In front of the camera, Dr. Chen Kugel exudes professionalism, eloquence and clinical trustworthiness. Fit, urbane, and perfectly coiffed, he wouldn’t be out of place on a billboard or in the pages of the Neiman Marcus catalog. But his job is far from glamorous. Yes, he is a respected physician, and a leader in his field, but he’s not a plastic surgeon or intensivist; Dr. Kugel is a pathologist, an army officer, and he serves as Director of Israel’s National Center for Forensic Medicine. Currently, as I watch him on my phone, he is sitting in front of hot lights in a makeshift press room alongside his colleagues who are similarly mannered, but seem too tired and too broken to take the lead. So Dr. Kugel is left to deal with the onslaught of questions.
The international media are merciless, and they are cold. They ask questions without inflection, and are so ghoulishly hungry and thirsty for details that their veneer of humanity has completely slipped, accidentally revealing something eerie and dark, and yet they are not in the least ashamed.
“How many burned babies did you find?”
“Did you find any babies that were mutilated? Were any missing their heads?”
With great effort, Dr. Kugel, the clinician, counters their icy inquisition with the soft patience of a seasoned preschool teacher, “Guys, there are decapitated bodies, but it’s impossible to determine the actual cause of death, whether by blade or by explosion…”
“Can you say this is the most horrific event you have worked on?”
“Can you shut the lights? Will you give us this material later?”
The journalists emit a din that I can only describe as an odd combination of howler monkeys and high-schoolers who just want to ace the final, and with every PowerPoint slide, they become more excited and tumescent. Dr. Kugel tries repeatedly to gently remind them that they are human beings viewing human beings, describing in detail how the forensics tell a very human story, a tragedy perpetrated by other humans.
Dr. Kugel is incredibly impressive. He lifts his head, and skewers the reporters with Kryptonian ocular intensity.
“We saw that many of the bodies had gunshot wounds in their hands, which means that they tried to defend themselves.”
“Here we have the body of an adult male, but we can tell that he was burned alive because we can see soot in the trachea of this person.”
“What you see here is a charred piece of remains, so you don’t identify what it is, but when you look at the CT scan, you can see here two spines, and two ribs, this is an adult and a child, sitting together, in a hug….”
The word, “hug,” comes out as a sob. He tries to cover, but everyone hears, as loud as a thunderclap.
“Sorry,” whispers Dr. Kugel. Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. “They are hugging the child.”
We Jews enjoy upschlugging one another (if you know, you know…), whether it’s the proximity of the parking spot we found, whose children are smarter, whose grandfather almost bought more exclusive beachfront property in the 1950s. Presently, it’s become popular among Jews to out-hyperbole one another when describing the Hamas terrorists.
“No, even animals wouldn’t do such things; they’re MONSTERS.”
“They’re not even a thing. They’re pure EVIL. Evil INCARNATE.”
But, if we’re really being honest, brutally honest, Hamas are people. I mean, we say they’re not people, but really the terminology helps us avoid facing what we already know: there are still people out there who hate us enough to do what they did on October 7th. We, members of a civilized society, thought such actions were dead and buried in the killing fields of Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, and Babi Yar. In the irony that is Jewish history, not only were Jews tortured and murdered mercilessly, but it literally took place in our own backyard.
But, but, but, NEVER FORGET, we sputter. Aaaaand here we are, again.
“Never say never,” says Charles Dickens (I had to look it up…).
The eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, established that there are five stages of grief:
We, the Jewish people are still grieving, and will for a while, I think.
Well, I am terrified, folks. I am stuck at 2. And I fear that if I, and we Jews, move on to 5. Acceptance, that there will be a 6. Forgetfulness. I can’t bear to think that way. We need to move the ball closer to the end zone if we are to stop our education through attrition, grow as a people, and maintain our unity and goodwill toward one another. In times of peace, we are fractious and weak; in times of war, we are united and derive strength from that unity. G-d willing, when Israel has achieved its goal, the war will end, and that will be good. But, as the saying goes, hard times make good men, good times make weak men, and weakness is something we Jews can no longer afford.
So, perhaps I will make sure that, in the background, I will stay at 2. I will not bargain, I will not fall into despair, and I will definitely not accept. So that I will not forget.
In a one-on-one TV interview with Channel 12, Dr. Chen Kugel reviewed, for viewers, the same slide of the mother hugging her child, their bodies fused together. “I’m 31 years a forensic pathologist. I’m used to seeing dead people. But I’ve never seen people conjoined together while they are burned, trying to hug each other. I….I’m sorry.” The words have the same effect as they did in the press conference. Spent, overcome, and unable to speak, the heroic physician waves off the reporter, takes off the mic, and leaves the frame.
Yes, I think I’ll stay angry.