Aliya in the midst of war

It was late evening on October 19, 1973, when the captain of the El Al flight from London announced that the plane was crossing the coast of Israel.

Haifa port 521 (photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
Haifa port 521
(photo credit: LIAT COLLINS)
It was late evening on October 19, 1973, when the captain of the El Al flight from London announced that the plane was crossing the coast of Israel. Our original airline had refused to fly into the war zone so we transferred to El Al, which only accepted us after much persuasion. The plane was full of returning soldiers, diplomats and media personnel and one couple making aliya.
The atmosphere was tense as the plane entered the war zone. The Yom Kippur war had been raging for 13 bitter days. Passengers stirred, some stretched to peer through the windows expecting to see Tel Aviv and its environs in total darkness to counter enemy air raids. The street lights were out, but even though youths had been given the task of masking car headlights with blue paint, the progress of vehicles could be seen from up high. It was as though they were drawing illuminated lines on a map.
The tension was palpable and all were silent as the plane landed. No-one knew what awaited us. After disembarkation the passengers quickly dispersed, the soldiers to their units and the diplomats and media men to their tasks. My wife Tova and I were met by my cousin, an officer in the army reserves awaiting a call should the Jordanian front ignite.
He was a Danziger, with an abrupt German manner: “I think you are mad to come here at a time like this,” he said, “but my respect for you has increased 100 percent!” “Your presence,” he continued, “will improve our morale, which currently is pretty low.”
We later found that his sentiments were echoed by other Israelis that we were soon to meet and make us welcome.
IT WAS on the previous night that we had attended a rally in a London suburb in support of Israel. There, representatives of the Israel embassy and local Jewish organizations spoke of the critical situation in Israel and asked for generous donations, but no mention was made of aliya.
“Why not?” I asked. “Doesn’t Israel need physical as well as financial support?” “Yes,” the official acquiesced, but in his opinion such a call at this time would only confuse the issue.
“Do you not know,” I asked, “that when the war broke out thousands of Jewish tourists left the country for the safety of their distant homes while the Israeli citizen army was left to fight alone against much larger armies on two fronts with the possibility of a third front opening on the Eastern border?” “Yes, yes,” he said “but what can we do from here?” “People can do what we are doing,” I answered, “they can go to Israel and help there.”
“You are going to Israel?” the official said, his mouth agape. “When?” “Tomorrow, Tova and I are going tomorrow!” When the meeting resumed the official announced that there were two heroes present in the hall who were leaving for Israel the next day.
Heroes? What nonsense, I thought, the real heroes were out there fighting in the desert and on the Golan Heights and for us; it was not that we were making aliya in the middle of the war, but rather that the war had rudely blasted into our already-planned aliya.
Were we to choose our new country only in good times? IT WAS near midnight when we arrived at the Kessem Hotel on Ben-Yehuda Street in Tel Aviv. To her dismay, Tova found that her costume jewelry had been stolen somewhere on the journey. So much for security, we thought. I telephoned my cousin who advised that we should report the loss to the airport authority and the police.
“But there’s a war on!” I said.
“Never mind”, said my cousin, “war or no war, it is important that we act normally. By the way,” he continued, “when I got home, my wife was crying.”
“Why?” I asked.
He replied that she had just received a phone call from their son. “Mama,” he said, “I’m in Africa, and if you receive a message to say I am dead, it’s not true! I’m alive and OK.”
He was far from OK – he was suffering from severe shock as his tank had been hit by an anti-tank missile after crossing the Suez Canal into Egypt. Others in the crew had been killed or wounded, but he had miraculously survived.
“And you want me to report a theft?” I asked incredulously.
“Report it,” he insisted. “We must all act normally.”
I telephoned airport security, explaining that it was not a question of value or money but rather that if someone could open a suitcase to take things out, then surely they could also put explosives in.
“Don’t worry,” came the reply. “We may have thieves, but we don’t have terrorists!” If only that were the case today.
Next morning we dutifully went to the police station on Dizengoff Street. Due to my halting Hebrew, we were directed to a back office where an officer “speaks English.” She was bent forward on her desk, crying, with her head in her hands. Somewhat startled I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll come back another time” and began to exit.
“No, no!” she shouted through her tears.
“It’s OK, it’s OK! Come in.”
It transpired that for days now she had not heard from her two brothers who were serving on the southern front, but as she explained while completing the tear-sodden form, “We must all act normally.”
Later we went to see what progress had taken place at the house we had purchased the previous April and that was due for completion in November. When we arrived, one of the builders rushed up to us to tell us that his partner had been wounded in a battle on the Syrian front. He was a colonel in the IDF and was in hospital at Beit K in Nahariya.
We jumped into the builder’s car and raced up north. The colonel, who had shrapnel in his hip and leg, was in a ward with many other soldiers.
“Are they all officers?” “No,” he said, “this is Israel; all wounded soldiers are equal.”
This was quite a change from Britain, where officers and enlisted men could not walk on the street together even if they were brothers.
We asked him how it was that when we wanted another bucket of cement for some purpose at the house, he was reluctant to provide it, yet he was prepared to give his blood in battle without question.
“Such is Israel” he replied. But then he added that we should check the condition of the house thoroughly and let him know of any deficiencies. “War or no war,” he said, “we have to act normally.”
Although the house was fully constructed, there was no hope of getting water, electricity or gas connected because of the war and so we could not take possession of the house and had to live in one room in Beit Milman, which was the immigrant absorption center in Ramat Aviv. Originally we had expected to stay there for about a month, instead we were there for over eight.
Britain had imposed currency restrictions and Israel was not in the “Sterling bloc.” Only a limited amount of cash could be taken out of the country so household goods had to be purchased in the UK and exported to Israel.
The builders agreed that when our lift arrived from London, our furniture and other goods could be stored in the house even though we had not yet taken possession.
We were supposed to have door-to-door container delivery, but because of the panic caused by the outbreak of the war, the British ran out of diesel fuel and the UK shippers could not send the container to our UK home. Instead they sent petrol lorries and promised to pack and mark everything in their warehouse before loading all our furniture and household goods on the container waiting in their warehouse.
Here, in Israel, too, there were problems, because all the available tractors had been expropriated for army use, and so the container could not be delivered to our house in Ra’anana. Instead, all the goods had to be offloaded from the container in Haifa port and transferred to two petrol lorries.
The port authority showed no sympathy.
Rent had to be paid for the period the containers stood idle in the port. The port workers seemed to be aged; all the younger ones had been recruited to the IDF. We were fearful they would drop parcels containing ceramics and glass.
Our shippers had been too enthusiastic when clearing out our garage in England and they loaded a tree trunk that was not intended to be transported. The Haifa porters placed the trunk against the side of the container and carried on offloading our goods. A huge port tractor unexpectedly appeared on the scene carrying another container (not ours) that it wanted to place between our container and another standing on the dock. No-one noticed the tree trunk until suddenly there was a loud crack that sounded more like an explosion and two halves of the tree were sent flying across the dock.
The tractor wheels had crushed the trunk against the steel container and had split it into two. Imagine the scene. Everyone was startled. Was this an attack? Fortunately noone was hurt.
But this was not all. The two lorries were loaded and we merrily followed them out of the port gates in our car. We had gone but a few hundred yards when a port customs vehicle sped past us and then blocked the way.
“You cannot go,” said the customs officer “until all the goods are checked.”
“But we have been signed out,” we protested in vain.
“Turn round and go back into the port!” Panic set in. We explained that if we did not get back to Ra’anana by 2 p.m. the builder’s workers who had agreed to offload our stuff for storage in the house would leave and the lorries or the goods would be left outside all night. We still had not got the keys to the house.
“Don’t worry, it won’t take long,” we were assured.
In those days when one came on aliya there were certain customs concessions and all one’s belongings were recorded in a “tuedat oleh” (immigrant document). Our shippers had packed our stuff well, but had failed to describe what was in each parcel. Instead they had labeled almost everything as glassware to avoid breakages.
When the customs officer opened the first package marked glassware to find a stereo, the officer shouted, “Lo rashum!” (not recorded), and said everything had to be offloaded from the lorries and checked in detail.
We pleaded for all our worth. When the senior officer saw our predicament, he made us a proposition. He said he would accompany us to Ra’anana. The officer got in our car and the convoy set off.
The near disaster turned into a godsend as the officers instructed the workers on how to offload and place our belongings in the house. All turned out well when it was found that the contents did indeed agree with the records. The officer also explained later that some shipping agents were smuggling electrical items into the country through innocent olim by placing, say, an extra refrigerator or oven in the container and then calling round the next day to explain their “mistake.” The oleh would be only too happy for the surplus item to be taken away.
“Don’t worry” said the officer, “all your goods are safely in the house and now you can carry on normally!” The writer is author of From here to Obscurity and Gold Ducats and Devilry Afoot.