Panic-stricken, I search for my child. Someone has taken my precious child. I try to scream, but no sound comes out. My entire world crumbles. With a pounding heart and gasps expressing terror, I awaken in my bed. Boruch HaShem, it was only a dream. But what a nightmare!
The families of the three Israeli soldiers, who went missing during the Battle of Sultan Yakoub, have been living a nightmare since June 11, 1982. On the morning of June 11, 1982, in a battle at Syrian-controlled Sultan Yakoub during what later become known as the First Lebanon War or Operation Peace in the Galilee, two Israeli tanks were disabled. One tank, commanded by Hezi Shai, included soldiers Ariel Leiberman, Zvi Feldman and Zachary Baumel.
Hezi Shai was captured that night by members of the Popular Front headed by Ahmed Jibril. He was hidden in Damascus for two years. It was only after information about his capture was obtained by Israel and a lot of international influence exerted, that Jibril admitted he was holding Shai. Shai was returned to Israel on May 20, 1985 through a prisoner exchange.
Ariel Leiberman was caught by Syrians the day after the battle and held prisoner until a prisoner exchange with Syria on June 28, 1984. Zvi Feldman and Zachary Baumel were seen alive in the area of the battlefield.
The commander of the second tank, Zohar Lipschitz, was killed in battle. Two of the tank crew returned safely to Israel. The fourth crew member, Yehudah Katz, remained on the battlefield.
On the day of the battle, Syria showed the world the display of an Israeli tank along with Israeli captives in Damascus. It was only after prisoner exchanges that it became apparent that the soldiers paraded on June 11, 1982, could only have been Zvi Feldman, Zachary Baumel and Yehudah Katz.
In December 1993, Yasir Arafat, yemach shemo v’zichro, delivered half of Zachary Baumel’s army dog tag to Jacques Nerieh, advisor to the late Prime Minister Rabin. Arafat promised that more information would be forthcoming, but he never kept to his promise.
Zachary’s parents, Yona and Miriam Baumel, traveled all over the world, following every clue and knocking on many doors in the hopes of finding information about these three missing-in-action (MIA) soldiers. Sadly, Zachary’s father, Yona Baumel, passed away in May of 2009.
Miriam continued the search. Miriam declared, “I’m not only fighting for myself—I’m fighting for everyone who knows what it is like to live through a war or to send a son to the army and worry about what happens there.” The investigation of the battle at Sultan Yakoub was done by the army and not by an impartial party. “The army tried to cover up for itself. There had been no air cover,” claims Miriam.
Who was Zachary Baumel? His family and friends call him Zack. He was born on November 17, 1960, in Brooklyn, New York. He has an older sister Osna, and an older brother, Shimon. Zack attended grade school at Yeshivas Etz Chaim in Boro Park.
Naomi, a family friend, remembers that Zack liked to eat ketchup sandwiches. Shuli Berger, a friend of Osna, said, “We all davened together with our fathers in the hashkama minyan in the basement of Beth El in Boro Park. I don’t know if ‘davened’ is the right word—we also ran around. Zack and some of the other boys would lead the end of davening. He was a real lively kid, and it was always fun to be around him. We would do silly things like hide the kohanim’s shoes during duchening.”
The Baumels made aliyah when Zack was nine. The family first lived in the absorption center in Carmiel in northern Israel. Later, they moved to Kiryat Motzkin near Haifa. Zack studied in a local State religious elementary school. He went on to junior high school as part of the founding class of Midrashiat Noam in Kfar Saba and then continued onto the Midrashiat Noam high school in Pardes Chana. In 1980, the Baumels moved to Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, not long before Zack became an MIA.
“He liked people,” his mother told me. “He had many friends, and he was very sensitive to them. I was always amazed at the wide gamut of people who were friends of his.”
Zack was a great basketball player. He much preferred the court to the classroom. He also enjoyed hiking. He wanted to learn at the Yeshivah of Yamit because he liked sports and wanted to go snorkeling. The government’s decision to give Yamit to the Egyptians, forced Zack to find another yeshiva program. He enrolled in Yeshivat Har Etzion’s hesder program in Alon Shevut in Gush Etzion.
“Lo and behold, something happened to him and he started learning,” his mother told me. When asked what influenced him, his mother offered, “I don’t know, But I think it was the environment there. Not only that, but the rabbanim put him in charge of young men who were in the foreign students program He was very good at it. They loved him.”
Zack’s military service was spent in the Armored Corps. He began as a tank driver and graduated to tank commander.
Zack wanted to work with young people. He was accepted to Hebrew University and planned to study psychology the fall after his discharge. His discharge was scheduled for July 5, 1982, and he had a summer job lined up with the Jewish Agency to work with youth from abroad.
A few days before the fateful battle, his mother dropped off a package for her son at the post office. Then she and her husband went to see a friend in Kiryat Motzkin who was dying of cancer. When they arrived at their hosts on erev Shabbat, the Baumels rang the bell. Their friend opened the door with fear all over her face. “Don’t ever ring the bell in wartime,” she scolded them. (In wartime, a ring on the doorbell often signifies bad news.) Their hosts’ son was serving in the air force, and they had not heard from him for a week.
The following Tuesday morning the doorbell rang at the Baumel’s home. On the table lay a postcard they’d just received from Zack: Everything’s okay. Looks like I may not be home for a while.”
“We received a visit from kevutzat Iyov (referring to the four friends who visited Iyov during his time of trials and tribulations). Nothing registered. The army didn’t know anything more than that our son was missing,” Miriam related.
Throughout the many years that followed, the Baumels received emotional support from their children, grandchildren, friends and the now defunct International Coalition for Missing Israeli Soldiers, which closed due to a lack of funds. They keep in touch with the families of Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz. ”We are all in the same pot of boiling water,” says Miriam. Avraham Feldman, father of Zvi passed away in March of 2007. Yosef Katz, father of Yehudah Katz passed away in August of 2014.
The Baumels and the families of the MIAs want closure. If the soldiers are dead, then the Syrians should send their bodies to Israel for Jewish burial. The families and friends could then mourn. The parents of these MIAs have had to fight periodic IDF initiatives to declare the men dead without having produced proof that they are indeed dead.
These three MIAs seem to have fallen off the radar. In talks about prisoner exchanges, their names are not mentioned. It’s almost like the ground opened and swallowed them.
There are two other MIAs. One is Ron Arad, a married IDF F-4 Phantom II navigator who had to bail out of the plane on October 16, 1986, after a bomb it dropped exploded prematurely and damaged the plane. The pilot was rescued, but Ron Arad was captured. The fifth MIA is Guy Hever who disappeared without a trace in the Golan Heights on August 17, 1997. I remember seeing a billboard in the Golan Heights, offering a reward to anyone who provides information leading to Guy being found.
Zack’s mother has a recurrent dream. “I keep looking and looking, but I can’t find him. I go places, and suddenly obstacles sprout up before me.”
Meanwhile, aging Miriam Baumel continues in her pursuit to find out the whereabouts of Zack, Zvi and Yehudah, albeit without international travel and limited domestic travel due to failing health. Until she is given unequivocal evidence that they are dead, Miriam still has hope.
Adina Hershberg is a freelance writer who made aliyah in 1981; she has been living in Gush Etzion for almost sixteen years.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.