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Sharing anguish of a son long missing

Thursday morning, students from Kadimah School in Amherst crowded in front of two televisions to hear Yona Baumel tell a story he has told hundreds of times before.

In early June 1982, his son Zachary was taken prisoner in Syria while serving with the Israeli army during the war in Lebanon. Twenty-five years later, he still doesn't know what happened to Zachary, or even whether he is alive.

Over the course of the hourlong video conference at Buffalo Office Systems, Baumel, who was speaking from Yeshiva University in Manhattan, told students about his son, how he has tried to find him and how he remains hopeful.

"In the course of 25 years, we've received a great deal of evidence that he's alive, and some that he's not," he told the students. "The search goes on."

For teacher Naomi Cowen, who helped organize the event, the struggle is personal. She is distantly related to Baumel and remembers baby-sitting Zachary. She said the meeting made students sensitive to the struggles of families whose children are missing in action.

"It made it real for them," she said.

Student questions steered the direction of the conversation. Many asked Baumel what happened the day Zachary was taken prisoner, where he thought Zachary was today, and how he had searched for him.

"Do you think there is a chance Zachary is still alive?" a student asked.

"If I didn't, I wouldn't be here," Baumel replied.

Baumel said he has been on a quest for news about his son ever since Zachary's tank was shelled and captured. He has cultivated a network of friends in the United Nations and in various governments who pass him information.

The clues he has received, he said, are few and far between -- half of his son's identification collar. A suggestion of what prison he might be in -- a cell near the Syria-Iraq border.

Many students said the answer that will stick with them was Baumel's response to a teacher who asked what gives him the strength to persevere.

"I have an Israeli secret weapon," Baumel said, invoking a Hebrew word meaning "if we don't do it, no one will do it."

e-mail: aerickson@buffnews.com

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