Middle Israel: The poetry of primary warriors

“Remember our names forever.”

Jews crowd onto a British army armoured car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted on November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jews crowd onto a British army armoured car as they celebrate in downtown Jerusalem the morning after the United Nations voted on November 29, 1947 to partition Palestine which paved the way for the creation of the State of Israel on May 15, 1948.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
‘Look,” wrote Haim Gouri in January 1948, as if from the motionless mouths of his 35 comrades who had just fallen in battle north of besieged Gush Etzion.
Our bodies are strewn in a long, long line
Our faces have been changed; death looks from our eyes; we do not breathe
Light’s last flickers smother, as nightfall descends on the mountain
Look, we will not rise to walk the paths of a distant sunset
We will not love; we won’t produce pleasant, solemn sounds from shivering strings
We will not roar in the gardens, when the wind passes through the trees
The massacre caught the 24-year-old Gouri abroad, while leading Holocaust survivors to Zion from Hell. Even so, the lines he jotted in Vienna while staring at a blurry newspaper photo of his friends’ bodies became timeless; timeless as the poet who this week died at 94 should – but doubtfully will – become as well.
Those lines became timeless because after depicting the troops’ bereaved mothers (“gaunt and silent”), and after broad-brushing battle’s eruption (“blasting grenades, a nearby fire, and foreboding signals of storm”), and after hailing his friends’ heroism (“our quiver is empty... we did all we could until the last one fell and did not rise”), Gouri defined the war’s purpose and evoked the future’s hope.
Yes, he repeated, his friends no longer breathe:
But the wind in the mountains is fierce and breathing
And morning is born, and dew’s shine is singing
We will return to meet, we will return as red flowers
You will recognize us immediately – it’s the mute Mountain Platoon
Then we will blossom; when gunfire’s last cry will fall silent down the mount
AN OFFICER in the Palmah (“Strike Platoons”) units that spearheaded Israel’s battle for independence, Gouri soon returned to the Judean Mountains where he would lose hundreds more friends while fighting to break Jerusalem’s siege.
“Remember our names forever,” the future Israel Prize laureate commanded the mountain pass. “Convoys charged en route to the city,” he recalled, where “our dead line the path” while “the metal skeleton is as silent as my friend” where “nights passed in daggers and fire,” and where “glory and sorrow” now shared space with “a burnt chariot and an unknown soldier’s name.”
Notebook in hand, Gouri strolled along the fresh bodies and jotted the lines that millions would recall while driving by the burnt chariots that now line the six-lane highway at Sha’ar Hagai.
I remember them one by one
Here we fought together on rock and cliff
Here we were together – all one family
Smelted in that preliminary war’s fire and sculpted by its storms, Gouri became an icon of what Israelis revered as “the Generation of ’48.” Millions know many of his lines by heart, having learned them in school and sung them around youth movement bonfires under star-strewn skies.
Yet Gouri was for Middle Israelis not merely a gifted poet or a gruesome war’s chronicler, but a moral beacon.
The Sabra who was educated to build the future by abandoning the past reached out to Exile’s Jews, twice: first by shepherding them through Gehenna’s ashes, then by producing a filmic trilogy that saluted the survivors at a time when Sabras saw in them sheep who marched to their slaughter.
Though raised so secularly that he never entered a synagogue before his father-in-law’s death, Gouri’s Hebrew was majestically biblical, and his writing was imbued with the Jewish heritage that inspired the Palmah’s quest for “purity of arms” and its idealization of friendship.
It’s already a year, and we are left but a few
How many are those who are no longer among us
he wrote, as the war led him from Judea to the Negev.
But we will remember them all
The fair-faced and handsome
For such friendship shall never
Let our hearts forget
Love hallowed in blood
You’ll return to blossom among us
Friendship, like all your youths
We will smile and walk in your name
Because friends who fell on their swords
Willed your life as a memorial
TO THIS DAY, Israelis often feel that their idea of friendship is different from what it is elsewhere in the West; that each of them has some friends – from childhood, the neighborhood, and the army – for whom they will do almost anything, in the spirit of Aristotle’s distinction between superior friendship and friendships of pleasure and utility.
The roots of this Israeli value lie in what the warriors of ’48 wrote in blood, and Gouri wrote in ink.
But now, how many people still read ink, and how many will tomorrow? And next spring, when the fast train to Tel Aviv ignores Sha’ar Hagai, swooshing through the tunnels to its north, will millennial Israelis recall the warriors of ’48, and the friendships they hallowed in blood?
“One day I reached a well-known high school in Tel Aviv,” recalled Gouri, then 90, in a conversation with novelist Meir Shalev. “I read them a line from [poetess] Rachel [Bluwstein, 1890-1931] which – had I been a judge for the Nobel Prize for a single line – would have won twice.”
Once, said Gouri to the students, he would grant Rachel the Nobel for this: “Attentive is the heart, attentive is the ear: is he coming? Will he come? In every expectation there is a Mount Nebo.”
And the second Nobel would go for the line that ended up on Rachel’s tombstone:
“A person with a Nebo overlooking a vast land”
Gouri, the icon of the Generation of ’48, now looked at the generation of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, The X-Factor and MasterChef, and read to them Rachel’s lines, “choking from excitement.”
“They stared at me like statues,” he said. “They got none of it.”
Ignorant of the Bible he knew so intimately, they didn’t know of Mount Nebo, what facing it meant, and what it meant to Rachel who reached the Promised Land only to die heartbroken after having never found the love of her dreams, and never borne the child of her prayers.
“I looked at the watch,” said Gouri, “and told the class: ‘Today at 10:30, in this school, Hebrew poetry died.’”