Battle for Jerusalem

A couple recounts the same war from two very different points of view.

battle for katamon 224 (photo credit: Israel Actualities)
battle for katamon 224
(photo credit: Israel Actualities)
Though their individual experiences in the War of Independence were considerably different, Tamar and Natan DeGroot agree that it has been inaccurately idealized by history books and popular opinion. Every country whitewashes its history, Natan points out. "It's like in Pete Seeger's song, 'What did you learn in school today?'" he says, referring to a folk song in which a child tells his father all of the "truths" he learned about US history. But Natan is not one to shy away from the facts. He was born in Holland and hid there throughout World War II. He freely admits that he fled in 1946 to avoid the Dutch draft and service in Indonesia. He came to Palestine illegally on an illegal Aliya Bet ship at 20, and after a stint in the transit camp at Atlit headed to Jerusalem and the Hebrew University. His wife, now 79, grew up in Petah Tikva, the only child of Meir Argov, for whom a neighborhood in the city is named. He was a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a member of the first Knesset. Skilled at finishing her husband's sentences, Tamar points out that until the first official draft in May 1948, the people fighting the War of Independence were mostly youth-group members, ideological people and students from Jerusalem. "Regular" people didn't start fighting until they had to. "People who had money fled the country," she explains. When recruiters went door-to-door in Tel Aviv, people would jump out the back window so as not to be drafted. But her husband-to-be joined a student unit of the Hagana on November 30, 1947, the day after the UN partition plan was passed. People were going around the university whispering, "Do you want to be in the Hagana?" There wasn't much choice, says Natan. So while he was out fighting battles around Jerusalem, she continued learning in a teachers' seminar in Tel Aviv, guarding Yad Eliahu - then the outskirts of the city - in the evenings from Arab attacks. "Not that there were weapons," Tamar says. They would go to the orchards in groups of three, with one Sten and five bullets among them. "They'd shoot at us, and twice we fired back. But we had to submit a report on why we wasted two bullets." Natan affirms her statement, recalling how they, too, "had to count each bullet." At first, Natan was stationed in Jerusalem - though he points out there was not yet an organized army. "You couldn't walk with weapons, because then the British would catch you. You would go to guard with a girl - not in order to take a walk with a girl, but so she could hide the gun under her clothes." Very soon, he found himself in Gush Etzion, sent as part of the reinforcements to secure the four settlements in the bloc: Kfar Etzion, Massuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim. Supplies were scarce, and there was no functional communications equipment to request help. Convoys tried to get through, but they were attacked by Arabs - including the famous "35" in January 1948. The bodies of the murdered men were brought to Kfar Etzion where Natan helped bury them. The disaster raised many doubts in the country, especially in Gush Etzion. "We suddenly felt cut off. They wanted to bring in reinforcements, and the reinforcements didn't make it. To the contrary. The loss of 35 fighters... of the best soldiers..." After that, a few more small convoys managed to make it through now and then, and the British even helped once or twice. They also helped evacuate the children from the Etzion bloc, and most of the women. IN MARCH 1948, about two months before the declaration of the state, the Jews decided not to wait for the British to help Gush Etzion. They sent in an "armored" convoy - meaning a bunch of small trucks with an overlay of tin sheeting. They were primitive, says Natan, but so were the Arabs. They took 12 or 14 of these "armored vehicles" and another 50 or so trucks and filled them with all kinds of supplies - including very basic things. The convoy - considered very large at the time - headed out on a Shabbat morning, in an attempt to throw off the Arabs, who wouldn't expect religious Jews to travel on the Sabbath. They arrived in Gush Etzion without a problem. In addition to food and supplies, they also brought a company of about 130 soldiers to relieve the students - including Natan. "They had been trained, and they had weapons," he says. "Today it's automatically understood that a soldier has a weapon, but then it wasn't." The convoy was supposed to go right back. But for several reasons - they wanted to take things back, "and a bunch of internal arguments that never should have taken place - they were delayed in Gush Etzion." The delay gave the Arabs a chance to set out roadblocks and explosives. The original plan had been to get there and leave a half hour later. But they ended up staying four or five hours. "And we started to travel too late." The convoy, subsequently known as the "Nebi Daniel Convoy," got stuck at one of the roadblocks, and the first car headed to move the rocks out of the way, but drove onto a mine. Everyone was in that car was killed, and others were wounded. The whole convoy got stuck. They tried to go back to Gush Etzion - some succeeded. Others took refuge in an Arab house by the side of the road. The situation looked very bleak. "You could oppose the Arabs as long as you had ammunition, but there was barely any ammunition," says Natan. They didn't expect to make it out of there alive. But the Jewish Agency enlisted reluctant help from the British, who arrived after more than 24 hours to extricate the remaining people. But the cars and armored vehicles were left behind and the Arabs took them, and used them later against the Jews. In all, 14 or 15 people were killed. Back "in Jerusalem, the situation was severe. There was almost no food, and water was lacking." In April, Natan arrived as backup at the St. Simon monastery in Katamon the afternoon after it had been captured from the Arabs by the Palmah. The battle for Katamon was intense, and there were many losses on both sides. After two days, recalls Natan, when the Arabs failed to recapture the monastery, people began to flee. "The battles were different from the battles today, because you talked to them," Natan says. "They were 30 meters from you... I didn't know Arabic, but there were guys with me who knew Arabic and they cursed each other." And they shot at each other. Natan admits that hiding during World War II was difficult, but there were two instances in the War of Independence he took particularly hard, when soldiers died at his side. "Those are things you don't forget." The first was when they were stuck near Nebi Daniel, and he and another man sat on the roof and looked at the Arabs surrounding them. His friend raised his head above the edge to see something, and got a bullet in his forehead. "He fell, and I thought he was ducking down. Only once I saw the blood dripping down... it was tough." The other difficult death he witnessed was in St. Simon at the beginning of the push to conquer southern Jerusalem. They came under fire on their way to the monastery. "I was two meters from a few soldiers, and one was hit. I helped drag him all the way up to the monastery where there was a medic. After an hour, he said he'd passed away." A BIT LATER, Natan's unit was stationed at posts on the Jerusalem road about 30 km. from Tel Aviv. "After we'd been there for about a week, someone goes, 'Did you hear the news?'" He had not. "They declared a state," was the response. "Now it's been almost 60 years and everyone thinks that just like that there was a state and everyone danced," muses Natan. "They danced in Tel Aviv," interjects Tamar. "But we didn't even know there was an 'Israel' and they declared a state and Ben-Gurion and all that," Natan says, correcting folkloric history. But the declaration was not important, at the time, he said. The fighters just kept focused on what they were doing. Again, back in Jerusalem, on May 22, the Egyptians launched their first attack on Ramat Rahel from the direction of the Mar Elias monastery and captured part of the kibbutz. "They sent us there," says Natan. "There were Egyptian armored vehicles that would fire shells at us. All the houses were damaged." "This wasn't the firing of irregular forces, this was fire from an army. It was relatively heavy fire." Tamar explains, "Where today there's a hotel, they left a bit of the original wall full of bullet holes to show how badly that building had been attacked." The Egyptians advanced, and the Hagana held them off. They attacked again. The Jews retaliated. Then the Egyptians attacked again, and almost captured the whole kibbutz. Then they retreated. "During the operations, I was wounded," Natan mentions. "I was on the roof of the building - the dining hall my wife says was hit many times - and there was a regular wall with a railing... Shells hit the wall, and I was under it. It wasn't too bad, but my eyes and face were hit with the ricocheting stones... and I couldn't see. I was evacuated to the hospital." Tamar proudly points out that "the famous Dr. Ticho took care of him." "I always emphasize that for a good part of the War of Independence, at least until June or July, the army was unorganized," says Natan. "There was no communication between units. Orders were given, but not necessarily carried out. A commander would say, 'Go take that hill and station yourself there,' and a soldier would say, 'I don't think that's such a smart idea,' and wouldn't go." In the fighting near Ramat Rahel, after the men had been told to get down, they got back up and started moving forward. When someone behind him didn't get up, Natan went back to see what had happened. The guy had been hit, so Natan picked him up and carried him. "You do things, you'd don't think much. I think every soldier is the same. You hear someone say, 'I've been hit, don't leave me here,' so you try to go back." Once they reached a medic, he was able to help and the wounded man survived. MEANWHILE, TAMAR was still in Tel Aviv. "My friends died one by one, and I was just sitting in the seminar learning. It was important, but it was impossible." At first she worked in the Palmah's Tel Aviv headquarters in the afternoons as a secretary, studying in the mornings. Once the state was declared, Tamar joined up and shipped out to the hills around Jerusalem, mostly manning posts that controlled the roads. Women had been fighters in the Palmah until the Arabs conquered Kibbutz Gezer in June. But in that battle, the Arabs raped the girls. So the Palmah decided not to put women on the front lines anymore. In addition to her guard duties, Tamar's training as a teacher was put to use. By this stage of the war, large numbers of recent immigrants had joined the fighting. The problem was that their Hebrew was very poor - when they were given orders at Latrun to retreat, for example, they didn't know what "laseget" meant. So a bunch of girls became Hebrew teachers. "I sat in the post and taught Hebrew. There was a platoon of Romanians and a platoon of Yemenites... It was particularly difficult to teach the Romanians, because they couldn't stand that girls [were telling them what to do]. It was unpleasant." They began with the most basic words that were important for battle - like "retreat" and "advance." Then slowly, they taught them more Hebrew and some songs. Some of the Romanians knew Yiddish, which wasn't too helpful. The Yemenites spoke Hebrew, but many people couldn't understand them because of their accents. They also spoke a lot of Arabic. "With the Yemenites it was easier," Tamar explains, "because they could read Hebrew." At one point in the war, Tamar was stationed in the Eila Valley. "A bunch of French joined us. The French girls had no shame, but we were very modest," she recalls laughingly. "When I went to bathe in the spring there, I would take a jerry can and fill it and go to the side and wash myself, and someone would guard to make sure no one would see. Part of the spring went through a village, and the French girls would just strip and bathe in the middle of everything. We were in shock," she says. "Once there was the Burma Road, I would get permission every now and then to go home. In Tel Aviv, it was a different world. I would get there filthy... and there's no problem with the showers, and no problem with the water, and no problem with the food, relatively. In Jerusalem, there was a shortage." In fact, the water shortage in Jerusalem lasted for years after the war. "When I got to Tel Aviv, it was fun. No more jerry cans," says Tamar. She recalls that in Tel Aviv they didn't even understand what was happening in Jerusalem. The suburbs of Tel Aviv felt the war, and south Tel Aviv. But the rest of Tel Aviv hardly felt it. "Aside from those who had kids fighting." Bringing the point home, she notes, "Just like today they don't know what Sderot is." THE COUPLE disagrees on the extent to which the war was idealized. Tamar says the covering-up of the truth was worse back then, but Natan says it's the same now. Her example of a whitewashed version of history: "They showed a picture of one guy with sidelocks and said, 'All of Mea She'arim fought,' but that's not true. That's most definitely not true." Natan agrees, saying parts of the religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem hung out white flags and wanted to surrender to the Arabs. "Today they don't talk about it much." Tamar says some of the religious Jerusalemites were even informers. "And I know that in our regiment, there was a discussion over whether to blow up a few Jewish houses in Mea She'arim because they were giving information to the Arabs." The couple only met after the war. She went back to school, but was pulled out in the middle because of the influx of olim who needed teachers. She requested a transfer to Jerusalem, and started teaching in Musrara. Meanwhile, Natan was a student in Jerusalem again. Her friends from the seminar were married and living in Jerusalem, and they had a friend who lived with Natan. And Natan used to get a monthly food package from his parents, as there was very little to eat in Jerusalem. So when he got a package, everyone would go over and finish it off. She went once, and he said, "I'm sorry, they've almost finished everything. But would you like to go to a movie tomorrow?" and they went. Over the years, she continued working as a teacher, while Natan pursued a career as a professor of biochemistry. They have two sons, one who lives in Mevaseret Zion, and one in Holland "to their dismay."