On Yom Kippur we stand before G-d and pray that the coming year will be one of joy and life; for on this day, it is said, our fates for the coming year are sealed. I stand in shul, praying, fasting, along with the rest of my people. But Yom Kippur also is a time of mourning and remembrance for me, because 40 years ago my brother Julian, Yehuda Pakula, fell in the Yom Kippur War.
Julian was 4 ½ years older than me. He was a bit of a character, a funny guy, but my memories are a bit vague because I was only 12 when I saw him last, when he flew to Israel on a one-way ticket in order to ‘find his roots’ as we would say in modern parlance. He didn’t do too well in his final year of high school and, to ice the cake, he had been beaten up a few too many times by anti-Semites, being that he was a bit short and plump and wore glasses and rode a bike to school. After this last pummeling, in 1968, he made his fateful decision and vowed never to return to ‘this bloody country’ (his words) again. Well, he didn’t. You have to be careful what you wish for.
Also, after the Six Day War in 1967, Israel was such a source of Jewish pride that many made Aliyah around this time. On top of everything, we have family in Israel, as my mother’s parents originally emigrated here from Tzefat. So there was a certain logic to his enormous decision to leave Australia at the age of 17.
After visiting family in Tel Aviv and Tzefat, he decided to go to Ulpan in Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu in the Bet Shean valley in the north. This is a large, well-established kibbutz which still has a large Ulpan. It was originally established in 1938 by founders from Germany and Alsace-Lorraine, and thus was not really an English-speaking environment. He was billeted with Sami and Miriam Troper, Francophones, so his Ivrit developed pretty rapidly.
Anyway, he had found his niche. He stayed on, made Aliyah, grew to a muscular 6 feet high, did his basic training with the IDF and became a Chaver Kibbutz. At 22, he was engaged, to be married November 1973. And then he was sent on Miluim (reserve duty) to the Suez.
Now we know what a balls-up the Yom Kippur War was and how it was mismanaged and poorly planned and fought, and how it was a miracle that Israel was not defeated. Golda Meir, they say, was suicidal once the enormity of the losses were clear. 2,688 dead and 7,250 wounded, out of a population of 3,338,000. Well, I’m not a military strategist, but it seems that there was clear evidence of troop build up in the south at the Suez and in the north, at the Golan. Yet it was decided to forego a pre-emptive strike because some people were still smarting from accusations of aggression in the 67 war, when brilliant pre-emption took out the Egyptian air force while it was sitting on the tarmac. And this was after Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping (an act of war) and kicked out the UN forces from the Sinai (an act of war) and was trumpeting for all to hear how the Jews were going to be pushed into the sea (Eh, they always said that so I guess that’s not any act of war) plus troop buildup on 3 fronts- well, Israel had to act and she did and the rest is history. But our enemies honked ‘Aggressor!’; so the military leaders of the time, 1972-73, thought that it was best not to pre-empt. They thought that Israel could absorb a first strike. There was confusion in the intelligence, but really, it was clear enough that there would be war on both Egyptian and Syrian fronts. Had Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, not warned the Israelis not to start up, things might have been different; but Israel then was completely dependent on the US for all military materiel. According to Kissinger, had Israel launched a pre-emptive attack, the US would have supplied ‘not a nail’. So thanks, good buddies.
Anyway, the Egyptians broke through the ‘impregnable’ Bar-Lev line on Yom Kippur, and my brother was one of the first casualties of the Yom Kippur War.
It actually gets worse, if that were possible. His platoon surrendered to the Egyptians and were taken prisoner. 4 had been killed but we had no firm news, only Missing In Action. After hostilities ceased, Oct 25, and after the prisoner exchanges were over, some weeks later, we then had the news of Yehuda’s death confirmed.
It gets even worse. The 4 soldiers who fell were supposed to have been sent back to Israel, as part of the conditions of surrender. The International Red Cross was supposed to have come in and retrieved the bodies. They didn’t, or the Egyptians didn’t let them, but in the end the corpses were left until after the Camp David Accords of 1978. This is where Menachem Begin, Anwar Sadat, and my personal favourite (not) US President Jimmy Carter, all shook hands, and Israel surrendered the Sinai in exchange for a cold peace with Egypt, for which Sadat won, first a Nobel Peace prize, and then a jihadi assassin’s bullet, in 1981, at a parade on the anniversary of the great Egyptian ‘victory’ of the Yom Kippur War.
Meanwhile, back in 1978, my brother’s remains and those of his fallen comrades were finally found by specially trained dogs, collected, identified by dental records and interred at Har Herzl Military Cemetery with some ceremony. So at least we know where he is now.
I won’t go into details about how all of this affected my parents. People tried to comfort them by saying that at least he died fighting for Israel, and therefore his death had more meaning than if he had been, say, run over by a bus. Well, maybe. But gone is gone. They were devastated, and the horror was prolonged by the knowledge that his remains were just left in the desert for 5 years before coming to rest in Kever Yisrael.
To this day, whenever I visit Israel or meet Israelis of my brother’s generation, sooner or later, someone remembers Yehuda Fakula (the dot in the letter Peh got lost somewhere and Pakula became Fakula to his friends.) It’s freaky how many people knew him. They sure remember the Yom Kippur War; everyone in the land was bereaved. It was a horrific time. The Israel of today is a different place for many reasons. But the threat to her existence continues.
May the memories of my brother and his comrades be blessed. May their neshamot intercede on our behalf on this Yom Kippur, may Hashem be merciful and grant us all a year of peace.
Am Yisrael Chai.