Coming from Australia, I had never experienced a war, because no war in the true
sense of the word had ever been fought on Australian soil.
So nothing in
my life prepared me for the Yom Kippur War.
I had left the Beit Giora
immigrant absorption center in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood to stay for
Yom Kippur with my friend Haya, a former employee of the Israeli Consulate in
Australia who lived in the center of town. In the late afternoon, we heard
sirens and saw jeeps speeding along King George Street. Haya, a multi-generation
Israeli originally from Tiberias, and a former policewoman, instantly knew it
meant war. We rushed back to her apartment and she turned on the radio. The
announcement confirmed her suspicions.
Being the only child of a widow, I
decided to call my mother in Australia before she heard the news from anyone
else. It was impossible to get through. There was no direct dialing in those
days, and I kept trying for hours before I finally spoke to an international
operator who put me through to Melbourne. By that time, my mother had already
heard Israel was under attack.
Haya lived some 200 meters from Beit
Agron, the journalists’ headquarters. The place was absolutely packed with
foreign correspondents and local reporters who all wanted to go out to the
front, but the army spokesman was not terribly keen on giving them permission.
Some decided to take matters into their own hands and just risk going south. The
problem was that anyone doing so needed a camouflaged car, and there was a
shortage of such vehicles in Jerusalem.
A couple of British journalists
made inquiries and found out that they could get one in Lod, but it was
expensive and they looked around to find two more people who would share the
cost. Eva, a Jewish woman who wrote for Dutch papers, immediately said she would
go, and I who was writing for Australian and American publications at the time
said I would go, too. One of the British journalists had a car in which we drove
to Lod on the fourth day of the war. Of the four of us I was the only one who
knew any Hebrew – not nearly as much as I know now, but enough to get
As we drove south in the camouflaged car, I kept leaning out of the
window, screaming “Bir Gifgafa!” (the furthest outpost on Israel’s southern
front). The road was lined with reservists on both sides, all of them trying to
hitch a ride so that they could join their units. Finally we found a soldier who
was going to Bir Gifgafa, otherwise known as Refidim. He got in the car, asked
who we were. We told him. He asked if we had permits. We said no. “Then you
can’t go,” he said. To which I responded: “If we don’t go, you don’t go.” He
caught on fast, and whenever we saw military police ahead, he jumped out of the
car to tell them he was escorting a group of journalists to Bir
Nobody queried his right to do so. No one asked us for
credentials or other documents.
When we arrived at Bir Gifgafa, there was
utter chaos. A lot of soldiers had already been wounded.
They didn’t tell
us how many had been killed. Eva and I were instantly surrounded by soldiers who
wanted to send messages home. One told me to call his fiancé and tell her he
would come home for the wedding. I have no idea whether he made it or
Eva and I were handed dozens of slips of paper.
couple of hours the Brits were ready to go back to file their stories. They were
going to do so from a public phone. Eva and I were still collecting messages,
and the Brits became impatient. “What are you, journalists or social workers?”
one of them yelled at us. To me, the product of a Jewish Day School and Zionist
youth movements, it was inconceivable to simply pick up and go when Israeli
soldiers were still plying us with messages.
Looking at the Brits I
replied with totally unprofessional naivete: “We’re Jewish.”
returned to Jerusalem, we parted ways with the Brits and Eva and I went to the
army spokesman’s office explaining that we knew that we had been out of line,
but that we were carrying messages that needed to be delivered as quickly as
possible, and wanted help. If we had to be punished, we said, let’s get the
messages out of the way first. Several soldiers each took wads of messages and
the telephone marathon began. It was after midnight, and we didn’t want to scare
anyone, but we didn’t want to wait until morning, because we wanted to get their
messages to their loved ones while we could be reasonably certain the soldiers
were all still alive. The army didn’t punish us.
A few days later, the
Government Press Office arranged to take a small group of journalists to
We left at around 2 or 3 a.m. One of the journalists was David
Landau, who was later to become the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post
after that the founding editor of the English edition of Haaretz
. Two of the
others were the late Dora and Louis Sowden. He was a poet and she wrote ballet
reviews for the Post.
But when reporting for publications in their native
South Africa, both were war correspondents. Landau is religious, and as the dawn
was breaking, he insisted we stop so that he could say his morning prayers. He
had not forgotten to bring his prayer shawl and phylacteries – and there he was,
a dramatic lone figure in the desert, looking like some biblical prophet as he
communicated with his Creator.
When we reached our destination, we saw a
cluster of Egyptian soldiers sitting on the back of an army jeep. They were
blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs. An Arabic-speaking
Israeli soldier who was guarding them had lit cigarettes for those that wanted
one, and was spending his time giving each of the Egyptians who wanted one a
cigarette to inhale, and then removing it, so that could exhale.