Yael Unterman

‘I’ll catch the grenades’: The incredible heroism of Aner Shapira

Aner Shapira z"l with his father Moshe (credit: Shapira family)
Aner Shapira z"l with his father Moshe (credit: Shapira family)

“The elders are gone from the gate, the young men from their music”
(Eichah/Lamentations 5:14)

When you hear obituaries and eulogies, it sometimes seems as if the best-hearted, most talented, brightest shining stars are extinguished the soonest. Aner Shapira [Shapiro] was one whose glow dimmed far too early, but who exited this world in a tremendous burst of light. He died heroically saving eight lives.

I did not know him, but he was the oldest son of Moshe, a childhood friend of mine (we were in kindergarten together in Jerusalem). Through attending the funeral at Mt. Herzl and the shiva, I came to hear the details.

This is his story.

* * *

Aged 22, from Jerusalem, a tall blond young man full of love and humor, Aner went off happily to the Nova rave in the South with his friend Hersh Goldberg Polin and another friend. Aner adored music, was able to listen to it for hours on end and wrote his own songs. He was also very fit and a great runner, loved to read, and wrote poetry; in brief, multi-talented. He had been recruited into the elite Orev unit of the Nahal when his commanders noticed what an incredible soldier and person he was. Though fundamentally an anarchist in his outlook – believing in the good in people, and that society should be free of police systems – he saw the need for the army to defend the country, and gave his all to serve in it.

When the Hamas terrorists arrived on that fateful morning of October 7 (Simchat Torah, what should be one of the happiest days of the Jewish year, but this year blackened by evil). Aner, like others, tried to escape, and ran with his friends into a migunit: a type of public shelter from rockets, with no door. There were over 20 people huddled in that shelter already, absolutely petrified. Taking the reins, the young man immediately announced, “Hi everyone. I am Aner Shapira, I serve in the Orev unit of the Nahal brigade. My friends from the army are coming soon. I am going to take care of things here, so don’t worry.” Someone responded, “Thank you, Aner, we feel calmer now.”

Realizing that tactically the terrorists would choose to throw grenades into that dangerously small and enclosed space, Aner told everyone: “I’ll catch the grenades and throw them back –  and if I miss any, you throw them back.”

Then he positioned himself at the entrance.  He was wearing a t-shirt, shorts and flip flops, with no weapons to hand. A very fast runner, he could have tried to run away and save himself, but it was obvious to him that he was going to stay and protect this group, most of them complete strangers to him.

When the terrorists arrived and began to throw in grenades, he succeeded in catching and lobbing back a number of them. Unfortunately, he was then injured badly. This is where what we know of his story ends.

At some point, a man arrived looking for his son, and was able to take five people to safety in his car. More terrorists arrived and shot into the shelter. The few remaining survivors hid among the dead and wounded. The ordeal lasted many hours, while outside there were terrible sounds, screams, gunfire, people speaking Hebrew and Arabic, and inside the shelter, people breathing their last breaths. One survivor, Agam, writes that she felt her soul leaving her body, and it was only the constant whispering of her friend Itamar, “Stay with me!” that brought her back into this world.

Unfortunately, the hours spent in the shelter with no medical aid caused the deaths of a number of the wounded — not just those wounded fatally, but even moderately, who bled to death. Aner’s friend Hersh had his arm blown off, but resourcefully managed to tie himself a tourniquet using his T-shirt. He was among those taken into captivity (we pray for his safe return).

Aner’s parents, Shira and Moshe, knew he had been at the scene but lost track of him. They desperately tried to find out where he might be over several days, until the bitter news that he was definitely no longer alive was brought to their ears. It came not from official sources, but from the father of one of the survivors from the shelter, who, seeing that the official system wasn’t working to pass on information, was personally calling all of the families of those who had died there. “I wanted to call you because your son saved my child’s life. I wanted to say thank you.”

The full story of those hours in the shelter emerged as, one after the other, survivors contacted Aner’s parents to tell them of his courage and self-sacrifice.

“We owe Aner our lives. He deserves a medal,” they told them.

For the heartbroken parents, these survivors bring a tiny measure of comfort in the sea of grief. They are getting to know these people who, for the rest of their lives, will never be able to forget the debt they owe to a young man plucked in his prime. From strangers, they are becoming like family.

* * *

Just one more thing to add, and it is a little eerie. Aner’s great-grandfather was Haim Moshe Shapira, a signatory to Israel’s Declaration of Independence and a long-serving minister in the early Knesset years. In one of those weird coincidences, he too had been badly injured by a grenade thrown into the Knesset in 1957. The chief rabbis advised adding the name “Haim” to his name, for healing – and he indeed lived on, until 1970. Sadly, his great-grandson died of his grenade injury. But he had followed in his forbear’s footsteps in making a significant contribution with his life, however short it ended up being.

This is the face of the younger generation in Israel and it is a beautiful face.
Od Avinu Hai. Am Yisrael Hai.

Aner Shapira z”l was the son of Shira and Moshe. He leaves behind six siblings, as well as his grandparents Yemima and Hanina Ben Menahem, and Norma Shapira (widow of the late Yehuda Shapira). May his memory be for a blessing.

About the Author
Yael Unterman is a Jerusalem-based international author, lecturer, Bibliodrama facilitator and life coach. Her first book "Nehama Leibowitz, Teacher and Bible Scholar" was a finalist in the 2009 National Jewish Book Awards . Her second book, a collection of fictional stories, "The Hidden of Things: Twelve Stories of Love & Longing", was a finalist for the USA Best Book Awards. Contact Yael if you would like to participate in Bibliodrama sessions on Zoom.
Related Topics
Related Posts