The Human Spirit: Heroes of healing

They’re both devoted parents. Engelhard is a grandfather. Their lives of healing were shaped by the Yom Kippur War.

yom kippur war soldiers  370 (photo credit: IDF Archives)
yom kippur war soldiers 370
(photo credit: IDF Archives)
They’re just about the last people you’d expect to have military medals. Dan Engelhard looks like a Berkeley professor: longish gray hair, so soft-spoken you need to lean close to hear him.
His hobby is Argentinean tango. Dina Ben-Yehuda is a combination of Marie Curie and TV’s Dr. (Michaela) Quinn. They’re both professors of medicine, hands-on physicians and world class researchers at Hadassah University Medical Center.
They’re both devoted parents. Engelhard is a grandfather.
Their lives of healing were shaped by the Yom Kippur War.
Engelhard was a new doctor who’d finished medical school in the army reserve program and the military medical course for front line exigencies.
An average day as doctor for Unit 53 of the Barak Armored Brigade (188) on the Golan Heights meant dealing with common diseases and the occasional sprain from jumping off the refurbished Centurion and M-48 tanks. For months, the Syrian army had been flexing muscles across the 58-km. border. The soldiers were officially on alert. Nonetheless, he, his fellow officers and nearly all the tank crews were fasting.
They were on a base on the southern Golan Heights near the border.
Midday, the officer in charge made a startling announcement: The Syrian movements were not representative of a familiar skirmish. This was war. He recommended that soldiers break their fasts and prepare for battle.
“I set an example and drank a glass of water in public,” recounted Engelhard. ”I understood this was serious, although it was impossible to imagine the magnitude of the threat.”
Israel had 3,000 troops, 170 tanks and 60 artillery pieces.
The Syrian attack included 28,000 troops, 1,400 tanks and 100 artillery batteries.
At 1:50 p.m., the Syrians surprised the Israelis with a massive attack. One hundred fighter planes attacked Israeli positions on the Golan Heights. Standing near Engelhard, a soldier was gravely injured.
The Syrian tanks came forward in waves. The Barak Brigade commander, the second-in-command and the operations officer were killed.
The Barak Brigade could no longer function as a cohesive force. Each of the 12 surviving tank crew had to improvise, facing 600 Syrian tanks. They knew they were the last barrier between the Syrian army and Lake Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee).
“There were tremendous casualties from the beginning,” explained Engelhard. “We were dealing with mass casualties, not isolated wounded.”
He dispatched a medic in an armored personnel carrier to pick up the latest wounded. But at 3 a.m., the order came for command headquarters to move to a safer location.
“I knew I had to stay put,” said Engelhard. “The medic wasn’t back. I remained alone. I reasoned that if I heard the chains of the Syrians tanks I would run. I hoped the medic would return first.”
Night was the worst. The Syrians had been supplied with night-vision equipment, but the Israelis had none.
Recalled Engelhard: “At 7 a.m., I heard a motor – the medic and the wounded. I was able to treat them and send them to the hospital.”
The Syrian attack slowed. Israeli reservists, mostly home for Yom Kippur, mobilized quickly and reinforced the regulars. Four days after the war began, the Syrian troops were pushed out of the Golan. The tank battalions pressed into Syria.
Two of Engelhard’s medics were killed. He continued treating soldiers under fire.
“I witnessed such inspiring courage,” he said.
“Each day we’d set out knowing that not all of us would be there the next day, but we knew we couldn’t afford to lose.”
THE BEGINNING of the Yom Kippur War found Dina Saltz (today Ben-Yehuda) in an underground bunker of the 14th Armored Brigade at the Suez Canal. “You’re in charge of keeping track of the soldiers – those injured, killed or missing,” said her commander Amnon Reshef as he left for battle. She was 20, a regimental duty officer in the Armored Corps.
Tank by tank, she created a meticulous listing of who was serving where. This would prove invaluable.
The 14th Brigade had the impossible task of defending the Bar-Lev Line, widely separated forts that couldn’t hold back the concentrated Egyptian attack. The soldiers later fought a successful battle in what was called the Chinese Farm. That battle helped turn the war around. It cost 305 soldiers, more than any other brigade. “The initial surprise and losses sometimes overshadow the valor and resourcefulness of the soldiers,” said Ben-Yehuda.
As soon as there was a tentative cease-fire, she went to the battlefield to gather more information on those still missing.
Before there was a special branch of the IDF to care for wounded soldiers and bereaved families, she created the position, traveling throughout the country to hospitals and homes. Sometimes she improvised social work. Sometimes she showed up with school supplies or a space heater.
“At one home, the soldier’s father refused to open the door,” recounted Ben-Yehuda. “I said I wouldn’t move until he did. I was so tired that I fell asleep on the doorstep. Twelve hours later, the door opened. Inside stood a bereaved father and his children. Months had passed since his son had disappeared. He hadn’t let the children leave his sight. They were locked in the apartment and hadn’t returned to school.”
She received the chief of staff’s citation from Motta Gur.
“I guess I felt I had something to say to the parents because I’d experienced loss, too,” she said.
When she was three, her older brother, Tzvika, died of cancer. “My parents were Holocaust survivors, and then experienced every parent’s worst nightmare.
Only when I had my own first daughter, Shir, and held her in my arms, did I realize the impossibility of understanding the loss of these parents I tried to comfort.”
She’s the head of the Hadassah’s hematology department. Her phone rings every few minutes for life-and-death consultation.
Driven to help her patients and stamp out cancer, she rises at 5:30 a.m. and works until 10 p.m.
An important treatment component she’s developed is in the process of gaining US Food and Drug Administration approval.
Why would she choose a medical specialty in which patients are fighting for their lives? “Maybe the best way to feel safe is to be close to death, on the front line of the battle to defeat disease,” she says. “I put the emphasis on my life on healing.” Her cellphone photo gallery is full of cancer survivors and their children.
The IDF job she created gave her a lot of latitude, because it hadn’t existed before. “I learned how to grow into a position and take responsibility,” she says. “I was no longer the naïve youngster who had graduated from the Hebrew Reali High School.”
Engelhard stayed in the army, eventually earning the rank of colonel.
For his leadership and courage, he was awarded the IDF Exemplary Conduct Medal.
Eventually, he returned to Hadassah University Medical Center. “We didn’t speak of our experiences,” said Engelhard. “Even today, it’s hard to speak of it.”
He decided to spend his life taking take care of sick children.
Because of his war experience, the government sent him with the first team to help Cambodian refugees. That led him to specialize in the impact of immune deficiencies on epidemics of infectious diseases. He’s had 150 papers published on this subject. His volunteering has taken him to Kinshasa, Zaire; to care for refugees in Rwanda and Kosovo; to the field hospital for earthquake victims in Duzce, Turkey; and to help tsunami victims in Sri Lanka.
“When you compare your medical career to colleagues abroad whom you meet at conferences in your field, you have to admit that army and national service do slow your progress as an academic physician,“ recalled Engelhard. “You reach their academic positions at a later age. But service in the Yom Kippur War taught me that you have to be clear about what matters most.”
In 2005, he was in Ethiopia and visited an orphanage where 400 boys and girls were dying of HIV/AIDS. He volunteered to treat these children with medications supplied by the US. To supplement the medicine, he founded a corps of volunteer physicians, nurses, students and medical clowns to bring art therapy and TLC to the recovering children. There are now seven orphanages in Ethiopia and Uganda with tens of thousands of African children whose lives have been returned to them.
The Yom Kippur War remains the greatest trauma of his life, and the one that’s hardest to talk about.
“The Yom Kippur War changed me and affected everything I did afterwards,” explained Engelhard.
“I was already a doctor, but seeing so much death close up taught me the value of life. I realized that all concerns are small when compared to the battle to protect life.
“Let the small worries go. Choose life. Choose life.”
The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.