Allon Wald grew up playing in the trenches not far from the place where his father was killed – along with 181 other paratroopers – in the 1967 battle of Ammunition Hill. Throughout his childhood, Wald climbed over the tanks, played hide-and-seek in the ditches, and listened to the memorial services each year for the battle that paved the way for the liberation of the Old City, gradually coming to understand what had happened there and who his father was.
“All my life I spent running after his legacy, his stories, and only after finishing my path years later did I understand how proud of him I am,” Wald says. “I understand him much better now than most sons understand their fathers, because I never took him for granted.”
Allon means oak, a symbol of connection to the roots of the land, and Wald stayed loyal to his heritage, forming a deep affinity with Ammunition Hill and the men who had served alongside Rami, his father. These men, Rami’s fellow paratroopers, became his surrogate fathers.
They bought Wald roller skates and air guns and bicycles for his birthdays, came to his bar mitzva, called him up to the stage on Jerusalem Day to lower the flag, took him out to their ranches in the Golan to ride horses and made themselves available to him at any time, whatever the hour, if he needed to talk.
Walking through the trenches at 17, Wald convinced himself of what he had to do. He came to his mother, who had lost her first husband, and watched, with shaking knees, as her second was sent to the front in the Yom Kippur War, and asked her permission to serve as a paratrooper in his father’s footsteps. Despite all she had gone through, despite having to move to another town because she couldn’t stand the looks of pity after the war, his mother consented. She understood.
“Daddy, I’m a soldier now,” Wald said over his father’s grave on Mount Herzl.
Over the next 18 years of his military service, Wald would create his own legends, his own legacy, but never stopped piecing together the story of Rami’s life and maintaining the bond with the soldiers who had fought alongside his father.
One day, 10 years ago, he received a call from Vaxi, one of his closest mentors from the 66th Battalion that his father died fighting for.
“We [the 66th battalion] are 80 years old,” Vaxi told him. “We will not be here forever. You hold the stories for each of us; come to this place and immortalize our values for people who did not know us. Try to do it in a way that they can understand. Let these values be relevant for them.”
Wald knew that this was not something he could say no to, and along with other members of bereaved families, began to devote more and more of his time to maintaining the memorial of Ammunition Hill.
“I realized we were part of an amazing circle,” Wald says, “as we are the voice of this inspiring generation of fallen fathers who fought in the spirit of the IDF and the spirit of the nation of Israel.”
Since then, he has worked tirelessly to preserve and revitalize Ammunition Hill, which in recent months has undergone a series of important renovations, such as the creation of a commemoration hall and the restoration of the battlegrounds. Because of its status as a national site, Ammunition Hill has not charged visitors for entry over the years, meaning it had no effective way to sustain itself. The site has come close to shutting down multiple times for financial reasons.
“Over the last decade, support for the site did not come from the country but from the bereaved families,” says Menachem Landau, chairman of Ammunition Hill’s managing foundation. “They were the chair people, they were the board, they brought their own money together and they asked their uncles and friends and sisters to put it together.”
The efforts of the bereaved, like Wald, have now been bolstered by the Jerusalem Municipality, Tourism Ministry, Prime Minister’s Office and Jewish National Fund- Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael, all of which have contributed significantly to the restorations. The final project, a museum, is set to open on May 24, 2017, in time for the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.
“We want people to experience the site and walk in the footsteps of the fallen so that the next generation can learn what sacrifice meant,” says Katri Maoz, director- general of Ammunition Hill. “We want them to know what it meant to fight for Jerusalem and for our values, that it’s not only about who fought and what they did, but about the values that they fought with and how they did extra, beyond what anybody expected them to.”
With 274,000 visitors last year, a vast increase from the 70,000 who came in 2006, the new additions have facilitated Ammunition Hill’s rise as an important destination both for tourists and native Israelis.
The site hopes that the restorations will enable visitors to relate the memorial to their own lives. To do this, says Yoel Rosby, JNF liaison to Ammunition Hill, the foundation decided to try to tell the stories of each of the 182 fallen soldiers. In the commemoration hall and the future museum, archival footage and testimonies, photographs, and other historical objects will be on display in an immersive and interactive experience that Wald and others hope will inspire visitors on a more visceral level by illustrating that heroism is not solely based on a single act in a person’s life, but rather through the culmination of their values.
“Ammunition Hill is not just a story of Israeli heroism,” Rosby says. “It’s a story of Jewish heroism from around the world. Every individual, regardless of race, color or gender can walk into this site and find their connection to the heroism of our nation, of our people and of Israel today.”
Wald’s father, Rami, exemplified the values of Ammunition Hill, those of bravery and loyalty to one’s comrades.
When the war broke out, he was a 31-year-old veteran who had already done more than his fair share of time. The IDF offered him a spot as a combat adviser, which would have allowed him to get through the war from the safety of an office. Yet when he learned of the difficulty of the coming battle at Ammunition Hill, how his fellow paratroopers would be facing their most challenging fight yet, he convinced his commanding officers that they needed to let their best combat engineer join his fellow soldiers.
“To be a hero, you do not have to be an officer,” Wald says. “Whoever and wherever you are, you can choose to be a leader and inspire others. Your values and actions can make a difference.”