This coming Monday morning I’ll do what I do every Remembrance Day. I’ll drive
down to Kibbutz Hulda, where the rolling Judean Hills meet the verdant coastal
plain. At precisely 11 a.m., as sirens wail nationwide, I’ll stand silently
beneath the fragrant pines and tall, slim cypress trees in the kibbutz cemetery,
hands at my sides, head bowed, before the grave of Sgt. Zvi Zimmer.
I came to know Zvika during July and August of 1971 while
at Hulda on Summer in Kibbutz, a program for North American youth heading into
their senior year in high school. I was 17. At 18, he, born and raised at Hulda,
had just graduated from high school and was about to begin a year of national
service prior to his induction into the IDF.
Zvika’s English was
extremely good – his oldest sister, Alfa, the first child born at Hulda, was the
local English teacher – and in light of my almost nonexistent Hebrew he became
my portal to the kibbutz. He worked with the real men in the cotton fields, and
it was through him that I got to know them. He also was the life of the party,
and though he was not handsome in a matinee idol sort of way, he was hilariously
quick-witted, full of energy on the dance floor and attractive enough to be
immensely popular with the women. It was chiefly thanks to him that I met the
prettier kibbutz girls.
Though not tall, he was a gifted basketball
player and had won a berth on the national youth team. There was a photo that
didn’t say much to me at the time, but in it he appeared along with young men
such as Mickey Berkowitz and Moti Aroesti, who later would become household
names in Israel.
It is fair to say that even at this young age, Zvika was
one of the true lights of the kibbutz.
At the end of the summer we traded
gifts – my orange Bloomfield (Connecticut) High School athletic T-shirt for his
red Hapoel basketball jersey. We corresponded only on occasion, but I knew I had
made a friend for life.
For Zvika, though, life was short – he was killed
on October 7, 1973, the second day of the Yom Kippur War. A tank gunner, he was
originally listed as missing in action, and each night on the evening news, for
weeks on end, his mother and sisters scoured footage from Egypt showing Israeli
prisoners of war.
No one seemed to know anything, and that was all I
heard back in the US on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t until December that his
remains were located and taken to Beersheba for temporary burial, the
circumstances of his death anything but clear.
In addition to Zvika,
Hulda, a small kibbutz, lost two other sons in that war: Reuven (Ruvka) Zakai, a
38-year-old father of three and a deputy company commander in the reserves, was
killed on the third day when his half-track suffered a direct artillery hit in
the Sinai near Ismailia. Gil Hariri, a classmate of Zvika’s and a sergeant in
the Golani Brigade, was killed in a Syrian bombardment the night before his
unit’s successful counterattack on Mount Hermon late in the war. I knew them
THE KIBBUTZ I found the following summer was clearly different.
Life had gone on, of course. But in the hot months of 1974, the glint in most
everyone’s eyes was absent, the lilt in their voices gone.
By this time,
Zvika’s story was being pieced together from eyewitness testimony.
helped defend Orkal, a fortress at the northern end of the Suez Canal, for 27
straight hours of combat as gunner in the platoon leader’s M60 Patton tank, and
then as tank commander after the platoon leader was fatally wounded. Numerous
dispatches note that his competence, coolness and even sense of humor under fire
inspired other tank crews in the area.
When higher-ups in the rear gave
the order to withdraw, only two tanks and a half-track were left, and for the
breakout the surviving men of Orkal, perhaps buoyed by Zvika’s unflagging
spirit, gravitated toward his M60.
The ragtag convoy raced south along a
narrow peninsula, the canal to the right, swamps and quicksand to the left, and
then eastward toward Israeli forces. Zvika, whose main gun had been disabled
during the original battle, sat fully exposed in the turret, hurling hand
grenades at the invaders.
The vehicles continued to move for about seven
kilometers when, toward dusk, they encountered a well-planned ambush by Egyptian
commandos. Zvika’s tank was hit by a missile and lost one of its treads.
Immobile and lacking a heavy gun, he ordered his crew out; two jumped to one
side and were captured, while he and the gunner jumped to the other and were not
seen alive again.
(The half-track was also put out of action, its crew
being taken captive on the spot. The second M60 continued for another 500 meters
until it, too, was hit.
The crew escaped on foot, but two of the men were
killed late that night by friendly fire when they approached the exhausted,
anxious men of an Israeli tank unit taking a breather several kilometers to the
east.) The day before Zvika’s reinterment at Hulda in the summer of 1974, I was
asked whether I wanted to help dig his grave. To this day I keep a photo of
myself, kneedeep in the cemetery ground, my head down, the pickaxe in my hands a
Surely there are others, but I personally don’t know anyone else
who has dug a grave for a friend.
The following year, for his performance
during the battle at Orkal, Zvika was posthumously awarded the Medal of
IN RECENT WEEKS, several Jerusalem Post writers have described how
it feels to deliver a son for combat duty in the IDF.
There’s not much I
can add to the obvious, except, perhaps, by relating the following.
Friday afternoon at the beginning of last month, Guy, our 18-year-old, wanted to
get some additional highway mileage under his belt before his March 14
Hulda, about 40 minutes away, had become my home immediately
after I made aliya in 1976, and as he had never been to the kibbutz he suggested
he drive me there.
He knew Zvika’s story well and had seen the photo of
me with the pickaxe. Now he wanted to go there, so I guided him to the
As we stood before my friend’s grave almost 40 years on,
everything suddenly meant far more to me. The heaviness was heavier, the lump in
my throat bigger.
Somehow Guy picked up on this, and as my sweet, bright,
robust and highly motivated boy silently put his arm around me – just days from
starting his own journey in defense of the country – I cried.
Monday, when the siren sounds, I’ll stand there again, surrounded by friends.
Like me, they loved Zvika, and I’ll take comfort knowing that as parents who
have or had children in combat units, they’ll know exactly how I feel.