ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 144

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'We do everything to bring the fallen to proper burial'

70 years on, IDF finds remains of female fighter killed in Independence War

Pvt. Livka Shefer was one of three soldiers killed in battle for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai whose bodies were never recovered

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Pvt. Livka Shefer, whose remains were located by the Israeli military nearly 70 years after she was killed in the 1948 War of Independence. (Israel Defense Forces)
Pvt. Livka Shefer, whose remains were located by the Israeli military nearly 70 years after she was killed in the 1948 War of Independence. (Israel Defense Forces)

Nearly 70 years after she was killed in an Egyptian artillery shelling, the remains of Pvt. Livka Shefer were found by Israeli military investigators, the army announced on Sunday. The remains will be buried in the coming weeks.

Until this week, Shefer had the grim distinction of being the only woman to be recognized as a fallen soldier whose burial place was unknown.

After initially refusing to disclose where Shefer’s remains were found, the army later clarified that they were located in a mass grave on the nearby Kibbutz Nitzanim. Her name will be added to the monument there.

Shefer was born in Przemyśl, Poland, in 1914, the daughter of Regina and Yitzchak. At the age of 25, before the start of World War II, she moved to what was then British Mandate-era Palestine.

She joined the founding group of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, a socialist commune just north of the Gaza Strip named for Mordechai Anielewicz, who helped lead the Warsaw Ghetto uprising against the Nazis in 1943.

A memorial statue of Mordechai Anilevich, one of the leaders of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, in southern Israel, which is named in his honor, on January 18, 2017. (Flash90)

When Israel’s War of Independence broke out, Shefer fought to protect the kibbutz from an Egyptian onslaught, acting as a runner between the different positions.

A few dozen fighters from the Palmach — the main antecedent to the Israel Defense Forces — and the 150 members of the kibbutz managed to hold back the Egyptians for six days, before they ran out of ammunition and were forced to beat a retreat on the night between May 23 and 24, 1948.

Shefer and another soldier, Yitzchak Rubinstein, were tasked with helping to evacuate the wounded. Together, Shefer and Rubinstein carried a stretcher holding Binyamin Eisenberg, who had been injured.

They were approximately halfway to the nearby Gevaram Kibbutz, when they came under heavy bombardment by the Egyptian military in the pre-dawn hours of May 24, just over a week after the founding of the State of Israel, and two days before the formal creation of the IDF.

The other fighters from Yad Mordechai had lost contact with Shefer, Rubinstein, and Eisenberg. A day later, they were pronounced killed in action, despite the fact that their bodies had not been found.

A site reenacting the 1948 War of Independence battle between fighters from Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and the Egyptian army in southern Israel on January 18, 2017. (Flash90)

Shefer, Rubinstein, and Eisenberg were awarded ranks in the military posthumously, as when they had been alive, there was no IDF to be part of.

The three were recognized as fallen soldiers whose burial places were unknown. That designation is distinct from “missing in action.” In the case of someone whose burial place is unknown, the army knows for certain that the soldier has been killed, but is either unable to locate or to physically reach their body, as in the case of a number of soldiers who were lost at sea.

With few exceptions, the military continues to search for the bodies of these soldiers, sometimes decades after their death.

“We do everything to bring the fallen, no matter who they are, to proper burial. This is the duty of the IDF to these fallen soldiers and to their families,” said Lt. Col. Nir Yisraeli, who leads the Manpower Directorate’s unit that is tasked with locating these soldiers.

“Every investigation that comes to a close is highly significant to the families, for the people in the unit who deal with this task and for the IDF in general. It gives us the strength to continue, to work and investigate tirelessly, in order to close more of these cases of fallen soldiers whose burial places are unknown,” he said.

Now that her remains have been found, Shefer’s name will be added to the gravestone in Kibbutz Nitzanim in a ceremony that will be attended by the head of the IDF’s Manpower Directorate, Maj. Gen. Moti Almoz.

The army said Yisraeli’s unit had not yet found the remains of Rubinstein and Eisenberg and would continue searching for them.

As of today, there are approximately 170 soldiers whose burial places are still unknown, around 100 of them from the War of Independence.

Soldiers stand at attention during the annual ceremony for soldiers whose burial places are unknown on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl military cemetery on March 17, 2016. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

The unit that searches for lost soldiers is known by the acronym “Eitan,” for the Hebrew itur ne’edarim, or finding MIA soldiers.

It employs just three full-time soldiers, but has numerous reservists at its disposal, many of them experts in archaeology, geography, and policing. Some of them have served in the unit for decades.

It has been nearly three years since the unit found the body of a fallen soldier. In September 2015, Eitan located the remains of Cpl. Moshe Ahronov, who was killed a few days before Shefer in May 1948.

A year before, the unit located the remains of Yehoshua Haver, who died fighting in Operation Danni, in Ramle, on July 10, 1948.

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