'My Soul Has Been Taken'

The memorial volume for the fallen of the 2006 Lebanon war reveals mourning families who no longer form a seemingly united collective, but rather are alone in their grief, anger and frustration

Bisvakh Halevanon

military funeral, 2006, AP

(In the Thicket of Lebanon: the Second Lebanon War: Memory, Battle, Family ), edited by Asael AbelmanRubin Mass (Hebrew), 312 pages, NIS 98

On the bottom-most shelf of my parents' library was a thick tome, elegantly bound in pale parchment. Its title was stamped in large red block letters on the cover: "Gvilei Esh" - "Parchments of Fire," the Hebrew phrase for anthologies of writing and artwork by fallen soldiers. Poet and translator Reuben Avinoam (Grossman ), whose son Noam died in the battle of Latrun in the War of Independence, edited that first memorial book, whose contents were collected by the poet Anda Amir.

For my generation, growing up during the first years of statehood, this book tugged at the heart, allowing us a glimpse of members of the previous generation who had given their lives for the establishment of the state. It wasn't a world in which individuality was highly prized, of course. The times, devotion to the goal of survival, the feeling of belonging and also, perhaps, the official filtering process carried out by the editors, revealed to us simple, heroic stories.

Six volumes have been added to the series since, the last of them five years ago. And that was it. Not because soldiers stopped dying in wars, but because memorialization itself - in the form of gravestones and monuments, pamphlets, statues, groves and playgrounds - has undergone a great change. "In the Thicket of Lebanon," published by parents of soldiers who died in the Second Lebanon War, with the aid of the One Family Fund (which assists terror victims ) and the Defense Ministry, is a clear example of this change.

The editors divided the volume into three sections, as they explain in the introduction. The first part is a general survey of the background to the war and a day-by-day description of events, including the names of the soldiers who died each day. Civilians were killed and wounded each day of the war too; the writers count them but do not mention their names, and that's a shame.

The second section looks like a standard book of this type, with each page featuring a passport-sized photo and short biography of the soldier. Page by page, a very sad image emerges, one that evokes astonishment in the reader. Despite the connotations we associate with particular cities or demographic groups, it turns out that the fallen come from all levels of society and from every part of the country: Rehovot, Bat Yam, Kiryat Shmona, Carmiel; kibbutzim, settlements, Druze villages; Ra'anana, Jerusalem, Beit Horin, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Rishon Letzion, Be'er Tuvia, Petah Tikvah, Kfar Saba, Ashdod, Afula and so on. They include immigrants from Russia, Ukraine, Angola, Canada, the United States, Ethiopia and Australia. This variety has an even more profound significance in light of the one-sided message arising from the book.

Like the writing on gravestones, which has become more personal in recent years, here too, the stories about the soldiers killed in war are a far cry from the official laconism of yesterday, because the writers are family members and not editors. Some of them offer dry biographical details, in the midst of which a short, heartrending remark ("His eyes were the color of honey" ), or a paragraph from a letter, will suddenly stand out. Others begin with sentiments like, "Our brother, you are missed," and end with "You were once an angel among men, and now an angel among angels." The book seems to represent the extreme side of private grief: intimate and individual, and in sharp contrast to the official style of traditional memory books.

The second section adheres to the custom of recent years, enabling each family to express sorrow in its own way. It appears that the writers want to have their loved ones remembered as individuals, and do their best to avoid hackneyed phrases and reveal the different sides of the soldiers' personalities. This is no longer the seemingly united group of "bereaved families," as they are collectively known, but a loose gathering of families, each one with its own lament.

A shared fate

The third section of the book, "Stories of battles and families," is written in the same personalized style, and makes room for the feelings and individual stories of families and siblings. In practice, it shows that the nuclear families have internalized an idea opposed to the old one of a society enlisted in the cause, and produced in its place a new social structure. They are no longer "bereaved families," but an open circle of people holding hands - not out of purposeful solidarity, but out of a shared fate that revealed to them, like a bolt of lightning, just how alone they are.

All the stories demonstrate the families' need to protest the pointlessness of the deaths of their loved ones, no matter the political stand or social class. Only a minority did not participate in the protests against the war, and even for them, the decision was based upon a feeling that no protest would bring back the lost son. The shock that disturbed the tranquility of their lives sent most of them groping in the dark for the hands of other bereaved parents. "From the moment I was notified of Ohad's death, I felt nothing would be right until I had certain knowledge ... The forum of [bereaved] families was my support group," Israel Klausner of Beit Horin writes in the family section of the book.

Yona and Yossi Shahar of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, the parents of Or Shahar, write: "We wrote what is set down here out of a deep feeling that a serious injustice has been done to our beloved son ... an injustice because his life was lost for no good reason, an injustice because none of those responsible for creating these circumstances took responsibility for his actions, and the injustice that, as time passes, with the assistance of those purportedly in the know, all of this is forgotten ... What was the aim of the action for which our son lay down his life?"

Ilanit Sternschuss, the wife of Dubi Sternschuss of Carmiel, writes: "My soul, my most beloved has been taken. Taken in vain. Taken from me and my three children. I am angry, very angry; it could have been prevented."

Most symbolic of all is the act of Mirta and Sergio Shainbrum, parents of Yaniv Shainbrum, who placed a giant poster of their son "against the snowy Andes mountains, a beautiful young man in designer sunglasses," on the roof of their car, and embarked on a protest journey around the country in the winter of 2007.

From the third section of the book arises, then, a group portrait of Israelis who do not actually fit into a single group, but were pushed against their will into a tragic and unexpected togetherness rooted in a heavy sense of loss and abandonment, along with a lack of confidence in the establishment and its leaders.

This is the picture the book draws, and it reflects a genuine mood, expressing more than anything else the opposite of earlier such works. Previous memorial volumes, as sad as they may have been, evoked wonderment and a feeling of belonging. Reading "The Thicket of Lebanon" evokes pain and sadness and anger and helplessness, and difficult thoughts about the next war. Two sections by writers from the "outside" - who are not bereaved parents - end the book. There is an afterword by Maj. Gen. (ret. ) Moshe Kaplinsky, deputy chief of staff during the Second Lebanon War, who details its lessons, and an essay entitled "The Fallen, Parents, and National Responsibility," by Dr. Ehud Lebel. Both of them are unnecessary. Not only because they are poorly edited, and reveal a linguistic style that borders on gibberish (for example, the irritating use of the phrase "in a supervised fashion" by Lebel when he apparently means "wisely," and Kaplinsky's sentence, "We supported deliberations about the valued-ness of the mission on the level of values" ), but also because their approach to what the families say is both crude and obvious.

It appears that the book's editors or publishers were taken aback by the message that arises from it, and sought a way to sugarcoat it and smooth over the authentic creases of pain. The result is partly a political and military analysis, including the pointing of an accusatory finger at the Finance Ministry for cutting the security budget, partly a festive promise that "the army will know how to do these things better next time," and partly a quasi-sociological pronouncement that whitewashes the anti-war protest. "This is not a post-Zionist dialogue," Lebel says, because "voices against the need for public service - army and civilian - are not heard." Perhaps he did not intend it this way, but his analysis is embarrassing for the spirit of officialdom he appears to represent and patronizing toward the families of the soldiers this book purports to honor.

Avirama Golan is a senior writer for Haaretz.