I am intrigued by graves. Each one tells a story. A short story. Or perhaps an extremely long story, but with very few words. Sometimes my fascination with graves takes me on a long excursion as when I visited my great-great-grandfather’s grave in Lithuania. Sometimes it is a mystical mythical mountaintop like the grave of Aaron the Priest in Jordan. And sometimes it is an anonymous Roman nobleman in a mausoleum by the side of the Israel Trail.
Not long ago, after visiting the Memorial to the Ethiopian Jews who perished on the journey to Israel on Mt. Herzl, I pointed out to my guests that only a few feet away from the parking lot was part of the military cemetery. We walked over to view the graves, lined up in identical rows of identical tombs, arranged in chronological order. We discovered that a long series of soldiers had died on the same day, February 4th 1997. It took me a moment to realize that these were some of the 73 soldiers who had perished in the great helicopter crash. In the worst aeronautical disaster in the country’s history, two helicopters transporting soldiers to the Security Zone in Southern Lebanon collided over Moshav Shear Yashuv in the Galilee Panhandle. There were no survivors. The soldiers were almost all between the ages of 19 and 22. The catastrophe triggered widespread national mourning and is considered a leading factor in Israel’s eventual complete withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000.
As we walked along the rows of graves of soldiers whose lives were all cut short in the same moment, we began to whisper under our breath, in the sad arithmetic of cemeteries: “20 years old…19 years old…22 years old…” until one of my guests said “This soldier was 73!” I looked at the name and recognized it immediately: Uzi Narkiss, the general who led the miraculous return to Jerusalem in 1967. The photograph of Narkiss entering through the Lion’s Gate with Chief of Staff Yitzchak Rabin and Defense Minister Moshe Dayan is one of the most iconic photographs in Israel’s history.
Narkiss was born in Jerusalem in 1925, joined the Palmach at the age of 16 and in 1948 he led the unit sent to break through the Zion Gate to reinforce the defenders of the Jewish Quarter. Narkiss’ unit made it to the Jewish Quarter, but the battle was lost and for 19 years no Jew set foot in the city that appears in every Jewish prayer. Hence, for Narkiss, entering Jerusalem in 1967 completed the campaign he had begun two decades earlier and whose failure had haunted him.
“A soldier in the army of Jerusalem.”