War stories - up close

Meet Oded Zeltser, a former military man who gives our embattled history a human voice

n a quiet residential street in Beersheba's Neve Noy neighborhood, Oded Zeltser makes Israeli history come alive. You'd never know it, but right there on sleepy, tree-lined Rehov Hashita, lies a simulated battleground starting the moment you pass through the carport at #22. Tanks, cannons and military vehicles - all restored to perfection - sit in the open or are displayed under camouflage netting in realistic settings. This includes ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) memorabilia from the Battle of Beersheba in 1917 and artillery from the 1948 War of Independence, the 1956 Sinai campaign, the 1967 Six Day War and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Inside, a complete military museum displays uniforms, historic photos, scores of rifles, pistols and thousands of military artifacts from all over the world - all items used to defend Israel in some combat situation. The stories that go along with the military hardware bring it all to life. Oded Zeltser was born in Tel Aviv in 1930 and volunteered for the pre-state Hagana forces at age 13. Until he retired from the military reserves in 1985 as a regimental sergeant major in a mortar regiment, he was personally involved in every Israeli war. When Zeltser tells war stories, he makes history stand up on its hind legs - these are real stories, not the kind that lie flat in books. Zeltser didn't come from a family of warriors. His maternal grandparents left Poland for Israel with their 11 children in 1918. His grandfather had purchased, sight unseen, 20 dunams in Ramot Hasharon. "When he finally saw the land, it was nothing but a big hole surrounded by Arabs," Zeltser recounts. "In Poland, my grandfather had been a tailor making uniforms for the Polish army. Here he planted orange trees. He was a Torah scholar, so he already spoke Hebrew when he came." Engines, motors and driving were Zeltser's first loves. "My father was one of the first public bus drivers in the Dan cooperative. And he was the life of any party - he sang and danced, told stories and played in an orchestra for many years. When he heard Ben-Gurion's call for Jewish volunteers for the British Army in 1940, he signed up. In Israel, my father said, we had to fight the British because of their strict policies under the Mandate; but when it came to helping Britain defeat the Nazis, we had to help. The Jewish Brigade was formed in 1944. There were only about 600,000 Jews in Israel, but 33,000 of them - men and women - volunteered for the British Army." For Zeltser's father, the commitment went far beyond what he'd planned. "He came home and told my mother he'd enlisted," Zeltser says. "She was upset. 'What about us?' she said. 'What about our two children?' My father told her not to worry and that he'd be home in six months. But after he left, we didn't see him again for five years. He was with a unit that was captured in Greece and spent years in a German gulag." Zeltser couldn't wait to join the Hagana himself. "I joined several months before my 14th birthday. We lived in Tel Aviv and I was training to be a boat commander. When the 1948 war broke out, our branch became the [elite Hagana militia] Palmach's navy." As a first tour of duty, Zeltser was sent to guard Haifa port. "We were disguised as Jewish port workers," he recalls. "Every day we'd report for work at the port, each armed with a pistol. Thousands of Arabs worked at the port but only about 200 Jews, so the commanders feared the Arabs would take over the port. We worked like regular dock workers. I drove a small tractor in a loop. Syrian slaves loaded my trailer with potash, then I'd drive it to the ship to be unloaded, then back for another load. But the slave workers were angry because I was going too fast - they wanted to rest between loads, so they warned me in Arabic to go easy, but I didn't understand. Finally one of them attacked me with the sharp hook they used to hook the sacks and throw them over their backs. He missed me by a hair. If I hadn't flinched, he would have killed me. That was just the start. Shortly after, two Arab overseers ordered one of our drivers to get down from his tractor so they could search him for weapons. He resisted but finally climbed down. In an instant he was surrounded by hundreds of Arabs, one of whom stabbed him. He didn't die until a British officer pulled out a pistol and shot him. The British officer had ordered him to stand, but he ran instead so the officer shot him on the spot. That was our first death." Zeltser went on to other assignments, including training new Palmach members. "It was an amazing army," he says. "At night, we'd all sit around a campfire and sing, but each group sang in their own language. There were Frenchmen singing French, Greeks singing Greek, Canadians and Americans singing English, Israelis from a kibbutz singing Arabic. And there we were - the sergeants. We spoke Hebrew, but our troops all spoke something else." The 1948 battle in Jerusalem's Katamon district was memorable for Zeltser. "I drove an armored vehicle with eight soldiers inside - seven men and one woman. Those vehicles weren't very safe. The roof was only about one millimeter thick and the walls a little better, but everyone stayed on one side or the other because bullets would fly down the aisle between us. Our first casualty was when the woman was hit by a bullet. We had a medic, but he was on the opposite side of the tank and was terrified of stepping across. Bullets were flying. He finally pushed his equipment across and tried to follow but instantly was hit by two bullets. I've never seen anything like it. The blood spurted from his back in a big ark. He must have had a very strong heart because it kept spraying. I got over to him and put my hand over the two holes, pressing down, trying to stop the bleeding but it oozed out between my fingers. He was still conscious, giving directions in Yiddish. 'More pressure - I'm dying,' he said, so I found something to wrap around him and that helped. He lived. Another armored car pulled up close to us and we unloaded both him and the woman." The day of Erev Pessah was the worst. "There were four of us in the armored vehicle, but almost right away I was down to one soldier - one was killed, the other wounded. We'd started out with 29 soldiers and were down to seven. On that one day, 16 of our friends were killed. Evening came, it was Pessah and we had our Seder. One of our men tried to encourage us. 'You have to sing!' he kept saying, trying to encourage us to remember our escape from Egypt. But it was tough with so many of our friends dead, and singing was just about impossible. In 2 1/2 months, our unit had gone from 600 soldiers to 114." Even reclaiming the bodies came with a price, he recounts. "At one point we had so many dead in the armored vehicles that we couldn't find a way to get the bodies out, with the bullets flying overhead. There was one particular British officer - I can still see his face. He was very handsome, wore a cocky black beret and had a big blond mustache. He demanded that we pay him cash before he'd give us permission to collect our dead. It's pretty hard to forget men like him." Zeltser's lifetime achievements could fill a book. After the 1948 War, he became one of the pioneers in the Israel Navy. In 1950 he began service in the heavy artillery brigade and for 35 years from 1950-1985 he served in the IDF's mortar regiment, reaching the rank of regimental sergeant major in the reserves. In 1981 Zeltser opened the Reta Company, a chain of stores and firing ranges that supply equipment for hikers and campers, as well as firearms and ammunition. The army even brought Zeltser together with his wife, Sarah. "We met in 1949. She was one of three girls in our battalion. I was in the artillery, she was an office chief." The Zeltsers have three sons. Local residents still mourn the tragic death of Gior Zeltser, their eldest son, who two years ago at age 51, was killed in a road accident. "Everything I was, Gior was two steps beyond," says Zeltser. "Everyone loved him. He was an artist, an athlete, a Chinese chef and a musician." Technically, the museum began right after the 1948 war. "After the war I had two bayonets and one sword. By the time we moved to Beersheba in 1955, I'd added two rifles. After we got married I wanted to hang them on the wall, but Sarah said, 'Okay, but only behind the door.'" Today, firearms of every conceivable description cover several walls of the family home and fill every available space in the museum itself. "What can I say?" grins Zeltser. "They just grew." The primary use of the museum, which is a private venture, is for education: schoolchildren from all over the region come to tour, but Zeltser and his museum are also popular with young soldiers in the IDF's Southern Command. The value of the Veteran Soldier's Club and Museum lies in its authenticity. "The truth is, I'm a romantic soul," says Zeltser. "I see everything in colors. There is no black in my world. So everything has to be perfect, down to the tiniest detail." For information about tours, stories and museum hours, call (08) 627-8881.