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Eulogy for a hero and his heroic generation

The passing of Yair Akov at 91 signals the end of a generation that paid a terrible price to ensure Israel's survival
Yair Akov as a soldier during Israel's War of Independence (courtesy)
Yair Akov as a soldier during Israel's War of Independence (courtesy)
Yair Akov as a Harel Brigade soldier during Israel War of Independence (courtesy)

Monday, Yair Akov was buried in the cemetery at moshav Kfar Bilu near Rechovot. He had lived 91 very full years. Most people who knew him in has last years remember a highly congenial, intelligent, retired scientist — somewhat diminutive, with the signature Sabra mustache of old; a dedicated grand and great grandfather. But Yair Akov was the kind of hero that Hollywood makes movies about. He, of course, would protest such a description as ridiculous. Perhaps Yair and his fellow fighters in the Palmach are so remarkable, because their valor at the time was so commonplace.

I first met Yair and his wife Shoshana as a high school student when they came on sabbatical to North Carolina with their two younger children Davidi and Gili. Our families found an immediate rapport: Yair was one of those “cool” fathers it was fun to hang out with: while he didn’t try to be a teenager, neither did he try to talk to you like a grownup. Only after I moved to Israel, through bits and pieces, did I begin to put together his amazing story.

Like any child of immigrants growing up in Haifa while Europe became a graveyard for its Jewish communities, it became clear that Yair would need to do his part for the military force required to create a new state. When the Palmach, with its elite, clandestine demands beckoned, he didn’t hesitate and stayed active even as he pursued his undergraduate studies at the Hebrew University.

A few years ago on Independence Day, he described for us the astonishing story of how he, along with a band of his most impressive classmates, were called to undertake a mission on a cold January night in 1948. Settlements to the south of Jerusalem were surrounded and needed provisions and reinforcements, which the group was to provide. At the last minute, however, Yair’s officer informed him that he would not be joining the group as it broke through the Arab siege. Rather, he was ordered to go help run a training camp for new recruits in the Jerusalem hills.

One can only imagine his protestations at missing out on the adventure, for the more pedestrian tasks of a drill sergeant. But an order was an order. And so 38 of his very best buddies headed off to the Gush Etzion settlements, where they were ambushed and butchered. Their martyrdom immediately became known as the “Lamed-heh” the 35. There but for fortune – Yair would have made it 36.

So it was during this blood-soaked war of independence. History records a highly successful litany of operations and missions carried out by the crack Palmach troops. Of course for those who carried them out, it was anything but glorious. But there was a fatalistic acceptance that while most would not make it through the war alive, history was calling and evasion was not an option. Anyone who has visited the Palmach museum in Tel Aviv can never forget the long long list of young fighters who gave their lives. It is accompanied by the poet Natan Alterman’s famous dedication: “We are the silver platter on which the Jewish state was delivered.”

With such prospects, Yair decided in April 1949 not to delay marrying his Harel Brigade unit’s radio operator Shoshana – a woman with a stratospheric IQ and the curiosity to match. They were granted a few days off duty for the ceremony and nuptials, but there was little sense of celebration leading up to the chuppah. Their platoon had a mission to conquer the village of Kafr Qasim that was planned for the exact same time and none of their comrades would be able to attend. As luck would have it, the mission was delayed and trucks filled with soldiers pulled up to the party just as it began. Shoshana explained that never has there been a more joyous wedding, “not because the guests were happy for the bride and groom,” she said. “Rather, they knew well that in such combat situations, at least 10 percent of the fighters would not return alive.” And here they were, all still intact, for one last celebration before facing their responsibilities – responsibilities that were their generation’s to bear.

When the dust from the war settled, Yair looked around and realized that pretty much all of his friends were dead. It took a year to get himself together and return to his studies, which he did, completing a Ph.D. in molecular biology.

This to me represents the most remarkable aspect of Yair and his generation’s heroism. How does one pick up the pieces after the unrelenting trauma of an impossible war and build a life; a career, a family, a state?

Yair Akov, circa 1970s (courtesy)

I had always looked at the storied Palmach generation with envy: they were the favored few who enjoyed the rare privilege of changing history. But with time I began to appreciate the unimaginable price that such a status demands. No right-minded person would want to change places with them. Yet, I never once heard any bitterness from Yair about the role he was asked to play and the sacrifice he and his peers made. Rather he was always a picture of kindness, modesty, generosity of spirit and good humor.

With time Yair Akov seemed to appreciate the enormity of what the Palmach and the other fighting units of the time had done in creating the Third Jewish Commonwealth. When Shoshana passed away he insisted that her gravestone contain one epithet: “A Palmach Fighter” – something he clearly thought dwarfed her other many accomplishments as a scientist, citizen and mother. As he lived out his final years at his eldest daughter Naama’s house, he became more willing to share the brief, but extraordinary years he had spent in the Palmach with the next generation, acknowledging that it was truly an unusual time that should not be forgotten.

To me, however, the civilian achievements of Yair Akov and his compatriots are no less deserving of veneration. We remain in touch with the family: Davidi, a career diplomat is one of the best minds in the country’s foreign service. Gili, a successful psychologist and artist. They carry on their parents’ true legacy: the challenge of building a country that is worth defending.

There is much discussion about the steady disappearance of the last of the Holocaust survivors. This surely constitutes a poignant transition to recognize and lament. But we seem to pay less attention to the fact that their Israeli equivalent – the Palmach generation — is making its final exit from the stage of history.

It is hard to think of any fitting eulogy to offer these amazing men and women beyond King David’s immortal cry of loss: “How the heroes have fallen; Stripped of their weapons, they lie dead.” Perhaps we can also retain some hope that our feeble efforts to make this country a better place will be worthy of the gift that we enjoy every day from Yair Akov and his astonishing generation.

About the Author
Professor Alon Tal, is the chair of the Tel Aviv University Department of Public Policy and a veteran environmental activist.
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