Out of Egypt

A former POW in Egypt remembers war, surrender, captivity and a lifelong struggle to reclaim his life.

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
March 26, 2010 16:30
Uri Ehrenfeld (Ariel Jerozolimski)

Uri Ehrenfeld 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

 
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It was fall of 1973, when paratrooper Uri Ehrenfeld volunteered for an assignment in Sinai.

The southernmost post at the Suez Canal was known as “the summer camp” and Ehrenfeld, exhausted from training, dreamed about downtime in the still, desert landscape. When he arrived, he sighed deeply, taking in the moonlit views.

But less than 36 hours later, the silence was shattered, as Egyptian forces took the IDF soldiers by surprise.

The skeleton crew fended off the Egyptians for one week, but suffered a high percentage of casualties and fatalities. Finally, defense minister Moshe Dayan ordered surrender. A cease-fire photo of Ehrenfeld’s comrade Hillel Unsdorfer embracing a Torah scroll as the crew prepared for captivity would become an enduring symbol of the Yom Kippur War.

A few moments later, a photographer also captured Ehrenfeld’s feeling of humiliation, as the Egyptian soldiers commanded him to take down the Israeli flag, raise the Egyptian flag and salute. “At least there is now proof I am alive,” he thought as his hands were chained behind his back and his eyes blindfolded.

Already wounded twice, sleepless, hungry, in mourning for his fallen comrades and feeling abandoned by God, he took a deep breath and started to detach from what was going on around him. The practice would mark the beginning of a long journey that has lasted 37 years until today.

Interrogated and tortured in Egypt, and then heavily interrogated again by Israelis upon his release two and a half months later, his ability to detach would save his life and his sanity.



But readjusting to life afterward has not been easy. Ehrenfeld, 56, has hundreds of pieces of shrapnel still embedded in his head, eyes, mouth and body that frequently cause infections and require surgery. The disks in his spine are damaged and old fractures still ache. Gangrene cost him a few of his toes, and damaged the nerves in his leg. The psychological aspects have been even worse, haunting him in his waking and sleeping hours, at work and at home in Jerusalem with his wife and three sons.

It wasn’t until some 25 years after Ehrenfeld’s release that researcher Zahava Solomon brought to public light the long-term, traumatic effects of captivity. Only in the last decade have former POWs suffering post-traumatic stress disorder became eligible for state support and services and to be recognized as wounded veterans. “Israel has about 1,100 former POWs and 90 percent or more suffer PTSD,” Ehrenfeld says.

Twelve years after cofounding Erim Balaila (Awake at Night), a support and advocacy organization for former POWs, Ehrenfeld finally finished writing his memoirs (working title “Ordered to Surrender”), together with author and former Ma’ariv diplomatic correspondent Ilan Bahar. Ehrenfeld, together with former POW Igal Kochlani, collected nearly 200 stories from POWs from every war, for an anthology, also to be published with Bahar. The books are now in negotiations with various publishers.

Ehrenfeld also consulted on the TV series Hahatufim (Kidnapped). The show is accurate, he argues, though he has asked that the name be changed. “We were not kidnapped,” he explains. “We were prisoners of war.”

When you went down to Sinai, did you have any fears that a war was brewing?

I was not scared at all. I joined the army two weeks after the matriculation exams in 1971, and the first two years were great fun and interesting, and nobody thought about things like war, injuries or captivity. We didn’t feel in danger at all. The glory of 1967 was still in the air and there was no fear about anything. We also didn’t care about the political situation in those days. Once we joined the army, we became disconnected from political issues; we didn’t read the newspaper or listen to the news.

How did you end up in Sinai?

We had summer training in the Golan Heights. [One day] my very admired commander asked for volunteers. The Suez Canal was a sort of summer vacation. Soldiers walked around in sandals and shorts in the sun and sand. It was pastoral and quiet. They even fished. Did I want to go? Of course. I had been two and a half years in service and felt I deserved a vacation.

Were you told of intelligence warnings?

The Bar-Lev Line was the southernmost stronghold along the Suez Canal. Because Yom Kippur was approaching they wanted to strengthen the outpost. I crossed the country south to Sinai on a truck on a Thursday afternoon. Around 2:30 a.m. I reached the outpost opposite Port Tawfik. [Most of the] other soldiers were technicians or from the Armored Corps. The funny thing is that they had stationed only one [extra] person from the Paratroopers – one extra person is not considered a strengthening – it was really silly. I didn’t realize I was going to be the only one.

Did the outpost live up to its reputation as a summer camp?

I woke up Friday morning and went to guard in my “biblical sandals” and undershirt and a weapon. It was very quiet, the canal was very blue, and the desert was golden yellow. I really enjoyed it; it was so pastoral; it felt like a hug from nature.

What were you doing when the first shot rang out?

It was Saturday, Yom Kippur, and I had been fasting. I was hot and thirsty. I was guarding a piece of rope. Around noon, we were suddenly shelled like hell. It was like an earthquake – the land moved, there were mushrooms of smoke, the air smelled like burned gunpowder and I was all alone, stationed at the entrance to the outpost. I radioed for someone to take the guard post so that I could put on my boots, vest, helmet and get my equipment. I didn’t think it was a war. I thought maybe it was a local [attack] and in a few minutes would stop.

You hadn’t eaten or drunk anything since the previous night because of the Yom Kippur fast. What did you do?

I drank a little water and a friend gave me a teaspoon of honey and one piece of candy. [On other days], we would have tinned rations – some canned food, but mostly crackers.

When did you realize it was a war?

Saturday night, at the end of Yom Kippur, I was stationed with another soldier, Yehuda Pakula, one meter away. The moonlight was very bright and he was telling me about his life, how he came alone from Australia and was living on Kibbutz Sde Eliahu. In the middle of the conversation he became quiet. I found him lying in a trench with a bullet in his head, dead. I didn’t hear anything. It was a sniper shot across the Suez Canal.

You grew up in a religious family. Did you have any religious thoughts? Did you pray at this point?

I thought, “I am in hell.” This was the first crack in my belief. [Pakula] was very religious, very quiet, a new immigrant on his own. I said to myself, “There is no God here. If there is, he is not calculating his steps.” Two days later was the second crack. Another soldier was killed by a hand grenade. I thought “F--- God. This can’t be real. God is not here.”

Were you prepared professionally to handle what was happening?

We were severely shelled day and night, and shooting at the Egyptians as they were trying to cross the canal by boat. There was no time to sleep; I was awake for one week. Dozens of boats with soldiers were coming toward us and we knew that we were outnumbered. On top of that, most of us were wounded already. What amazed me the most was that we had a lot of heavy weapons that nobody knew how to operate. I was the only one trained. So I arranged for the cook to come help me, and if you ask me, he had never held a gun before. But in five minutes of instruction, he became my No. 2 man.

How did you get wounded?

On Monday morning I tried to locate the source of the shelling, so I had to climb out of the trench.

They were aiming at your position; didn’t you know you would get shot at?

Of course. My friend put a helmet on his gun and gave them a target two meters away, and I climbed out with my binoculars. A shell came at me. I rolled into the trench and it exploded on the sandbags, less than two meters away. It was a huge blast – gunpowder, fire, sand, stones, noise. I couldn’t open my eyes. At first I thought I was dead, but I felt my face wet with sweat and blood. I ran to the clinic and it had the smell of death – burned flesh and blood – and people were screaming. The doctor cleaned my face. I had shrapnel wounds all over my head, eyes, arms, hands, in my mouth and between the zipper in my vest, and the blast had burned my lungs, and my blood was everywhere. But the place was unbearable, and the doctor told me I would survive, so I went back to my post.

Still, I had to find where the shelling was coming from, so I climbed out of the trench again, while my partner covered me. I knew that there must be a commander aiming the soldiers. We used to call them monkeys because they would climb into the tall trees. So I tried to locate this monkey. But the minute I lifted my binoculars, another shell came at me. I rolled backward, but didn’t make it into the trench, and it exploded maybe 80 centimeters away. I got wounded much worse.

How did you carry on despite pain and bleeding?

I saw a guy in surgery who was so severely wounded and there was no morphine and he faced it without screaming, and I knew this was helping the doctor, and it was a symbol to the wounded people and gave me the strength to keep fighting. There was also so much adrenaline.

Were there any moments of relief or inspiration?

The kitchen took a direct hit the first day and the only thing that wasn’t destroyed was the potatoes. One day, in the middle of fighting, I am calling [the cook], Moishe? Moishe? and he doesn’t answer. He has disappeared. Ten minutes later he climbs up to the post with a big dish of hot, boiling, steaming, salty, oily french fries. It was the smell of paradise. It was as if an angel appeared. How I blessed him. The sky is falling from bombs and explosions and this funny guy with a helmet half falling off his head goes and makes french fries. I kissed him; I hugged him. It was the funniest, most joyful, touching thing during the fighting.

After we ate together, he said, “Give me five more minutes” and he went to bring french fries to the other posts. I always tell people that bravery is also helping a friend, considering another person’s needs, endangering yourself to ease others. I always tell this to all our friends and all the machos at Beit Halohem [the veterans’ sport center], that you don’t have to be a fighter to be a hero.

Did you come face-to-face with Egyptian soldiers?

One morning, an Egyptian soldier crossed [the bridge] by himself, walking, and was shouting for water. He was about 100 meters from me. I didn’t have the will to share with him the little water I had left. I wasn’t sure if it was an ambush, and I wasn’t sure what to do, and we had an order not to let anybody in, so I shot around his legs, hoping he would turn around and run away. But [he] didn’t. He kept getting closer. His AK-47 in his hands. I could see the whites of his eyes. Very few soldiers had faced face-to-face combat and we had been in a siege for 180 hours and it was too much for me. I thought it’s him or me, so I picked up my gun. You have to be the first to shoot.

You weren’t sure it was an ambush; did you consider shooting him in the leg instead of killing him?

If I shot him in the legs, he would have died a slow death with a lot of suffering. Our doctor didn’t have any bandages or morphine left, and by this point the clinic was already filled with very badly wounded people and there was no place for him, and there were no men free to help bring him to the clinic or to guard him there. There was also an order not to let anybody in and not to take any prisoners.

When did you realize that you could not win this battle?

After a week of fighting, six Zodiac rubber boats with navy commandos tried to rescue us, but they were shelled and they retreated. When I saw them go back to the mother boat, I knew nobody would come rescue us. If the top elite marine unit was not able to get close, nobody will.

How were you captured?

I was going to fight to the last bullet. But the unit commander asked me what I thought about surrendering through the Red Cross. I said, “Are you crazy? I have thousands of bullets, mortar shells and hand grenades. No way.”

Later I found out it wasn’t his idea but a command from Moshe Dayan. Suddenly there was a cease-fire and it was very quiet. I knew if I sat down I would fall asleep. So I paused and thought, maybe it is better to stay alive and give up our dignity than to die with dignity. Then I destroyed all my weapons, papers, uniforms, badges, everything. We all agreed to give up to the Red Cross and let the events roll. Maybe the idea that we would not stay alive led them to accept the idea.

But we had a few terms for our surrender: We could collect the bodies of the dead soldiers; they would be delivered immediately back to Israel; the wounded would be immediately treated; we could take the Torah scroll with us from the makeshift synagogue; and we would take the tefillin and prayer books – there were a number of religious soldiers. They agreed.

Half an hour before the Egyptians took us, Moshe Dayan radioed in canceling the order and saying surrender was “optional.” But we had destroyed our weapons and equipment; it was already too late.

We crossed the Suez Canal with Egyptian military boats, rowing like it was in the last century. There was no interaction between us. When we arrived, they took me [and two others] back to lead them through the bunkers and prove that we hadn’t booby-trapped anything. At the observation post where I was wounded, they conducted a flag ceremony. They made me take down the Israeli flag that was now full of holes from bullets and shrapnel, and I had to put up the Egyptian flag. I felt like a doormat, but the fact that there was a photographer taking pictures that would go around the world felt like life insurance. It was proof I was alive.

Then they took you to captivity?

They put us in handcuffs and blindfolds and put us on a bus. During the two- or three-hour ride they beat us the whole time. We got to Abasiya military prison in the heart of Cairo; it doesn’t exist anymore today. The first four days we were made to stand, except when they took us to interrogate and beat us. They beat me like hell. I lost consciousness many times; they would throw water on me to wake me up. I was so thirsty I would suck on my head covering to get water. They beat us with electric wires, guns, rubber clubs.

Soon I found out that physical injury and torture is nothing compared to psychological torture. Hearing my friends screaming and shouting and having no possibility to help them was part of the psychological torture. Then they threw us one on top of the other in the back of a pickup truck and took me to section four of the prison, cell number 19. I was two and a half months in solitary confinement.

What did your cell look like?

It was 1.80 meter x 2 meters, 4 meters high, with one light bulb on 24 hours/7 days and a small window at the top. The walls had been painted about 100 years ago; they were peeling, dirty, stained with bugs and blood and spiders and yuk; it was disgusting. The floor was cement with little stones in it. In the corner there was a rubber pan; that was the toilet. There was no bed, no blankets. It was very hot during the day and very cold at night.

Were you still in the same uniform that you had put on on Yom Kippur, one week earlier?

Yes. I was barefoot and in this uniform that had become hard like asbestos from blood, sweat, gun grease, oil and dust. It had a life of its own.

What did you think about alone in that cell?

I lost contact with time. I was wounded, very weak and terribly hungry. They pushed me inside and locked the door and I fell on the floor and stayed there. My head was empty for the first month and a half. I was constantly taken to interrogation, sometimes once a day, sometimes 20-30 times a day and sometimes I was alone for days. In the beginning I couldn’t stand up; I was too weak and they had beaten me with electric wires on my ankles, which caused a terrible infection. But when the door would open, there was a rule that you must stand straight in the farthest corner. I had to sleep with my ears and eyes open or be beaten very badly.

After a month and a half, I recovered a little bit and started a routine. I would walk back and forth thousands of times. I would sweep the floor with my hands. Every day around noon a ray of light would come through the window, and I would stand on my toes to let the sun touch my face. This was my only connection to the outside world.

Did you think you might die in captivity?

I hardly had thoughts. It’s hard to explain. In such a situation, you are dealing with minute-to-minute survival. You have to fill up your day so that you don’t become insane; so that you stay normal. But I didn’t succeed [laughs].

What did you think about during the torture?

My mind disconnected from my body. Being pissed off was worse than the physical pain. I blocked my mind to observe. I learned to rule my thoughts, and in a few bad interrogations – and there were quite a few – it was as if I let my soul out of my body. Once you are in such an extreme situation you teach yourself – you better – or else you will go crazy.

You didn’t feel pain?

No. I felt the shame of some things. And okay, when they took out my toenails [on one foot], I felt the pain, but I didn’t let it touch my soul. I felt it as if it was not me experiencing it. You focus on the part of the body experiencing the pain and you disconnect from it. You scream sometimes; sometimes you laugh. It doesn’t help, but it drives them crazy. Until today sometimes I laugh when I’m in great pain. It is a way to be in control, even though you don’t control anything, except that you can breathe.

Were the methods of torture similar to the ones shown on Hahatufim – electric shock, being burned with cigarettes?

Yes. I have scars all over my body. But that wasn’t the worst. The worst was when they would hang me upside down with my hands chained under my knees and put a metal pipe under my knees, under my hands. They would swing me up and down and laugh and tell jokes. It was like being inside a press bearing down on your bones. Then one day they found out I’d lied about what unit I was in. I had told them I was in Nahal to hide that I was in the paratroops. When they found out, they put a cloth over my head and took me outside to a firing squad. I was sure I was dead at first. [But] they only pretended and shot by my ears.

Were you offered medical treatment?

I was screaming for a doctor. It took a month before a doctor came and took me out of my cell, and there I met 15 of my friends who also needed a doctor. The doctor from our post was translating into English what we needed, because we were not allowed to talk. None of us had been showered or cleaned, but we each got a penicillin shot using the same needle. I almost lost my leg from that infection [on the ankle and toes].

I was also in a lot of pain because the handcuffs were squeezing a piece of shrapnel that was in my wrist. One day I couldn’t suffer it anymore. I pulled my legs through my handcuffed arms [to bring my arms to the front]; took a piece of rust falling off the door and sharpened it on the floor and cut myself. All the disgusting infection and shrapnel poured out and I immediately felt better.

After Israel arranged a prisoner exchange, how did you guys feel on the flight back?

They told us lies every day, like that they had conquered Israel all the way to Tel Aviv. I thought that Israel had been wiped off the map, so I didn’t believe it was real until I saw Tel Aviv from the window. For a couple of minutes we were singing and shouting and we were so high. But when we arrived at the airport, we noticed that we didn’t know anyone. There were military people, journalists and airport workers. There were no friends. Our families weren’t there – why?

In the airport we showered and they gave us clean uniforms and put us in a taxi and told us not to talk to anyone. We saw our family for 24 hours and then they took us to Zichron Ya’acov.

What was it like in the military interrogation center at Zichron?

When we got there, we noticed it was surrounded by barbed wire and that no friends or family were allowed to visit us there. It was heavily guarded and we were heavily interrogated. I was there for four days; I was “lucky” because all of us who had injuries were taken to Sheba Hospital in Tel Hashomer by ambulance for treatment every day and then back to interrogation. I was wounded, so I had to stay in the hospital for a month and a half.

It was preferable to be in a hospital than with the IDF interrogators?

Of course. Everybody preferred that. Zichron was like being a POW in a way. Closed. Barbed wire. You are not free. You eat when they tell you to eat. All the time you are in intelligence interrogations. Even the doctor was acting as if he was [interrogating]. I don’t think they were sensitive to our experience. This is one reason we are angry until today. It did a lot of harm and built up a lot of bad feelings.

How did everyone else treat you?

We were considered heroes, but the Ministry of Defense was looking for some people to punish for giving up military secrets. They took two guys to a court-martial and sent them to prison – they never gave up any secrets. After the trial was over they were released quietly, but it took us a while to clear their names and they still suffer from this today. [A few years ago] we had a meeting at the Defense Ministry with a very senior IDF general. He told us, “You know, it’s no great honor to be taken prisoner in war.”

Thirty-seven years have passed since you fought at the Suez Canal and were a POW in Egypt. How do these events still affect you? Are you still there in a way?

No. But it is with me, in me. It is a big part of my life.

I won’t tell you everything. I will say that I don’t sleep well. Sometimes I don’t sleep at all. Every small noise makes me jump. I can’t stand wasting time; I’m possessed. I have problems with food; I have to make sure the refrigerator and cabinets are packed with food. I can fast if I choose to, but it’s a problem to fast on Yom Kippur or before a surgery, it’s very hard.

You mean that you can be hungry if it’s your choice, but not if someone else is forcing that on you?

Yes, exactly. I like to be in control. When we got back from Egypt, they told us to burn our uniforms. I didn’t agree. I took it with me. I have sentimental feelings toward certain things.

Because you don’t want this experience to be forgotten?

Maybe that’s also why I wrote my story, because it’s an important chapter in history.

You are carrying all these psychological and physical scars, but it’s hard to see. Do you hide that?

I taught myself to have a shutter inside. I give lectures all over the country and abroad. I’m talking but I’m not there.

You mean that you can still shut off your heart from your mind?

Yes.

How does your experience inform your reactions to current POW negotiations?

I personally and our organization have fought for Gilad Schalit’s release from the moment he was captured. We support the family and we lead events [on holidays] and with Knesset members. As a fighter raised in this country, one of the most important values of a healthy society is being responsible to each other. Not only to those alive, but to the dead. At the moment of surrender, before we crossed the Suez Canal, I and a few friends went around the stronghold and gathered the bodies of dead soldiers, wrapped them in blankets and brought them to shelter on stretchers. For me this was one of the most important things I ever did in my life.

This should be the attitude leading us in respect for each other and means everything regarding Gilad Schalit. For me, for us, the phrase “price” [when talking about prisoner exchanges] is a bad, strong, ugly word and makes it like you are going to the supermarket. It demeans the issue to the lowest, most shameful place to put a price tag on an Israeli soldier. I reject the idea that there is a price.

How realistic is the Hahatufim series?

A friend of mine had a heart attack two weeks ago watching it; it brought back so many memories. For me, we helped them a lot in their research so a lot of things we are seeing on the show are coming from what we have told them. People think they are exaggerating, don’t realize how exact and real it is. When I watch it, I feel like I’m back at Zichron.

Does the Pessah story of the Jewish exodus out of Egypt and the holiday have special meaning for you? What are you going to do this year?

It does mean more to me than other people; the idea of freedom. I put a chair and glass of wine for Gilad Schalit, Ron Arad and all the POWs and MIAs.

You think Ron Arad is alive?

Your guess is as good as mine. But as long as he is missing in action, for me, he is alive.

Does remembering how you were treated in captivity cause you to consider how other prisoners in Israeli jails are treated?

People in Israeli jails have privileges that we never had, so you can’t compare. But I do think about their rights; all people deserve their basic rights.

What happened to the Torah scroll that your unit saved?

It was held in a museum in Cairo, and on the last day of Ezer Weizman’s presidency, I was invited to a ceremony at Beit Hanassi, because [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak returned the Torah scroll to Israel. It’s now in a synagogue at Heichal Shlomo [in Jerusalem].

Would it be difficult for you to meet Egyptians today?

No. In fact two months ago I received an open invitation to visit the Egyptian military attaché in Tel Aviv. I will definitely go.

How have your politics been influenced by your experience in war and captivity?

I learned that life is more important than land. I am for life.    

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