Inspiration from the lone oak

Gush Etzion also celebrated 40 years of resettlement this week.

'If there exists a Jewish Jerusalem, our foremost thanks go to the defenders of Gush Etzion," said Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion in his eulogy of the brave defenders in 1948. Known as the southern gateway to Jerusalem, this strategic area defended the southern approach to Jerusalem against invading armies during the War of Independence. The Gush Etzion settlements are commemorating 40 years since the return of its exiled children, who after 1967 rebuilt their community destroyed on the eve of Israel's independence. An event in honor of the heroic fighters took place this week with surviving defenders and family members. The first of four attempts to populate the area in the modern era began in Migdal Eder in 1927, but harsh physical conditions forced the pioneers to abandon their settlement. The second attempt was made by Shmuel Holtzman in 1935, who established Kfar Etzion. However, repeated Arab attacks drove away the pioneers. Gush Etzion is named for Holtzman - Holtz is German for "tree" or etz in Hebrew. The third attempt in April 1943 coincided with the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. The pioneers, many of whom had escaped Nazi Europe where they had lost family members, were not deterred by such challenges as rocky terrain, shortage of water, bitterly cold winters and the risky security situation. Despite the inherent difficulties, they founded a kibbutz on the site of Kfar Etzion. Three more settlements were founded from 1945-1947: Masuot Yitzhak, Ein Tzurim and Revadim, with a total population of over 400 people. The UN resolution of November 29, 1947, calling for a Jewish state alongside an Arab one, triggered the Arabs' siege of Gush Etzion. Travelling to the area was dangerous. Armed convoys bringing supplies to the pioneers were ambushed, and children and mothers were evacuated in January 1948. By May 1948, Gush Etzion was under attack by the Jordanian Legion and thousands of local Arabs. As the armored vehicles stormed into Kfar Etzion, a cease-fire was sought in order to save the lives of the defenders. On the 4th of Iyar, the day before the Declaration of Independence, the Jewish soldiers surrendered. Gathered in the center of Kfar Etzion, they were suddenly fired upon. In the ensuing desperate struggle, 127 defenders were slaughtered, with only four survivors. Kfar Etzion was pillaged and destroyed. The three other settlements were also destroyed, with 260 defenders taken into captivity. Today, the survivors organization in Kibbutz Kfar Etzion preserves the history of the area with a moving audio-visual presentation, museum and archives. For a period of 19 years, until the victory of the Six Day War, the children who were evacuated could only catch a glimpse from afar of the ancient oak tree located in the heart of Gush Etzion that had become the symbol of the region. Yaacov Klapholz fell in Kfar Etzion's final battle, months after his brother Shlomo was murdered December 1947 in an ambush known as The Convoy of the Ten. Yaacov's son, Yochanan, who later changed his surname to Ben-Yaacov in memory of his father, lived his first three years in Kfar Etzion until he was evacuated to the Ratisbonne Monastery in Jerusalem in January 1948. After a few months he went to Petah Tikva and then to Givat Aliya in Jaffa. "We grew up on the story of Kfar Etzion. We were more than just homesick. We felt we had a home that we couldn't reach, but realized that one day we would get there. Just like the Jewish people were in exile for 1,900 years, we were exiled for 19 years from Kfar Etzion, and longed during those years to return there," claims Ben-Yaacov. Every year after the Remembrance Day visit to Mount Herzl, where the defenders were reburied, the children of Gush Etzion would search from afar the oak tree of Gush Etzion. "In those days regular school trips included looking at Gush Etzion," recalls Ben-Yaacov. "In 10th grade we went by train to Bar-Giora. As the only child from Kfar Etzion, the teacher pointed to the lone oak and asked me to relate my experiences. I was very excited!" The recently published The Children of Gush Etzion (in Hebrew, published by Keter Press with Haifa University), by psychologist Prof. Amia Leiblich, explores the experiences of 51 such children who are now in their 60s - how they learned the saga, their yearning and eventual return to Gush Etzion. During the Six Day War Ben-Yaacov served as a soldier in Gaza. As soon as he heard about the liberation of Gush Etzion, he requested leave from his commander and returned to Gush Etzion. "The area was familiar to me since I was raised on memories, maps and photos. I saw the lone oak up close. It was quite traumatic to see a mosque in the center of Kfar Etzion, in the base of the Jordanian Legion, which was destroyed. In 1948, our parents fought bravely with very little ammunition for as long as they could against the Jordanian Legion. Running away was not an option for them," notes Ben-Yaacov. "Yet in 1967, the Jordanian army fled as soon the IDF approached." Three months later, Ben-Yaacov was among the founders of the renewed Kfar Etzion, where he lives today. The event on May 9 is part of a series of events marking 40 years since rebuilding Gush Etzion, the 60th year since the siege of Gush Etzion. The kickoff event was a march along the route of the Lamed Hey (35 defenders), attended by 700 people from all over Israel. In March, the junction at the northern entrance to Efrat was renamed the Shayarot Etzion Junction after the convoys that provided the isolated settlements with supplies. Wednesday's event will include a reunion of family members from 1948, a tour of the original communities and some of the newer ones and a ceremony in Kfar Etzion. The events were spearheaded by Gush Etzion Regional Council head Shaul Goldstein in coordination with Efrat Council head Eli Mizrachi. Oriya Dassberg of Alon Shvut ("Oak of Return," the community built near the lone oak), is the driving-force behind making all these events happen. Goldstein closes a circle by serving as council head, a position he has held since 1999. His late father Yerachmiel was the radio operator of a Nebi Daniel convoy that was attacked on its way back to Jerusalem, in which many comrades were killed or injured. Shani Simkowitz, the director of the Gush Etzion Foundation, states: "The message of these commemoration events is to remember that Gush Etzion was once under siege, but never again. The communities of Gush Etzion today exemplify the promise that 'the children have returned to their borders.'" Simkowitz is referring to the 20 thriving communities composed of veteran Israelis and new immigrants. Many chose to move to Gush Etzion because of its excellent education system, which received national recognition last year. University student Mika Shalti is coming from Texas especially for the event. Her grandfather, David Shalti, fell in the final battle of Kfar Etzion. The following day Mika's father, Shimon, was born. "Mika was on our mailing list and sent a donation, which resulted in a relationship with the GEF, and she was than invited to come," says Simkowitz. "Her attending the event is a great honor to her grandfather, and she carries a message for the next generation."