smiling face of a 21-year-old, a flop of dark hair covering his forehead, that stares out of Atzmon’s framed photographs: The face never changes.

Atzmon, a member of an elite special forces team, was killed on the ninth day of the Yom Kippur War in 1973, deep in the Sinai Desert. Egyptian artillery fire landed on Atzmon’s armored vehicle, killing him and eight crew members.

Atzmon lies buried alongside the comrades he was killed with in the military section of the Kiryat Shaul cemetery.

On Monday, Yom Ha’Zikaron, Atzmon’s younger brother Yavin tends to the roses and lilies neatly arranged in copper and clay vases on the grave. He is among thousands of Israelis who pack in between the rows of gravestones that stretch out as vast fields of square stones broken up only by cypress and palm trees and the people left behind.

In the small Jewish state, it seems that almost everyone has the grave of a friend or loved one to visit on Yom Hazikaron.

Here, in the cemetery at Moshav Magshimim, friendships have been forged.

Aging army buddies with graying hair and spreading paunches mingle with the parents and siblings of their fallen friends. The relatives themselves long have become acquainted. Year after year they stand alongside each other by the row of graves.

Waiting under a baking sun for the official Yom Hazikaron ceremony to begin, they exchange family news: who has died, who was born, who had an operation, who is starting college.

The cemetery is divided into chronological sections — the soldiers killed in the 1956 war and the 1967 Six-Day War are in their own areas; the Yom Kippur War fallen are in another.

A younger set of parents and friends fill the section reserved for soldiers killed in Lebanon and in Israel’s battles since. That section is particularly crowded.

At 11 a.m., there is a piercing wail as the nationwide memorial siren sounds. The hush that falls over the crowd at Kiryat Shaul, one of Israel’s 43 military cemeteries, echoes that felt all over the country. A sea of heads bows in grief and remembrance.

On the streets and highways of Israel, drivers stop their cars in the middle of the road and stand at attention while the siren wails. Everyone — shoppers, stockbrokers and schoolchildren — pause for the siren.

There are so many to remember.

From Nov. 29, 1947, through April 4 of this year, 20,196 soldiers died defending Israel. The Israeli government put the figure of total dead through Sunday, the eve of Israel’s memorial day, at 21,782, including fallen soldiers and victims of terrorism.

The latest name added to the list was Cpl. Yaniv Mashiah of Jaffa, 20, a member of Israel’s Border Police, who was killed in a Palestinian ambush outside Hebron on Sunday night.

In recent years, Yom Hazikaron has changed to incorporate not only soldiers but victims of terrorism.

“We hoped that we would not add more names to the list of fallen,” President Moshe Katsav said Sunday in his speech at the state ceremony marking the beginning of Yom Hazikaron, at the Western Wall plaza in Jerusalem.

“To our regret, it was another year of pain and of blood in the streets, another year of sorrow and grief, a year in which the awareness grew within us that we are fighting to defend the lives of citizens of Israel and for the security of the state,” he said.

For the entire night and day of Yom Hazikaron, the only songs played on the radio are sad, Hebrew songs, many of them about the young men and women killed in the country’s wars. Lyrics recall lives struck down in their prime and the ache of goodbye.

On the moshav in central Israel where Omri Atzmon lived, he still is known as the boy with “golden hands” — who grew up working the land and was able to fix anything broken. A ceremony was held Sunday night at the moshav in memory of Atzmon and another two young men from the moshav killed in action in the Yom Kippur War.

Honored and remembered alongside them is Eli Cohen, the Israeli spy who infiltrated the highest levels of the Syrian regime before being discovered and hanged in 1965 in Damascus. His widow lives on the moshav.

Guy Atzmon, Omri Atzmon’s 19-year-old nephew and a soldier in an Israel Defense Forces’ artillery unit, lowers the Israeli flag to half-mast while his brother Chen, 12, plays a military salute on the trumpet. Chen began playing the trumpet three months ago so he would be able to play at the ceremony.

At the Atzmon house, the memory of Omri remains fresh. His father Rafael, 74, says Omri is so present in family members’ minds that he half expects his eldest son to walk in the door at any moment.

Everyone’s favorite stories about Omri are swapped around a table filled with a mountain of food — homemade stuffed grape leaves, tahina, lasagna, salads and cakes. Photo albums are passed around depicting his short life: Omri as a toddler, Omri at summer camp, Omri on a class trip swimming in a desert pool.

Yavin Atzmon, the youngest of the family’s four sons, was just six years old when his brother Itai, two years younger than Omri, walked in and told the family that Omri had been killed.

Itai Atzmon was traveling in the same convoy as Omri, only about 150 meters behind, when he heard the explosion that ripped apart Omri’s armored vehicle.

At the moshav ceremony, the letters of the word “yizkor,” Hebrew for “remember,” are set aflame, burning in the night sky.

Four boys have been named in memory of Omri.

Rifka Atzmon, Omri’s mother, says that every day has been Yom Hazikaron for her since her son died, but that on the day itself she feels the family is not alone it its grief.

“We feel that the nation of Israel is with us, embraces us and this moves us — that everyone is with us and we are not alone,” she says. “We want there to be an end to the deaths . . . we want peace, we want quiet so others will not have to die. But there seems to be no end.”

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