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Balloons and dead boys. That’s all I kept thinking as I stared at the heartbreaking hospital scene, a dichotomy of life and loss.

It was a day filled with conflicting thoughts: echoes of the past, realities of the present, fears combined with optimism and plans for the future. I was in the splendid but scarred city of Haifa, several weeks after the end of what’s now known to Israelis as the “Second War in Lebanon”, and I was thinking about aunts Goldina and Golda, both born in the late 1880’s. They never knew one another, but their descendants endured the war within miles of each other.

Goldina was actually my mother’s great-aunt, a stout, sturdy-looking woman who refused to join her children when they fled Nazi Germany for the safety of Haifa in the 1930’s, saying she had to remain and care for her disabled daughter Margot. Both were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

Goldina’s family, which now includes her great-great-grandchildren, shared with me their stories of surviving the war. Some of them left the area; most stayed and dragged themselves to bomb shelters and secure spaces whenever the sirens went off and the estimated 4,500 Katyushas started falling. Sara, a grandmother in her 60’s, pointed to her elderly, frail father. “You think I could get him down to the shelter ten times a day? No way; we’re on the sixth floor of the building. So we went into this little concrete closet here, waiting until the explosions ended and building stopped shaking”. I started to take a photo of the space and asked if she would stand there. “Oh, no”, replied Sara. “I’m never going in there again, God willing”.

Golda was my father’s aunt, the youngest of my grandfather’s three sisters. Despite the pleas of Golda and my grandfather for the two older siblings to leave Poland in the 1930’s, they hesitated until it was too late. They, their husbands, and nine of their eleven children were killed in the Holocaust.

Golda had found refuge in Argentina, and decades later, her granddaughter Graciela left there to seek a better life in Israel. But in the summer of 2006, Graciela found herself hiding in the underground bomb shelter of her kibbutz with her daughter Navit.

The two women, in charge of the community’s kindergarten, tried valiantly to keep dozens of three and four-year-olds calm and busy in the hot, crowded room for hours at a time, as rockets exploded nearby.

Graciela’s increasing panic, however, was not for herself or the children, but for her 20-year-old son Niv, who was fighting in Lebanon. Her desperate efforts to obtain information about Niv, a sweet, funny, skinny kid, were unsuccessful, and it was not until the war ended that she learned how close he’d come to being killed.

At one point, a soldier standing directly next to Niv was fatally shot; another time, Niv became slightly separated from his squad and visible to Hezbollah snipers, who fired directly at him as he tried to hide behind a rock. His commander shouted at him to stay still, and for 20 minutes the bullets pinged off the stone above, below and next to him, until his comrades managed to set up a smokescreen and guide him to safety. He later told Graciela, “Mom, I knew I was going to die”.

He did not, but many of his friends were severely injured, and I felt a need to visit them at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center, where they continue to recuperate; Graciela and Navit said they’d introduce them to me.

I was greeted in the hallway by Guy, who was released from the hospital that day. “I’m OK”, he said. “I was sent to check out a house during the war, and on the second floor, I opened a booby-trapped door. The explosion blew me completely out a window to the ground below, but I was wearing a heavy backpack and landed directly on my back. Everything in it shattered… but I only got a broken arm”.

We entered the nearest room to see Roi, who had turned 21 the week before. At least 30 balloons of various sizes adorned the head and foot of his bed, while trays of candies and flower bouquets added to the seemingly festive atmosphere.

Yet on the wall facing Roi was a photo of his dead friend… the young man who’d been shot while standing next to Niv. Despite having his jaw wired shut, Roi described how the bullets entered his chin, shattering teeth, then his neck, then his back and legs. Steel contraptions held the bones in his leg in place, and all the other wounds were clearly visible. Roi’s lost count of how many surgeries he’s already undergone and still scheduled to have, but told me his tale without an ounce of self-pity, anger, or bitterness. “I’ll be all right”, he said simply. “What happened to others was much worse”.

He was, of course, right. In the next bed, Yonatan struggled to eat lunch with what’s left of his hands; most of his fingers were blown off in an explosion. As his dad sat quietly in a corner reading Psalms, Yonatan, a lieutenant who doesn’t look old enough to drink, also made it clear he had no complaints, despite an estimated year of recuperation… and a life changed forever. Taped onto the window next to his bed were two photos that could have been any smiling high-school age kids anywhere… but underneath each happy face was a name and the phrase in Hebrew “may his memory be a blessing”.

One soldier, visiting his buddies, told me he was the only one of 16 members of his unit who escaped some sort of injury; another said he’d been stationed on the Israeli side of the Lebanese border, and therefore saw no action. “So things were a bit easier for you, at least”, I commented. “Not at all”, he quickly replied; “I wanted so much to be there helping them; it was so frustrating”.

As Graciela periodically left the room to weep, I thanked each of my cousin’s fellow soldiers individually, telling them that this American Jew was profoundly grateful for their sacrifices and their courage, and that many like me felt the same. They seemed both uneasy and pleased with the praise, but were more eager to talk about their plans for the future, such as a vacation in New Zealand for one, and long-delayed studies abroad for another.

Graciela, Navit and I left Rambam, passing a home two blocks away that had been destroyed by a Katyusha. “The brother of a girl I work with lived there”, she said. “He suffered brain damage in the attack and will never be the same”.

The melancholy litany continued during dinner, when we were joined by Navit’s boyfriend Yoni. He and his best friend from childhood, Elad, had decided to begin their university studies in Haifa next month, and had moved into apartments near each other. But Elad was killed in Lebanon, and instead of attending classes together, Yoni attended his funeral.

I am not sure what to make of what has happened to the descendants of Aunts Golda and Goldina, and their friends and colleagues, and I feel immensely sad that more than six decades after the forces of evil and hatred devastated much of my family, these present-day relatives… along with all Israelis… still have not found peace.

But despite a day of damaged places and damaged people, I did not despair. There were pictures of dead boys in that hospital room, but there were balloons… and there was hope.

 

Steve North

steve.north@nbc.com