One man’s account of the Battle of Jerusalem

It had been my privilege to do my little bit to help the wounded, men who had been willing to give everything for Israel, many of whom died in that task.

FIGHTING AT Ammunition Hill, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Six Day War (photo credit: D. ROSENBLUM/STARPHOTO)
FIGHTING AT Ammunition Hill, site of one of the fiercest battles of the Six Day War
(photo credit: D. ROSENBLUM/STARPHOTO)
On June 5, 1967, about 10 a.m., Arab mortars and artillery opened fire on us while I smeared glass panes with homemade glue, over which I put strips of white cloth bandage, in the stone bay of a window looking through a meter-thick stone wall. I stopped for a moment to watch a pair of nurses run across the courtyard seeking cover at the rear of our building. A blast accompanied by a puff of smoke raised my eyes to the roof of a neighboring building. An artillery shell had hit it.
I turned around to some old women in the ward whose windows I was covering – most of the patients had already gone home, and I advised the women to stay away from my window, in case a shell came through it. They moved back as I continued to work.
The administrator who was in charge of us volunteers ran down the hall outside this room. He shouted at the old ladies to go to the basement hallway that had become a shelter for the hospital’s neighbors, and at me to get away from the window and downstairs, where I was needed. We were at war.
We volunteers had been preparing for this moment for two weeks – we being about a dozen students at Jerusalem’s high schools, yeshivot and the university. Somebody’s relative worked at Shaare Zedek Hospital, and he spread the word that the hospital needed volunteers. Shaare Zedek was still in its 1902 building on Jaffa Road, where more recently the Israel Broadcasting Authority had its offices.
On the Shabbat evening before the war, I walked around a Jerusalem neighborhood with a young woman with whom I was keeping company, wondering if these homes would be standing a week hence, and how many of the people we passed would survive. The international newspapers were not optimistic.
Monday morning, three days after our nocturnal walk, a siren woke me up in the university dormitory in the Rehavia neighborhood where I lived. I knew that the siren meant something serious had happened.
I dressed and ran outdoors. The army had mobilized most of Jerusalem’s buses to transport soldiers. I put my finger out, in the Israeli manner of hitchhiking, and several people picked me up, each bringing me closer to the hospital. Between rides, policemen tried to pull me and others from the streets into shelters.
When I reached the hospital, the man in charge of the volunteers told me that there was no battle in Jerusalem, and that hopefully there would be none, but that I must paste windows in an upstairs ward we were preparing for wounded from the Egyptian front.
“They’re fighting at the Mandelbaum Gate!” someone exclaimed. That once-famous crossing point between Jordanian-occupied and Israeli Jerusalem was within easy walking distance of our hospital. I wondered if Jordanian units might fight their way, house to house, through the hassidic neighborhoods, shooting all the civilians in their path, arrive at Shaare Zedek Hospital in a few hours, and kill all of us.
We young volunteers stood around waiting for orders. We knew casualties would be brought into the hospital soon, but they had not yet begun to arrive.
I walked outdoors through the hospital’s courtyard to Jaffa Road. The din of the constant shelling was hellaciously loud. Stoplights directed nonexistent traffic in a futile yellow, green and red rhythm. Few people were about.
I noticed a couple of buses about a block or so ahead of me, in a little side street. Soldiers were in them. While walking over there to investigate, I just barely heard women’s voices over the constant shooting. These soldiers were from the Jerusalem Brigade, a reserve unit consisting only of Jerusalemites, who could be called up to protect the city should it ever be cut off and besieged. I had seen them camping in city parks for the last couple of weeks.
The women I heard were the wives, sisters, mothers and girlfriends of these soldiers, and some children had joined them as well. Because the soldiers were all from Jerusalem, their families could visit them in their camps. The women and children hugged them and then waved good-bye as the buses drove away.
BACK AT the hospital, wounded began to arrive. The first stretcher I carried supported a civilian, a hassid, who had been hit by flying glass and shell fragments outside his home. A pickup truck drove into our courtyard with a wounded soldier’s legs protruding from its rear.
We became used to extracting wounded soldiers on their stretchers from the rear of those little trucks. Our job was to carry the wounded from that entrance, usually by stretcher, to the emergency room. Those who were bleeding heavily sometimes left drops, or even puddles, of blood along the hallway. Somebody ran right behind us to wipe up this blood. A few times soldiers asked us to walk rather than run, because we hurt their wounds.
A volunteer in the emergency room, a man who was older than us, sliced the casualty’s combat boots off with shears and then cut off his pants and shirt with smaller scissors, so that the doctors could see the soldier’s wounds. The doctors examined him, did what was to be done in the emergency room, and ordered us to carry the wounded man to the wards or to other doctors.
It was awkward for four of us to carry someone in a stretcher up a stairway, with a fifth holding the bag of a drip – especially at a landing, where the stairs doubled back on themselves. We had to keep our soldier level, so that he would not slide off the stretcher. We lifted him high over the banister when we turned at that landing.
If somebody died in the emergency room, or had been dead when carried in, the procedure was for us to break his dog tag in half, leaving half around his neck, and put the other half into a little bag, into which we emptied his pockets as well. I stared in shock when I found pictures of wives and children in the dead soldiers’ pockets, but I soon trained myself to look away and put the family pictures into the bags as fast as I could. I felt like an intruder. I wondered whether these soldiers were among those I saw on the buses going up to the front.
We brought in one soldier whose eyes were wide open and who made jerking, rhythmic movements with all four limbs. We waited outside the X-ray room a few moments while he was X-rayed, and then we brought him back to the emergency room. The X-ray showed the perfect form of a human skull in profile, its geometry marred by the equally clear shape of a bullet in the middle of the soldier’s head. The doctor glanced at the X-ray, lifted the soldier’s head from the little wagon, and felt around it. He spread the man’s hair as he did so, until we saw a round hole in the back of the soldier’s head. The expressionless doctor settled the wounded man’s head gently back on the table and said, “Hadassah.” All our head wounds went to that hospital.
Soon after the shooting began, we carried an unconscious and perfectly still soldier downstairs to the operating room we had made during the run-up to the war. We hove him onto the operating table for the doctors to work on him, and we returned upstairs. A few minutes later somebody told us that he had died, and that we must bring him from that operating room to the hospital’s mortuary.
The man lay dead on the table. Some of us volunteers were still in high school, and they were aghast to see his wide-open wounds. A doctor hurried to throw a sheet over the soldier, when he saw the shock on the high-school kids’ faces. We slowly and delicately pulled needles out of the dead man’s hands and tucked those dead hands together on his belly to lift him onto a stretcher waiting on the floor.
While we carefully and silently proceeded, the head of the volunteers ran into the room, yelling that another wounded soldier was coming, a man who had been very badly hurt, and who needed immediate surgery. Behind our boss another quartet of volunteers carried the new soldier’s stretcher. When the boss saw we had not yet removed the soldier who had just died, he yelled at us to hurry up, and then he shoved the dead one off the table and onto the stretcher on the floor. His concern was to save the one who was still alive.
As we carried the dead soldier through the hallway beneath the hospital, one of the women who had sought refuge with her children inside the building’s thick stone walls delicately put her hand over her child’s eyes to shield her from seeing the corpse we carried.
We brought him outdoors to a separate building the hospital used as a mortuary, which filled up as the battle continued. Civilians lay in the mortuary among soldiers. A neat little package wrapped in white sheets was a dead child. I had occasion to lift one of the dead children, feeling the little shoulders and neck through the white sheet in which he had been wrapped.
Children lay dead in Shaare Zedek Hospital, but others were born in the same building at the height of the battle. The mortuary filled up, but so did the newborn nursery.
Most of the dead lay on stretchers, and we therefore began to experience a shortage of stretchers as the battle progressed. Someone asked us to go to the mortuary and bring those stretchers back. We picked up the dead, one of us at his shoulders and another lifting his knees, while a third volunteer slid the stretcher out from under him.
THE BATTLE of Jerusalem lasted more than two days. None of us in the hospital slept during this period. We grabbed food from the hospital’s commissary, and a couple of times I lay down to rest, but the general tension and constant shooting did not permit me to sleep, especially when I realized I was lying on one of our stretchers.
Some of the soldiers told us about the fights in which they had been wounded. We heard of face-to- face combat with bayonets. A soldier lying on the floor of our mortuary had been killed with a shovel.
A lightly wounded paratrooper told us to expect many wounded and dead soon, because the fight in which he had been hit was at a place called Ammunition Hill, where the Jordanians were putting up heavy resistance. And, indeed, truck after truck pulled up in our courtyard, some with two sets of legs sticking out the back.
After we heard of the advance up to Augusta Victoria, between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, it became clear that Israel’s forces had taken the whole of Jordanian Jerusalem, apart from the walled Old City itself. The Arabs would not come charging along Jaffa Road and into our hospital.
We heard a loud, low rumble. I looked outside, to see two or three of Israel’s Sherman tanks driving down Jaffa Road at top speed toward the battle. Their commanders stood up through the hatches in the turrets.
These tanks were to break open the Lions’ Gate at the rear of the Old City so that the paratroopers could charge in. While one of them advanced up the road to that gate, an Arab Legionnaire, standing on the wall of the Old City, fired a bazooka at it, killing the four soldiers inside. Pickup trucks brought them to us.
As the battle progressed, I seemed to hear the shelling less than I had at the beginning. It became a kind of constant drone. Amid this drone, a sudden and tremendous blast shook the whole building, solid stone though it was. Electric lights hanging from the ceiling danced back and forth. A big howitzer shell had hit the hospital. Smaller artillery and mortar fire had already struck us many times, but this blast was of a different magnitude.
A nurse from the newborn nursery ran up and told us that the shell had hit upstairs, and that we were wanted to clean up. I gasped, as did we all, and we went upstairs, trembling in anticipation of the horror that awaited us. I do not know what I expected to see.
When we got to the nursery, the first sight to greet us was of nurses carrying lively and healthy-looking babies, many sleeping soundly through the battle into which they had been born, out of that room and downstairs. The nurse who had sent us upstairs had phrased her statement in such a way that we thought the nursery had taken a direct hit, but the shell had landed in the room next to the nursery. Nurses carried the babies to other quarters. One of the volunteers cried. I had to lean on a wall for a few minutes.
A wounded soldier told me that he had fallen off a roof that had no guardrail. He had seen the Western Wall, among the first Jews to see it for 19 years. I was excited to hear his story, and I resolved to go there as soon as possible, before the United Nations or some other group forced Israel to give back the Old City. I now understood that Israel had won the Battle of Jerusalem, but I thought we might be asked to leave it in a week or two.
I WENT out to Jaffa Road to find civilians walking around and going about their business. A few shops were opening. I found a post office and sent a telegram to my parents to inform them that I was still alive.
I made my first trip to the Old City the following week, when Shavuot was celebrated, the first day on which Jews were allowed to pray at the Western Wall since 1948. The devastation in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City appalled me. Jordan had systematically dynamited the area’s historic homes and synagogues in 1948.
I became a tourist in a town from which I had been shot at days earlier. Most of the Arabs I met in the Old City seemed open and friendly. A few seemed terrified of me, as I walked around smiling and trying to be friendly.
I went up to the Temple Mount and into the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque, taking off my shoes but leaving on my kippa; the Arabs smiled in greeting. If I did that today, I would be lucky to come back alive.
We began to see Old City Arabs walking around Israeli Jerusalem to go shopping, and just to look at our half of the city, even as we were curious about them. It had been uncommon to see Arabs in Israel’s part of town before the war.
The first memory that comes to mind, whenever I think of the war, is of that mother shielding her child’s eyes from looking at the dead soldier. My memory mercifully does not dwell on some of the sights I saw in the mortuary and elsewhere, although I have a nightmare every two or three years featuring one of those scenes.
What matters, though, is that it had been my privilege to do my little bit to help the wounded, men who had been willing to give everything for Israel, many of whom died in that task.