Identifying the Unknown Soldiers From Independence War

The War of Independence in 1948 claimed thousands of soldiers' lives but some of the fallen have never been identified. More than 60 years on, families are still looking for closure.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The Yaron family is one of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of families in Israel that share a similar story. There was a brother or cousin of a grandfather or grandmother, whose footsteps were lost in Europe during the Holocaust and who, according to unsubstantiated rumor, survived. They then immigrated to Eretz Israel on an illegal immigrant boat (Ma'apilim ), enlisted in the pre-IDF Haganah, or to the IDF, and were killed during fighting in the War of Independence.

"We made an effort to locate information about him, in every possible place, but we couldn't find a lead," says Moshe Yaron, a pensioner who worked with Israel Aircraft Industries. Describing attempts to locate Pinhas Kokabka, a Polish-born cousin he never met, Pinhas Kokabka, Yaron says: "We didn't want to obtain any benefits; the entire aim was to honor the memory of my cousin, to make sure his name is written on a memorial wall, and perhaps to find his grave." Yet Pinhas' name did not appear on the list of over 4,000 IDF soldiers killed during the War of Independence.

Burial plots for unknown soldiers from the War of Independence at the Segula military cemetery in Petah Tikva. Credit: Nir Keidar

Shortly before her death, Moshe Yaron's aunt told him about the fate of Pinhas. Her information was based on an account given to her by another Holocaust survivor, who is no longer alive; this survivor claimed to have met Pinhas aboard a Ma'apilim ship en route to Eretz Israel, and to have later heard that he died during fighting around Latrun. On the basis of this information, the Yarons have been looking for traces of Pinhas since the 1980s.

They turned to various memorial sites and authorities, including the Latrun Memorial Site, the Jewish Agency, the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, and the Defense Ministry, but could not get a lead. The IDF's Eitan unit - specializing in the identification of missing soldiers - opened an investigation. "Since his name, Kokabka, did not appear on the list of casualties, or on a list of IDF soldiers, we sent an investigator to ascertain whether or not he immigrated to Eretz Israel," says Lt. Col. Gabi Almashali, the head of the Eitan unit. "We didn't find his name anywhere. We even checked the lists of the Ma'apilim ships from the period. There wasn't a trace."

The IDF search file was not closed, however. "The mess in those days was so intense that his name did not appear on the list of the seventh brigade, which fought in Latrun, but it was clear to us that he was there," says Moshe Yaron. "It's very important to us that this lonely young man be memorialized."

In a country that remains gripped by the fate of one captive soldier, Gilad Shalit, it's hard to understand that, at the end of the 1948 war, 1,000 of the 4,500 slain IDF soldiers were defined as missing. This number was reduced significantly after the chief army rabbi, Shlomo Goren, went to the battlefields and undertook a wide-scale identification effort, and also after the establishment of orderly military ceremonies at the start of the 1950s.

Still, despite such developments, there remained 200 people whose burial places remained unknown, and dozens of unknown soldiers' graves. The Eitan unit was set up due to the proliferation of lost soldiers during the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and for two decades its work concentrated on the location of soldiers missing in contemporary conflicts. Starting in the 1990s, however, the unit took up an additional assignment, and began to search for soldiers missing in past conflicts.

Search techniques developed by the Eitan unit, along with the use of new information and genetic testing technologies, enabled it to reduce the number of unidentified War of Independence casualties by about 50 percent. Today the Defense Ministry has a list of some 110 War of Independence casualties whose burial places are unknown, and there are graves for 40 unknown soldiers.

In some unknown soldier graves, there are bones of casualties collected from battlefields weeks or months after the soldiers were killed, and after Israel took possession of the area where the remains were buried. In such cases, it is not clear how many bodies are buried in the graves. There are cases in which one unknown soldier is buried in the grave; in these cases Eitan can reduce the number of possibilities regarding the identity of the fallen soldier, but if no possible family members are connected to the grave and it is not possible to exhume the body and conduct a DNA test, the identity cannot be verified. As a result of requests made by family members and friends, every few years a new casualty is identified.

About three years ago, a person named after Yitzhak Hadash came to the Defense Ministry with a complaint. The first Yitzhak Hadash fought for the Irgun Zvai Leumi (aka Etzel ), and was killed in May 1948 in the battle for Ramle. The individual named after Hadash claimed that details which appear on the Yizkor site that memorializes slain IDF soldiers are inaccurate. The memorial site described Hadash as a resident of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City who was taken captive by the Jordanians, and died in Jordan. Afterward, like all POWs, Hadash was recognized as an IDF soldier and his remains were brought to Israel, for burial in Mount Herzl's military cemetery.

An Etzel soldier named Yitzhak Hadash is buried in the Nahalat Yitzhak cemetery in Tel Aviv; originally, this person was buried in an unknown soldier grave for Etzel men who died in the Ramle battle. After his body was identified at the start of the 1950s, Hadash's name was erased from the list of missing Israeli soldiers - the presumption being that the two "Yitzhak Hadash" names were listed erroneously. As far as the Defense Ministry was concerned, the one and only Hadash was buried on Mount Herzl.

Archival work

An Eitan investigation, conducted a few months ago, reached the conclusion that there were two 1948 war victims named Yitzhak Hadash. Sometimes in archival searches, Eitan investigators discover names of casualties not listed by the IDF or the ministry. Recently the investigators have started to check lists and graves in civilian cemeteries; the assumption is that some IDF casualties were buried in such cemeteries in 1948-1949, and no proper listing of their names was ever made.

"It begins with quite a lot of archival work," explains Lt. Col. Almashali. "Subsequently, witnesses from a particular battle are questioned, in order to get a picture of what might have happened to the missing person. In some cases, we are not talking about unknown soldiers who could not have been identified by their friends. Instead, these casualties were buried right after the fighting in an area, because there was no place to store the remains; and at the moment these casualties were buried, there were no friends or family members around who knew them. There was not, at the time, a military rabbinate, nor were there teams to identify casualties; in many cases, the battle platoons themselves dealt with burying the dead. Understanding what happened in a battle is critical, because we cannot in every case open a grave and exhume remains to conduct a DNA test."

Opening a grave to disinter a corpse remains a complicated legal process that can be authorized only by the attorney general. Following long deliberations between the IDF and the attorney general's office, three conditions were designated as preconditions for authorization to exhume: A grave can be opened when archival research indicates that the grave of an unknown soldier belongs to a particular person; relevant family members agree to open the grave; and there are sufficient resources for the undertaking of a DNA test (that is, there are family relations ).

In 2009-2010, Eitan identified 14 graves of unknown soldiers from the 1948 war. Nine of the identified people were Holocaust survivors. The fact that many Israeli fighters who took part in the War of Independence were young people who immigrated after the start of World War II is not well known; many people in this group were Holocaust survivors.

Among IDF soldiers who were killed during the war, Holocaust survivors represented about one-third. Yet only in 2002 did Yad Vashem and the IDF memorial unit begin to create memorials for young people who in many cases died a short time after they arrived in Israel and did not have family relations in the country to mourn them.

In 2004, a memorial was dedicated for them on the path connecting Mount Herzl and Yad Vashem; the memorial was designed by sculptor Micha Ullman. A book published in their memory describes 142 soldiers in this group. Until 2010, two people in this category were listed as missing soldiers whose burial places were unknown. The remains of two other people, Shlomo Stoler and Yosef Kohen, have never been identified.

At the start of the 1950s, David Ben-Gurion announced that "we don't have a tomb for unknown soldiers." Ben-Gurion's point was to praise the way the IDF attended to its casualties. Through the present day, the Defense Ministry and the IDF refuse to create a tomb for unknown soldiers. "Eitan and the Defense Ministry labor ceaselessly to connect a name with the remains of an unknown soldier in a given grave," explains Aryeh Mualem, head of the Defense Ministry's Family and Perpetuation branch. "For this reason, Israel does not have one grave for the unknown soldier. We have a commitment to our soldiers who fall, and to their families." Eitan head Almashali adds that "an unknown soldier's tomb would not give expression to personal feelings. It could be that there will be unknown soldiers whose identities we will never ascertain, because they immigrated to the country without families and friends. But there's always a chance that the moment someone entered a military framework, his name was listed somewhere, and so we will continue to look.

"There is a myth about 1948 being one big bureaucratic mess," Almashali adds, summarizing years of combing through archival materials. "But we have discovered that documentation and reporting - including communications and reports between commanders and headquarters staff - was conducted on a very high level. When we make investigations, we try to set aside assumptions - yet it can be assumed that the moment a person is absorbed in a military framework, his name is recorded.

"There was no reality in which people came straight from a boat to the battlefield," Almashali says. "There were some cases in which military training was truncated to a week or two, and it is very possible that some individuals arrived without there being anyone around who knew them, but the minute they were mustered into the army, someone listed their names. When there is no listing, we try to understand why; in the end, we usually locate the person."

Prof. Hanna Yablonka, a historian who has researched Israeli social attitudes toward Holocaust survivors, confirms Almashali's view: "Nobody went straight from a boat to a battlefield," she says. "At a minimum they reached Latrun after 12 days; and most Israeli youths did not undergo longer periods of military training. The myth [about going straight from boat to battle] was invented by members of the Palmach unit; they claimed that Holocaust survivors do not know how to fight as part of the effort to forestall the process by which their special fighting unit [the Palmach] was disbanded.

"The attitude toward survivors was devoid of sentiment," adds Yablonka. "But I say that without making accusations or casting judgment. This was a trying war in Israeli history, and it was perceived in the Yishuv as a do-or-die situation. The sons of the heads of state died; for survivors as well, the war for the existence of the state was taken as an imperative. They [survivors] believed it was a tremendous privilege to fight with a weapon in their hand; they called this 'revenge of rebirth.'"



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