It is among Israel’s most unforgettable images: a lone Israeli soldier, standing in awe at the base of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, moments after its liberation on June 7, 1967.
Forty-four years later, that soldier, Jehuda Hartman, is now 66 years-old. He allowed Inside Israel to recreate that historic photograph taken by Micha Bar Am, and talked about his first, fateful encounter with the Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, which was the stuff of legends when he grew up in the divided city. RELATED:Rejoice on Jerusalem Day
“The entire day 44 years ago comes to my mind,” said Hartman, as he stood at the Kotel. “The first moment that we got here, the excitement. Trying to close the gap between something that was considered a myth and reality: to touch the stones with our hands, thinking that these stones were just imaginary a day before for me.”
On the morning of June 7th, 1967, Yehuda was a 22-year-old gunner in the
paratroopers brigade. Battle-weary and stunned by his units heavy
losses, Hartman was among the first Israeli soldiers to arrive at Kotel.
“It was amazement, it was excitement, it was a feeling of history, said
Hartman, “something that happens once in a [life] time and I have the
opportunity to be here, to take part in it.”
For Hartman, the Kotel has changed.
“The only thing that remained the same is the Kotel – the Wall itself,”
said Hartman. “The surrounding environment changed totally. It was much
more intimate, much more emotional, closed, small. You could feel the
touch. Now it's open, public, and the feeling is different.”
Gone is the narrow alleyway at the base of the Kotel. A watermark shows
where the Kotel floor stood in 1967, yet Yehuda remembers precisely
where he stood. He points to the indentationin the Wall, that oonce
bore a ceramic, Arab street sign, “Al Buraq,” named for Muhammad’s
horse, a sign he saw his fellow soldiers remove on the orders of
General Moshe Dayan.
Today, this living part of Jewish history spends part of his time
studying Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University. This native of Budapest –
whose mother, while pregnant with him, hid from the Nazis and narrowly
escaped death – arrived in Israel at the age of five. He has a PhD in
mathematics and is the recipient of Israel's prestigious Defense Prize.
He is the father of four and grandfather of 14.
To his interview with Inside Israel, Hartman brought a large, canvas
Jordanian map he had found only several feet from the Kotel on that
fateful day in 1967-- a map that makes no reference to Israel. He also
brought with him the blue skullcap he wore in the photograph. It was
knitted by the grandmother of his girlfriend and future wife and given
to him as a spare only moments before he went off to battle.
The soft-spoken, modest Hartman doesn't consider himself a hero. He says
he's just a fortunate man who was in the right place at the right time.
For him, Jerusalem Day will always have special meaning.
“It means history, it means the distant past, but it means only my own
experience,” he said. “Running here, coming here, arriving, surviving,
means a lot personally, on top of all the other layers.”
Hartman's layers are so deep, that perhaps its best left for the image
of him that has endured; an image that's worth a thousand words and
2,000 years of Jewish history.