Grumpy Old Man: Remembering, but with new meaning

Compared to Remembrance Days past, this year, with a son in the army, I’ll have additional thoughts going through my head.

Kibbutrz Hulda 370 (photo credit: courtesy)
Kibbutrz Hulda 370
(photo credit: courtesy)
This coming Monday morning I’ll do what I do every Remembrance Day. I’ll drive down to Kibbutz Hulda, where the rolling Judean Hills meet the verdant coastal plain. At precisely 11 a.m., as sirens wail nationwide, I’ll stand silently beneath the fragrant pines and tall, slim cypress trees in the kibbutz cemetery, hands at my sides, head bowed, before the grave of Sgt. Zvi Zimmer.
And I’ll remember.
I came to know Zvika during July and August of 1971 while at Hulda on Summer in Kibbutz, a program for North American youth heading into their senior year in high school. I was 17. At 18, he, born and raised at Hulda, had just graduated from high school and was about to begin a year of national service prior to his induction into the IDF.
Zvika’s English was extremely good – his oldest sister, Alfa, the first child born at Hulda, was the local English teacher – and in light of my almost nonexistent Hebrew he became my portal to the kibbutz. He worked with the real men in the cotton fields, and it was through him that I got to know them. He also was the life of the party, and though he was not handsome in a matinee idol sort of way, he was hilariously quick-witted, full of energy on the dance floor and attractive enough to be immensely popular with the women. It was chiefly thanks to him that I met the prettier kibbutz girls.
Though not tall, he was a gifted basketball player and had won a berth on the national youth team. There was a photo that didn’t say much to me at the time, but in it he appeared along with young men such as Mickey Berkowitz and Moti Aroesti, who later would become household names in Israel.
It is fair to say that even at this young age, Zvika was one of the true lights of the kibbutz.
At the end of the summer we traded gifts – my orange Bloomfield (Connecticut) High School athletic T-shirt for his red Hapoel basketball jersey. We corresponded only on occasion, but I knew I had made a friend for life.
For Zvika, though, life was short – he was killed on October 7, 1973, the second day of the Yom Kippur War. A tank gunner, he was originally listed as missing in action, and each night on the evening news, for weeks on end, his mother and sisters scoured footage from Egypt showing Israeli prisoners of war.
No one seemed to know anything, and that was all I heard back in the US on Thanksgiving Day. It wasn’t until December that his remains were located and taken to Beersheba for temporary burial, the circumstances of his death anything but clear.
In addition to Zvika, Hulda, a small kibbutz, lost two other sons in that war: Reuven (Ruvka) Zakai, a 38-year-old father of three and a deputy company commander in the reserves, was killed on the third day when his half-track suffered a direct artillery hit in the Sinai near Ismailia. Gil Hariri, a classmate of Zvika’s and a sergeant in the Golani Brigade, was killed in a Syrian bombardment the night before his unit’s successful counterattack on Mount Hermon late in the war. I knew them both.
THE KIBBUTZ I found the following summer was clearly different. Life had gone on, of course. But in the hot months of 1974, the glint in most everyone’s eyes was absent, the lilt in their voices gone.
By this time, Zvika’s story was being pieced together from eyewitness testimony.
He had helped defend Orkal, a fortress at the northern end of the Suez Canal, for 27 straight hours of combat as gunner in the platoon leader’s M60 Patton tank, and then as tank commander after the platoon leader was fatally wounded. Numerous dispatches note that his competence, coolness and even sense of humor under fire inspired other tank crews in the area.
When higher-ups in the rear gave the order to withdraw, only two tanks and a half-track were left, and for the breakout the surviving men of Orkal, perhaps buoyed by Zvika’s unflagging spirit, gravitated toward his M60.
The ragtag convoy raced south along a narrow peninsula, the canal to the right, swamps and quicksand to the left, and then eastward toward Israeli forces. Zvika, whose main gun had been disabled during the original battle, sat fully exposed in the turret, hurling hand grenades at the invaders.
The vehicles continued to move for about seven kilometers when, toward dusk, they encountered a well-planned ambush by Egyptian commandos. Zvika’s tank was hit by a missile and lost one of its treads. Immobile and lacking a heavy gun, he ordered his crew out; two jumped to one side and were captured, while he and the gunner jumped to the other and were not seen alive again.
(The half-track was also put out of action, its crew being taken captive on the spot. The second M60 continued for another 500 meters until it, too, was hit.
The crew escaped on foot, but two of the men were killed late that night by friendly fire when they approached the exhausted, anxious men of an Israeli tank unit taking a breather several kilometers to the east.) The day before Zvika’s reinterment at Hulda in the summer of 1974, I was asked whether I wanted to help dig his grave. To this day I keep a photo of myself, kneedeep in the cemetery ground, my head down, the pickaxe in my hands a blur.
Surely there are others, but I personally don’t know anyone else who has dug a grave for a friend.
The following year, for his performance during the battle at Orkal, Zvika was posthumously awarded the Medal of Valor.
IN RECENT WEEKS, several Jerusalem Post writers have described how it feels to deliver a son for combat duty in the IDF.
There’s not much I can add to the obvious, except, perhaps, by relating the following.
On a Friday afternoon at the beginning of last month, Guy, our 18-year-old, wanted to get some additional highway mileage under his belt before his March 14 induction.
Hulda, about 40 minutes away, had become my home immediately after I made aliya in 1976, and as he had never been to the kibbutz he suggested he drive me there.
He knew Zvika’s story well and had seen the photo of me with the pickaxe. Now he wanted to go there, so I guided him to the cemetery.
As we stood before my friend’s grave almost 40 years on, everything suddenly meant far more to me. The heaviness was heavier, the lump in my throat bigger.
Somehow Guy picked up on this, and as my sweet, bright, robust and highly motivated boy silently put his arm around me – just days from starting his own journey in defense of the country – I cried.
This coming Monday, when the siren sounds, I’ll stand there again, surrounded by friends. Like me, they loved Zvika, and I’ll take comfort knowing that as parents who have or had children in combat units, they’ll know exactly how I feel.