Translated from Israel Hayom, published January 12, 2017, written by Yehuda Schlesinger
“Faith helps you escape from the thoughts of how a mother slaughters her child”
Oering. “I cannot stop” Photo: Joshua Joseph
“For 30 years I have been dealing with the dead and wounded, the most horrible sights, but this week, for the first time, I froze on the spot,” says Benzi Oering. He came to the promenade in Talpiot, with his ZAKA volunteers, after the truck rammed the soldiers.
“When we started to put the valuables of the murdered in the bag, which we give to the army in order to give the items to families, one of my volunteers from my team called me over. He heard the phone of one of the fatalities ringing, and showed me the screen with the words: ‘Daddy’.
“We were both in shock. Chills. He looked at me, I looked at him, not knowing what to do.
“You imagine to yourself that her father had heard there was an attack and was calling to make sure that his daughter was fine, and you’re standing over her body. You cannot answer the phone, because then he will understand, and if you do not answer, you imagine what he’s going through. It’s an impossible situation, and you don’t know how to deal with it, except to stand there with tears in your eyes. In the end we put the phone in a bag, and heard it ring for many more minutes. “
Ben-Zion (Benzi) Oering, commander of ZAKA Jerusalem teams, is a wide-bodied man without posture, a beaming face with a beard whitened from his work. His mustache is stained by tobacco, from the cigarettes he started smoking again since the bombing attack at the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001.
He made headlines two weeks ago, in chilling circumstances, when he was photographed leaving the apartment on Derech Hebron Street in Jerusalem, carrying a small body, his face marked with pain. The body of the 11-month-old baby, murdered by her own mother, together with her three sisters, before she committed suicide.
This picture reminds many of an earlier photograph from 2002. Oering was pictured then, minutes after a suicide bombing in the Beit Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem, holding in his hands a baby he rescued from the inferno, and the image, published in Israel and across the world, has become one of the symbols of that time.
It’s difficult to have a conversation with him, whether it is because his phone does not stop ringing, his walky-talky radio does not stop beeping or his frenzied character. The terrible images he has seen over the last 30 years he tells in bounds, like someone reminiscing his youth. Event after event, terror attacks, accidents, murders, suicides. The wedding hall disaster, the Moment cafe, Merkaz Harav, a synagogue in Har Nof, bus number 405, number 18, number 2 and many more. He was at them all. He tells me feverishly, calmly, almost emotionally detached. “We got a call”, “I was in the middle”, “I ran”, “I saw”, “we took care of.”
Until dealing with children.
“A scene with children is difficult”, his face darkens. “It’s impossible. It’s not just putting them in small bags. It’s the thought of everything the child went through before, thoughts that give you no rest. What did they go through in their last moments? What were they thinking? What are they experiencing? What did they see? Did they understand? Did it hurt them? “
He is 53, married to Freidel, a housewife, a father to 11 children aged 12-30, a grandfather to 15. While the non-religious define him as the ZAKA Jerusalem commander, the ultra-Orthodox public know him as an “Askan” (a political activist) “, but rather the definition he gives himself is probably the most accurate: “I’m a gofer.” All the work is done voluntarily; he previously worked as a kashrut supervisor.
“I was trained by Magen David Adom, so people come to me for anything medical related. If you need to get a shot, if you need to take blood, if someone dislocated their shoulder – they come to me for first aid. I am also in ZAKA, so when there are incidents, G-d forbid where we must collect their remains or to transport the deceased, I’m also there.
“Besides that, I have very close contact with the police, so if someone from the Haredi community is arrested and needs to contact their family, or people need a lawyer, they consult with me. If a child is missing, or a lonely man died with no family or money for the funeral, I try to help.”
A Shomrei Emunim Chasid, he was born and bred in Jerusalem and grew up in an Ultra Haredi area, “in the middle of the Casbah”, as he calls it. Educated in Cheder , Mechina and Yeshiva. The rescue work is from his first job, as a teacher.
“I was 21, and a child fell during a recess in the courtyard, his tooth fell out and he was bleeding. I took the child together with his tooth to the Magen David Adom station. Another teacher put some cotton in his mouth to stop the bleeding. Suddenly, while on the way, I hear the child scream, I see him lying there and starting to turn blue. He swallowed the cotton, and I had no idea what to do.
“I raced through the red light to Magen David Adom, we arrived within seconds, and they pulled out the cotton from his throat. The boy was all right, thank G-d, but I decided that I must learn first aid, just in case.
“I went into it in a big way. I did every course possible – EMT, ambulance driving, every possible course.”
The scene of the truck ramming attack at the Armon Hanatziv promenade. “It is difficult to treat soldiers. But this time there were young soldiers, girls mainly” // Photo: Ezekiel Aitikin
When he was called to the scene of his first major incident, he responded as an ambulance driver for Magen David Adom. It was July 1989, when a terrorist forced bus number 405 off the road to Jerusalem and into a ravine in the Kiryat Yearim area. 16 people were killed, 27 were injured.
“I was on the way from Jerusalem to Bnei Brak and heard on the radio about the attack. Immediately I raced there. We went rappelling together with the firefighters down to the attack zone, and you see a horrific scene. A bus overturned. On fire. There was a woman who shouted to me, ‘Help me! Get me out!’ I was in the middle of evacuating someone else, but when I saw the woman was still conscious, I continued with what I was doing. When I came back to her afterwards, she was no longer alive. Her scream, ‘Help me! Get me out! haunted me for many nights and years after.”
That terror attack led to the establishment of ZAKA (the Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victim Identification). Chairman and Founder Yehuda Meshi Zahav says it was the first event which clearly underlined the need for an organization to take care of the evacuation of the bodies. Oering was one of the first seeds of the Haredim who founded the organization.
After the violent attacks in 1994 and 1995, ZAKA would have to collect body remains scattered over distances of hundreds of meters. We went to do the job, and then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, thanked us. One of our men posted in the Hamodia newspaper that we are opening an organization for Chessed Shel Emet (True Virtue) and need volunteers, and that’s how ZAKA evolved. “
This week, he says, was the first time since the mid-nineties that he dealt with soldiers killed in a terror attack. “It is difficult to treat soldiers. This time there were young soldiers, young girls. The attack happened in front of their friends, who were standing next to them a moment ago, talked with them and laughed with them, and a second later they are dead.”
“The soldiers wept, embraced each other, they were in shock. It was very difficult to see. One of the soldiers came to pick up the bag that covered one of the bodies, to see who it was, if this was a friend of hers, and I stopped her. I told her it was not the time. I didn’t want her to see her friend in that way “.
- • •
Oering has responded to almost every one of the dozens of attacks in Jerusalem over the past 30 years. The second attack on bus number 18, in March 1996, he saw happen with his own eyes.
“I was in my car, and suddenly there was a huge explosion. The car rose into the air. At first I thought it was an accident, someone ran into me, but then I realized what had happened. I got out and I saw hell.”
“In the first instant after the attack, there is always quiet. Silence. Nothing. Then, after a few seconds, starts the shouting. The chaos, the wounded, the dead bodies and cops running.”
“Because I was the first on the ground, I needed to first report to the command center what is going on. So they should know where I am, and where to send people, and how many to send. I remember I was standing at the scene and the radio was reporting an attack with a lot of casualties. All around me, I see everything. Hands, legs, the horror of the world. At first, we work like robots. Only afterwards do we begin to digest what has happened”.
The next attack that is engraved in his memory is of the shocking picture taken of him with a baby in his hands. It was a brutal attack in the Beit Yisrael area, near his house, in 2002 where 11 people were killed, including six children. A suicide bomber blew himself up in a group of women waiting outside a synagogue on Saturday night.
“We were on the porch at home and suddenly we heard an explosion,” he recalled. “My child was 4 years old, he ran to me and shouted: “Tate, a terrorist attack.” Instinctively, I jumped into the ambulance and raced there. I was one of the first to arrive, there was only one policeman who tried to keep the curious away, because a parked car there caught fire.
“In the corner of my eye, I saw a baby with his legs moving very close to the flames, and without thinking I grabbed him and took him away. After a minute, the vehicle exploded. If I delayed my reaction by a second, neither the child nor I would be here today. I passed the boy to one of the medics, who transported him in the ambulance to the hospital “.
Have you contacted the family of the baby?
“I do not follow up with everyone I dealt with from an attack or an accident, and here I didn’t really stay in contact. I knew the father was at one hospital, the mother was at another hospital and the baby is being treated. A year later, I returned home from dealing with a fatal accident in the evening. On the way, I stopped at the bakery in my neighborhood to buy bread for my house.
“Suddenly someone comes over to me and asks me, “are you Benzi Oering?” I said yes, and he started to hug me and cry. I did not know who he was, he then took out a newspaper clipping with a picture from his bag, and said: “This is my child.”
“I got the chills. Wow. It’s hard to describe. We hugged and talked for ages. We exchanged phone numbers, and we keep in touch. We go to each other’s family events, we speak before the high holidays.”
12 years later, Oering participated at the bar mitzvah of the child he saved, Shimon Yisrael Levy. “It was closure. It was very exciting. I told my children that I feel he is another son of mine, and his joy is special. Not only do I feel like he is another child of mine, he is a child who may not be alive today. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Oering leaving the house on Derech Chevron. “You’re holding a small bag in your hands, you see what you see, and you can’t hold back the tears. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.” // Photo: Noam Rivkin Fenton
Oering runs into people who know him well when it comes to lesser known stories. “One time I went to the Kotel (Western Wall), someone came up to me there and asked if I’m from Hatzola, as there is a person not feeling well. I went to that person and I saw all the signs of a heart attack, including irregular heartbeat and loss of consciousness. I got on the radio and asked for a Mobile Intensive Care Unit urgently. I gave him oxygen, to prepare him for intubation and suddenly he had a cardiac arrest.
“There’s something to do only as a last resort, which is to give a big punch to the heart, a punch directly to the left. I did it, and his pulse returned. Although his ribs were broken by the force of the punch, but eventually, after treatment and hospitalization, the man survived.
“A few months later I met a young man, crying, who did not stop thanking me. He says he is the son of the man who had a cardiac arrest and because of what I did, his father lived. This gave me a feeling of elation. This is my salary.”
One of the toughest nights of his life was on Sunday two weeks ago, when he received the call to the incident on Derech Chevron Street. “I was on another call of a body found in the woods, apparently a suicide. Over the radio came a call of a fire on Derech Chevron Street, possibly a suicide by hanging. I told one of the volunteers to head over there. When he arrived, I heard him say on the radio,” This is not one, not two, not three. .. ‘
“Immediately we left everything and headed over there. When I arrived, the police had already taken the bodies out to the balcony. To see four girls lying like that, next to each other … You can see the horror in front of your eyes.”
“At those moments, everything starts to come back to you, all the horrors you’ve seen before. The Schijveschuurder family from the Sbarro bombing, the children from the attacks in Beit Yisrael. To wrap a three year old child in a tallit is so difficult, It’s impossible to describe.”
“After I put the baby in the bag and held her in my hands while going down the stairs, I broke down. We tried to bypass the photographers, but were not successful. You’re holding a small bag in your hands, you see what you see and you can’t hold back the tears. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”
“We put the girls in the ZAKA ambulance and sat on the side, the volunteers and myself. At first we were silent, each one with his thoughts. It was hard. It’s not one child, this was one after another after another and another. Those volunteers with small children of similar ages were badly affected.”
“Then, at night, when you come home, you look at your children, you sit next to them, you don’t sleep at all the whole night. You see them lying in their beds in silence and the image of the girl lying dead does not leave you. Then you touch them a little, to make them move, to see that there is a reaction. “
- • •
His work, the images he encounters daily, infiltrate his life. “After an attack I smoke two packs in three or four hours. It affects you even without you noticing. You’re trying to block out your thoughts, but don’t always succeed.”
“In my spare time I make wine at home. Once, after an attack, I went back and made wine on the balcony, until one of my kids came up and asked me why I’m mixing the wine already for half an hour. I did not even notice.”
“For sure after 30 years, and after what I have seen, when I see a body it’s easier for me than for a young volunteer, where it’s one of the his first times. But even after all these years, you’re not indifferent. You see a man who committed suicide, and you cannot help but think, why? Why did he do it? How did he leave his wife and children and parents?
“Or in the case of Derech Chevron Street, you can hear the screams of the father for half an hour, screaming to high heaven. You cannot be indifferent to it. I have no idea how the social workers deal with such a thing, how do they break the news to a father that his wife, daughter, another daughter, another daughter and another daughter are no longer alive. Sometimes it’s worse than taking care of a body. “
Have you ever been physically injured?
“Only once, at the Versailles wedding hall disaster in 2001. So, unlike today, the army was not involved, and at first we got there and we were working with our hands. We went down, we moved and lifted rocks and people.
“I caught an elderly woman from the stones, tried to pull her out, and I knew that if I let go, she will fall. So I just held her. Then after came the pain. I had a herniated disc, for several months I could not do physical activity. Till now I do not feel my foot because of It”.
- • •
His wife and children are paying a heavy price for his work. “I know that my household is a victim,” says Oering. “My children are paying the price. They were badly affected, During the attacks I did not let them leave the house. I was alert and with my radio, I did not let them do anything – I didn’t let them go down to play, go to friends, ride the bus. I was scared, they understand it.
“Once I wanted to ask my wife if she wants me to stop. It was a day where I dealt with an accident and burial, and I was not at home at all. At night, when I came home, I saw that she was upset, but I did not want to bring it up later.
“Suddenly, at 2 am, my radio alerted me that someone has stopped breathing right next to us. My wife woke me up and said, “Go, go”. Then I realized she was fine with it.”
How do your children cope?
“A few hours before the attack on bus No. 2, in August 2003, there was a debriefing event for the ZAKA volunteers. I took my then 9-year-old son to the event, we were on our way home, when suddenly in front of us there was a huge explosion and a large fireball. It was obvious that this was a terrorist attack.
“I stopped the car and get ready to run to help the injured, when my son starts yelling, “Tate, do not leave me alone!” I don’t know what to do. On one hand, my son is screaming and crying after hearing the explosion and seeing the fire with his eyes, and on the other hand there are casualties on the ground, bleeding.
“I told my son to wait a moment in the car, I put on my ZAKA vest, and after a second someone brings me a wounded baby needing resuscitation. This is an impossible situation: the resuscitation of the baby, the frightening chaos, suddenly someone comes and asks, “Have you seen my father?” My son in the car, hysterical. It’s impossible.
“I grabbed a guy who ate by me once and I told him to take my son home. Meanwhile, I did CPR on the baby.
“When I got home, I saw my son was hiding under the couch. He refused to leave until I came in. It tore my heart. I showed him that I’m here, he came out, hugged me, and I put him in our bed until he fell asleep. Then I moved him to his bed.
“For a month, the boy did not want to leave the house. We took him to a therapist. After two months he recovered. Today he is already 23 years old, studying in a yeshiva.
“I think that the Chessed and the sacrifices the family makes are no less than my volunteering. They see me on days of seclusion and they give me the peace and time. Without the support of my wife and family, I could not do anything. They are true partners of Chessed”.
There is another act of kindness involving family Oering, known not only in the neighborhood but all of Jerusalem. Every Friday night they host in their small 67 square meter apartment, 20 to 50 people who have no one to go to for the Shabbat meal – single yeshiva students, divorced and childless people.
Word of the meal at Benzi has spread in the city for some time, and people just come to the house. Preparations begin on Wednesday, when Benzi’s wife makes forty challot and ten types of salads. In the days following the meal we are flooded with letters of thanks.
But even there, his favorite place with his family, Oering cannot always be free from troubling images. “Sometimes I leave the meal before the main course. Since the Machane Yehuda bombing, which killed 16 people and body parts were scattered all around and mixed up with products from the butcher shops, it’s hard for me to eat meat and chicken “.
You cannot ask what is the most difficult scene,” he says.” How can you compare an attack with body parts and babies killed by their mother? Everything is difficult, impossible to describe in words. When you go to an incident you do not say “Oh my gosh, what am I going to see now”, but you’re also wondering what will surprise you this time. 30 years, and yet every time I see something I have not seen before.
Oering. “It is impossible without the support of my wife and family, they are real partners of Chessed” // Photo: Joshua Joseph
“Ten years ago, I was at an incident together with Yehuda Meshi-Zahav. We went up the building, there was an open door, we enter and see a family sitting and watching television. Seemed very strange to me, I asked if they had heard about someone who died in the building, to which they indicate to me that it’s there in the room. It probably was a suicide.
“We went in, we took him and left. Meanwhile they were sitting and watching TV. We did not know what it is, maybe it’s their strange way of coping”.
Most of the ZAKA volunteers are religious. Why is that?
“Because you need a lot of faith to deal with this work. Dealing with a difficult situation is a hidden faith. Faith helps you get by. You have to believe that the Almighty runs the world. It helps you escape from the thoughts of how a mother can slaughter her child. As well as the most important mitzvah of bringing a person to a Jewish burial – this gives you the motivation.
“Whoever volunteers with ZAKA, Magen David Adom, Ezer Mizion, all ultra-Orthodox organizations, does no less than a soldier. I’m not ashamed to say it. My son did not serve in the army, but he has been a volunteer with ZAKA for seven years. Volunteering in ZAKA is easier than being a soldier? I’m not sure.
“There are many religious people who do not do the army, but devote not only three years, but the rest of their lives, doing the work that most people cannot do”.
Have you ever thought to retire? To do something a little more relaxed?
“No. I can’t. Here, I have a scratch, I am mentally ill. I. Cannot. Stop”.