Back to Egypt

Uri Ehrenfeld, former POW in Egypt, returns there for Pessah.

Ehrenfeld in egypt311 (photo credit: Jpost)
Ehrenfeld in egypt311
(photo credit: Jpost)
On March 26, 31 years after Egypt became the first Arab state to sign a peace accord with Israel, small pockets of protest were brewing in Cairo, as they always do on the anniversary.
Though the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s vision of preventing war has prevailed and agreements have been upheld, the Egyptian public has long faced cognitive dissonance about having ties with a nation it sees as discriminating against Arabs and preventing Palestinians from having a state.
On the Israeli side of the border there are no protests, but neither are there real celebrations or shows of solidarity or calls for increased tourism or cooperation. Tourism remains low, cooperation beyond the agreements remains relatively slim. The peace remains real but chilled.
But on that anniversary morning last month, an Egyptian attaché picked up the telephone and called a former Israeli POW.
Earlier the same day, unaware of the anniversary, Yom Kippur War veteran Uri Ehrenfeld went to Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market to buy vegetables. He ran into an old friend who is married to an employee at one of the South American embassies. Hearing that Egypt had formally invited Israeli diplomats, their staff and family members on a VIP tour for Pessah,  Ehrenfeld blurted out unexpectedly, “I want to go, too.”
He was in shock when he remembered the reluctant words coming from his mouth. For him, Egypt was the source of his nightmares, since he fought in 1973 at the Suez Canal, saw a number of his comrades killed, and then, wounded, hungry and battle-weary, surrendered to the Egyptians at Moshe Dayan’s command. In Cairo, Ehrenfeld was kept in solitary confinement for two-and-a-half months and tortured and interrogated hundreds of times. His captors beat and burned him, gave him electric shocks, yanked out his toenails and hung him upside down. In solitary, he slept on a cement floor. The emotional and physical scars have never subsided.
But Ehrenfeld had also subconsciously wondered if going back to Egypt and seeing the country and people could help him file 1973 away in history.
Before he had time to contemplate, the phone rang. The Egyptian attaché had already been informed of Ehrenfeld’s plea and was calling to personally extend the invitation to him and his wife to visit. After the weekend, Ehrenfeld drove to the Egyptian Embassy to secure a visa. The next day, he went back to Egypt for the first time since his captivity.
It was your first time at the Egyptian Embassy in Tel Aviv. Did you receive special treatment?Oh yes, definitely; more than VIP treatment. They let me in without waiting in line, introduced me to the ambassador and the first secretary of the embassy, and then we drank coffee together in a very friendly and relaxing environment. We got our visas right away.
The next morning you were on a flight back to the country where you had fought and been tortured in captivity, events from which you have never recovered. What was going through your mind on the plane?It was an Air Sinai flight full of Egyptians. Emotionally I totally disconnected myself from what was going on. I had to protect myself. In captivity I learned the ability to disconnect myself from painful situations. I look in as if from the outside. Still, I couldn’t believe I was going back; I was thinking that it was one of the stupidest, craziest things I had ever done.
Why did you want to go back?[My wife] Rina always wanted to go to Egypt, but I always found stories to tell her, like it was dangerous, to push the idea away and make her give it up. But I had mixed feelings. People like me who have had such a [traumatic] experience need to face a similar situation, to see that things are different. I had to see that it is possible to be there without experiencing such a thing. I had an emotional load I needed to get rid of and part of that is connected to Egypt. I thought maybe I would leave the load there, let them handle it [laughs].
Were you trying to make peace with the past, with the Egyptians?Yes, with the place, the nation, the people. I had to. This was part of the load I was carrying that I wanted to [heal].
How did you feel being in Egypt?Most of the trip I experienced as if through someone else’s eyes. You could say that I went with two people – Rina and another me. I have been two people since captivity. It sounds terrible and people will say I’m schizophrenic, but it’s not that. I and my friends in [captivity] taught ourselves that in certain situations you should let go of emotions and feelings, [and detach from the soul, spirit, mind] and body – everything. I hardly use this trick except if pushed into a corner and experiencing something extremely uncomfortable.
Did you feel that way when I was interviewing you the first time for The Jerusalem Post about the effects of war and captivity?Yes, sometimes.
When did you let your walls of defense down so that the other you could come out and experience and feel something on your trip?The moment we landed there, there was that smell, exactly the same smell from 37 years ago. I don’t know what it is, maybe pollution or car fumes, but it was a very unpleasant [reminder] for me. Then, we went to a really nice hotel in Cairo on the River Nile and got settled and then went to the Sha’arei Hashamayim Synagogue for the Jewish community Seder. It was blocked with police, snipers on the roof, secret service, so much security, it was unbelievable.
The Seder and reading from the Haggada about freedom was awesome and very emotional for me. There were about 150 people there: members of the small Jewish community, tourists, Israeli consulate workers, the US ambassador to Egypt, the Austrian ambassador and Egyptian workers. I didn’t [tell about being in captivity] but talked a little bit about Gilad Schalit. I felt high from the whole experience.
The last time you were in Cairo was as a POW. Did you do anything to recall or commemorate that?The morning after the Seder, I took a taxi to the place where I was held. The prison is now a mental hospital in the Abasiya neighborhood. I was totally disconnected emotionally, but I had to see everything, to smell everything, to listen to the sounds of the place and use all my senses in a very deep way and not be interrupted. My wife knew not to talk to me. We passed through the main gate and they let us inside the fenced [grounds] to the entrance of the building. I had never seen it before [because of having been blindfolded]. I took pictures until a policeman came and the taxi driver told me to hide my camera.
Did that help you to find some closure?Not yet. I had to walk for a few hours in the crowded market. I hate crowds, but it kind of kept the experience of the jail away from me, because I really had to concentrate on where I was walking and not losing Rina.
When did you let your guard down and let the experience touch you?At night back at the hotel. Rina went to take a bath and I stood out on the balcony of our room on the 23rd floor of the Intercontinental Hotel in Cairo. I had bought Egyptian Cleopatra cigarettes – the same ones we got in captivity – disgusting. And I had alcohol that I had bought in the duty free. I lit a Cleopatra, poured a drink and then I stood on that balcony and I shouted and [cursed] and I let out my load. Then I sat down in my hotel bathrobe and smoked my cigarette and had my drink and I enjoyed it so much. That was the moment that everything was settled. I was free.
You said that you also wanted to make peace with the Egyptian people. How did you do that?It was all gone in that moment. I let go of a lot of my rage. But in general, I was a professional soldier. I didn’t blame anybody for what happened, and didn’t have bad feelings toward Egyptians or Arabs or Muslims, except the jailors for their cruelty. They behaved like animals. A lot of them were overreacting, overdoing, over-torturing. They used the situation to release their own aggression.
Are you saying that you can understand an army taking a foreign soldier as a prisoner of war and trying to get information out of him?Yes, up to a certain point it makes sense. I can understand why you need to use methods to get information from them, but you don’t have to burn them with cigarettes. In fact, you don’t have to use physical methods at all.
You are against torture, used by any armies, including Israel and the United States?I am against torture anywhere, definitely. Torture is not needed. You can get information without it.
Did you have any other moments when you had that feeling of reclaiming your freedom?The trip was excellent; we saw all the sights and the last three days we went on a cruise on the Nile. It was wonderful and very relaxing. Every morning at 5:30 I drank coffee on deck and let the wind blow over my face. For me that was a symbol of freedom that I needed to feel very badly.
What did you do on your last night in Egypt?
We were in the Heliopolis neighborhood, where they have a hospital. Inaround 1942, my father was a doctor in the British Army medical corpsthere. It was very emotional that I spent my last night in Egypt in aplace where my father was helping people. In my thoughts I was[meeting] and talking to him there. It was very important because Iknow that when I was in Egypt he had a very rough time. It was the lastlink in the chain of letting go.
You made your peace as best as youcould. Did you feel that the government of Egypt was also reaching outto you, as an Israeli, as a former POW?
Yes. We had a bodyguard everywhere and were heavily secured. Everybodytried to please us. Everybody wanted us to leave Egypt with a goodfeeling and to be passing on goodwill. On my last day I made aconnection with a very high Egyptian Foreign Ministry worker, and Itold him I want to bring back veterans who had fought at the Suez Canalin 1973. He said he would be very happy and pleased to help me arrangethat. He showed me how badly they want to build new bridges to peace,to a real peace.