Translated by Zoe Jordan
Photos by Yossi Aloni
“I always found airplanes exciting,” says Yael Schiffenbauer, sitting in the garden outside of her home in Moshav Kidron, a few dozen meters from the runway at the nearby Air Force base. “When I hear the planes or helicopters coming through here, I go out right away; it’s still exciting to me. In recent years, that feeling has become all mixed up with a lot of longing, too.”
The longing is for her husband, the late Colonel Dani Schiffenbauer, a Sikursky CH-53 pilot who was killed in 2010 when his helicopter crashed during a joint training for both the Israeli and Romanian Air Forces in the Carpathian Mountains.
“We had just moved to a new apartment and the whole place was in chaos,” Yael recalls. “We moved on a Thursday and on Sunday he flew to Romania. He had spent three nights in our new home. Through the window I saw a friend of ours pass by the house and I thought to myself, ‘how sweet, he came to help’, but then I saw that he wasn’t smiling back at me. And then I saw the representatives from the local IDF bureau. I didn’t fall apart but he held me like I was about to faint. It took me a few days to digest the news.”
Sitting beside Yael is her close friend Maya Moreno-Ohana. Theirs is the kind of friendship that only the reality of Israel can forge. She listens to her friend’s painful story, to which she can relate all too well. Maya was widowed in 2006 when her husband, the late Lieutenant Colonel Emanuel Moreno, a fighter in the special forces, was killed during the Second Lebanon War in a covert operation beyond enemy lines. The person who retrieved his body from the battlefield was none other than the late Col. Schiffenbauer, in an operation for which he later received a citation.
The pastoral stillness and the chirping of birds are occasionally interrupted by the sound of a fighter jet taking off. It seems like this reality is a reflection of the two widows’ character. They radiate a gentle calm and quiet that is violated, every so often, by the noise of the disasters that befell their lives.
“It took me time to understand how extraordinary it is that there was a pilot here who is the reason I now have this grave,” says Maya. “When Emanuel was killed I had to deal with my personal grief as well as the national reality that came with it: an extremely challenging situation. The first year, I was just busy with the kids. Afterwards, I began to think of myself again and by the third year after his death things started to open up within me. I began to understand that he had a grave and that I was able to visit it thanks to a very complex rescue operation.”
Yael agrees with Maya that it was a particularly challenging rescue, which required quick decision-making in the field. She recalls that after the operation, Dani told her that Emanuel’s death was a huge loss for the defense forces. Dani also attended Emanuel’s funeral and a few days later took Yael to the squadron base and played her a recording of the voices from the rescue operation’s two-way radio. According to Yael, the dramatic voices gave some indication of what was happening on the ground.
Three years after Emanuel’s death, it occurred to Maya to arrange a meeting with the man who had retrieved her late husband’s body. “A good friend of Emanuel’s was on the team — today he is a member of parliament, Matan Kahana — who finished the special forces track and moved on to the Air Force,” she says. “One day, a few years after Emanuel’s death, Matan came back from an investigation they did about his rescue and asked me if I was interested in seeing the report. I said yes, but first I wanted to meet the pilot who had been responsible. He didn’t really understand why, but I explained to him that I realized that it was no small thing that I had been granted this grave, it could have ended differently, and I wanted to thank him,” she recalls.
“He arranged a meeting for me with Dani and added, ‘he’s just going to Romania for a training exercise and then coming back’. But then they informed me that Dani had died. I remember that moment vividly. I was in Yavne, I remember the precise spot where I was. The woman on the phone told me to stop the car and then she told me. I decided that I would come to his shiva to meet Yael, Dani’s widow.” And that is how the two women met.
“Shivas are intense, and the amount of people that come is sometimes overwhelming,” says Yael. “But when Maya sat down across from me to say thank you — I was extremely touched. I thought to myself, what is she thanking me for? Emanuel was killed for all that he did out there for us — we should be thanking him.”
Since then, Maya and Yael have been inseparable. While they don’t meet on a daily basis, the two agree that their heartfelt connection goes way beyond words. “Maya is a special woman, she is such an inspiration to me,” says Yael. Maya adds that “there’s something that brings hearts together. We connect through our values and our world views.”
Don’t Wait, Act Now
Maya Moreno-Ohana, age 46, currently lives in Moshav Shokeda, alongside the Gaza strip. She is remarried to Eliran Ohana and together they are raising five kids, three of whom are Emanuel’s children.
She tells her story all over the country. And although each lecture is different, at most talks she focuses on the reason she chose to expose her story. “I always say that Emanuel is my story’s architect, but in fact the person who brought that to light for me was actually Dani, despite me not having met him. The central message for my audience is that if there is something you feel compelled to do — you must do it; you shouldn’t wait. I waited too long and I missed my chance. If you have an inner desire to thank someone or to clarify something — you must act on it immediately,” she says.
Yael Schiffenbauer, 52, has three children that Dani fathered. She has a doctorate in chemistry from the University of Tel Aviv, and manages a biomedical engineering project.
Do your kids know each other?
Maya: “Yes. From the ‘Otzma’ camps. My oldest daughter and Yael’s middle child flew in a helicopter together during one of the activities. They are slightly different ages, but the name Schiffenbauer is well-known in our home.”
Yael: “Every Israeli household knows the name Moreno. Including ours, of course.”
Do you see aspects of Dani and Emanuel in your kids?
“Yes. The boys are grown now, and the way they move reminds me of him. Also the way they talk, look, and think,” says Maya. Yael adds: “I don’t see as much similarity. But someone always says how much one of the kids looks like Dani.”
Did the tragedies that you experienced influence your kids’ decisions about where to serve in the military?
Maya: “I want them to do whatever it is they want. I remember a moment during the shiva when I told myself, ‘don’t let that fear control you’. So, I decided then that I would relinquish control of that. My kids will go where they want and do what is right for them.”
Yael: “I know that I won’t stop my children from doing what they want. It’s hard enough that their lives changed in this way. There’s no need to punish them further.”
Right on Track
Maya devotes a lot of her time to the fight for the return of prisoners and missing persons. According to her, most Israelis identify with the fight and get involved by simple means such as getting engaged on social media platforms or making other small gestures, but she is convinced that we must take a more active role in the struggle.
“I realized that from my very specific vantage point, I understand that it is not to be taken for granted that my husband has a grave, so I am obligated to rise up and fight this fight. I’m not related to those currently imprisoned or missing. I didn’t know them or their families,” she says.
She recalls a personal anecdote: “I remember a conversation that I had with Avia, my eldest daughter. When Gilad Shalit was kidnapped, Emanuel returned home, came inside, took his tefillin and left again for the army. I realized that if he was taking his tefillin with him he wouldn’t be coming home. He told me that a soldier had been kidnapped so he had to go down south. I barely saw him after that. He would come home every few days and behave like a caged lion. He was really angry about the situation. One evening Avia told me, ‘Enough with this soldier, already. I want Dad to come home.’ She really missed her father.
“I sat down on the floor beside her and told her that Dad was searching for the soldier. I asked her what she thought the soldier was feeling. She said that he must be feeling very alone, in the dark, afraid and probably missing home.
“Then she got up, looked me in the eye and said: ‘Okay Mom, I’ll let go of Dad for the sake of that soldier.’ She said it and she did it. And a little under a month later, Emanuel was killed. But that conversation really stood out to me: if a five-year-old girl can give up her deepest wish of having her dad around, I should be able to step out of my own private world and create a bit of noise on behalf of the cause, because we can’t forget the true meaning of a mutual guarantee and of the IDF’s values. Israel is founded on the principle of a mutual guarantee. If I can broadcast that message — it’s my duty to do so,” Maya concludes.