The Six Day War: ‘In the here and now’

The mmeories of individuals who lived in “the here and now” 50 years ago and how they have interwoven what happened to them a half century ago into their lives.

Advancing in the Old City near Herod’s Gate. The shutters were all closed and behind some, snipers lay in wait (photo credit: BAMAHANE/IDF WEEKLY JUNE 12 1967 ISSUE)
Advancing in the Old City near Herod’s Gate. The shutters were all closed and behind some, snipers lay in wait
(photo credit: BAMAHANE/IDF WEEKLY JUNE 12 1967 ISSUE)
Fifty years is a long time in the history of the modern world, but in terms of the Jewish people it is only a small niche of time. As we recall the events of the miraculous 1967 Six Day War victory, we keep in mind the importance of what was – together with how we deal with the present.
“Only one person in a thousand knows the trick of really living in the present. Most of us spend 59 minutes an hour living in the past, with regret for what we did not do,” says novelist Margaret Storm Jameson.
“The past is gone beyond prayer; there is only one world, the world pressing against you at this minute.
There is only one minute in which you are here and now.”
I would like to share reminiscences of individuals who lived in “the here and now” 50 years ago and how they have interwoven what happened to them a half century ago into their lives.
The late Rabbi Ben Hollander once told me, “As the Six Day War moved into high gear, my wife, Judy, and I were frightened – more so for our baby, Elana, than for ourselves. When the pagazim [shells] started to fall in the Valley of the Cross, we were in the dormitory of the building of the Jewish Theological Seminary [now the Schechter Institute].
Quickly, we took our infant and entered the building’s shelter, praying for God to protect us.”
Hollander’s wife added, “I never expected to be here in Israel for a war. I did not know if we would survive. However, as I looked at our baby just a few months old, I had great hopes for her even as the fighting raged.”
Haim Karni, director of the Bayit Balev assisted-living residence in Jerusalem, was living with his family in Merkaz Shapira, near Ashkelon, at the time of the Six Day War. In May 1967, when he was 10 years old, his father and almost all the men in the community were drafted into service. For three weeks there was no communication between these soldiers and their families because there were virtually no telephones in the homes in Merkaz Shapira.
“One day,” Karni recalled, “we were told that we could see our fathers, brothers and all those who had left three weeks earlier at a specific locale near the border with the Gaza Strip. When we arrived there, we were amazed how many soldiers, tanks and armor were assembled waiting for fighting whenever it broke out. After looking for some time, I finally found my father.” He remembers vividly how he and his mother and brother “had such a wonderful time amidst all these soldiers and weaponry so well prepared for the war to come.”
Karni recollects how he gained both freedom and responsibility when the regional school was closed.
“The older children at Merkaz Shapira, including myself, were assigned to dig trenches near each home. This was necessary because there was only one shelter in our entire village. Some inventive youngsters started digging small shelves in the walls where candy of all types could be stored.”
Karni recalled with a smile, “When the first siren for the outbreak of the war sounded, my little brother jumped into the family’s trench shouting, ‘Now we can eat our chocolate!’” Karni learned in a most memorable way that the Old City of Jerusalem had been retaken.
“A neighbor was running down the street, sobbing. I asked her what had happened. She explained to me through her tears that Jerusalem had been freed and was in our hands. She, herself, had been born in the Old City of Jerusalem, living there until 1948. ‘I heard a radio broadcast,’ she exclaimed, ‘announcing that Jerusalem had been captured.’” Karni told Metro. “It was that day I learned that one can cry for joy.”
Dr. David Wilensky, now a 40-year resident of Israel, was a student here on a one-year Hebrew University program in 1966-1967. The week before the war, he volunteered to work at Kibbutz Ein Tzurim near Ashkelon. “The first few days,” he wrote in a letter to his family in New Orleans, “we spent digging trenches that luckily never had to be used.” After that he worked in the cotton fields.
“It’s ironic that I had to come to Israel to become acquainted with cotton fields firsthand,” mused the Dixie native.
Real excitement grabbed him on his return to Jerusalem.
“I was caught in the street near the post office building on Jaffa Road when the shooting started.” Wilensky and his friends had to seek shelter.
“We ended staying at the post office building for over 24 hours before it was possible to return to the university.”
Anxious to help, “we volunteered our services and were put to work in the telegraph room at the post office, where we had sought shelter. After taping up the windows, we did a bit of janitorial work here and there.”
Their location was fortuitous. “It was good to be there since we could at least read the news dispatches going out.” Being where he was, he knew more about the war than most Israelis.
Wilensky and his wife Sheila made aliya four decades ago; all five of their children, 26 grandchildren and one great-grandchild live in Israel.
Olim since 2001, Rabbi Stuart Geller and his wife, Ellyn, came in the summer of 1966 to the Hebrew Union College, for a year. He recently shared memories from the weeks before the war began.
“Visitors could still cross through the Mandelbaum Gate, and noted literary critic Edmund Wilson arrived and had tea in the garden at the Hebrew Union College. Wilson had just come from Jordan and would soon write a long series about the Dead Sea Scrolls for the New Yorker magazine. He had concluded that the scrolls were written by the first Christians.
“Ellyn helped Rahamim, then a popular custodian at HUC, who was a trained paratrooper soon to be called up, to prepare for whatever would come. She and he taped the windows of the building leading up the entry steps.
“When the Jordanians shelled our side, a shell hit the college, the windows fell out completely as a unit, slid down the steps and shattered; no one was hurt.”
As fate would have it, the Gellers, on the advice of the program’s director, left Israel on May 31 and landed in Athens.
When they tried to return after the war had begun, they could not fly back. They missed “the great victory” here in Israel.
Wilensky had a special experience when he was able to return to Jerusalem after working a few more days in the kibbutz.
He came back on Tuesday, June 13, since Shavuot began that night.
“I think Shavuot was the climax of these weeks of tension,” he wrote in his letter home. “We stayed up all night studying at the apartment of one of our teachers and then davened at 4 in the morning. We proceeded to the Wailing Wall. There was a true aliyat regel [pilgrimage] for this Shavuot. Even at that early hour there were already crowds, but everything was well organized so there was no great crush.”
In his letter, he then made a very moving observation. “The whole myriad of communities and cultures that are Jerusalem were represented – Sephardi women clucking the shrill oriental cry of joy; pious women with scarf-covered heads; Baghdadi Jews in their pinstriped robes; and hasidim with their fur hats and long robes.”
One person he spotted stuck out notably – “a bearded Jew in a cream suit that belonged more in a British colonial scene than the present surroundings.
“Over 200,000 people passed by the Wall during this one historical day.
The scene before the Wall was the most moving. Rows of people pressed toward the Wall for an ecstatic moment of physical contact.”
Wilensky knew in person 50 years ago what we all know today – the Wall is in our hands.