Balagan's place in history

Meet veteran soldier Yoske 'Balagan' Schwartz of Rishon Lezion, a paratrooper who fought to free the Old City of Jerusalem 40 years ago.

By ERICA CHERNOFSKY
May 9, 2007 10:10
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yoske balagan schwartz 8. (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)

In the days before the outbreak of the Six Day War in 1967, Yoske "Balagan" Schwartz was practicing jumping out of a plane with his elite paratroop reserve unit in Rishon Lezion. There, the sand dunes resembled those in Sinai, where Egypt had amassed thousands of its troops - and where Schwartz and his fellow soldiers were expected to be parachuting in the coming days. "We were practicing for a real war," says the now 75-year-old Schwartz from his home in Rishon Lezion, where he's lived since immigrating to Israel with his parents from Budapest in 1932. As he and the rest of his unit began boarding the planes that would take them to Sinai, they received news that the mission they had prepared for day-and-night for over a week was canceled. Other IDF units had advanced quickly and the paratroopers' services were no longer needed. "I remember we were sitting there thinking - as we still do today - that here we are, the best soldiers in the world, and instead of fighting we're listening to the war on the radio," recalls Schwartz, a veteran fighter who joined the pre-state Etzel militia at age 13 and fought in the War of Independence just a few years later. "Don't get me wrong - we didn't want to die but we wanted to do our part. Instead we were sitting in camp, eating ices and telling stories." Little did he know that within hours, he and his friends would be fighting a heroic battle for the holiest site in the world. Neither did he know that many of his friends would be killed. His commander broke the news: Jordan had entered the war and there were 120 people trapped on Mount Scopus (Har Hatzofim) in Jerusalem. Armon Hanatziv (Govrnment House, used as the headquarters for UN observers) had already been captured by the Jordanians, they were told, and there was a danger Jerusalem would fall. "We weren't scared or excited or anything," he recalls in his deep, gruff voice. "We thought that just like our parachuting mission had been canceled, this would also be canceled. We had no idea we'd be actually fighting in a war." But when their buses arrived in Jerusalem, it became clear that there really was a war to fight. "It was the night of June 5, and it was very, very dark," says Schwartz. "I remember the ambulances were blazing and bringing people to Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem. We drove in total darkness, and I could only see my friends when something would explode outside. We had no idea where we were. Some of us had never even been to Jerusalem before." The bus stopped in Beit Hakerem, where the commanders met to deliberate their course of action. The soldiers waited in the homes of nearby residents, who fed them and let them call home. A few minutes later, they got back on the buses and continued to drive in total darkness. "Suddenly the buses stopped and our commander said to us, 'Put your helmets on, your magazines in your guns and get yourselves ready, because in a few minutes you'll be fighting," recounts Schwartz. "We started to laugh, and he didn't understand why. We said, 'Commander, we learned how to fight in the Sinai desert - we don't even know where we are right now.' He said to us, 'You're in Jerusalem, on a street called Shmuel Hanavi, and as soon as we get to the corner of Shimon Hatzadik you're going to get off the buses very quietly and start fighting.'" The three paratroop companies were each given quick instructions on the buses. The first company was sent to Ammunition Hill (Givat Hatahmoshet), and the second to Mount Scopus. Schwartz's was the third, and most veteran. "'You, the veterans, will get a special prize,' our commander told us. 'What's the prize?' we asked him. He said, 'You will get to free the Western Wall.'" But before they could get off the buses, the shooting began. "We had injured and dead on the buses before we even began fighting," Schwartz remembers. Somehow his company managed to hide and lie in wait as their group was told it would be the last to leave. "From where we were, we could see Ammunition Hill. We could see our people advancing every time a grenade exploded, and we could hear their shouts and screams. Then as quickly as they had left, a flow of them came back, all of them on stretchers." "I was so surprised, I didn't understand why there were so many dead and injured," continues Schwartz. "I asked someone who had been shot in the hand to explain. He looked at me and I looked at him, and he said, 'Just wait. You'll see for yourself when it's your turn to fight.'" An hour passed until his turn came, when his platoon was ordered to create an opening in the fence built by the Jordanians - which at that time was the border - to clear the area and control it. With the mission accomplished, they waited for the rest of their company to follow, but as more shells exploded and the gunfire reached a deafening roar, Schwartz knew they would be forced to advance alone. "One guy from the battalion ran to us, covered in blood, to tell us there were already 10 dead and 80 injured from the battalion, and I hadn't even started fighting yet," he says. His company was ordered to advance until they reached the Rockefeller Museum, where the high walls would provide a protected base. As they made their way through Sheikh Jarrah, Schwartz and his comrades finally encountered Jordanian soldiers. "It was so dark outside and we had no idea where we were. The Jordanian soldiers knew the place well, and were some of the best fighters I'd ever seen," he recalls. They fought fiercely, and after two hours of mortal combat many soldiers from both sides lay dead and injured. Schwartz's commander led the remaining troops to a nearby house and called for back-up. "I wasn't scared," Schwartz recalls. "I'm one of very few very screwed-up people who simply don't know what fear is - that's one of the reasons they call me 'Balagan.'" Other reasons include his courageous combat as a teenager during the 1948 War of Independence when he was shot in the stomach, and a few years later when he sustained a bullet to the leg fighting fedayeen Palestinian suicide troops. But this fight proved to be the greatest he would endure, and when eight tanks came to support the diminished troops, Schwartz and what was left of his company continued until they were some 100 meters from the Old City's Damascus Gate. "We were supposed to get to Rockefeller, but we never made it because we didn't know where we were going and made a mistake," he explains. "Instead, we hit the alley that we now all call the 'Alley of Death.'" There, the fighting began at 2 a.m., and when it finally ended the sun was already high in the sky and the ancient stones of the Old City were littered with bodies. "The Jordanians fought to the death. We fought for many hours, and many died," he says, pausing as he remembers the awful sight. As another regiment conquered Lion's Gate, King Hussein gave an order to retreat and the Jordanian soldiers began to disappear. Most of the fighting in the area dissipated, and Schwartz's company was told to join the others near Damascus Gate. "What I remember after that… I remember that we were trying to get to the Western Wall and we didn't know where it was. With difficulty we eventually found it. We didn't know the place, and had to ask Arabs. 'Where is the place that Jews used to cry to many years ago?' we asked, and one Arab said he would show us. "We went up to the Mugrabi Gate and past the Temple Mount until we got to the tiny alley in front of the Kotel - that was all they had left there. I remember that when we got there, we saw very few people, and I saw many injured and many crying, and I was so surprised. "'Are you all crazy?' I asked. 'For 2,000 years we've been trying to get here and now you're crying? And someone said to me 'Yoske, do you know what it cost us to get this back?'" Out of 1,200 paratroop soldiers who began the fight, only 400 were left unscathed, while some were still fighting even though they were badly wounded. Out of the almost 800 soldiers who died fighting for Israel in the Six Day War, 183 died in Jerusalem, and 96 of those were paratroopers. (Jordan suffered around 700 killed and around 2,500 wounded) "I remember we sat next to the Kotel, and we were the oldest group and most veteran. Many of us were married and we spoke about what we would tell the parents and wives of those who died. We started to understand the price we paid. When you're fighting you don't understand - you're shooting, you're advancing; but here the battle ended, and we understood. That was the hardest part of the war. That was the first time I ever saw paratroopers cry." But the war wasn't over yet, and their commanders gathered them to prepare to get back on buses and fight the Syrians in the North. Before they left, Schwartz and his friends gathered bloodied rocks to make a memorial, and afterwards everyone gathered to pray at the Kotel. "I'll never forget it. Forty years have passed and I still haven't forgotten it. I remember suddenly tens of thousands of Jews - young, old, men and women - were all running to the Kotel, crying and hugging us and calling us heroes. We didn't feel like heroes, but we cried and prayed with them. On the one hand, so many of my friends had been killed. But on the other hand, sitting in front of the Kotel, I felt Jerusalem. I always say that I had once thought, 'Who are these people with streimels and payot? I'm not like them, I'm a new Israeli man.' But when I got to the Kotel I understood that I was just a Jew. It was an amazing feeling."


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