It was the summer of 1967, not long after the war, that my mother and I went to school for a meeting with the school nurse. It was Ironi Aleph, a well regarded high school at the time, and we were excited. The nurse, clad in a green uniform and head scarf, pulled out the file from the pile on her desk and started perusing it. She asked about childhood diseases and tooth-brushing habits and then, without any warning, the blow landed: “I understand that there was an older brother here,” she said. A deathly silence descended on the room. My mother lowered her gaze and I didn’t understand anything. It went on for an eternity. Finally my mother said: “Yes, he had a brother and he died.”
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Later on we went home in silence. In the evening, after Father returned from work, a window was opened — and just as quickly closed. My parents told me that they were sorry that through all these years they hadn’t told me that before I was born they had another child. They called him Dan. He was six weeks old when he died, they told me. He died from an illness. They didn’t even bring him home from the hospital, apparently the Dajani Hospital in Jaffa, later called Tzahalon, the place where both my younger brother and I were born.
They told me which illness he died from, but now I don’t recall which one. Maybe jaundice. What I do remember well was the explanation for the fact that my brother has no grave. My parents told me that Dan was ill and therefore he wasn’t circumcised, and because he wasn’t circumcised he has no grave. That’s what the halakha (Jewish religious law) says, they told my father, who never knew the difference between Passover and Purim. From then on I knew that I had a brother and he has no grave.
An uncircumcised infant has no grave? I asked Rabbi Benny Lau on Sunday. “Absolute nonsense,” said the rabbi, “There’s no such thing.” And a child who is less than a year old? “That’s even greater nonsense,” said the rabbi. (I know someone whose parents were told that his dead brother had no grave because he was less than a year old when he died).
We never mentioned my dead brother again. I was disturbed by the thought of what would have happened had he not died, and how and when would I have come into the world, if at all, had he lived. But Dan was returned to the family skeleton closet, from which he had been momentarily removed against the family’s will, after which the door to that closet was locked for good. They never mentioned him again in our house. As was the case with many other subjects in our parents’ generation, they didn’t tell and we didn’t ask.
Could it be that Dan’s fate didn’t weigh on them until their dying day? Could it be that they didn’t ask themselves why he had no grave? Did they just accept the explanation/lie they were given, with such intolerable ease, without asking any questions? And above all, did they even entertain the thought that Dan is alive and well somewhere in the world?
My parents locked the Dan file with iron chains. After what they, survivors of Europe, had been through in their lives they apparently couldn’t deal with those questions. And maybe they always suffered from sleepless nights and were constantly preoccupied by thoughts of Dan, but only didn’t tell us, as was usual at the time? Sadly, there’s nobody left to ask.
When I read the recent series of reports published in this newspaper by my colleague Ofer Aderet, about the disappearance of other children, I begin to ask myself: Where is Dan? Are you alive, Dan? Please get in touch. You probably aren’t called Dan, or maybe you are. Born in the early 1950s, maybe you live on the next street? And maybe in another city? In another country?
Tom, our son who died at the age of one in 1988, is buried in the children’s section in the Kiryat Shaul cemetery in Tel Aviv. For years his grave was surrounded by rusty iron poles on the tiny graves of anonymous children. Then, about two years ago, an invisible hand covered this children’s section with a concrete floor, and the iron poles were replaced by marble slabs, which were hastily placed on the graves without attaching them to the ground. Names were engraved on those uniform stone slabs, sometimes only last names without any additional information, not a date, not the parents’ names. Some are already broken.
Sometimes the thought has entered my mind that my big brother Dan is buried there, next to my little son Tom. Now I’m beginning to doubt that too.
We named our son Dan. He’s already 30 years old.