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Now He Knows, by Stuart Ditchek

By: Dr. Stuart Ditchek

Special To The Jewish Week
Last Friday afternoon, on Shavuot, Yona Baumel, a retired businessman, died in Jerusalem at the age of 81. The medical cause was heart disease, but some might say he died of a broken heart, almost exactly 27 years after his son, Zachary, an Israeli soldier, was reported missing in action during the first Lebanon war.

Yona Baumel dedicated his life to learning the fate of his son Zack and his fellow soldiers, Yehuda Katz and Tzvi Feldman, who were captured on June 11, 1982 during the battle of Sultan Yakoub, and paraded and beaten in Damascus later on that fateful day.

The government of Syria, the PFLP and the PLO have all worked vigorously for years to conceal the whereabouts and fate
of the three soldiers. In 1993, when Yasir Arafat handed over Zack’s dog tags to the Israeli negotiating team, the Palestinian leader committed to tell the Israelis of Zack’s fate when he got all he wanted at the negotiating table. But Arafat went to his grave without ever revealing the truth. Yona Baumel went to his grave without ever knowing the truth.

Over the last few years, Yona gradually passed the torch to me, a childhood friend of Zack’s in Brooklyn, in the hope that his son would never be forgotten. We co-founded the Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel as part of our humanitarian effort.

As Yona and I held many meetings, some secret and some open, with Israeli and American officials, his love for Israel never wavered. He and his wife, Miriam, made aliyah in 1970, and raised three children in Israel. But Yona often felt abandoned by the government and army as he sought to learn what happened to his son and two fellow soldiers.

He suspected he upset Israeli officials when, during a trip to Tunisia, then the base for the PLO several years after the ‘82 war, he helped arrange a swap with the PLO for a fallen Druze IDF soldier’s body in return for the remains of a PLO fighter. Yona had acted alone after being unable to determine the fate of his own son. The precedent of a one-for-one trade was never duplicated by future Israeli governments, which sometimes gave up many hundreds of living terrorists for a small number of Israelis.

The Baumels always maintained that their son should never be traded for a terrorist with blood on his hands. Their faith is immense and continues to be. I always found it remarkable that despite his failure on Zack’s behalf, Yona reached into his huge heart to bring closure to a Druze family that fought and lost a loved one for the Jewish state. But perhaps Israeli officials resented what he had accomplished.
In 2003, Yona and I were given visas to visit Syria and meet with high-level Syrian government officials, but the trip never happened.
He suffered great pain knowing that countless Israeli government officials offered no assistance in our efforts, at times obstructing these efforts. These individuals caused Yona great distress as they told him that Zack and his two fellow soldiers were “likely dead,” and to simply let it go. As we confronted Prime Minister Ariel Sharon over his lack of support of our efforts, Yona began to cry. I held his hand during that meeting just months before Sharon’s illness; Yona was shaking uncontrollably. Sharon promised us a letter of support to present in Washington within hours of the meeting. But despite repeated efforts by Yona to get that letter, none materialized. Watching him cry and seeing him tremble with anger and frustration was our most difficult moment together.

But Yona’s faith in mankind was bolstered by several righteous Christians, including Robert Carol, a minister in England who years ago offered to assist us in our European efforts to free Zack or gain information on his fate.

In our most recent efforts, in cooperation with the Baumels and as Zack’s legal guardian in the United States, I filed a lawsuit against the Syrians under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act in Washington D.C. District Court. Our latest adversary in the courts is Ramsey Clark, former U.S. attorney general and lead legal counsel to Saddam Hussein. Despite our efforts, the U.S. has refused to serve the individuals named in the lawsuit including Bashaar Assad, Mustapha Tlass (former Syrian defense minister) and master terrorist Ahmed Jibril.

Yona was in much distress over the U.S. preventing the legal prosecution of a case that could pressure the Syrians into submission. The most painful reality for Yona was that Zack, Katz and Feldman would be forgotten by the Jewish people.

Yona and I rejoiced whenever we met good people willing to help, but a number of Jewish organizations and politicians offered nothing more than meetings, gestures and photo ops.

In the end this soft-spoken, humble man could not find anger in his heart. He loved people and traveled the world with courage and pride in search of his son. We spoke frequently every week, often at very early or late hours because of the time difference between New York and Jerusalem. I often asked him why he didn’t just go to sleep. He confided that he had not slept a full night since Zack’s capture, adding that he could not sleep until he knew his son’s fate.

When I heard the news of his passing, my wife looked at me and said with tears in her eyes, “now he knows.”

Dr. Stuart H. Ditchek, a pediatrician, is director of the Jewish Genetic Diseases Consortium and founder of the Committee for the Release of Zachary Baumel,