It was Friday afternoon May 25, 1979 and I was returning home from Yeshiva for Shabbos. It was one of the latest candle lightings of the year and there was time to hear the news before Shabbos began. The opening story on the evening news was one which still sends pain and anxiety-laden shocks through my entire being.
A boy was missing. A little six year old Jewish boy left his home in Manhattan to go to school.
He never returned home, he never arrived at school, he never even arrived at the bus stop to take him to school. That boy’s name was Etan Patz.
If that day would have been ‘regular,’ if that day had been like any other Friday, I would never have heard of Etan Patz. He was years younger than I, lived in the city and our paths most likely would never have crossed. Yet, the unpredictability of life caused my life and his life – along with the lives of millions of other Americans – to be interwoven in a web of fear and anxiety. For almost forty years, no one has known whatever happened to the young innocent soul who went missing that Friday morning.
Etan would eventually be the first child to be featured on the backs of milk containers and even had his image flashed repeatedly on one of the new large neon billboards which adorned Times Square. For almost a year you could not visit the city without seeing a missing person flyer with the picture of angelic Etan prominently displayed. Yet, despite many false leads and hours and hours of heartfelt worry, the mystery remained.
Months turned into years, and years into decades. The Manhattan neighborhood where Etan disappeared from gentrified and soon enough – with the exception of some suspected ‘sightings’ – the case of Etan Patz went cold. His parents were no longer interviewed and his name was no longer mentioned on the news; however, for me – and for many others – the memory of Etan Patz was never far from my mind. When my children were born I would think of Etan and more precisely – his parents – and wonder how many times did they play over and over the question of why they let him walk alone. When my children first began to discover their own independence and wanted to venture off to friend’s houses on their own, I recalled Etan Patz. And now that my own grandchildren are taking their first steps in world ‘out-there’ I still think of Etan Patz.
Today, the newspaper announced:
Pedro Hernandez, a former bodega stock clerk who confessed to luring 6-year-old Etan Patz into a basement and attacking him, was found guilty on Tuesday of murder and kidnapping, a long-awaited step toward closure in a case that bedeviled investigators for decades and changed forever the way parents watched over their children.
Finally, a verdict. Almost forty years later a 56 year old man was found guilty of the gruesome crime. And notwithstanding the statement of Cyrus Vance, the Manhattan District Attorney, “Bringing closure on Etan’s disappearance to the Patz family has also been among my highest priorities since I took office,” – there is really no closure for this heinous act.
I am relieved for the parents of Etan Patz; hopefully they have a measure of consolation in knowing that some justice will be achieved. I am encouraged that the criminal justice system pursed the case, however, to say that there is real closure seems almost cavalier in the face of the enormity of the crime.
Etan has never come home nor will he ever come home. Yet, his legacy lives on as all of us remain a little more vigilant and wary to the dangers that lurk too close for comfort.