Jersualem — Gilad Shalit’s parents got much-needed closure when their son returned home in an Oct. 18 prisoner exchange. The deal that freed the captured Israeli soldier was completed Sunday, when 550 Palestinians were released from Israeli jails, joining the 477 who were freed at the same time as Shalit.
But the parents of Hanan Barak and Pavel Slutzker, two soldiers killed in the June 25, 2006, incident in which Shalit was abducted, will never get their sons back.
Barak, 20, was from Arad, the Partnership2gether sister community of the New Jersey-Delaware cluster that includes the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey. He was Shalit’s officer in the armored brigade when terrorists attacked their tank as they patrolled Israel’s side of the border with Gaza.
In an interview with NJJN this week, Nelly Barak described her son as a young man who loved people and respected everyone as they were.
“He made an imprint on everyone he met,” she said. “In officer’s school, he was criticized for caring more about the soldiers under his command than the rules. As beautiful as he was outside, he was even more beautiful inside.”
When Hanan was 14 and his older brother underwent chemotherapy for cancer, he shaved his head to show solidarity. And in the army, Hanan took under his wing a young soldier named Gilad.
“His goal was to make Gilad into a man, not so shy and serious,” Nelly said.
On the day Shalit was released, Nelly Barak was followed by camera crews as she visited Hanan’s grave in Arad. She told interviewers there that she hoped that after his own mother, she would be the next person Shalit would call, in order to relay information about Hanan and how he died.
More than two months later, Nelly is still waiting for that call, while Shalit recovers at home in the small, northern village of Mitzpe Hila. His father, Noam, confirmed to NJJN that there had not yet been contact between Gilad and the Baraks, but he promised that there would be a meeting soon.
Nelly has maintained ties with Noam Shalit, who has come to memorial ceremonies for Hanan. She called him when the prisoner exchange deal was signed to wish him mazal tov. She said she is not disappointed by the delay, and she expressed hope that Gilad would finally be in good enough condition to meet with her next month.
“When they tell us that Gilad is ready to speak, mentally, we will drive up to Mitzpe Hila or invite Gilad down to us,” she said. “We will hug him and ask him about Hanan as a person and an officer and what they went through on that day. Even if he doesn’t want a connection with us, I will understand him and I won’t be angry.”
Nelly said she was looking forward to asking Shalit if he had felt Hanan’s presence during his ordeal in Gaza. She said she believed that Hanan was watching over his soldier from above and encouraging him.
The Baraks said that had he survived, Hanan would have been active in the protest movement that pressured the government to bring Shalit home. But in one interview, Hanan’s father, David, suggested Hanan would not have shared Shalit’s fate.
“If Hanan had been in Gilad’s place, I don’t think he would have let them take him prisoner,” David said. “He was a big, strong guy. He would have fought the terrorists and wouldn’t have let them drag him into Gaza. I’m not judging Gilad, but Hanan would have fought. He knew he had to watch over his soldiers in his tank. That’s his duty as an officer. ”
One of the questions Nelly was often asked while Gilad was in captivity was whether she would be prepared to trade places with his mother, Aviva.
“I felt bad for Gilad’s family, because uncertainty is difficult,” she said. “It’s terrible what they went through. But at any given moment I would have traded places with them just to have a spark of hope of seeing my son again, hugging, kissing him, and telling him that I love him.
“And in the end, they got him back, and we got nothing.”
Nelly said she and her husband supported “paying any price” for Shalit’s freedom, though David was quoted as saying that the deal “reeked” of politics and that Shalit should have been brought home sooner.
Now the Baraks fear that Shalit’s return will result in Hanan’s being forgotten. They said it had disturbed them that when they were called by the press every year on their son’s yahrtzeit, all the questions were about Shalit. But now they might not even be called at all.
“Since the horrible incident, no one remembered Hanan except through Gilad,” Nelly said. “They called it ‘Gilad’s tank’ without even mentioning that two soldiers were killed. It’s angering because Hanan and Pavel can’t defend themselves and speak. When I say who I am, I can’t just say I’m Hanan Barak’s mother. I have to say my son was killed in the kidnapping of Gilad Shalit.”
David Barak added that it hurt whenever the media counted the days since the kidnapping — since it reminded him how many days had passed since he lost his son.
“The wound is never healed,” he said. “It’s still open and now it’s bloodier than ever.”
To help ensure that Hanan will not be forgotten, Nelly desperately wants him memorialized. She tried to get a park, clubhouse, street, or square in or outside Arad named for him. All she has gotten so far is a square named generally for “the boys who have fallen” and a youth boxing tournament held annually in Hanan’s memory.
Now both 65, Nelly and David feel they don’t have much time left to fight on their son’s behalf. David is in poor health and went through a heart bypass operation Dec. 19.
They have, however, managed to go on with their lives, enjoying their time with their daughter Atara, son Yishai, and their five grandchildren — one of whom is named for Hanan. But they could not bring themselves to attend a wedding on Wednesday in which Hanan’s girlfriend married one of his closest friends.
“This period has been difficult for us,” Nelly said. “But we are very happy that Gilad came home. I am sure Hanan knows Gilad was freed, and I believe he had a hand in it. He is watching over us from above. He is an angel now, just as he was in his life.”