Friday, 8th May 2009, was a very special day for Israel's former prisoners of war (POWs). After a year and a half of hiking the Trans-Israel trail for three days every month, they completed their goal of walking 788 kilometers from Metula on Israel's northern border to Eilat in the south. In honor of the occasion, Erim Balayla (Awake at Night) the Association of Israel POW veterans, dedicated a new monument at the Israel POW and Missing Soldiers Forest, part of Ben Shemen Forest in Israel's central region.
The ceremony was the climax of a journey that began in honor of Israel's sixtieth birthday. At a shaded spot near the new monument, family and friends awaited the 200 hikers who arrived singing Israeli songs accompanied by an accordionist. After drinks and refreshments, they were greeted by Haim Bivas, Mayor of Modi'in nearby. "I am very happy that you have chosen this site for your forest, which is part of Modi'in's back garden," Bivas remarked. "Future development plans for our city take the forest into account and it is our hope that local residents will take advantage of this forest for recreation and leisure time in nature. This is an opportunity to salute you and express our appreciation for the tremendous personal sacrifice you have made for our country's security.
"I would especially like to thank Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, who are not only partners to the forest's planting and dedication and the building of the monument but also continue to be involved in maintaining this site on a daily basis. They really do tremendous work. Generally speaking, people and organizations feel responsible for their own territory but KKL-JNF thinks about all the different pieces of the puzzle in Israel and how they fit together."
Uri Shachak, of Erim Balayla who organized the hike, described their experiences on the hike and what it means to be a former POW. "There is no doubt that the highpoint of our journey was walking into Jerusalem on Israel's 60th Independence Day together with 450 friends and family, including disabled war veterans. Our hike is completed but our journey is not yet over. Not all our POWs have come home. We are still waiting for the soldiers missing in action at Sultan Yaqub during the First Lebanese War, Zechariya Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Majid Halabi and Gilad Shalit."
Uri Erenfeld of Erim Balayla told us about the monument. "Together with KKL-JNF, we decided on this site to commemorate our story, which is not a simple one. Yaakov Danino, Projects Director at KKL-JNF's Northern Region, himself a POW in Egypt after the Yom Kippur War, designed the monument. It was created from four different types of stones from four different parts of the country, representing the four different battlefronts - Galilean stone for Lebanon, basalt for Syria, granite for Egypt, and Hebron stone for Jordan. Pictures of POWs being taken into captivity and their release were worked into the stones. The metal bars represent the cells in which we were held captive, and the partially open door symbolizes our release. The door is only partly open because we didn't all return and we didn't entirely return. Part of us will always remain there. Being a prisoner of war is something we will live with all our lives."
Participants were also greeted by Haim Bar, chairman of the IDF Disabled War Veterans Association and another honored guest was Ronen Helman, supervisor in KKL-JNF's Southern Region, who was thanked for helping to plan the hike through the south and for providing logistic support. "We took him 'captive' in Yatir Forest," one of the former PWOs quipped, "and he stayed with us until we finally reached Eilat!"
The dedication ceremony provided the younger generation with an opportunity to hear some of the POWs' stories. We spoke with Arye Vadislavsky and Aharon Liron Altshuler, both of whom were taken prisoner during Israel's War of Independence. Aharon was taken prisoner when the Old City fell to the Arab Legion. "It is hard to understand but the fighting was so fierce, there was actually some relief to be taken captive. But then, I was released quite soon, on Lag BaOmer - which comes out a few days from now, so being here today really gives me a sense of closure."
Not everyone knows that a number of women soldiers were taken prisoner during the War of Independence. We were privileged to meet Naomi Orev, who was captured defending Gush Etzion on 14th May, 1948, the day Ben Gurion announced the establishment of the state of Israel, an event to which she was oblivious. "We were taken from Hebron to Jordan in a truck. The Arab Legionnaires had their rifles pointed to our heads, and to tell you the truth, I would have preferred to be shot there and then to the uncertainty and fear about what they were planning to do with us. Finally, one of the girls who knew Arabic asked the Legionnaires what was to become of us. 'You will be fine,' he answered. 'King Abdullah ordered us to treat you as we would our own daughters.' They kept their word, although the very experience of being taken prisoner by the enemy is so terrible I will never forget it. When we were finally released, we were taken directly to a big ceremony in Tel Aviv. I wanted no part of it, I just wanted to go home, take a shower, wash my hair and crawl in bed. I ran away to my parents' apartment in Tel Aviv and when I got there, no one was home. They had gone to the ceremony to see me there. I just collapsed on the steps, crying uncontrollably."
On January 2009 KKL-JNF dedicated the site together with friends of KKL-JNF Canada. The ceremony was attended by Efi Stenzler, KKL-JNF World Chairman, Jerry Werger, President of JNF Toronto, Canada, Allen and Janet Werger and members of the family whose contributions enabled the establishment of the memorial site. KKL-JNF planted 3,000 trees in the surrounding forest, which will be cared for by student volunteers from the Rabin High School in Modi'in.