Wednesday, May 07, 2014

More than 60 years later, mystery solved

In Mount Herzl’s military cemetery was a grave with a tombstone that bore the name “Yisrael Mir,” with little information besides. The man buried in that grave had been killed in the War of Independence, and had lain underneath that name for more than 60 years.

Thanks to the persistence of a local tour guide, the man’s real identity was found last year. He was Ya’akov Maman, a recent immigrant from Morocco.

The story (in Hebrew) is here.

The English version (my translation) is below the jump.

Identity of fallen soldier of 1948 buried as Yisrael Mir found: Ya’akov Maman of Fez, Morocco

By Dana Weiss and Matan Hetzroni, Channel Two News

April 30, 2013

The answers have arrived. The man buried on Mount Herzl under the name Yisrael Mir has turned out to be Ya’akov Maman, originally of Fez, Morocco, a soldier of the Israeli army whose burial place had been listed as unknown for more than 60 years.

In recent years, when no documents attesting to the existence of Yisrael Mir were found in the military or state archives, army officials conducted an investigation together with members of Maman’s family.

Yesterday, the family was notified that researchers from the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Israel found that the DNA sample taken from the bones in the grave matched the sample taken from Ami, one of Ya’akov Maman’s siblings. The tests, which proved conclusive just before army officials had been about to send the samples to the United States, reduced by one the number of Israeli soldiers whose burial place is unknown. A new funeral will be held and a new tombstone will be placed upon the grave. Our television program Ulpan Shishi (Friday Studio) reported the story earlier this month.

The process of discovering the true identity of the man buried as Yisrael Mir began eight years ago when tour guide Elyada Bar-Shaul came across the grave by chance. Since then, Bar-Shaul researched, almost obsessively, the story of the unknown soldier who had died in battle in 1948. “I went to the writers and found that we had encountered this name,” he said. “Somebody mentioned that he had been a rank-and-file soldier who had murmured something before he died. Some people said he murmured, in Yiddish or Polish, the number that was on his arm. Others said that he might have been saying ‘Shema Yisrael,’ and that was how he got the name.”

The mystery took root among the tour guides of Mount Herzl. During every tour, they would visit the grave that had turned into a legend. Poems were written about the forgotten Holocaust survivor, and candles were lit to commemorate the man who had survived the destruction in Europe only to die fighting to open the road to Jerusalem. The grave received many visitors who saw themselves as Yisrael’s family, replacing the one that had not survived. But the riddle of Yisrael Mir remained unsolved until a teacher of Israel studies contacted the army’s Department for the Location of Missing Soldiers.

“We went to the army’s archives and opened the file for ‘Mir, Yisrael.’ We saw that the information that was missing on the grave were also missing in the file. We went over the list of all the soldiers in the battalion to see whether he had enlisted,” said Lt. Col. Gabi Elmishali, the head of the Department for the Location of Missing Soldiers. “We went to the Israel State Archives to see whether he had been born here and find his birth certificate. We checked to see whether he had immigrated here. There was no record of the name Mir, Yisrael anywhere. But what we have is his medical record. The physician who examined his body wrote that he had been struck in the abdomen by a shell.”

Until they found the document that had been filled out by the army physician, there had been no record of any man named Yisrael Mir. But one more hint remained hidden among the yellowing pages in the meager file that bore the name. It was a small scrap of paper that bore no date or signature, but only two lines of text that read: “See Maman, Ya’akov, who went missing the same day.”

Ya’akov Maman, born in 1928 in Fez, Morocco, was the seventh of ten children. At the age of 18, he joined the Bnei Yehuda movement and tried to immigrate to Israel. He went on foot to Algiers, where he boarded a clandestine immigration ship. The British captured the ship and sent him to a detention camp in Cyprus. He arrived in Israel just before independence was declared, enlisted immediately in the Palmah and was sent to the Harel Brigade at Ma’aleh ha-Hamisha.

The day after Ya’akov arrived, the brigade headquarters at Ma’aleh ha-Hamisha came under shelling, and he was critically wounded in the abdomen. His family was told that he had died of his wounds and that his burial site was unknown.

Sixty-three years passed. Then, on the eve of Memorial Day two years ago, Ya’akov’s brother Ami came across an article about the Department of Missing Soldiers’s successes in locating the burial sites of soldiers who had fallen in the War of Independence. Ami and his wife Tzippora wrote to the department, asking for its help in locating Ya’akov’s remains and bringing them to proper burial. They did not know that their letter had arrived only two days before department officials were to examine the link between Yisrael Mir and Ya’akov Maman.

“We can see that the Harel Brigade was very precise in its reports, since it listed exactly who had been wounded, and who had been critically wounded, that day. The one who had been critically wounded that day was Ya’akov Maman,” said Lt. Col. Elmishali. This contradicted the official account the family had been given: that Ya’akov Maman had been buried on the battlefield where he had died. It also led the researchers to another document stating that Maman had been taken to Hadassah Hospital — the same hospital where Yisrael Mir had been pronounced dead a day later from the same wound, sustained in the same battle. The more deeply the investigation went, the stronger grew the feeling that the riddle could have been solved long ago.

Although Ami lived long enough to give a DNA blood sample, he died before the bureaucratic obstacles to opening the grave and sending bone samples to the laboratory had been surmounted. But before he died, he lit a memorial torch at Kibbutz Ma’aleh ha-Hamisha, where they had not waited for the test results and had already replaced the name Yisrael Mir with that of Ya’akov Maman on the monument to the fallen.

”Meir Yisrael was the rabbi of the Jewish community of Fez. I reached the conclusion that when the doctor asked Ya’akov for his name, Ya’akov answered a different question: whom to notify in Fez. And it’s logical that it would have been Rabbi Meir Yisrael,” said Tzippora, widow of Ami, who was the brother of Ya’akov Maman.

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