Remembrance Day, Israel, 9th May, 2000
Yom Hazikaron, Eretz Yisrael, 5 Iyar 5760
By Esther Wachsman
A mother, who mobilized the world to save her son — an Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas terrorists — tells the story of one fateful week in the history of Israel.
My name is Esther Wachsman. I was born in a DP camp in Germany in 1947 to parents who had survived the ovens of Nazi Germany, in which their entire families had perished. We – my parents, my sister (who had been hidden by a Catholic family during the war) and I – sailed to America in 1950.
I grew up as a child of survivors, and became a true JAP — Jewish American Princess. But the cloud of depression, of a deep sadness and melancholy, hung over our home.
In typical “Second Generation Syndrome” experience, I was my parents’ sole reason for existence. Their hope, their future, all their expectations were wrapped up in me. I knew without their ever having said anything that I had to be the smartest, the prettiest, the most popular, the most obedient and best of all children.
That was a tough burden for a little girl, a young lady, and later a wife and mother, to have to carry. I, too, demanded excellence and perfection of myself — and later of my children.
In 1969 I immigrated to Israel — made aliya to Jerusalem, where I attended the Hebrew University, going for my Master’s Degree in history, specializing in the Holocaust. My parents were Zionists, and their sole remaining relatives lived in Israel. I came to study with their blessing, though when I met my future husband and knew that only here in Jerusalem did I wish to raise my family, I’m not sure they were too thrilled.
But I had caught the bug. I was going to be part of the history of our old/new homeland, and I would raise proud, independent, believing Jewish children in their homeland after 2,000 years of exile. I could no longer pray for the “Return to Zion” and the “Building of Jerusalem” when I knew I was a plane ticket away from fulfilling those prayers.
And so I was married to Yehuda in 1970 and we had seven sons between 1971 and 1986. Our sons were raised on a three-fold love — of their people, their land, and their heritage, the Torah. Our lives were complete, my dreams fulfilled, and I felt privileged to be able to live my life and raise my children in this, our sacred city, in this, our God-given land.
I taught English at the Hebrew University High School for 28 years, my children grew up, attended yeshivot, and in time served their country, proudly wearing the uniform of the Jewish army. How proud I was – the Jewish immigrant from Brooklyn, mother of soldiers of Israel!
Nachshon, our third son, was named after the one who was the first to jump into the Red Sea .
My two oldest sons — named after ancestors, grandparents who had perished in the Holocaust, served in the Golani Brigade. When the time came for my third son to be drafted, he wanted to outdo his two older brothers and volunteered for an elite commando unit of Golani. His brothers mocked him, for he was shorter and slighter than the big staffing soldiers in that unit, but he persevered and became a soldier in the Orev Golani, and was the pride of his brothers, of his entire family.
Nachshon, our third son, was not named after any ancestors. We chose his name because he was born on the last day of Passover, just after the Torah portion about the Jews crossing the Red Sea, which God promised would turn into dry land, was read. Nachson, the son of Aminadav, the head of the tribe of Yehuda, was the first to jump into the water, thereby expressing complete faith and belief in God and this promise that the water would turn into dry land, and all of the Children of Israel followed him. It was also at this time of the year, in Passover of 1948, that Operation Nachshon took place — the operation that opened the road to Jerusalem. We felt that that name incorporated all of our ideas — faith and belief in God and love of our people and our land.
Nachshon did us proud, as did all our sons and, thank God, lived up to his name.
After having served in the army for a little over a year, with two stints in Lebanon, Nachshon came home on a week’s leave, Friday, October 7, 1994 just before the Sabbath. On Saturday night, he got a call from the army informing him that the following day, Sunday, he was to attend a course up north, where he and another soldier from his unit would learn to operate a special military vehicle and in a one-day-course receive a license.
Nachshon found this offer very prestigious and got a ride with a friend to take the course up north. He left us late Saturday night and told us he would be back home the following night.
Nachshon did not come home on Sunday night.
Nachshon did not come home on Sunday night. Perhaps because of my background with over-protective parents, I felt that I must know where my children are, when to expect them home — and they always notified me of any delay or change of plan.
When by midnight Nachshon did not call or arrive home, I feared the worst.
We notified the military authorities, we traced his movements, we spoke to his army friends. We discovered from one of them that he had been dropped off after completing the course at the Bnai Atarot junction — one of the most populated areas in the center of Israel — where he could either catch a bus or hitchhike (as all soldiers do) to Jerusalem. This friend was the last one to have seen him.
On Monday we sent search parties to the area where he had last been seen — at this point the army was still unconcerned and more or less making inquiries at hotels and resorts in Eilat to see if he had just taken off.
The fact that I told them that such a thing was simply out of the question in my family just seemed to amuse them as the attitude of a typical Jewish mother. To me, on Monday, my child was dead.
On Tuesday, we were contacted by Israeli Television, who told us that they had received a video tape from a Reuters photographer showing my son being held hostage by Hamas terrorists. They said they were coming directly to our home to show us the video before broadcasting it to the entire nation, and the world.
On that video tape, Nachshon was seen, bound hand and foot .
On that video tape, Nachshon was seen, bound hand and foot, with a terrorist whose face was covered with a kaffiya, holding up Nachshon’s identity card. The terrorist recited his home address, identity number, and then Nachshon spoke at gunpoint. He said that he had been kidnapped by the Hamas, who were demanding the release of their spiritual leader, Achmed Yassin, from an Israeli prison, as well as the release of 200 other imprisoned Hamas terrorists. If these demands were not met, he would be executed on Friday at 8:00 PM.
At that time I did not have the “luxury” of breaking down. We were all mobilized for the next four days, 24 hours a day, to do everything in our power to save our son’s life. We spoke to Prime Minister Rabin, who informed us that he would not negotiate with terrorists, nor would he yield to blackmail. We announced Nachshon’s American citizenship, and President Clinton intervened. Both Warren Christopher, who was in the area, and the U.S. consul in Jerusalem, Ed Abbington, went to Gaza — where it was believed Nachshon was being held — and brought us messages from Arafat.
Arafat, indeed, called our home and told us that he would leave no stone unturned to locate our son and return him to us safe and sound.
We appealed to world leaders everywhere and to Moslem religious leaders, all of whom stated unequivocally on the media that they must not harm our son.
And we appealed to our brethren — to the Jewish people throughout the world — and asked them to pray for our son. The Chief Rabbi of Israel delegated three chapters of Psalms to be said every day, and people everywhere, including schoolchildren who had never prayed before, did so for the sake of one precious Jewish soul.
I asked women throughout the world to light an extra Sabbath candle for my son .
I asked women throughout the world to light an extra Sabbath candle for my son. From about 30,000 letters that poured into our home, I learned of thousands of women who had never lit Sabbath candles, who did so for the sake of our son — who had become a symbol of everyone’s son, brother, friend.
On Thursday night, 24 hours before the ultimatum, a prayer vigil was held at the Western Wall and, at the same hour, prayer vigils were held throughout the world in synagogues, schools, community centers, street squares and, yes, churches throughout the world. People of good faith everywhere hoped and pleaded and prayed for Nachshon.
At the Western Wall 100,000 people arrived, with almost no notice — Chassidim in black frock coats and long side curls swayed and prayed and cried, side by side with young boys in torn jeans and ponytails and earrings. There was total unity and solidarity of purpose among us — religious and secular, left wing and right wing, Sephardi and Ashkenazi, old and young, rich and poor — an occurrence unprecedented in our sadly fragmented society.
On Friday night we ushered in the Sabbath, and I spoke to my son on the media and begged him to be strong, for all our people were with him. We sat rooted to our Sabbath table; my eyes were glued to the door, expecting Nachshon to walk in at any moment.
We were not aware of the fact that Israeli Intelligence had captured the driver of the car that picked Nachshon up, that he had told our intelligence that the terrorists had all worn kippot, skull caps, that there were a Bible and Siddur on the dashboard, and Chassidic music playing on the tape deck, and an unsuspecting soldier got into the car.
We were not aware that they had discovered from their informant that Nachshon was being held in a village called Bir Nabbalah, under Israeli rule, located about 10 minutes from our home in Ramot. We were not aware that Prime Minister Rabin had made a decision to launch a military action to attempt to rescue our son.
At the hour of the ultimatum, General Yoram Yair, walked through our door and brought us the terrible news.
At the hour of the ultimatum, 8:00 PM Friday night, General Yoram Yair, not Nachshon, walked through our door and brought us the terrible news.
The military rescue attempt had failed — Nachshon had been killed and so had the commander of the rescue team, Captain Nir Poraz.
At the same time people had all returned to their synagogues, after their Sabbath meal, to recite Psalms for Nachshon’s rescue, including our sons.
We called them home and together we all sat frozen, unbelieving, shocked and devastated for the rest of the Sabbath.
On Saturday night at midnight we buried our son.
That same microcosm of our people came to Mount Herzl at midnight Saturday night to attend Nachshon’s funeral.
That same microcosm of our people who had come to pray for Nachshon rescue at the Western Wall came to Mount Herzl at midnight Saturday night to attend Nachshon’s funeral; many never set foot at a military cemetery.
My husband asked Nachshon’s Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Mordechai Elon, who gave the eulogy, to please tell all our people that God did listen to our prayers and that He collected all our tears.
My husband’s greatest concern when burying his son was that there would be a crisis in faith. And so he asked Rabbi Elon to tell everyone that just as father would always like to say “yes” to all of his children’s requests, but sometimes he had to say “no” though the child might not understand why, so our Father in Heaven heard our prayers, and though we don’t understand why, His answer was “no.”
Our Father in Heaven heard our prayers, and though we don’t understand why, His answer was “no”.
The entire nation mourned with us. Thousands came to comfort us, though no one can comfort a bereaved parent. Israeli radio began each morning’s broadcasts with the words “Good morning Israel, we are all with the Wachsman family.” Food and drink were delivered non-stop to our home; bus and taxi drivers who brought people from all over the country who wished to express their condolences, left their vehicles and joined their passengers in our home. That unity, solidarity, caring, compassion, and love with which we were showered gave us strength and filled our hearts with love for our people.
After the Shiva, we all returned to our routines. Our son who had just gotten out of the army attended the Hebrew University, another went back to the army, two others returned to yeshiva, and the two youngest, twins who had just turned eight on the day of the funeral, went back to school.
For that is what the Jewish people have always done — rebuilt after destruction, began new lives from the ashes and blood of the old.
I had a new respect for my parents, who had lost everyone and relocated to a strange land, a foreign tongue, and built a new family, a new life.
I was in my own country, my own homeland; my son died wearing his country’s uniform, and, God willing, my other sons will serve their country proudly as well.
For, among my people I dwell, and that for me is still a privilege and a blessing. My three-fold love of my people, my land, and my Torah has never wavered.