When All He Could Do Was Let Them Cry

A Holocaust survivor speaks of the pain of MIAs' families during the Yom Kippur War.

In the early days of the Yom Kippur War, the women's quarters at the Israel Defense Forces base at the Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv housed a new unit that had hastily been set up in the spirit of those times: an IDF liaison center for families of missing soldiers. A notice announcing the presence of a psychologist hung on the office door of 34-year-old Albert Idelson, a Holocaust survivor and new immigrant who had become the sounding board for dozens of anxious and angry families.

Albert Idelson David Bachar
David Bachar

From the confines of his little office, Idelson saw the war as no one else did - through the eyes of the torn families who were left at home while their loved ones disappeared on the battlefields in Sinai and the Golan Heights. He says in retrospect that the experience showed him how the country would change in the years to come.

"I saw the rift before of my eyes," he said. "I felt what was going to happen because it was not the kind of anger that passes in a day. I understood it would have deep implications. People were looking for explanations."

In April, Haaretz published Idelson's intriguing life story shortly after his first meeting with a half-sister he never knew he had. Idelson, now 69, was born in Belgium during World War II and hid in a monastery through the war and for several years afterward, until he was 9 years old. During the war, his father, who fought in the anti-Nazi underground, had a daughter - the half-sister Idelson met earlier this year, when she visited Israel for the first time.

After the war, Idelson reunited with his family and moved to South Africa, where he eventually met his wife; they moved to Israel in 1969.

After the war, Idelson changed his plan to become a clinical psychologist and went into industrial psychology instead. Last month, he retired from his job with a high-tech firm. "My therapy was serving in the reserves as a field psychologist in the behavioral sciences department," he said. Idelson still does reserve duty.

'My Holocaust'

Despite the traumatic years of his childhood, Idelson said it was the Yom Kippur War that was actually "my Holocaust."

"What I went through then reminded me of the painful times in my childhood," he said. "I was 34, only four years in this country, a newly married man with small children, and suddenly I began to get to know my people. It was shock after shock. ... It intensified my feelings of compassion and love for the public. I identified with them, as a Holocaust survivor who knows what it is to lose one's family and to lose a loved one suddenly. I didn't have a textbook and I didn't know how to care for these people, but I had the emotional baggage of having been abandoned, and I worked with that intuition."

But it wasn't just a textbook that was missing. Idelson had minimal training as a psychologist. Though he had studied psychology in South Africa and at Oxford University, he had not studied clinical psychology and did not have practical experience in the field.

"I didn't understand why they chose me for the job," he said. "Where was everyone else? How did I get stuck with this? Suddenly there is a war and they turn you into a psychologist?" He added: "For me, it was like climbing Mount Everest, from the emotional point of view. I was so broken that I didn't want to go home. I would go to my office in the Weizmann Institute and sit there so that my wife would not see the expression on my face."

Idelson remained at the IDF center for four months, receiving the families who had been informed that their relatives were missing. In most cases, there was no new information he could provide.

"I knew there was nothing I could do," Idelson recalled. "I couldn't bring the missing person back. I could only listen, and I'm good at that. I listened and I took notes. The notes I took are about the deepest suffering that exists. Families in shock, in a state of total bewilderment, without answers. All I could do was hold them. I didn't sell them illusions and I didn't tell them they should trust in God. When a person is in distress and you tell him that everything is from heaven, you're not helping him. You have to let him cry."

'Maybe someone has seen him'

Sometimes Idelson felt forced to lie, or at least not to tell the whole truth. "From time to time, when bodies arrived, I had to visit the families and ask them for pictures. So I would tell them that maybe someone has seen him [alive]. I didn't speak about a body. It ate me up, to sit across from people and not tell them the whole truth."

In one case, it turned out the pathos had little to do with the war.

"There was a woman who came every day, pulling out her hair and shouting: 'Where is my husband? Where is my husband?'" Idelson said. "I tried to help her, but then one day her husband appeared, after returning from abroad. It was all a show. That was the only time that I lost control."

The order to set up the liaison center came from Maj. Gen. Herzl Shafir, who, as head of the IDF's personnel directorate, was looking for a solution for families who came to the Kirya to search for their missing loved ones.

"We started getting people together," said Col. Devora Tomer, the liaison center commander. "We tried to find people with officers' ranks who had experience." Like Idelson, Tomer remembers those days as traumatic: "I had never experienced anything like this. I didn't sleep for two weeks. I organized the unit during the day and cried at night."

During the first few days of the center's operation, the families met with senior officers in the reserves - but the public saw the officers as responsible for the army's failures, and they had to bear the brunt of their anger, Idelson said. That was when the young psychologist took over. "The very fact that I was young and they saw I was helpless allowed the families to treat me differently," he said.

The mission became even more difficult when photographs and film footage of the Israeli POWs were released. For the most part, the POWs sat with their heads down and it was difficult to identify them, but nevertheless it seemed that all the families of MIAs wanted to find their loved one among the photos as proof that he was still alive. Many of the soldiers were identified as belonging to several different families, which merely added to the uncertainty.

"I remember that a young man came to me with his mother and said he had definitely identified his brother," said Idelson. "I asked how he knew. He said it was his twin brother. He simply saw himself."

In January 1974, after serving at the center for four months, Idelson was released from the unit.

"I wish to note with thanks your part in the holy work that was done here," Tomer wrote to him at the time. "We spent difficult and gloomy days together, we were witness and partners to deep grief, scathing pain and profound bereavement. The impressions of these terrible days are imprinted in the souls of all of us and they have left their mark with us. If we had the slightest chance of giving the families some kind of assistance with their tragedy, there is no greater reward for us."