From Mount Herzl to Paris

They put on a mask and smile to hide the pain, but the children they lost are always with them, at every moment, everywhere. The OneFamily organization sent 26 bereaved mothers on a trip to France, The Netherlands and Belgium, so they could take a break. Emily Amrousi and photographer Maya Baumel-Birger were with them as they shared moments of pain and longing, and moments of transcendence and joy too.

More than once on this trip, I recall David Grossman’s book “To the End of the Land,” which he spent three years writing after his son was killed in the Second Lebanon War. Like a person sketching the city’s history, I too watch them and I understand. And like the man who walks, it seems that they, too, follow their sons, searching for them among the spires of the towers of Europe, the windmills and the strong winds, stretching out their hands in the chilly air to feel for them. And like the closing words of the centaur in the book, “My heart is broken within me to think that it is possible — that I found words for it,” I break. These words, these fragments of language, will describe this mothers’ journey, the journey of 26 women who introduce themselves as “the mother of,” and then the name of the fallen soldier.

They went to Europe for a breather (“A breather? He will be with me until I close my eyes for the last time,” one mother would tell me). A trip to give them a break, provided by the OneFamily organization, a group of angels who bind up the wounds of families who have lost loved ones to war or terror attacks. Maya, the photographer, and I joined as observers, as ones who listen to the conversation between them that only they understand. We watched as they contemplated the disaster that had befallen them from a distance, from the banks of the Seine, for example, thousands of kilometers from the soil where their sons uttered their first words, and their last.

On the plane, behind me, a conversation is going on. I do not see their faces. “I can’t throw anything of hers away, not even a scrap of paper with her handwriting. Nothing.” A second woman: “Sometimes I walk around the house and call his name.” When the flight attendant asks Sarah Stern, Nitai’s mother, to sit in her seat and put on her seat belt, she answers: “Nothing will happen to me, believe me. The worst of all has already happened.” The flight attendant gives an embarrassed smile, not knowing what she is referring to.

Some of the mothers are secular. Some are religious. Some are strong; some are weak. Some are older, some younger. All of them raised a son or daughter who returned to their earth as they watched, in a reversal of nature. All of them were placenta and a womb, and remain so today.

I write down names and dates, a card for each one. When I ask Doris Ben-Melech, a petite, white-haired woman with a soft voice, asking what her son’s name was and how he died, I understand that this is not just another biographical question. She bites her lip hard, trying to stop the tears from falling, and takes a deep breath. Finally, she utters his name between her bitten lips. Golan was 9 years old when he was killed by a truck that rolled onto a group of people marching around the walls of Jerusalem in 1980. His brother Gili, who was born after Golan’s death, perhaps to fill the void, was killed in a military operation in Ramallah in 2002. Two of her four children remain.

Quite a few of these mothers are “doubly bereaved,” meaning that death has knocked on their doors twice. When the El Al flight attendants hear about the nature of this group, their bodies seem to grow smaller. The ad-quality smiles disappear. I want to shout to them that I am not a member of the group, that they should not think it has happened to me, too. God forbid.

“Aren’t you afraid to participate in a trip like this?” asks Miriam Peretz, who lost two sons: Uriel, who was killed in Lebanon, and Eliraz, who was killed in Gaza.

“It’s not contagious,” I answer. “I have published quite a few articles about loss. Maybe it actually makes a person immune.”

“There’s no immunity for this,” she says with a piercing look. “If I learned anything from this, it is that there is no guarantee. After Uriel, I thought I had developed genes against it, that I had antibodies. And then there was another knock at the door.”

* * *

“Sadness is the thread that connects us,” Miriam Peretz says. “Many of us are ill. Pain gnaws away at the body. We are handicapped, but we determine the percentage of our disability. It changes every day. Now, on the trip, when I am happy, my happiness is deeper and stronger. I am addicted to joy; I drink it to the last drop. I will eat cheesecake in Europe, the best there is, and I will say: ‘Uriel, this is for you.’ How he loved cheesecake.”

Why am I doing this to myself? I think silently. A trip that makes me confront this terrible fear face to face. I must be strong and dive into this blue and white blackness.

“We have no strength,” says Hannah Kenan, whose 22-year-old son, Avihu, was killed in a battle with terrorists. “We are wiped out.”

Her son was killed getting terrorists out of their beds in Gaza. “They shot him through a gypsum wall, contemptibly, without facing him. And then those terrorists were released from prison. I hurt; I did not protest. I have no strength to protest. I have to put my energy into staying alive.”

Our tour bus is spacious, but rides on wheels of pain. The Eiffel Tower stabs upward into the sky. Leah Zino gets off the bus, excited. “Dikla would look at this and say, ‘Wow, cool.'”

Dikla was murdered in a bombing attack on Bus 20 in Jerusalem. For the first six months after her daughter’s death, Leah lived on pills. Then she saw her family collapsing. “Sometimes I listen to the news and say: Wow, there are worse things than this. Get up, Leah — lift yourself up. I kept working. All these years. I go into the kindergarten every morning, and 32 little psychologists are there to greet me.”

As we wait for our sailing trip on the Seine, I sit on the pier near Tali Ben-Yishai, Ruthie Fogel’s mother. She lost her daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren in the terrible attack in Itamar that shocked the country.

“They don’t like it when we sit on the ground,” Mindy Levinger, OneFamily’s social worker, tells me. I think she is referring to the French, who see my cross-legged position as impolite. But Mindy was speaking about the mothers: only mourners sit on the ground. Mindy, too, has suffered loss: her brother fell in the first Lebanon war, Operation Peace for Galilee, so she may sit on the floor if she wishes. I get up a bit to sit on the edge of my heels.

“I feel different here,” Tali says. “These are women who know this kind of pain, who live on the same planet. We have a common language, and it has no words.

“Since it happened, I have been on a journey without a break. There is terrible emotional pain, and there is also a physical journey. Thank God, we have nine grown children and dozens of grandchildren, and suddenly I had to go back to being a mother to young children. Yishai is in kindergarten, Roi is in fifth grade, and Tamar is in sixth. I went on this trip because I need to let down the burden a little and gather strength. This break is for everybody’s good.”

Suddenly, she is startled. She asks herself how she will hold on for a few days without that burden. “Maybe I will fall apart? I told myself that it was in my hands whether I fell apart or not. I am going to enjoy these days as a breather and as a mission. The mission is to gain some benefit from it, rest, breathe, let go of responsibility.”

* * *

“Mourning sentences the living to loneliness that has no parallel,” Grossman wrote. Throughout this whole week they approach me to tell their stories and break the loneliness. Twenty-six mothers, each one worthy of her own article, sit near me, a cup filled to the brim, telling me what happened and where they were when it did. It is important to them that their sons’ and daughters’ names be mentioned, that their beautiful smiles be commemorated, that the readers know: They had a child who was wonderful and noble. One day that child fell, fell outside time, and they were exiled to a desolate, forsaken place.

It is very cold on the Seine. The cold burns. Sarah Stern shows me photographs of her Nitai, who fell during Operation Cast Lead. Pupils from a Paris school make noise behind us. “When they went into Gaza, he called. ‘Mommy, I have no time. I just wanted to say I love you all. Let me talk to Father, quickly.’ That was his last call. My husband can’t remember what Nitai said to him. I hung up and said to myself: Sarah, he’s said goodbye to you forever. That was when the hell began.

“The next morning I went to work, and all day long I waited for the municipal officer to arrive. I heard on the news that Dvir Emanueloff had been killed. ‘The first casualty of Operation Cast Lead,’ the television newscaster said. What kind of message is that to parents whose children are in Gaza? Were they waiting for there to be more casualties?”

She strokes the photographs, which she keeps with her, in a case. “What is a bereaved mother? It means preparing a holiday meal with a white tablecloth, candles, a flower arrangement, wonderful cooking, and everybody is all dressed up and sitting around the table. But one chair is empty. He always sat next to me. It’s going into the supermarket and skipping the ketchup shelf. It’s never making honey cake, which he loved so much, again.

“We had a rug at the entrance to the house where we would hug each other when he came in. It was on that rug that I hugged him for the last time before they went into Gaza. I took that rug out of the house. I had to take it out. If Nitai were alive, he would have told me: Mommy, pick yourself up and fly to Paris.”

Sarah knows that they have an almost sacred status in Israeli society. “Sometimes I ask whether there is a senior-citizen discount, and they say no. But when I ask whether there is a discount for bereaved families, hearts open. But the media does not provide enough of a place for the fallen. One day a year, Memorial Day, is not enough. Pupils in the fourth grade and up should be brought to cemeteries to meet with the families.”

As the bus heads to the Louvre, the women peel clementines. The air is filled with monologues of the disaster that struck them and their homes. “The last time I was at the Louvre was with Erez, on his bar mitzvah trip,” says Rivka Levi, a lovely woman. “I go with him everywhere, all the time. More than the other children. Before I am Rivka Levi, I am ‘Erez’s mother.’ The most important thing is that ‘Erez’s mother’ will be on my gravestone.”

“On the night before the flight, my husband and I could not sleep. We talked for hours: how this could happen to us, how could we keep on living. It’s been like this for 12 years, and the only word for it is hell. It’s a pain I feel physically. It’s like a drill. Longing that kills me, that tears my soul. And there’s nothing that can be done about it. Nothing.

“I was born right when my mother was sitting shiva for her brother, who was killed in the reprisal operations of 1953. At first, I had a hard time with the title ‘bereaved mother.’ Only the people on this bus understand me.”

Erez, the only son among three sisters, was an officer in the Egoz unit. In 2001, after training at the firing range, he was killed by a stray bullet from his rifle. “I always worried about him a lot. It seems I knew that something would happen to him. I’m afraid I might have foreseen it. I was entrusted with him for 22 years, a perfect child who lived and is gone.

“He was bashful and full of charm. He had a girlfriend he was serious about, and they were planning to tell us that they had decided to marry. I know that he managed to experience love. On his last Friday alive, he bought her flowers, and when our neighbor saw him in the street, he hid them behind his back. I ask myself whether it would have been better if he’d had children. If he had left orphans behind, maybe that would have been more difficult.”

Miriam tells her that Eliraz’s children are a comfort. “When I see them, a miracle happens: I live and die in the same moment. I live because I see life, and on the other hand, I say: ‘Damn it to hell — how is it that he isn’t here to see them?'”

We crane our necks to see the Louvre’s high painted ceilings. “Which terror attack are you from?” Zahava Lavan asks Dalia Emanueloff. “I’m not from a terror attack. I’m from Cast Lead,” Dalia answers, and both women look upward at an enormous canvas on which a mother and son are drawn in charcoal.

Miriam Peretz speaks in Arabic with the guard at the museum’s restroom. He is from Mauritania, she is from Morocco, and for a moment she is not a bereaved mother speaking with a Muslim man. They laugh.

Paintings of the beginning of Christianity speak of a birth. A little baby, a mother in light. How hard it is to see them look at these paintings of light, those bright babies. “How much time since then?” someone asks Esther Doron, Yoav’s mother. She answers: In another month, 11 years — just like people answer the question of how old their child is. Like counting a birthday.

“The truth is that God crucified me,” Peretz says in front of a painting of Jesus on the cross. “Several crucifixions. Several knives.”

* * *

We have dinner at a kosher restaurant in Paris. I want to stop the other diners in the restaurant, stop the forks on their way to their mouths, the glasses held in the air, and tell them who these tired women are who sit in one group, singing “Here’s to this nation of ours, and it’s a good thing that it is the way it is.”

They raise their glasses in a toast. “To joy,” one woman says. “To pain,” says another. And from every direction, the women continue it: “To our sons!” “To going on!” “To the State of Israel! Hope! Strength!”

They sing, and strongly. “When the Hebrew month of Adar arrives, joy increases,” they sing, and then they sing a prayer of gratitude: “You have granted me many favors; You have increased Your kindness to me.”

Yoav’s mother tells how he would eat only bread with chocolate spread in the army, and then call her. “Mother, I’m coming home,” he would say. “Do you have enough food for another 10 of my friends?” “I would thaw out two kilograms of meat right away and prepare kubbeh. In the Golani Brigade, the soldiers don’t eat food from the freezer.” They laugh. Miriam Peretz calls the French-Jewish waiter who told her before, in a thick accent, that he dreamed of joining a combat unit. “I’ll teach you a word in Hebrew,” she tells him, pointing at her nicely-designed plate. “In the Golani Brigade, they’d call these samples.”

Around the table there are smiles, clinking glasses, songs. I almost forget why they are here until my glance falls on Bracha Habshush, who sits across from me, her eyes sad.

“Since Netanel was killed, I haven’t cooked anything he liked. It’s not easy for me to be here. When there are many people and joy around me, it makes me even more sad. I don’t go to the happy events of my closest family members. He was my youngest son, the son of my old age. He was coming back from his base on the number 14 bus, and when he was 10 minutes from home, there was an explosion.”

Painting gives her a little comfort. She paints on stones and then brings them to Netanel’s grave.

At breakfast on the second day, I notice the pendants the women are wearing. Shoshi Riahi has the word “ner” (candle) on her pendant, the initials of Netanel Riahi with 17 diamonds around it, one for each year of his life. Bracha with an engraving of her Netanel on a gold pendant. Shoshana with a picture of Alon. Avigayil with a pendant showing her daughter Racheli. “They ask me whether that’s me. I say it’s my daughter, and don’t say anything more.”

Dalia dislikes jewelry. The only item of jewelry she wears is a locket on which are engraved the words, “Rest, blossom, rest.” Inside the locket is a photograph of Odelia. Nili wears Nir’s Armored Corps dog tags. “They’ve been around my neck for 12 years, and they never come off,” she says. Etti wears the symbol of Erez’s rifle company. On the back are engraved the words: “I had a brother, and now he is an angel.”

Rachel wears a gold chain with letters that make up her daughter’s name: Livnat. “People think it’s my name. They call me Livnat, and I choke up. She is here, right next to my heart.”

Miriam Peretz wears no pendant. “When a reporter asked me for a photograph of Uriel and Eliraz, I asked him if he could take a picture of my heart. My child doesn’t stop with a picture. He is still alive; his heart is still beating. What does a mother want? A mother wants a body. A body to hug, to kiss, to caress. She wants to hear a voice that says, ‘Mother.’ A word I will never hear him say.”

I sit with Michal Landau over coffee in paper cups. What a burden this smiling, pleasant woman bears. Her son Ronen, 17, was murdered coming home to Givat Ze’ev from the movies. “One bullet struck the car, and he was the destination,” she says. Her youngest son, Yogev, 23, is autistic and suffers from schizophrenia. She is with him throughout most of the day.

“Ronen devoted all his time to Yogev,” she says. “When he was murdered, Yogev was 10 years old. They grabbed me and brought me here. I didn’t want to come.”

Dalia Mizrahi had three children. The oldest, Shahar, was killed in 1995 during his military service. Idit, his younger sister, came back from work in the United States to attend the memorial service marking the sixth anniversary of his death. On her way home, she was murdered in a terror attack near Ma’ale Michmash. They were born six years apart, and they died six years apart. Amit, the remaining brother, recently suffered a heart attack.

“I don’t know where I get the strength from. Maybe I’m not sane? I’m saturated with pain. Saturated. How will I grow old without my daughter? I had a daughter, and now I do not. I have one foot here, one foot there.”

Esther Doron walks beside me. We protect our purses from pickpockets, and Esther tells me how Yoav used to bring the whole crew to eat kubbeh at her home, how she would feed twenty hungry men fresh from the field generously, with love. “And if they didn’t come, my husband would bring a box with hallah and homemade food to the base. To this day, Doron’s friends come to us, sit down and get a plate.”

And then Bracha danced. The woman whose sad eyes in the restaurant the day before struck me with the insight that her sadness had no cure, and that every cell in her petite, shrunken body cried out that there was no longer any hope — she began to dance, like in a scene from a Fellini film. She took off her coat and there, in her purple winter dress at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, on a plaza of white stone, as the women sang, “May this hour be one of mercy,” Bracha Habshush danced. I watched her, with goose bumps from the cold and from the knowledge that I would never understand, as the wind tousled her hair.

On the way to the Palace of Versailles, I sit next to Tali Ben-Yishai once again. She tells me how she learned to live “in two different realities, a reality of unbearable pain and a reality of the day-to-day.

“We had preparation, preparation of faith. When a disaster happens, you have an opportunity to see whether your faith is just words. A family was murdered, such innocent children, a three-month-old baby — is there anything more innocent than that? My husband says that we are left with an enormous riddle. A fundamental riddle that has to do with the deepest parts of our souls. The solution to this riddle is up to you, and what meaning you give it. Yes, we are the parents of these children, but there is something greater, something huge. They were great souls that were not taken for reasons connected to the individual. Jews call it holy. They were holy.

“I had no question about whether to choose life. I did not have the option of falling apart. I had to get up at night for a two-and-a-half-year-old baby who no longer had a mother. I had to give the three remaining children all the strength of life that they needed to live in a healthy way. I always recited the prayer: ‘Blessed be He who revives the dead,’ but I never understood what it meant. I am waiting for the resurrection of the dead because I want to live, too, even though I am dead. I want to be given the possibility, even in this death, to go on living. I should only have the strength for it.”

What keeps Shoshana strong are the three young women from Australia who were in Cafe Hillel when Alon, her son, threw himself upon the terrorist about to detonate his explosive device. Alon was killed. They were saved. “They invited me to their weddings. One of them sent me pictures of her baby son, and wrote: ‘It is thanks to Alon that I have a son.’ That did me good. I never got to see children of his, but I see that he has continuity.”

Shoshana has a lovely smile, but a bitter taste fills her mouth when she talks about how much she misses Alon. “Every Friday, I wait for a bouquet of flowers from him, like he always used to bring me. I want to dream about him, and I don’t. Every night I ask him to come to visit me in a dream. On the last Sabbath before he was killed, we were sitting on the terrace, and he asked me how much a burial plot cost. I think he knew.”

* * *

The gardens at Versailles are sad in wintertime. There are no flowers. Dalia Emanueloff is lovely, well put together. “I smile, and my heart is burnt. And I always wear makeup. That way, I’m not tempted to cry, so as not to ruin my makeup.” She points to the corners of her eyes. “That can break out at any moment. There are no rules as to when or where.”

In the past few years, Dalia died twice. The first time was when her husband died of an illness in 2006, and the second time was when her son Dvir, the first casualty of Operation Cast Lead, was killed. Last year, her bedroom burned when an electric sheet caught fire. “My inner sanctum was burned. Our bedding, our wedding pictures.” Maybe that is what allows her to agree to start a diet after eight years of refusal.

Now she is engaged. She shyly shows me her engagement ring. “I pray every morning for the resurrection of the dead. But if I’m going to be realistic, I know that the dead will not walk before us. And now that I have love in my life once more, I am resurrected.”

Besides her work as a kindergarten teacher, Dalia has opened a ceramics studio. When there are no work orders, she makes ceramic flowers to decorate Dvir’s grave.

The evening before he was killed, at the height of the tension in Gaza, Dvir sent Dalia a text message. She shows the message to me on her cellular phone. “Mother, dearest to me in the world, I love you so much. I will take care of myself. Take care of yourselves. With God’s help, we will restore the honor of the nation of Israel.” She had the last sentence printed on a sticker that she gave to friends.

“Time stopped the day he was killed. I have no air. I think of him every minute, and I miss him so much. The day after the shiva, I went back to work. At the entrance to the kindergarten, one of the children was waiting for me. ‘Dalia, is it true that your son was killed?’ I had no choice but to keep on with life, automatically, like a robot. To get up and make sandwiches for my younger daughter, as if everything were ordinary. His crew from the army spent Sabbaths with us. They will be at my wedding. One of them asked me how I kept on. I told him: Look me in the eye. You can see it: I’m not really keeping on.”

The tour is a low-budget one. The women stay in the homes of Jewish families, and the women paid some of the other expenses out of their own pockets. OneFamily, which is funded solely by donations, has fallen on hard times, with a significant slowdown of donations from abroad. Chantal Belzberg, the chairwoman of OneFamily, is constantly on the telephone with people who have been wounded in terror attacks and members who have lost loved ones to terrorism. One woman who was wounded in a terror attack and is now disabled weeps, saying that she has no food in her home. Another man who was blinded in an attack asks for psychological help.

Several weeks ago, Belzberg saw an advertisement on the Internet for an El Al special and began to telephone mothers who lived in the Jerusalem district. When she reached 26 — a number that the organization’s coffers could cover — she stopped making phone calls. In Jerusalem alone, OneFamily helps more than 600 bereaved families and families of people wounded in terror attacks. The mothers say that for years, OneFamily has been helping them to return to the flow of life.

OneFamily is not accustomed to public relations or journalism. Its employees work quietly. A place that has a job whose title is “coordinator of children who have been orphaned of both parents” does not know how to work any other way.

OneFamily began after the attack at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in August 2001. That same evening, Belzberg and her husband were supposed to celebrate their daughter’s bat mitzvah. They cancelled the event and donated the expenses for the celebration to victims of terrorism.

When they realized, a few months later, how much more help was needed, they established OneFamily, a home for families who lost loved ones to terrorism and people who were wounded in terror attacks. OneFamily has 37 staff members, 500 volunteers, 3,600 individual rehabilitation programs, hundreds of workshops and three centers that provide assistance. The president of OneFamily is David Hatuel, whose wife and four daughters were killed in the horrific terror attack on the Kissufim road in 2004.

* * *

Antwerp, Belgium. The wealthy Jewish community hosts the women in their homes, two by two. In the evening, they eat dinner at a dairy restaurant, and they sing once again: “Here’s to this nation of ours, and it’s a good thing that it is the way it is.” A group of Belgian teenage girls asks us if this is an office trip. Hannah tries to explain, turning her head again and again to ask how to say “bereaved mothers,” “hostile acts,” “terror attack” — words of Israel — in English.

And they sing. They sing songs of the old-time, beautiful Israel, the same Israel that sits now around long tables, weeping and singing. Even Sarah, who said she had not been able to sing since that day, joins in. Miriam hugs her. “And it’s a good thing that it is the way it is.” They laugh and cry, toasting the memory of their children.

Shoshi Riahi sits next to me. The words flow from her, polished and quick, as if she had waited long to utter them. “Being a bereaved mother means pretending every single day. Once, I wore a mask and cried under it. Now the pretending has become part of me. The mask is my skin. It holds on until I get into bed, and that’s where I fall apart.

“Since the day it happened, I haven’t baked. Netanel was my right hand in the kitchen. Every Thursday, he would come from yeshiva and help me bake. My oven hasn’t been lit since that day. I haven’t baked a cake in 13 years. I put all the photographs of him in the storage space above the ceiling. I can’t look at them. I would rather remember him alive. Somebody made a painting of him, the size of half a wall. I hung the picture up the wrong way round.”

She shows me photographs on her cellular phone of her beautiful home with its lovely garden. “Evidence of pretending, of crumbling sanity, of making believe,” and the wrong-way-round picture on the wall.

“Being a bereaved mother is seeing dried bananas in the supermarket before Tu Bishvat and having my breath catch in my throat. The people buy them by weight, and look to me like they’re in a movie.

“I go to the cemetery twice a week. It takes all my strength from me. It’s an hour to get there, and I have no car, but even if the world should end, I’ll go. On Thursdays he would come home, and now I go to him. I take a taxi — it costs a fortune — and I go to Netanel in the rain, during heat waves, in the snow, and I tell him what is happening in the world. I sit there by myself, crying out loud, speaking out loud. I don’t let anyone come with me. My life revolves that. This coming Thursday I will be here, in Belgium, and that is very hard for me.

“During the first two years, I couldn’t put anything sweet in my mouth. I started eating sweets again only so that my son would agree to eat meat. He didn’t eat meat for two years. From the day it happened, I didn’t put on makeup. I didn’t use moisturizing cream. My grandchildren make me happy. One of them reminds me of him a lot. But no one can ever take his place.”

* * *

The following morning, I sit on the bus with a pad of paper and a pen next to Edna Turjeman. I did not remember whether it was her son or daughter who had been killed, and I said softly, with a hesitant question in my voice, “Edna, your son was killed.” She turned pale and burst out weeping. It took me some time to understand what had happened: instead of understanding what I had said as a question, she had thought I was telling her that another of her sons had been killed. Her friends, who are accustomed to such situations, hurried to give her some water. A tranquilizer pill came out of a purse. “Edna, everybody is all right,” I say, trying to calm her. I cry with her. How fragile the cover is.

“For 13 years I’ve lived with fear,” she tells me, her hands still trembling. “Since Golan went to the city with his friends and was killed in downtown Jerusalem. Every Saturday I set the table and leave an empty plate for Golan. Since then, more grandchildren have been born, but the family has become small. I have lost my taste for life. I tried to kill myself. I am here only for my other children. They tell me: ‘Mother, we need you.’

“Golan is with me all the time. I caress him, hug him. He protects me. Yesterday evening, in the restaurant, I was drawn into singing with everyone. Suddenly I caught myself: Where am I and where is he? How can I let myself sing? I am in pain. I am made of pain. And here, in Europe, I’m supposed to enjoy myself.

“I will miss him until the day I die. I am very miserable, yes, but I don’t want people to think of me as being miserable. I don’t want them to feel sorry for me. My husband died a year and two months after the attack. He couldn’t handle it. He said to me, ‘At least you raised him.’ He was a bus driver, he worked hard all those years, and never forgave himself for not being there for Golan. ‘I never had time to sit and eat with him,’ he said. It killed him.”

Zahava Lavan hugs her, massages her arms. Zahava’s oldest daughter, Dana, was killed on Bus 19 in Jerusalem on the way to work. A year ago, Zahava escaped from an abusive marriage, where she had endured 30 years of violence. “Here, I can talk about what happened to me without people saying, ‘We’re sick and tired of listening to her.'”

“People don’t like to hear other people crying,” Avigayil Levi says, nodding her head. Avigayil is the mother of Rachel, who was killed in a terror attack at a supermarket in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood in 2002. Rachel was 17. “I had one daughter. We were born under the same sign of the zodiac. Twin souls. With one look, she knew whether to give me her cheek to kiss or walk out the door. I see her all the time. All the time, I think about what she would think.

“My conscience bothers me when I enjoy myself. I know that I’ll go back home after the trip and tell myself: Avigayil, what have you done?”

She has a television and a computer in her bedroom. When she spends entire nights awake, waiting for Rachel, the television and the computer ease her loneliness.

* * *

Europe is gray. In Antwerp, people wrap themselves in their coats and ride their bicycles. I hear more and more monologues. Continuous, flowing, honest and direct. When Maya, the photographer, asks two women to let her photograph them, they put their smile masks on right away. She asks them to stop smiling, and they laugh. “Think of how he will never make kiddush again,” one says to the other, and their faces become serious.

Erez, the son of Etti Turjeman, was killed during his army service in a terror attack at the Ein Arik checkpoint. “A few days before it happened, I dreamed that a group of people was being fired upon and I didn’t see any faces. Afterward, I had a knock on the door at 3 o’clock in the morning. I saw them and screamed so loudly that people all over the street heard.

“I never stop thinking about his last moment. What he thought, what he said. All your life you protect your children, and the moment he needed me most, I wasn’t there to protect him. When it happened, he shouted, ‘Mother.’ It’s the first thing they cry out: ‘Mother,’ ‘Mommy.’ And I wasn’t there to protect him.

“All my life I walk around with that feeling of lack, of loss. His friends invite my husband and me to their weddings, but we are not the same age. What do we have to talk about with them? If Erez were alive, we wouldn’t be invited. My husband can’t look at photographs of him. He can’t mention the name Erez. We women cope differently. We talk more.”

The tourist site of Zaanse Schans, with its Dutch windmills. The mothers pose for a group photo. The background is green. They sing the popular song by Shlomi Shabat, “Because of the spirit,” and lean on each other. “There is so much water here in The Netherlands,” says Tali Ben-Yishai. “Israel is so narrow, but it is long. Here, there is no light from the windows.”

While we are talking, a text message comes from her husband, Rabbi Yehuda Ben-Yishai. “”The light is rising over Jerusalem and I rejoice that you have joined a group of good people who share in common the light that shines in all the worlds.” A passing thought of the difference between the secular and the religious women in the group. Faith is such a strong support.

Dalia Hubara, the mother of Odelia, who was killed in the attack on the Stage Club, tells me that she has started a support group for bereaved mothers, with assistance from the Jerusalem municipality. The group has nine women who talk about everything. Odelia was Dalia’s only child.

We are on the pathways between the windmills. There is a freezing wind, and the guide tells us something about Dutch cheese. “I’m here for you!” says Leah Zino, looking upward. “I’m trying to take the pleasure and pass it on, to my Dikla.”

She is a kindergarten teacher. She went back to work right away. “It doesn’t matter how much I cried last night in the shower, how badly I felt, how many kilograms of face mask I need — I go into the kindergarten and it’s like turning on a switch. There are children in my kindergarten who were born to Dikla’s friends. It isn’t easy to stay in the same neighborhood. The aura of loss, the looks, follow us. Everybody knew her. Now we are trying to move apartments, rebuild our lives. Twelve years later.”

* * *

Amsterdam. The old Sephardic-Portuguese synagogue, 340 years old, floats on the water. An enormous Holy Ark. The mothers’ hands go to their necks, touching their pendants and the chains, as they pray silently, with their hearts. “I have to say something,” Miriam Peretz says. “On the day of the New Year, when the Holy Ark is open, we Sephardim sing a liturgical poem about the sacrifice of Isaac. We all sacrificed our children. The Torah does not tell us how Sarah reacted to the sacrifice of Isaac, but the poem speaks of her. Believing that he is about to die, Isaac tells Abraham: ‘Tell my mother that her joy is gone; the son she bore at 90 years of age has been given to the fire and the knife. Where, oh, where shall I find someone to console her?'”

“It’s as if it were written for us,” says Shoshi Riahi. “The moment they begin singing it during the service, I start to cry.”

I find Dina Kitt in the synagogue restrooms. A twice-bereaved mother, she runs the office of OneFamily on a volunteer basis. Until this moment on the trip, Dina filled me with hope that these sorts of wounds could be healed, that there were those who had recovered. Full of strength and joy, she gathered the women around her. Now she lies on the restroom floor, fallen apart, weeping aloud and refusing to get up.

Dina’s son Yisrael fell ill with cancer at the age of 13 and a half. After a great deal of suffering he died at the age of 16 as Dina looked on. Nine years later, her son Ophir, a soldier in the Givati Brigade’s engineering and demolitions company, was killed. Both died on a Friday night. “A synagogue is Yisrael’s bar mitzvah,” she told me later. “A synagogue is the moment they came to tell my husband about Ophir. They took him out of Friday evening prayers. To this day, I wonder how he can still go to synagogue. I haven’t been inside a synagogue since. And suddenly I am standing in front of the Holy Ark in a place so far away.”

In front of the synagogue is a large plaza with small gravel stones on the ground. This is the plaza where all the Dutch Jews were assembled before being put on trains and deported to the death camps during the Holocaust. This is where they were counted, registered, made to stand in rows in the cold. And here, Israeli women walk with quiet steps. The Jewish fate squirms in my belly. I plead that I will not become one of these women, and I am already part of them: we are one people.

“I can’t stand Friday night,” Dina says. “I cook for Shabbat and I speak with them. Three minutes before Ophir was killed, I spoke with him. He described the beautiful seashore at Dugit, north of the Gaza Strip, for me. I thought it was a shame he was in uniform and not in a bathing suit. At eight o’clock in the evening, there was a knock on the door. My husband was in the synagogue and I was at home alone. I found myself facing three soldiers and cried out that one of my sons was already dead, and that they should go away. Since then, if I am alone at home, a knock on the door is like a knock on my heart.

“When Yisrael died, we returned home alone. We were in pieces, and there was no one to give us support. We lost the war against cancer. When Ophir died, we were surrounded with support. It is no consolation, but he died in uniform. Some people said: Your son did not die for nothing.

“To lose two children is to collapse utterly. I lost eight kilograms during Ophir’s shiva. I was wiped out. Two months later, I tried to kill myself. And then my son, the only one left, said, ‘Mother, don’t be egotistical. You lost two sons, and I lost two brothers.'”

Dina began volunteering for OneFamily. She has been there for 10 years, from morning till night, in charge of groups and activities. “The Hebrew word ‘natan’ — to give — reads the same in both directions,” she says. “I receive as much as I give. I found strength in myself. I found meaning in life. I realized that as long as we are alive, our children will be alive. But it isn’t easy. After every joyous event in our extended family, I need two weeks to recover.”

* * *

Sylvie Moreno, the mother of Emanuel Moreno, an officer of the Sayeret Matkal elite special forces unit, has a real smile on her face. I ask her when she allows herself to fall. “Only when I’m alone in the shower,” she answers softly. “Nowhere else. Not even here, among women who understand me. What we have in common is that our children are victims who provided others with the possibility of living. Whether they died in a terror attack or fell as soldiers, we paid a price to be Jews in the Land of Israel. The biggest thing that happened to us in life, to all of us, is the least understood. The day I understand what happened, I will collapse.”

The oldest in the group is Rachel Dvash, 76. She has a two-month-old great-granddaughter. Two of her four children are gone. Ilan was killed in 1997 in a criminally-motivated attack, a case of mistaken identity. Five years later, Livnat was killed in the terror attack at the Moment Cafe. “I am always in pain,” Rachel says. “Time does not heal. I had cancer. There were times when people would just say my name and I would start to cry. I couldn’t lift my jaw into a smile. When I smiled for the first time, after many years, the insides of my cheeks were cut, and I bled.

“When Livnat was killed, I lost my reason for living. I found OneFamily and met bereaved parents who danced. It was amazing to me. I couldn’t clap my hands. Slowly, I came back to life. My friends, who are not from here, don’t understand how I can laugh. Here, hearts understand one another. A harmony of sadness, which is healing for the blow we all suffered.”

A walking tour through the streets of Amsterdam. They hardly stop at the souvenir shops. Next to me is Haya Rond, the mother of Erez, who was killed in a shooting attack at the age of 18. “Erez is with me all the time,” she says. “I wake up with him in the morning and go to sleep with him at night. He is with me in the kitchen and he was with me under my daughter’s wedding canopy. I chose to live, and I chose to live with him. Otherwise, I wouldn’t live. Even a hug from his friends helps. One child of mine was murdered, and five more were born to me.”

The Anne Frank House. The women walk through the rooms where Anne, her family and several others hid, touching the walls. Nili Heftzadi tells me about her own home: it is a memorial to her son Nir, the son of her old age, who was killed in the triple terror attack on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall in downtown Jerusalem.

“Near the dining-room table is a corner with a large photograph of Nir. I turned his bedroom into a memorial room with the colors he liked, yellow and black. My bedroom is a museum to Nir. Anywhere I turn my head, I see him. People tell me that I am living inside a mausoleum. He is with me in my purse. Every morning I go into his room, kiss all the photographs. Every night I go in and say good night to him. Every hotel I go to, I put his picture on the night table.

“He was good-looking and had a good soul. I talk about him a lot, and that’s not possible everywhere. Here, it doesn’t bother anybody. You see me wearing a brown vest now, and that’s unusual. For 12 years I wore only black. I lost weight, from 78 to 49 kilograms (172 to 108 pounds). I didn’t eat bread for 10 years. I had an idea that if I abstained from something, maybe God would give Nir back to me, and he would come in through the door.

“Every Thursday I go to him, to Mount Herzl, with yellow flowers, and I sit and tell him everything. And every Thursday a yellow butterfly comes and flies around me. That’s Nir telling me: Mother, I’m here with you.”

Bruges, Belgium. “The Venice of the north.” Palace spires centuries old, alleyways paved with stone, small chocolate shops. I breathe in the beauty, guard it inside me, photograph it to show it to my children. Here is a monastery that looks just like a Playmobil set. I imagine how I will come back here again, to the canals that come right up against the buildings, with my children.

People pass by us on the narrow streets, wrapped up in their coats. These Belgians do not know who the women are, and even if they did, they would not understand.

Do we know? How much we owe them, how small we are next to them.

On the bus, they sing the saddest songs ever written in Hebrew. “Come to me, Mother.”

“All the light went away long ago. Don’t go away suddenly too./ Come to me, Mother; Come to me, Mother; come sit with me awhile./ The wind is striking against the trees, and your hands are so warm./ Don’t go; tell me, Mother, how dreams come./ No, I’m not afraid of the dark, and I’m not trembling at all./ Come to me, Mother; Come to me, Mother; sit with me until I grow up.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.