September 22, 2023

Mourning the loss of a murdered lone soldier - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

A thousand Israelis stand silent at the Kiryat Shaul Cemetery in north Tel Aviv.

The only sound is the synchronized marching of black boots on the cemetery turf. A column of soldiers in green uniforms and turquoise berets lifts high a wooden casket. Draped around the box is the blue and white of the Israeli flag. This is the funeral of Sgt. Maxim Mulchanov, 20, a lone soldier. In addition to his friends and fellow soldiers, men and women have come from all over the country. Most have never met Maxim but want to pay their respects, honor him, and embrace his bereaved parents.

Maxim’s parents, Laryisa and Evgeny, hold hands, taut grips of shared agony, as they follow their son’s casket. They’re escorted to the front row, a meter from the rectangular hole in the ground. Bags of dirt in white plastic are piled near the graveside.

A lone soldier’s journey: From Ukraine to Israel, to a tragic burial

Laryisa and Evgeny have arrived from Ukraine.

A Chabad rabbanit in Ukraine was asked to knock on the door in Kharkiv and deliver the tragic news of their world collapsing. Israel’s Foreign Ministry made special arrangements with the Ukrainian government to allow Evgeny, who is eligible for the Ukrainian draft, to fly to Israel.

Kharkiv is Ukraine’s second-largest city and is only 40 km. away from the border with Russia. Kharkiv has been hit hard with rocket attacks and, some claim, cluster bombs. How pleased his parents must have been that Maxim was already in Israel when the war broke out. Like so many other Ukrainian Jewish teens, Maxim joined the Na’aleh Elite Academy, coming to Israel on his own. These teens take on the challenge of a new language, a new culture, and a new school system. 

At Hadassah-Neurim, a youth village north of Netanya with a view of the cerulean Mediterranean, there is a built-in high school, a robotics program, surfing, and a center to rehabilitate abused dogs. The village is known for its athletics program, where national champions in hammer throw and running have developed. A student from Hadassah-Neurim ran in the Tokyo Olympics. Visiting the village, you’d never guess that it was born in war. In 1948, the youngsters in the Ben-Shemen village near Lod had to be evacuated because they were under fire. They were brought to an abandoned British Army base – first called Ben Shemen 2 – which became Hadassah-Neurim.

Maxim was only 14 when he came to Hadassah-Neurim. His parents gave their permission. His heart was set on it. He made friends quickly. Teachers and counselors – the incredible staff of Israel’s youth villages throughout the country – provided loving support.

Nearly all the graduates of Hadassah-Neurim earn matriculation certificates, volunteer for community work, and serve in the IDF. Students from abroad don’t have to go into the army, of course, but Maxim became a citizen and sought a challenging unit. As his father told reporters, “Maxim was proud to be in an IDF combat unit.”

While he was still in basic training, Maxim received notice that his bone marrow was a match for that of a 12-year-old in Germany. At first, he thought that military service would prevent him from making the donation, but his commanding officer encouraged him. He saved the child’s life.

On the last day of August, Maxim and other soldiers were walking from a base near Modi’in to a bus stop on Highway 443. A truck driver from the village of Deir Amar, a town in the Palestinian Authority, saw them. The terrorist, a father of five, used his work permission slip to enter Israel. The truck he was driving had Israeli license plates. To run over and murder Maxim and his fellow soldiers, who were walking on the other side of the road, he made a U-turn and plowed into them.

Maxim took the brunt of the ramming and died from his wounds.

The Tel Aviv sun is beating down on the cemetery. A tent has been pitched over the grave to create a seating area for family and officials. A ginger-haired soldier hands Laryisa a bottle of water, but she can’t drink. Her throat, too, is taut with sorrow. Maxim’s tall, handsome brother Vlad hugs their mom. Beneath her large dark glasses, Laryisa’s eyes are red from weeping. Knesset Member Sharon Nir, who is an IDF officer and former platoon commander, is sitting behind the parents. She offers Laryisa a package of tissues.

I’m sitting behind them, too, as one of the representatives of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, one of the sponsors of Hadassah-Neurim. Hadassah-Neurim is a joint effort of The Jewish Agency and Hadassah.

My eyes are wet, too. Whose aren’t? Who doesn’t feel the pain and loss of the parents, God forbid, knowing that this could be one of our own children or grandchildren in uniform?

The casket is lowered gently – without the dreaded thud of a body hitting the ground. Fellow soldiers and friends rush forward to fill the grave with soil.

The eulogies all mention Maxim’s big smile, good nature, and resolve. Says one of his teachers: From the moment that he arrived at Hadassah-Neurim, Maxim was determined to learn Hebrew. She remembers him asking how he could help her, not yet knowing Hebrew well enough to realize that the Hebrew word for “help” takes an indirect object (lach, not otach) but is already always ready to help.

Says his artillery battalion commander: “Evgeny and Laryisa, you sent a child here. I apologize for not being able to bring him back safely.”

The Kiryat Shaul Cemetery is the final resting place of 80,000 men and women, among them well-known actors and poets. Bones and ashes of Holocaust victims have also been transferred here. The east side of the cemetery is reserved for soldiers and officers who have given their lives to protect our country.

And now Maxim, age 20, is among these heroes.

May his memory be a blessing.