A Bond That Transcends The Grave
The bittersweet story – with an inspiring ending – of a young IDF veteran who maintains an annual vigil for a fallen soldier he never met.
Remembering a fallen soldier: This photo, taken by Ben Mendes on Yom HaZikaron, was sent to the relatives of Yaakov Menashe to show them that their loved one’s grave was visited.
Each year on Yom HaZikaron (Israel’s Memorial Day), soldiers serving in the Israel Defense Forces are assigned to stand by the graves of fallen soldiers and to greet family members who come to pay their respect to their loved ones.
A decade ago, on that saddest day on the Israeli national calendar, Ben Mendes, in his third and last year of Israeli military service in the Combat Engineer Corps, was assigned, along with the rest of his unit, to attend a memorial service at the Kiryat Shaul Military Cemetery near Tel Aviv and stand at the grave of a fallen Combat Engineer soldier.
Each unit member was given a map of the cemetery to guide them, and a short biography of the soldier to whose grave they were assigned.
Mendes, who made aliyah from New Jersey with his family at the age of 13, learned that “his” fallen soldier, Yaakov Menashe, was born in 1947 in Istanbul, Turkey, and made aliyah alone at the age of 23, after graduating university with honors in chemistry.
Menashe lived on a kibbutz and worked as a chemist before joining the Combat Engineer Corps as a lone soldier. He fought in the Golan during the Yom Kippur War and was cited by his commander, who wrote that Menashe “volunteered often, and was loved by all.”
While serving in the reserves in 1975, he was killed near the border of the Golan Heights and Syria. He was 28.
On that hot Memorial Day in 2012, Mendes observed that many of the soldiers buried nearby had, like Menashe, died in the 1970s and that many of the families who had gathered in the area greeted each other warmly, presumably because they had been visiting each Memorial Day and, over the years, had gotten to know each other.
But no one came to Menashe’s grave.
At one point, a man visiting the adjacent grave told Mendes, “no one is coming.” He said that while he and others had been present on Memorial Day for more than 20 years, “no one ever comes to that grave.”
Still, hopeful that maybe this year would be different, Mendes chose to stay at the grave until the completion of the memorial ceremony. No one came.
About a month later, accompanying a Birthright Israel group that visited Mount Herzl Cemetery in Jerusalem, Mendes related his experience of standing guard at a grave no one visited, and was asked if he would come back to the grave next Memorial Day.
“To be honest,” he later recalled, “up until that moment I hadn’t given this any thought at all.” By the next Memorial Day, he would no longer be a soldier, having completed his military service. But something compelled Mendes to go back to Menashe’s grave the following year, where he was recognized by some of the families visiting graves nearby. “They were surprised to see me,” he noted.
He returned the following year, too, and the year after that, and each succeeding year – sometimes accompanied by his mother or younger sister – until 2020, when Covid and social distancing issues were a serious concern.
That year, Mendes, who is now a graphic designer at a Tel Aviv architecture company, wrote a Memorial Day essay posted in The Times of Israel (“How I Came To Meet Fallen Soldier, Yaakov Menashe”), describing what “had become a tradition,” not wanting to leave Menashe alone.
He concluded by noting that while he wouldn’t be attending the 2020 Memorial Day ceremonies, he planned to attend the following year “after we return to normalcy.”
There is no happy ending to this story, but there is a heartening footnote that speaks to the deep connections Israelis have to the military, to a sense of honor, and to each other – and the power of the written word.
After Mendes’s moving essay about his annual pilgrimage to the cemetery appeared, he was contacted by a nephew of Yaakov Menashe in Turkey, named Jack, who had learned of it. He said that his mother, Miri, who also lives in Turkey and is the sister of the fallen soldier, was eager to talk to Mendes. They soon connected by phone.
“She spoke to me in Hebrew and told me she was touched that I do this [annual visit] and she invited me to visit her in Turkey,” Mendes told me after I had learned of his story and tracked him down.
“I send a picture of the grave to Jack and Miri now each year and write ‘Here’ to show them that I am there on Yom HaZikaron.”
“I feel every soldier’s grave should have someone visit that day and I am honored to do it, to have that sense of purpose,” said Mendes, a hero in his own right.
“The whole family in Turkey wants to meet me,” he added, “and I plan to go. There’s a connection now between us – a continuation of the story.”
Indeed, it is. It’s a story of the Jewish people that never ends, one that keeps memories alive and gives us hope for the future.