I can still see his eyes and his twinkling smile as I walked him to the bus, with his rucksack over his back and a pair of ‘kafkafim’ (shower shoes) tied on and dangling from a piece of string.
It was Sunday night, the first week of June 1982 and once again Israel was at war. After incessant shelling from the PLO in Lebanon forcing the people in northern Israel into their bomb shelters all weekend, Israel had finally had enough. At 5 a.m. on June 5, IDF forces crossed the border into Lebanon. That evening, Rav Amital z”l, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion strode into the study hall at the beginning of the evening study session, banged on the lectern, announcing, “All fourth and fifth year students should head back to their rooms and pack their gear. In half an hour buses will be coming to take you north.“
The silence in the study hall was palpable; our friends and comrades were going to war. I was still a greenhorn American, barely a year in the country and a full year away from my own IDF service. I walked back to the dorms to say goodbye to a few of my Israeli friends.
Twenty minutes later, Zack Baumel came out of his room with his rucksack and shower shoes, and the incongruity of it puzzled me. I asked him, “Why do you need those if you’re going to war?” Zack responded,“ Are you kidding? These are the most important things you can take to the army!”
That was the last time I saw Zack Baumel. I distinctly remember walking him to the bus; remember waving goodbye and seeing his grin flash one more time from the bus window, and remember wondering what was really waiting for him.
A few days later, Zack’s tank was hit in a battle with Syrian tanks and commando forces near Sultan Ya’koub, and although we know he escaped the tank alive, along with Tzvi Feldman, neither of them have been seen or heard from since.
They, along with Israel’s other MIA, Yehuda Katz, who also went missing in the same battle; Ron Arad, an air force navigator shot down over Lebanon in 1986; Guy Hever who went missing on the Golan heights nearly 15 years ago; and Omar Souad, taken in 2001, are the forgotten Israeli soldiers who are very much on my mind this week.