Hundreds of people attend the funeral of the six members of the Schaer family, March 27, 2012.
Hundreds of people accompanying the caskets of the six members of the Shaer family during the Rehovot funeral procession, March 27, 2012. Photo by Ilan Assayag
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The ambulance convoy burst from the north at twilight. Six Zaka and Magen David Adom vans, their red lights flashing from afar, as if responding to a terror attack. It slowly entered the gates of the tiny, crowded Yemenite cemetery at the edge of Rehovot, bordering Kibbutz Kvutzat Shiller, also known as Gan Shlomo. One ambulance for each body - a father and his five children. His wife, their mother, remained at home in accordance with Jewish law, which was strictly observed on Tuesday. Guy Shaer and his children, on their final journey.

This time Monday they still played together, perhaps memorizing Torah verses or making plans, before drifting off into the sweet sleep from which they will never wake. None of them knew what the cruel night held for them, the terrible flames that would suddenly grip their home, the thick smoke that would repel their father's desperate, futile efforts to save them.

Eliav, Evyatar, Amitai, Shira and Itamar apparently died in their sleep. Guy, their father, watched as the heavy smoke choked them until he, too, succumbed to asphyxiation.

A biblical tragedy, a funeral no less biblical. The rabbi of the Ushiot neighborhood, Yaakov Mualem, sang dirges in Judeo-Yemeni Arabic, in a call-and-response with the swelling crowds. The skies darkened, the rabbi's voice occasionally broke as he burst into bitter tears. He was not alone.

Just a short time before, the graves gaped open. Five graves, close together, with space for one more - reserved, presumably, for Avivit, the sole survivor of the family. Shmuel Avraham, the gravedigger, said he had never dug so many graves at once. Mourners were gathered outside, after waiting two hours for the funeral procession to set out from the Shaers' home and reach the cemetery. "The Holy One, Blessed Be He, said it will be so, and so it will be," a young woman whispered into her cell phone. That was the dominant tone - one of religious acceptance.

Despite the depth of the tragedy, the funeral was very restrained. Silent sobbing accompanied the bodies to their graves, interrupted repeatedly by calls on the public address system to remove all the women from the cemetery. Politely at first, "All the women must leave, please, no exceptions, by order of the mother - no mixing." Toward the end of the ceremony the tone became more strident.

A relative in an army uniform with first-lieutenant insignia, who appeared nonreligious, took the microphone: "Women, please don't be here, this is not the place for women. Guy requested personally. Women, out, you must respect the place." He later explained that at the funeral of Avivit's brother last month Guy had said to him, "How wonderful that there are no women in the cemetery."

Friends of Guy Shaer's from the Neveh Doron neighborhood in Be'er Yaakov talked about what a good, humble man he was, how he built a house for his family near his childhood home but never moved them into it because he wanted his children to grow up in a religious environment even at the price of living, as they did, in a tiny shack in his in-laws' yard. A woman related how Guy, who was an optician, saved her eyesight.

"Bring the father," Rabbi Mualem barked into the microphone, and Guy's body was brought to the graveside. Thus began the macabre and nearly incomprehensible mass burial campaign. "Bring the second bed," he ordered, "Bring the girl," and little Shira's body was placed in the ground. "Don't cover it until instructed." Then, "Keep the head facing forward." The rabbi cried as Shira, 3, was buried. "Gentlemen, woe is to us on our day of judgment." And then, like an assembly line, like a horror movie: "Bring Eliav. Head facing forward," and the 12-year-old boy, wrapped in a shroud, was placed in the ground, and the rabbi cried. Then, one after another, the bodies of Evyatar, 8, Amitai, 7, and Itamar, still an infant - the bodies getting progressively smaller and the crying growing progressively louder - were laid to rest.

Their grandfather watched the entire time, sitting down, looking as if he was about to faint. A young soldier sat at his feet, on the ground, holding his hand and weeping bitterly. Then the mad rush for the honor of covering the bodies with dirt. The men took up shovels and tossed shovelfuls of newly turned dirt onto the tiny, impossible graves.

Night falls on Rehovot. At the edge of the city, at 60 Najara St., in Ushiot, in the shadow of new high-rise apartments, is the house of death. On a tiny street of two-story homes, old and simple, now plastered all over with death notices. Men chant the Arvit, the evening prayer service, inside a neighborhood synagogue, as dozens gather near the family's home, silent.

I enter the house of mourning. Avivit sits on a bed in a tiny room. Several women stand behind her. She is deep in conversation with Rehovot Mayor Rahamim Malul. Her voice is nearly inaudible. A thin woman in a headscarf who has just lost her entire world. I look around the room. A wrapped-up guitar, a few religious books on the dresser. The home is very small and very crowded.

As he goes outside Malul tells me he was astonished at Avivit's enormous "spiritual strength." Five times this newly bereaved widow and mother told the mayor, "God gave and God took," adding that she had good years with her husband and their five children, and now that was over. And as she spoke she did not shed a tear.