‘I Felt Like We Were in Gehinnom’ – an Interview With ZAKA
An ambalance of ZAKA (Disaster Victim Identification) Photo: David Shay. CC 4.0
1/17/2024, 6:31:01 PM
Israel is a changed nation since October 7, and no one is aware of that more than members of ZAKA, Israel’s internationally recognized Search and Rescue team. ZAKA volunteers are all too familiar with the aftermath of violent death, but even their familiarity with raw tragedy could not prepare them for the scale and savagery of the Hamas attack.
Readily recognizable in their black and yellow vests, ZAKA members deal with 1,000-1,500 disasters in Israel annually — from car accidents, fires, and murders to terrorist attacks. They are the first on the scene, picking up droplets of blood and human tissue to identify a body for proper Jewish burial according to halachah.
ZAKA members rushed down to the Gaza border towns on October 7 to search for survivors and preserve the utmost kavod hameis for those murdered. Their extreme sensitivity and selfless dedication to the sanctity of both life and death demonstrated the sharpest contrast to the barbarity that characterizes Hamas.
Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan invited ZAKA members to a forum on the October 7 violence, where they spoke of the brutality they had witnessed. Others appeared on media programs, such as CBS Nightly News, which stated that it had never before featured an organization whose volunteers risk their lives to enter an active war zone for the purpose of collecting bodies to be brought to a Jewish burial.
On their recent trip to New York, I sat for an exclusive interview with ZAKA CEO Duby Weissenstern, Deputy Commander of the South Yossi Landau, Deputy Commander of Modi’in Illit Simcha Greiniman, and New York Contact Yankee Landau. Their depiction of the scenes they beheld and the circumstances they dealt with reveal both the degree of depravity that Hamas exhibited and the contrasting kiddush Hashem that ZAKA created amidst the evil.
What drew you to become involved in this particularly difficult chessed?
Yossi Landau: When I moved to Israel 35 years ago, I wanted to be involved in a chessed like other family members. In 1989, the #405 bus from Tel Aviv to Yerushalayim was blown up by a suicide bomber. I arrived as a first responder and saw the difficulties of identifying the bodies. Together with others, we realized that something had to be done. So a few of us “crazy people” started a group called Chessed Shel Emes, which was the precursor to ZAKA.
You foresaw a need by anticipating future terror attacks?
Yossi Landau: Yes. The Intifada had started and bus bombings were occurring all over. I remember a double attack at a bus station in Tzomet Beit Illit, near Netanya. It was very difficult trying to identify one female soldier. We were able to find a finger with a ring, and that ring positively identified the soldier. This really demonstrated the need for an organization like ZAKA.
You are sadly accustomed to dealing with tragedies for many years. Do you feel that your involvement prepared you adequately for October 7 or was it a totally different experience?
Duby Weissenstern: It was totally different. Even the most difficult experiences we underwent couldn’t have prepared us for what we encountered. Meron was one occasion when we had to deal with a larger quantity of victims, but that was nothing compared to the quantity of October 7.
Yossi Landau: Meron was extremely difficult because we knew many of those who died, and we were on the spot when it happened. But here, the quantity surpassed anything we witnessed before. We are used to dealing with bodies, but we were never trained to load up many truckloads of bodies. Also, nothing was able to prepare us for the brutality that we saw.
Can you describe what happened when you first arrived at the scene?
Duby Weissenstern: I arrived in Sderot shortly after Shabbos. We filled up a first transport of bodies, but there were so many bodies left on the floor. ZAKA volunteers said they had no room and didn’t want to pile the bodies one on top of the other. But we had no choice. The whole time there were sirens going because of incoming missiles. I felt like we were in Gehinnom.
Yossi Landau: I arrived on October 7 in Sderot. We initially went there to save people. After the 2001 Dolphinarium bombing in Tel Aviv that occurred on Shabbos, ZAKA mandated all its members to train as EMTs to allow us to work on Shabbos. You can go out on Shabbos to save people but not to deal with dead bodies. We were able to save people in Sderot who were shot. We stopped their bleeding and brought them into a field hospital or transferred them to ambulances.
Around 80% of the victims were shot in the back. They didn’t even try to fight back. Sometimes you come to a scene where people get killed but tried to fight back. Here there was nothing. They were in a trap. That gave me the feeling that it could have been me. It could have been anyone.
In three and a half hours we collected 207 bodies from one place alone. When we went out, further away from Sderot and Ofakim, towards the highway and then Kibbutz Re’im, we saw piles and piles of hundreds of bodies.
The army told us not to work because there were still missiles coming in with no place to shelter. We pointed out that there are shelters all around. But when we entered them, we saw they were full of bodies. Forty of our volunteers worked for three hours in one shelter to remove 21 burned bodies. It was a very hard and delicate job. We have to give total respect to the bodies and also provide full identification.
How difficult was it to identify such badly burned bodies?
Simcha Greiniman: We were scared of dealing with the bodies even though we had years of experience dealing with burned bodies from car accidents or house fires. We came to a burned-out car on the highway. The bones were burned totally and had become ashes. There was nothing to pick up. We vacuumed the car to make sure nothing was left and did the best we could, but it was terrible.
How is identification even possible in such a scenario?
Simcha Greiniman: Israel does not have the capability of extracting DNA from ashes. Only the United States has that capability, which was developed after 9/11. It takes more than seven months to build a machine like that and three months to bring it to Israel. They are trying to build one in Israel. In the meantime, they are constantly bringing small samples to America to identify whatever we have.
Yossi Landau: Identification is very difficult. In Kibbutz Be’eri we found a spot where 15 hostages were in a house, but we only found 14 burned bodies. After a month, we brought in a machine that sifts rice and used it to find a small bone that positively identified a 10-year-old girl.
In addition to incoming missiles, what kind of danger did you find yourselves in?
Yossi Landau: When I arrived in Sderot, there was still shooting and fighting on the streets. We were under attack and we never knew when a terrorist might jump out from the fields.
Did you ever consider leaving?
Duby Weissenstern: No. The truth is that no one knew what was really going on. If we knew the reality of what was occurring, we wouldn’t have gone inside. But maybe that was the nes.
Simcha Greiniman: On the morning of October 8, we were collecting bodies on the highway outside one of the kibbutzim. Soldiers were watching us near our truck. All of a sudden two terrorists jumped out of a nearby field and started shooting towards us. One of the soldiers got killed on the spot. We all ducked down and were lying next to the bodies. I said to myself, “What are we doing here? This is crazy.” But then I understood that if we’re not going to do this, who will? B’makom she’ein ish… we have to be the ish.
But you’re a human being too. How do you handle seeing sights that cannot be unseen? How do you cope with it emotionally?
Yankee Landau: Nobody can say that they can undo what they saw on October 7. But one way we deal with it is by sitting together and talking about it. ZAKA makes sure that their members have the help that they need. That includes psychological help. Also, one of the most important means of coping is the appreciation we get. When we walk on the street and we get hugs and thank-yous. That gives the boost to continue.
Duby Weissenstern: The appreciation is paramount. Also, ZAKA is its own community. One individual cannot handle the stress, but together as a group, we can.
Is there any episode from your work at the massacre that will remain with you forever?
Yossi Landau: Yes. I was in New York when I received a picture and message on my phone from the Missing Persons Unit in Israel asking me if I recognize a certain site. I recognized it as being in Kibbutz Be’eri by the gate. I was asked to describe what happened. I described how I had been picking up bodies there and saw around 11 bodies of terrorists right where the gate had been broken open. There was a gun next to one of the bodies, which had been run over by a tank and left unrecognizable. Soldiers nearby insisted this body was a terrorist, but I disagreed. I saw that he had a white undershirt, and I hadn’t seen any terrorists with undershirts.
Every body bag is marked. If it’s a terrorist, the bag is marked with a magic marker with three X’s, the date, and the location. This body was put in a bag with three X’s, but I took out a different-colored magic marker and wrote three question marks on the bag. The truck picked up the bodies and delivered them to the morgue. The bodies of civilians were sent to Machane Shurah, the IDF base where the bodies of the 1,400+ victims were taken for identification. The bodies of the terrorists were sent to Sdei Teiman to be put in special containers.
The Missing Persons Unit explained that there was a missing person from Be’eri. The cameras showed that at 2:00 p.m., a man and his wife were taken from their house by terrorists. The man had his hands tied behind his back. Later, the camera at the corner of the house showed the man on the floor. But by 4:00 p.m., camera images didn’t show anyone at the location. The wife’s body was found, but not the man’s body. When the unit heard how I labeled the body bag with question marks, they located it at Sdei Teiman.
I traveled to Israel shortly afterwards and went straight to Be’eri. I realized this was a Yid and searched for two more hours for more identifying markers. We were able to find a DNA match that positively identified the body as belonging to the missing man.
In what way does your work extend beyond kavod hameis and impact the families of the deceased?
Duby Weissenstern: Our work carries over into many aspects. Identifying a body enables being matir agunot, allows families to sit shivah, and even legally affects decisions like inheritance. If someone isn’t declared dead, his inheritors can’t access anything. These are very big issues.
Does your work ever make you numb to the individual tragedy of each person? How do you maintain the perspective that each body was a human being?
Simcha Greiniman: It’s difficult, but that’s the driving force behind ZAKA. I worked for a week straight after October 7 and returned home on Thursday. But the next morning, Erev Shabbos, I was called down again to the area near Kibbutz Be’eri with the Chessed Shel Emes truck that is always parked near me. Bodies were being removed from the fields. Some were found under trees by using birds of prey to locate them. When I arrived, soldiers didn’t allow us to enter the area to take bodies. After hours and hours of trying to go in, I said that Hakadosh Baruch Hu is not sending me down Erev Shabbos without doing something. Finally, they allowed us to enter two houses in Be’eri that hadn’t been touched for the past six days.
I went inside one and found the burned bodies of two children. It was apparent that they were brutally murdered before they were burned. In another there were the bodies of two women in a similar situation. I was tormented by the sights.
On the drive home, I called a close friend from ZAKA and burst out crying. He sang Shabbos songs with me until I reached home. It was my breaking point. But I knew that had I broken down in front of my superiors or those under me, they would have collapsed. I got home two minutes before shkiah to a house full of Shabbos guests and walked in as if nothing had happened. But I had to let everything out — precisely because I recognized those individual tragedies.
Israel has been forced to show videos of the atrocities to counter deniers. As someone who witnessed the atrocities firsthand, how do you respond to such denial?
Duby Weissenstern: There’s no difference between a denier and a Hamas terrorist. The videos are Hamas’s own videos. What is clear is that the evidence doesn’t just come from one member of ZAKA. There were hundreds who all reported the same story. The chance that the truth will endure rests on that strength.
Yossi Landau: We don’t try to talk to deniers, just like you can’t convince a terrorist. We hardly took any pictures because of our respect for kavod hameis and kavod hachai. We don’t want those pictures to be exposed to the public. We want the families to remember their loved ones as they were before they were killed.
Simcha Greiniman: The main aim of showing the videos is for the world to understand what happened and to understand that Israel must continue fighting and eradicating Hamas.
Yankee Landau: People who saw the video reported that although they believed it happened, they might have otherwise thought reports were exaggerated. It’s very important for the atrocities to be shown, just like videos of the Holocaust are shown and taught in classrooms. Why should this be any different? We shouldn’t think that we don’t have to publicize it just because we lived through it. We have to tell our children and grandchildren to remember and never forget. And we have to teach them who our friends are and who our enemies are.