It was 5 A.M. when the soldiers knocked on the door of Dalit Gal’s house in Kibbutz Lahav. The date was Friday, July 20, 2006, during the Second Lebanon War. They came bearing the news every mother dreads: Yonatan Vlasyuk, who had been fighting in the battle of Maroun al-Ras, was missing. His body was found the next day.
Gal is not an ordinary mother. A single parent, she was serving as an adoptive mother to Vlasyuk, who was born and raised in Ukraine and volunteered in the Israeli army. His biological parents in Ukraine decided to have him buried on Kibbutz Lahav. “They knew he loved us and loved this place, and they also know that in Ukraine, graves are often desecrated,” says Gal.
For six years, Gal served as Vlasyuk's adoptive mother in Israel. He first arrived in the country in 2000, when he was 16, as part of the Na’ale program (for teenagers who come to Israel without their parents) to attend high school here. Gal, a single mother whose daughter Inbar was 4 years old at the time, took in Vlasyuk and another teenage girl. “I did it for my daughter, so she’d have older siblings,” Gal explains.
“At first they didn’t know Hebrew. They came to us twice a week from the boarding school, and on holidays. Later on, it became freer and they came whenever they wanted. When they graduated high school, we found apartments for them on the kibbutz,” recalls Gal.
After high school, Vlasyuk worked on the kibbutz until enlisting in Sayeret Matkal, and then 10 months later he switched to Egoz — both elite combat units. “He would get home about every two weeks. He wouldn’t miss a chance to come home, especially to see Inbar,” she says.
Vlasyuk’s biological mother took all the things he left behind, but Gal put together an album with photos of him, as well as articles about him and eulogies. “When we cleaned out his apartment we discovered that he’d kept all the things that my daughter ever made for him. From the army, I received the box with his insignia. His mother kept one and I kept one. I have a corner in the house for him. There are a lot of memories and a lot of pictures.”
There’s one thing Gal regrets in particular: “There were no phones with cameras back then; we had a regular camera and it broke. I’m so sorry that I didn’t take more pictures of Yonatan.” His friends from the army still come to visit her every year on Memorial Day.
Like Vlasyuk, other young men have come to Israel on their own, enlisted in the Israel Defense Forces and died while serving. Many of these lone soldiers were also adopted by kibbutz families. While these families are not defined as “bereaved,” each is still grieving the loss of someone who was a significant presence in their lives.
According to the kibbutz movement, there are currently about 1,000 lone soldiers with adoptive kibbutz families. In the past 25 years, 20,000 lone soldiers have called different kibbutzim home.
Social activist Tzvika Levy, “the father of the lone soldiers,” and an Israel Prize laureate this year, says that approximately 30 lone soldiers have fallen in battle. There is no official list, but Levy, who is now suffering from muscular dystrophy, points to his head and says the list is inside there. “We’ve lost six Americans, nine from the former Soviet Union, five from France, three from South Africa,” he recounts slowly and quietly, as he is simultaneously flooded with memories of these soldiers, most of whom he knew personally.
Yael Eisner, who oversees the adoption of lone soldiers in the kibbutz movement, says most of the adoptive families become families in every sense of the word. “There is a sense of mission combined with a good deal of responsibility and worry,” she says. She also has experience with adopting lone soldiers herself. “I can tell you that my children think of each one, past and present, as their brother.”
During Operation Cast Lead in 2008—2009 the family’s adopted lone soldier was in Gaza. “The worry was endless, and there was no way to be in contact with him. And his worried parents abroad were calling all the time. The genuine fear for his life was unbearable.” She says adopting a lone soldier involves a lot more than attending army graduation ceremonies and baking cakes to bring to the base.
“It’s a different kind of parental responsibility, but it’s still quite complex and challenging. When an adopted soldier get sick, or hurt physically or emotionally, the adoptive family is the first circle of support, and God forbid if he is killed, it’s the most painful loss there is for the biological family, and it’s very painful for the adoptive parents and siblings and for the kibbutz coordinator of the lone soldiers. We are very attached to and love the lone soldiers and when they are hurt, the bereavement and pain expands to the adoptive family and to the kibbutz community too.”
Buried in Serbia
Yaakov Mrvica came to Israel from Serbia in August 2002, shortly before his enlistment, and was adopted by the Klein family of Kibbutz Geva. “He did his basic training at Michve Alon and from there he went to the Paratroops. He wanted to get into an elite unit but didn’t make it, so then he went on a hunger strike until they sent him back to the intake center and then to the medics’ course,” says Vered Klein, the mother of the family. After completing the course, he was assigned to Megiddo Prison. “He kept on fighting until he finally got into Givati, and then he moved to another kibbutz because of the distance, but we were still his family.”
The Klein family attended Mrvica's ceremony at the end of his training. “His sister was in Israel and we drove with her to the ceremony. It was on the day of his 25th birthday and she cried the whole time. I don’t know if she sensed it or what. He kept telling her, ‘It’s okay, nothing’s going to happen to me.’” She adds, “He had a real family home with us. He loved my cakes. We would all take trips together on the weekends.”
The family also became close with his girlfriend, Maayan Hod, whom he met before going into the army. She would often join them on the weekend excursions.
Mrvica was killed along with five comrades in May 2004 in the Zeitun neighborhood of Gaza when a missile struck the armored vehicle they were riding in. “It was so hard and so sad. Suddenly a person like that is gone, it’s so hard to believe. In our house we keep a picture of him alongside the picture of a friend of my husband who fell in the Yom Kippur war and the picture of a classmate of mine who fell in the Six-Day War. We’d been close to this kind of loss before. I would never want to compare myself to a bereaved mother, but there was a real bond that can’t be ignored.” Mrvica was buried in Serbia in accordance with his family’s wishes, but his name is etched on the kibbutz’s monument to its fallen, and his girlfriend built a memorial monument to him in Zichron Yaakov which the whole family visits every year.
Klein’s husband, Ze’ev, was also from Yugoslavia, and he kept in contact with Mrvica’s mother because he could speak her language, but since Ze’ev passed away two years ago the families have lost touch. Klein says that Maayan’s family has become part of her family too in a way.
Brothers in arms
In the 1980s, the Chen family from Kibbutz Ein Tzurim adopted Danny Singer, an American teen who had come to Israel for half a year of school. The Singer family had lived in Israel for a few years in the 1970s, and Danny came back again later to serve in the paratroopers. His older brother Alex soon followed in his footsteps, and insisted on doing full-term combat service even though he was already 23 and had earned a bachelor’s degree. Both brothers were adopted by the Chen family.
Mother Michal Chen recalls how Alex “would get home from the army on Friday afternoon, come sit and have coffee with me, and we’d talk about all that he was doing, and he would eat my cheesecake which he really loved.” She describes him as very creative, a gifted artist with a distinctive painting style, who also wrote very eloquent essays about all the places he had visited in the world.
On September 15, 1987, on his 25th birthday, Lieutenant Alex Singer was killed in a terrorist ambush on Har Dov in the Golan Heights along with his company commander and gunner. “I was in the dining hall. They came to me at eight in the morning,” Chen says, recalling that terrible day. Until five in the afternoon, when Singer’s biological parents were notified, they were forbidden to say anything to anyone. “And even afterwards, my oldest daughter said she didn’t want us to talk to the press because when people die they always say they were special but Alex really was special. She was 17 and that was her insight.” Singer was buried on Mount Herzl. His whole family made aliyah in the ensuing years, and the Chen family is still in close touch with them, and observes Memorial Day with them. “It was our great privilege to know him. All we can do now is remember him and keep his memory alive,” says Chen.
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