In the summer of 1973, IDF paratrooper Uri Ehrenfeld was stationed in the Golan Heights for a training session. He had started his compulsory military service two years earlier. After the glorious Israeli victory in 1967, he and his comrades felt invincible, they thought there was nothing to fear any more. When his commander announced that they were looking for volunteers to join the IDF southernmost post at the Suez Canal, in Sinai, Ehrenfeld signed up. The place was known to be quiet, beautiful and relaxed.
However, less than two days after he arrived, the Egyptian army launched an offensive. It was the day of Yom Kippur. After eight days of heroic fighting despite heavy losses and injuries, Ehrenfeld, himself badly wounded, and his fellow soldiers who had survived were ordered to surrender by Moshe Dayan. They were promised that Red Cross personnel would transfer them back to Israel.
Instead, that moment marked the beginning of his horrific experience as a prisoner of war in Egypt.
Ehrenfeld was the guest of honor at the latest Jewish War Veterans of the USA Jerusalem Post’s general meeting, representing the Zahal Disabled Veterans’ Organization.
The luncheon was held on May 30, to honor Memorial Day, a US holiday that pays tribute to American military personnel fallen in service. The event was introduced by Post Commander Abraham Kriss, 83, assisted by Events chairman Gershon Katz.
“I spent two and a half months in captivity, completely isolated, without any contact with my colleagues, constantly interrogated,” Ehrenfeld recalled. “We were all badly wounded, but we were denied medical treatment, nor we were given enough food or water.”
Released together with other Israeli prisoners in exchange for Israel allowing supplies to Egyptian troops that had been cut off from the lines, Ehrenfeld had to go through a long rehabilitation process. To this day, he has hundreds of pieces of shrapnel still embedded all over his body and he suffers from the consequences of the traumas he underwent.
When he retired after serving in the Israeli security forces for another 25 years, he started to write, and authored a few books. He later founded the Israeli POW organization, which counts about 400 members, including a number of women who were taken captives in the War of Independence. He is also active in helping young wounded soldiers who suffer from PTSD.
The first organization of US Jewish veterans was established in New York City in 1896 by a group of 63 Civil War veterans. Today more than 400 posts can be found around the US and abroad.
The Israel branch also includes among their members some parents and grandparents of English-speaking Israel Defense Forces veterans.
One of them is 93-year-old Malcolm E. Schrader. Born in Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York in 1925, he was raised in an observant Jewish family.
During World War II, Schrader refused the divinity exemption he could have received as a student of Yeshiva University. He was drafted and fought in Europe, where he was severely injured. Speaking to In Jerusalem, he recalled those moments: Already wounded in the arm and chest, he was laying down in front of a German position, “shelled merciless with mortars,” before he was hit again in the foot. Eventually a tank got him out, and after several surgeries and a long recovery process, he made it back to the United States, where he finished his bachelor’s degree, obtained a PhD in physical chemistry, and authored breakthrough research in chemistry for the US Navy.
Schrader and his wife made aliyah 35 years ago. “Moving here was always my ambition, but it did not work out until I retired. Two of my children were already here, the third joined us a year later,” he added.
Today he lives in Old Katamon in Jerusalem. He has 16 grandchildren and 45 great-grandchildren.
“My children served in the IDF when they moved here, and all my grandchildren served in combat units,” the Purple Heart veteran pointed out. Asked about how he feels in looking at them, he replied: “Just two words: I’m proud and I’m worried.”
Sitting across from him was another 93-year-old US army veteran: Jack Krasner, born and raised in New Jersey. He enlisted in the navy when he was 17. He served on a landing ship tank in the Pacific. He recalled his time in Okinawa.
“We were ready to participate in the occupation of Japan, but they dropped the H bomb and the war was basically over,” he told In Jerusalem.
His ship was assigned to the United Nations. Their missions included transferring stranded refugees home and delivering food packages in China. Krasner finished his service in 1946. He moved to Israel with his wife in 1992. For several years, they spent part of the year in Israel and part in America, where two of their three children still live.
“Now we are here full time,” he said.
He and Schrader met here in Jerusalem, and they attend the morning service in the same synagogue at least once a week.
Among the several US veterans who attended the event were also more recent new immigrants, such as Michael Kesgard, a 70-year-old Vietnam veteran, and a professional therapist who specialized in treating PTSD and made aliyah three years ago. When asked about the 14 months he spent in Vietnam in a military police unit, and whether there were memories or stories that he shared with his family, he just responded: “My family preferred not to know.”
Rabbi Aryeh Oberstein, a retired Orthodox chaplain in the US Navy also spoke at the meeting, which took place at the OU Israel Center.
He recalled the forgotten figure of Jewish Private Samuel J. Ziskind. On December 7, 1941, Ziskind was part of the crew on the SS Cynthia Olson, a cargo ship. The ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine a few minutes before the Pearl Harbor attack began.
“Ziskind was a signal man on the ship,” Oberstein said. “He sent out a message that morning, at least 18 minutes before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Had we caught that signal, a lot of things could have been averted in Pearl Harbor.”
“When we think about the yarzheit [the anniversary of someone’s passing], and when we mentioned those who went before us, and especially sacrificed for their country, we are sure that God takes care of them and elevates them every year for their yarzheit to a higher realm,” said retired US chaplain Rabbi Aharon Greenspan, a member of the Jerusalem branch of the JWV, commenting on the meaning of Memorial Day and its connection to the Jewish concept of yarzheit.
“In the memory of all of those, all I can say today is zichronam livracha, may their memory be a blessing, that we have no more reason to mourn in the future active and reserve military in America, Israel and in the world,” he concluded. “There should be peace. We are always afraid in the military that the peace will break out and we won’t be able to get our retirement and we will become obsolete. But it would be worth it. May peace break out and there shall be no more armies, no more navies and so on.”
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