Veterans: A two-time soldier

“Then, it was possible to go to the Old City and buy a sheep coat from a Syrian vendor. Today it's possible anymore. My hope for the future is that my grandchildren will not have to fight more wars."

(photo credit: ROSSELLA TERCATIN)
In June 1967, Michael Bar-On found himself in an absorption center in Lod.
Just a few days earlier, the Six Day War had ended. “When the war broke out, I was a 31-year-old bachelor with no strings attached. I felt it was my duty to come to Israel and volunteer,” he recalled, speaking to The Jerusalem Post Magazine in the quiet and breezy courtyard of Beit Anna Ticho, an oasis of peace in the heart of Jerusalem.
In 1967, Bar-On was working in a firm in Brussels.
“I called the Israeli consulate there, explaining that I wanted to volunteer. I went back to London to close my apartment. I flew back to Brussels, called the consulate again and they did not remember who I was,” he recalled.
However, he persisted and finally got a spot on a flight to Israel. “I later learned that in London, people were fighting to get on a flight. In 1967, everyone wanted to volunteer.”
When the flight from Brussels landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, nobody was there to give the group directions. Somehow they found their way to an absorption center. A couple of days later a taxi showed up.
“Someone told me that the taxi was going to Jerusalem and it had one seat left. I took it. Fifty-two years later, here I am.”
The first encounter with Israel was not easy. Bar-On was assigned to a group sent to the Ziv Hospital, now part of Shaare Zedek Medical Center.
“The place had not been used as a hospital for years, and was very dilapidated. A group of volunteers was given the very distasteful job of cleaning out the rooms and the toilets.
“We had no one to tell us what to do or where to go. The official from the Jewish Agency had promised us that we would have a madrich [counselor], but it took several days until he arrived,” he remembered.
“We were also told that we would be given the job of cleaning out the Hebrew University, which had been isolated for 19 years with only a police patrol every two weeks. We were bused there every day and left to our own devices. We were given the materials to clean up the university and discovered notices which had been put up in 1948 and remained untouched.”
A civil engineer by profession, Bar-On has now been retired for many years but keeps himself busy with several passions.
For many years, he sang in a choir that at times brought him back to his country of origin to perform.
Moreover, he earned a degree in Jewish history from the University of London as an external student.
Bar-On also loves photography, and is a licentiate of the British Royal Photographic Society.
Landscapes and happy occasions are among the subjects he likes to capture with his camera. He often participates as a photographer for weddings, bar or bat mitzvot, etc. His pictures have been on display in several exhibitions in Jerusalem.
“However, photography has quite changed. Everyone is a photographer now,” he admitted.
In spite of the sense of duty that drove him to Israel, Bar-On pointed out that in the end, he has more memories of the Second World War than he does of the Six Day War.
“I remember sitting in an air shelter, singing songs, and then hearing whistles and booms. The Nazi bombing on London was traumatizing,” he said.
MICHAEL WAS born into a working-class family in London in 1936. “There weren’t a lot of Jews in our neighborhood, maybe one or two other families. During the war, we evacuated from London twice.”
However, both Judaism and Israel were important ideas in the family.
“My father would have liked to move to Israel in 1948, but it did not work out.”
The one other person in his family who did try to get to Israel was Bar-On’s uncle.
“After the end of the Second World War, he was in London. He heard that in Marseilles, there was a secret displaced persons camp where people who wanted to volunteer to fight for Israel were gathering. He somehow got to Marseilles. However, the leaders of the group thought he was a British spy who spoke Yiddish, so they arrested him. That was the end of his desire to move to Israel,” he recalled.
Bar-On started to attend a synagogue regularly around the age of 12. “I didn’t understand much, but I would go,” he said.
He kept his Jewish practice alive during his compulsory service in the British Army. When he was drafted, he asked to work on something technical, and was first assigned to a course in order to become a wireless operator. Soon, though, he was transferred to another base to attend a Russian course in Bodmin, in the Cornwall region of England.
“We were a small group of Jewish boys, and we somehow managed to keep Shabbat,” he added, before describing how they would hold a service in the communal church. “We had to finish by 11 because then the Catholics would take over for Mass.”
His parents would also send him a kosher chicken every week from his grandparents, who ran a chicken shop. He and his fellow Jewish soldiers managed to avoid some army duties on Saturdays by postponing them to Sunday.
Just before the end of the Russian course, Bar-On fell sick with a collapsed lung, and after spending a month in the hospital, was transferred twice again. He ended up finishing his service as a clerk in a secret bunker in London. “I learned how to type,” he commented.
After making aliyah, Bar-On was drafted again, this time by the Israeli Army. “My draft in Israel was only one month long since I was not so young anymore.”
Nonetheless, he was called up when the Yom Kippur War broke out, and did a lot of guard duty in several locations, including in the Sinai Peninsula.
A few years earlier, Bar-On met his wife, Carol. “She was an immigrant from France. She worked as a nurse at Shaare Zedek.”
They got married in Jerusalem on August 4, 1969. To this day, they speak French with each other.
“We have two children, Einat and Yoel, and 11 grandchildren, ages six to 20. As it happens in many families, my daughter is very religious and lives in a West Bank settlement called Amihai. My son is secular and works as a gynecologist in Beersheba,” Bar-On explained.
He thinks nostalgically of the Jerusalem he encountered when he first arrived, more than 50 years ago.
“Back then, it was possible to go to the Old City and buy a sheep coat from a Syrian vendor. Today it is not possible anymore. My hope for the future is that my grandchildren will not have to fight any more wars.”