Belgian Ambassador Dedicates Forest Grove in Memory of Children Killed in Sierre Bus Crash

Monday, February 18, 2013 5:05 PM

"KKL-JNF's gesture touches our hearts."

Ambassador John Cornet d'Elzius, Sally Zajfmann & Jacques Benzennou unveil dedicatory sign. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

"I am moved to be here in the Belgian Forest at Neve Ilan, to dedicate a forest grove in memory of the 22 children and 6 adults who were killed in the awful bus crash that took place near Sierre, Switzerland, about a year ago. The children, most of whom were Belgian and some of whom were Dutch, were returning home from a ski holiday in the mountains. It was a terrible shock for us when we heard about it. Belgian flags were lowered to half-mast, and an official day of mourning was declared, so that the entire country could express their solidarity with the bereaved families." The Honorable John Cornet d'Elzius, Belgian ambassador to Israel, was speaking at a ceremony dedicating a forest grove in memory of the children that took place on Thursday, February 14, at the Belgian Forest in the Judean Mountains.

Ambassador John Cornet d'Elzius & Jacques Benzennou plant a tree with Eti Lankri. Photo: KKL-JNF Photo Archive

"This gesture of KKL-JNF," the ambassador continued, "dedicating a forest grove in memory of the children, touches our hearts deeply and strengthens the bond between the people of Israel and the people of Belgium. Trees have great symbolic value. On behalf of my country, I would like to thank you for this very meaningful way of commemorating the memory of those who were killed in the bus crash."

The Sierre coach crash occurred on 13 March 2012 near Sierre, Switzerland, when a coach carrying school teachers and pupils crashed into a wall in the Sierre Tunnel. Of the 52 people on board, 28 were killed in the crash, including both drivers, all four teachers, and 22 of the 46 children. The other 24 pupils, all aged between 10 and 12, were injured, including three who were hospitalized with severe brain and chest injuries. Among the passengers aboard the crashed bus were 39 Belgians, ten Dutch children, one German child, one British child, and one Polish child.

The ceremony was graciously emceed by Eti Lankri of KKL-JNF's European Desk, who noted that the actual forest grove was located in the Yatir Forest in the south, while the ceremony was being held near Jerusalem for the convenience of the participants. Together with Andy Michelson, KKL-JNF Chief of Protocol, she presented the speakers with a tree planting certificate inscribed with the names of the children.

Mr. Sally Zajfmann, president of OBI, the Association of Belgians in Israel, said that countries throughout the world, regardless of the different languages they speak, should join forces in fighting traffic accidents: "There is road violence everywhere that must be addressed, and if anything good could come from this tragedy, it would be a greater awareness of the need to drive safely.

Neve Ilan Forest. Photo: Tania Susskind

"There is a famous story about the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of the Hassidic movement. He knew how to prevent catastrophes by some complex ritual and by saying special prayers. Over time, the ritual and prayers were forgotten, but the story of what he did was and is still remembered, and according to later Hasidic teachers, remembering the story is as effective as the original prayers and ceremony. We Jews are people of memory, and that is why it is important for us to dedicate a forest grove in memory of these children."

Mr. Jacques Benzennou, president of KKL-JNF Belgium, recalled that on the day of the bus crash, special memorial prayers were recited at the largest synagogue in Belgium. "That was our way of honoring the children's memories. The trees will remind us of these young lives that were cut off in their prime. We treasure their memories in our hearts, and pray that such a tragedy will not reoccur in the future."

At the conclusion of the ceremony, the ambassador, Mr. Benzennou and Mr. Zajfmann planted trees in honor of the occasion, after the Planter's Prayer had been recited by Mr. Avi Shlush, former KKL-JNF liaison to Belgium.