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Israel TravelsGiving a Face to the Fallen uncovers more troops' histories

Formerly faceless, these fallen soldiers can now be visited – in person or virtually

Thanks to a nonprofit, hundreds of virtually anonymous heroes who died in the Holy Land in 1948 and prior have been identified. Their stories and photos now preserve their memories

  • Giving a Face to the Fallen founder Dorit Perry visits the grave of Moshe Wilinger. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Giving a Face to the Fallen founder Dorit Perry visits the grave of Moshe Wilinger. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The updated memorial marker of Zvi 'Freddy' Gross. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The updated memorial marker of Zvi 'Freddy' Gross. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The tomb of Henry Fernebok. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The tomb of Henry Fernebok. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The memorial wall for soldiers whose previously unknown burial sites are now known. Shimon Harrar is now listed here. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The memorial wall for soldiers whose previously unknown burial sites are now known. Shimon Harrar is now listed here. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A view from the Mount of Olives ni Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view from the Mount of Olives ni Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The entrance to Mount Herzl. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The entrance to Mount Herzl. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The name of Tamar Mark, in Hebrew (fourth from top in the left column), on a memorial to fallen volunteers. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The name of Tamar Mark, in Hebrew (fourth from top in the left column), on a memorial to fallen volunteers. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A memorial plot for soldiers whose burial place is unknown. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A memorial plot for soldiers whose burial place is unknown. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A memorial to pre-state volunteers in the British army who fell abroad. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A memorial to pre-state volunteers in the British army who fell abroad. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A view from fallen soldier Shimon Harrar's gravesite on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A view from fallen soldier Shimon Harrar's gravesite on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The grave of Mordecai Shimon Harrar. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The grave of Mordecai Shimon Harrar. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The memorial wall for soldiers whose burial site is unknown. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The memorial wall for soldiers whose burial site is unknown. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The marker of Benny Berele at the Kiryat Anavim military cemetery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The marker of Benny Berele at the Kiryat Anavim military cemetery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

For years, Henri Fernebok had been just a name on the Defense Ministry’s remembrance (Izkor) website. Indeed, hardly anything was known about the young soldier, who died during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, aside from his name, date of birth, and the year of his demise.

But what started with a little note on his tombstone — placed there by volunteers from the Israeli nonprofit Giving a Face to the Fallen (GFF) — came to an exciting and long-awaited end in June, when relatives of Fernebok met with a 92-year-old American woman.

Volunteers at GFF (“Latet Panim L’noflim” in Hebrew) spent long months searching all over the world for information on Fernebok, painstakingly piecing his story together.

Finally, the nonprofit managed to locate some of the fallen soldier’s relatives in Israel and France, along with New Yorker Nancy Klein, who had corresponded regularly with the youth following his horrifying experiences during the Holocaust.

Their efforts were rewarded when the parties met in an emotionally charged encounter at the Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem.

Until GFF was established, details and/or the burial sites of 962 men and women who fought for Israel’s freedom from foreign rule from the 19th century through 1948 were unknown.

Most were faceless as well, with not a single known photo in existence.

But in 2010, Jerusalemites Dorit Perry and Uri Sagi began digging for information and, in 2013, founded GFF. As of today, 270 formerly unknown Israeli soldiers now have faces and known histories.

“Honoring their memories with their stories and their pictures is the least we can do for these heroes who, with their sacrifice, made possible the State of Israel,” says Perry.

The seeds of GFF were planted 12 years ago, during one of Perry’s regular visits to Mount Herzl on Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s national remembrance day.

Usually, she honored a fallen relative or friend while standing next to his or her tombstone.

In 2010, however, she decided instead to honor a soldier in an area empty, or nearly empty, of visitors.

Giving a Face to the Fallen founder Dorit Perry visits the grave of Moshe Wilinger. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

That year she walked around the section where soldiers who fought in the 1948 War of Independence were buried.

As she gazed at the names on the stones, and chatted with the only other person at the site, Perry noticed that one of the tombstones was almost empty: the entire inscription mentioned only his name, the location and date of the battle where he had fallen, and his age (24) which, as it turns out, was incorrect.

The name on the tombstone was Yosef Lahana.

Perry decided then and there to find out everything possible about Lahana, to locate any remaining members of his extended family, and to track down a picture to post on the Izkor website.

It took nine months of research, but at their end not only did Lahana have a face, but he finally had a story.

Yosef Lahana was born in Arta, Greece, in 1921, and fought with partisan soldiers after the Germans conquered his country 20 years later.

Almost immediately after the war’s end in 1945, Lahana boarded an illegal immigration ship headed for the Promised Land.

Although the British rulers of Palestine detained many of the disembarking Jews, Lahana managed to blend in with the local population and made it to a kibbutz.

The entrance to Mount Herzl. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In February of 1948, Lahana joined the pre-state Israeli army. Although he was severely injured during the fighting, he insisted on returning to duty.

On June 3, 1948, he was again critically injured, this time in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the strategic Arab town of Jenin.

Most of the Israeli troops retreated, but Lahana was left behind with other dead and injured soldiers and designated missing in action.

Forty-five Israeli soldiers, including Lahana, died in captivity and it took two years to get their bodies released and returned to Israel. Lahana was buried in a common grave on Mount Herzl, with a memorial stone that said almost nothing.

Today, the stone is complete.

Very little was known about another soldier also buried on Mount Herzl: Moshe Noah Wilinger, born in Czechoslovakia in 1928.

When GFF volunteers began looking into his story, they found the Izkor website full of information about Czechoslovakia and World War II.

But aside from a picture, there was little about the boy himself, his experiences during the Holocaust, or what had become of his family.

It took several years of research, but today we know a lot about his family, and his time in Auschwitz and Buchenwald at the age of 15.

Ironically, when he finally reached “safety” in Palestine a year later he was imprisoned — again — this time in the Atlit Detention Camp as an illegal immigrant.

Eventually released, he was treated for advanced tuberculosis.

The memorial wall for soldiers whose burial site is unknown. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two months before the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, he joined the army and was stationed at one of the most volatile positions in Jerusalem: the border with Jordan.

On May 15, the Jordanian legion shot thousands of shells into the city.

When the communications lines between headquarters and the border positions were cut, Wilinger volunteered to fix them — and succeeded, before being cut down by a sniper’s bullet.

As was the case with Lahana, once GFF had completed its research, the soldier’s nearly empty tombstone was replaced and a memorial took place at his gravesite. Sadly, Wilinger was the last of his line.

Not all soldiers whose memories are preserved by the GFF are buried in Israel.

The name of Tamar Mark, in Hebrew (fourth from top in the left column), on a memorial to fallen volunteers. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

In 1943, Tamar Mark was killed while serving in the British army. At the time, the only information about her on file was her name, her unit, and the date of the tragic accident which led to her death.

Even her age was unknown, and her citizenship was mistakenly listed as British — until the GFF began researching her history. Today there is a photo of her in the Yizkor site, and her life is now an open book.

Mark was born in 1922 in Vienna, Austria. When she was 17, Germany annexed the country in the Anschluss.

Shocked by the Nazis’ bestial behavior toward the Jewish population, Mark boarded a ship and headed for the Promised Land.

Once there, she studied farming and, with a group of others who described her as optimistic and full of life, began preparing to establish a new settlement.

In 1942, she volunteered for service in the women’s branch of the British army. A year later, she was killed in a traffic accident and laid to rest in a British military cemetery in far-away Egypt.

That’s what makes accessibility to full information about her story so very crucial — it’s now possible to “visit” the fallen soldier, and even light a virtual candle in her honor, despite her final resting place being so far from her people and homeland.

The grave of Mordecai Shimon Harrar. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Nothing was known about the fate of Mordecai Shimon Harrar, although he had served in the British army. No details existed about his family, his history, and there was not a single picture of this Unknown Soldier on the Izkor site.

It took three years of research, but GFF volunteers finally found his unmarked grave and learned his life story.

Harrar was born in Palestine to parents who had immigrated from Morocco as children.

When Harrar was 15, in 1935, his mother passed away and was buried in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives.

Soon after the outbreak of WWII, the Jewish leadership in Palestine called for volunteers to serve with the British in North Africa.

Harrar stepped up, and was attached to the Royal Pioneers Corps.

In 1941, his unit was sent to Greece to prepare for a feared German assault. And, indeed, the Germans attacked in April of that year.

When their troops reached Athens, the British ordered a retreat — but tragically the order failed to reach Harrar’s company.

He was taken prisoner by the Germans.

Following a prisoner swap four years later, Harrar finally made it home. But he had fallen deathly ill in prison and died soon afterward.

He was listed as a fallen soldier whose burial site is unknown.

Volunteers from GFF found his grave, for although he was buried next to his mother and brother on the Mount of Olives, there was no tombstone and the site had been forgotten.

Last year, the Israeli Defense Ministry added an inscribed memorial stone to his grave.

The updated memorial marker of Zvi ‘Freddy’ Gross. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Reuven Rivlin was elected as Knesset Speaker in 2003, and later served a seven-year term as president of Israel that ended in 2021.

Every year since that first election, Rivlin has spoken to the country on Memorial and Holocaust Remembrance days.

And in almost every speech, the president would mention a boy nicknamed “Freddy” whose last name he didn’t know.

Freddy, a teenager who had appeared in Rivlin’s neighborhood after somehow surviving the Holocaust, went off to fight in the War of Independence — and never returned.

Freddy was killed on May 16, 1948, two days after Israel was declared a state. Seventy-one years later, the GFF presented Rivlin with a gift from the heart.

For many long months, volunteers had turned over every possible leaf in Israel, France, the United States, and Germany, searching for information about Freddy.

What they came up with was amazing: Not only did Freddy finally have a name — Zvi (Freddy) Gross — but now a detailed history of his very short life has been compiled.

On May 7, 2019, when the research was complete, a special memorial ceremony in Freddy’s honor was held on Mount Herzl.

Present was Rivlin, who personally insisted on conducting part of the service: It was Rivlin who recited the Kaddish (mourning prayer for the departed).

One of the bloodiest battles of the War of Independence took place at the San Simon Monastery in Jerusalem’s Katamon neighborhood.

The fighting, which took place at the tail end of April, 1948, was horrendous, and by the second day, only 20 men were left alive and well enough to fight.

Yet, somehow, they won the battle.

Fallen soldiers from the brigade that took part in the battle were buried in the military cemetery of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim.

Their tombstones tell their stories, together with their parents’ names and the places of their births.

The marker of Benny Berele at the Kiryat Anavim military cemetery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Not so the tombstone of a soldier known to his friends by the nickname of “Benny Berele.”

Aside from the date on which he fell, the stone is completely bare.

Several GFF volunteers have been searching for information about him for years, but have come up empty.

Hopefully, someday, that will change — for the search continues.

Everyone involved in Giving a Face to the Fallen is a volunteer, including its founders. The Israeli government doesn’t help with expenses, and charitable donations help keep GFF going. Often, volunteers use their own resources to make overseas calls, and to shell out payments for documents at home and abroad.

To learn more about the nonprofit, for additional details about these formerly unknown soldiers, to donate or to volunteer, please see the organization’s website.

Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.

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