The local commemoration of Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day, is to focus this year on fallen soldiers whose final resting place is unknown.
Although loss through military service is a horror for any family, not having remains can create its own kind of grief.
For families, it can be “like a wound that doesn’t heal,” said Keren Weisshaus, who is a Milwaukee Jewish Federation-affiliated emissary to Milwaukee from Israel, known as the Milwaukee community shlichah, Weisshaus was part of the event planning.
Weisshaus added, “They don’t have a grave to cry on.”
Importance of Yom HaZikaron
“Yom HaZikaron is important for two reasons,” said Bobbi Rector, who has been co-chair of the event for the last three years. “One, just for the families and survivors of the lost soldiers to be supported by the community. They’re mourning every day.”
Friends and family of people who died while serving in the Israel Defense Forces do live in the Milwaukee area, Rector said.
The second reason, Rector said, is that “we come together as a community to honor the memory of those soldiers who have been lost over the last 70-plus years, and we appreciate their sacrifices.”
How to go:
What: Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli Memorial Day
When: Tuesday, May 7, 6 p.m.
Where: Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay
Cost: Open to the community at no charge
Also: See “Fireflies” at the JCC, Wednesday, May 8 at 7 p.m., open to the community at no charge
More info: MilwaukeeJewish.org/Yamim
Attendees are asked to wear white shirts to the 6 p.m. event on Tuesday, May 7, at theHarry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, 6255 N. Santa Monica Blvd., Whitefish Bay. In all, 173 Israel Defense Forces soldiers are believed to have perished without the return of their remains, according to Milwaukee Jewish Federation, a co-sponsor of the local commemoration. At the event, you’ll see posters made by local teens and children about individual soldiers, each of them one of the 173, in the lobby of the JCC.
Israeli Gili Meisler will speak at the ceremony. Gili’s brother Giora was one of the soldiers who had not been returned to family. Gili made the film “Fireflies” about his family’s experience,and as keynote speaker, he will share his story with Yom HaZikaron attendees.
“Fireflies,” an 82-minute documentary, will be shown on Wednesday, May 8 at 7 p.m. at the JCC. It is open to the whole community. It’s about how Giora’s tank was hit by Egyptian forces and then disappeared, plus his brother’s search for him, both physically and spiritually.
Weisshaus saw the film in Israel years ago and was deeply touched by it; she advocated for bringing it to Milwaukee’s Yom HaZikaron.
When Weisshaus told the planning committee about Meisler, they were intrigued, said event co-chair Joan Kazan. “Meisler’s struggle to come to terms with the fate of his brother Giora, who was declared missing in action during the Yom Kippur War, and the eventual assumption that Giora was lost to us, presented us with a powerful theme for this year’s ceremony,” she said.
This year, Jewish educators are lighting the memorial candles. In prior years, the lighters were rabbis or Israelis.
“We’ll be lighting candles in honor of some of the soldiers … whose bodies have not been recovered,” Kazan said. “We had no idea how relevant this theme would be – breaking news out of Israel within the last few weeks reports that the remains of one of those soldiers was returned to Israel just a few weeks ago.”
Held in the West Bank, with mental illness
Weisshaus said such cases show that “closure for the families is essential as part of the healing process. To realize that there’s no hope left and then you can start coping with your grief.”
Besides “Fireflies,” Milwaukee’s emissary is also bringing the story of Averah Mengistu to the ceremony. She met his sister at a conference two years ago.
Mengistu crossed the border into Gaza in 2014 and was taken into custody by Hamas, according to media reports. Mengistu reportedly had a history of mental health issues and wandering far on foot. He made the crossing as a civilian. Years later, Hamas continued to hold him, according to a May 2017 report by Human Rights Watch. Mangistu is a Jewish Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent and he is believed to still be in Hamas custody.
His family has been seeking to raise awareness, and out of respect for that, a poem by Mangistu’s mother will be read at the Yom HaZikaron commemoration.
It’s not a military issue, but it’s heartbreaking, Weisshaus said.
“It’s just a humanitarian tragedy,” she said.