An old photograph with a personal story and painful history hangs on the wall of Prof. Miriam Ben Peretz, an Israel Prize winner for education.
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The photo shows Yosef Kofler, Ben Peretz’s first husband, who was killed nearly 70 years ago as a member of the Convoy of 35 during the War of Independence. The story of the 35 young men who were ambushed by Arabs while bringing supplies to besieged kibbutzim has become a national legend, in part thanks to Haim Gouri’s poem “Here Lie Our Bodies.” But this story contains a private tragedy for Ben Peretz.
This spring she celebrated her 90th birthday with her daughters, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – the family she started with her late second husband. When she looks back she sees a full life of family, studies and professional accomplishments – everything Kofler, who died at 26, never had the chance to attain.
“It’s important for me to say on Memorial Day that my mourning for Yup isn’t any less or easier than it was on the day after his death in January 1948,” she says, using Kofler’s nickname. “You never overcome mourning,” she adds, calling the proverb “time heals all wounds” “one big lie.”
As she puts it, “Not only does time not heal, it even worsens the sense of loss. I think that today, after 70 years, I mourn him more than I did then, when I didn’t yet understand what was happening.”
On the one hand, “you can go on and be happy in life, rebuild it and enjoy it after the mourning,” she says, but “that doesn’t mean you stop thinking about those who passed away. Overcoming doesn’t mean forgetting. You learn to live with it.”
Ben Peretz was 21 when she learned that she had suddenly become a widow. “I experienced the Lamed Heh tragedy as a young woman whose husband went out to battle and didn’t come back,” she recalls, using the convoy's Hebrew name. She can still see her young husband going down the stairs of their Jerusalem apartment and boarding the truck en route to his final mission.
A few days later, when the scope of the disaster emerged, three Haganah officials came to tell her the bad news. “I don’t remember what they said. I was in shock, and I didn’t understand the meaning of his death,” she says. “I felt like someone looking on from the side, struggling to understand.”
She later was called to identify Kofler’s body, which had been mutilated. “It was impossible to identify,” she recalls. “It was a difficult sight.”
While the grieving remains, its nature has changed. “My pain is no longer mourning for myself as someone who lost her husband, but rather mourning for him for what he lost as a young man who died at the height of his strength, with many dreams to fulfill,” she says.
Ben Peretz has also kept in her Herzliya home Kofler’s letters, which describe an enthusiastic Zionist who felt the burden of responsibility as a member of the state’s founding generation.
“You know, Miriam, that I love our people endlessly, that I am willing to sacrifice everything for my people – including my life,” he wrote. “Could I doubt that I would leave everything dear to me to fulfill my national-Jewish duty?”
Another time, he wrote: “I cannot escape the heavy shadow that the period we live in casts over everything. Shared fate is both our curse and our blessing, and who knows what will come of our decision? This isn’t pessimism. I do not fear, but I love seeing things as they are, without any embellishment.”
Using the Hebrew term for the pre-state Jewish community, he added, “The fate of the Yishuv is my fate.”
Kofler wrote in another letter: “We have spoken much about how to reconcile the (apparent) contradictions between the happy life of the individual and the greater good . It is important that in time of need (and perhaps this will happen a lot) we will know how to decide between the two possibilities – we will freely and willfully give ourselves.”
Religion and agriculture
Kofler was born in Poland in 1922 to an observant, Zionist home, and moved to Dresden, Germany, with his family as a child. He immigrated to British Mandatory Palestine in 1938 and joined the first cohort of the religious Youth Aliyah at the Mikveh Israel School. In this way he tried to synthesize religious and agricultural demands, which he considered fundamental values.
His parents, who remained in Germany, were killed in the Holocaust. One sister, who also came to Israel, died prematurely, while he lost touch with his other sister, who moved to Australia. “He was alone,” Ben Peretz says. “There wasn’t a trace of his family after his death.”
After his studies, Kofler helped found in 1946 Kibbutz Hanatziv, one of the religious kibbutzim in the Beit She’an Valley. That year he married Miriam, a member of the group, who had also emigrated from Nazi Germany. The two started studying in Jerusalem on the eve of the war.
Together they listened to the UN vote on partition on November 29, 1947, and went out to dance in celebration.
“I remember that one of my friends who studied with me warned me that we would pay dearly,” she recalls. “Unfortunately, he was right.” Kofler was killed in battle on January 16, 1948. Nearly two years later, in late 1949, he was among the first interred at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Some 23,000 others have fallen since.
“No doubt the names of these fallen stir powerful feelings of mourning and sorrow, but the mourning and sorrow have to lead to change. It isn’t enough to mourn the fallen. You have to prevent more from happening,” Ben Peretz says.
“It’s a sin to accept as fact that young people will keep dying. The blood of the fallen cries out to us from the ground and demands us to do everything and that means everything to change the situation.”