The remains of Zachary Baumel, the IDF soldier who was missing for 37 years, were returned to Israel and buried in a funeral in which he was eulogized by both the president and the prime minister of Israel. This dramatic event recalls for me two other episodes that took place more than two decades ago.
At the time, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Zachary’s wonderful and kind parents, people of great faith, still were clinging to the hope that their son might still be alive, based on reports that he had been photographed as a prisoner of war in Syria. I could not share their hope, because my cousin, Aryeh Genachowski, had fought in the same battle as Zachary and witnessed Zachary’s tank being hit by enemy fire. In my cousin’s appraisal, there was no way that anyone in that tank could have survived. (Aryeh’s study partner from that time, Yehuda Katz, is another soldier from that battle who still is missing.) Zachary’s parents approached me to see if there was any way that I could intercede with President Clinton to help locate their son. I spoke to President Clinton about this case, but I assumed that nothing would come of it.
Later, during the negotiation of the Wye Accords in 1998, the president approached me and told me that he had good news — he foresaw the negotiations resulting in the return of Zachary’s body. The president asked me to call Zachary’s parents to convey the news. Unfortunately, since the negotiations fell through, this did not come about. But I was greatly impressed by Clinton’s dedication and concern, as well as his memory, such that he still remembered the conversation I had with him some time earlier about this case.
The second episode I am reminded of involves Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, then Israel’s Ashkenazi chief rabbi. Rabbi Lau met with Pope John Paul II in the pope’s summer residence, Castel Gandolfo, to discuss the plight of Israel’s missing soldiers, including Zachary. (The meeting was held outside of the Vatican to make Rabbi Lau more comfortable with the setting, and in fact the pope covered some of the Christian iconography in honor of his guest.) Rabbi Lau told the pope that he had come to request that John Paul use his good offices to bring Israel’s missing soldiers home. The pope did not fully understand the significance of the return of the soldiers’ remains. He wanted to know whether Israel believed that these missing soldiers were still alive. Rabbi Lau clarified for him that it was unlikely that these soldiers were still living but recovering their bodies would enable mourners to recite the Jewish prayer for the dead.
“Ah,” the pope responded. “You mean the Kaddish.” The pope understood.
Rabbi Lau took this opportunity to tell a story he had heard that took place in the aftermath of the Holocaust. A young boy was brought to a priest to be baptized. The priest explained that the boy was from a Jewish family; he had been sheltered by Christians during the war. If so, the priest maintained, since the boy’s parents undoubtedly would not have wanted their son to have been baptized, instead he must be returned to his people. “The rumor is,” Lau said to the pope, “that the priest’s name was Karol Wojtyla,” John Paul II’s given name. “That boy’s name is Shachna Heller,” the pope responded, “and he lives in Brooklyn.” The Pope understood what it meant for a Jewish child to be restored to his people.
At Zachary’s funeral, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said out loud what many felt: “I got chills when I heard that Zachary was back home. We’ve been waiting for this for 37 years.” President Reuven Rivlin spoke of a letter Zachary had written to his parents a few days before the battle in which he fell. “Don’t worry, everything’s all right, but it looks like I won’t be home soon,” Zachary wrote. Rivlin concluded, “Thirty-seven years have elapsed, but today you returned home.”
Zachary’s father Yona, who died 10 years ago, did not live to see it, but Zachary Baumel, at long last, has been restored to his people.
Rabbi Menachem Genack of Englewood is the CEO of OU Kosher and the leader of that city’s Congregation Shomrei Emunah.