Remembering the Yom Kippur War

One soldier told me to call his fiancé and tell her he would come home for the wedding. I have no idea whether he made it or not.

311_Suez crossing (photo credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit)
311_Suez crossing
(photo credit: IDF Spokesperson Unit)
Coming from Australia, I had never experienced a war, because no war in the true sense of the word had ever been fought on Australian soil.
So nothing in my life prepared me for the Yom Kippur War.
I had left the Beit Giora immigrant absorption center in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Yovel neighborhood to stay for Yom Kippur with my friend Haya, a former employee of the Israeli Consulate in Australia who lived in the center of town. In the late afternoon, we heard sirens and saw jeeps speeding along King George Street. Haya, a multi-generation Israeli originally from Tiberias, and a former policewoman, instantly knew it meant war. We rushed back to her apartment and she turned on the radio. The announcement confirmed her suspicions.
Being the only child of a widow, I decided to call my mother in Australia before she heard the news from anyone else. It was impossible to get through. There was no direct dialing in those days, and I kept trying for hours before I finally spoke to an international operator who put me through to Melbourne. By that time, my mother had already heard Israel was under attack.
Haya lived some 200 meters from Beit Agron, the journalists’ headquarters. The place was absolutely packed with foreign correspondents and local reporters who all wanted to go out to the front, but the army spokesman was not terribly keen on giving them permission. Some decided to take matters into their own hands and just risk going south. The problem was that anyone doing so needed a camouflaged car, and there was a shortage of such vehicles in Jerusalem.
A couple of British journalists made inquiries and found out that they could get one in Lod, but it was expensive and they looked around to find two more people who would share the cost. Eva, a Jewish woman who wrote for Dutch papers, immediately said she would go, and I who was writing for Australian and American publications at the time said I would go, too. One of the British journalists had a car in which we drove to Lod on the fourth day of the war. Of the four of us I was the only one who knew any Hebrew – not nearly as much as I know now, but enough to get by.
As we drove south in the camouflaged car, I kept leaning out of the window, screaming “Bir Gifgafa!” (the furthest outpost on Israel’s southern front). The road was lined with reservists on both sides, all of them trying to hitch a ride so that they could join their units. Finally we found a soldier who was going to Bir Gifgafa, otherwise known as Refidim. He got in the car, asked who we were. We told him. He asked if we had permits. We said no. “Then you can’t go,” he said. To which I responded: “If we don’t go, you don’t go.” He caught on fast, and whenever we saw military police ahead, he jumped out of the car to tell them he was escorting a group of journalists to Bir Gifgafa.
Nobody queried his right to do so. No one asked us for credentials or other documents.
When we arrived at Bir Gifgafa, there was utter chaos. A lot of soldiers had already been wounded.
They didn’t tell us how many had been killed. Eva and I were instantly surrounded by soldiers who wanted to send messages home. One told me to call his fiancé and tell her he would come home for the wedding. I have no idea whether he made it or not.
Eva and I were handed dozens of slips of paper.
After a couple of hours the Brits were ready to go back to file their stories. They were going to do so from a public phone. Eva and I were still collecting messages, and the Brits became impatient. “What are you, journalists or social workers?” one of them yelled at us. To me, the product of a Jewish Day School and Zionist youth movements, it was inconceivable to simply pick up and go when Israeli soldiers were still plying us with messages.
Looking at the Brits I replied with totally unprofessional naivete: “We’re Jewish.”
When we returned to Jerusalem, we parted ways with the Brits and Eva and I went to the army spokesman’s office explaining that we knew that we had been out of line, but that we were carrying messages that needed to be delivered as quickly as possible, and wanted help. If we had to be punished, we said, let’s get the messages out of the way first. Several soldiers each took wads of messages and the telephone marathon began. It was after midnight, and we didn’t want to scare anyone, but we didn’t want to wait until morning, because we wanted to get their messages to their loved ones while we could be reasonably certain the soldiers were all still alive. The army didn’t punish us.
A few days later, the Government Press Office arranged to take a small group of journalists to Suez.
We left at around 2 or 3 a.m. One of the journalists was David Landau, who was later to become the managing editor of The Jerusalem Post and after that the founding editor of the English edition of Haaretz. Two of the others were the late Dora and Louis Sowden. He was a poet and she wrote ballet reviews for the Post.
But when reporting for publications in their native South Africa, both were war correspondents. Landau is religious, and as the dawn was breaking, he insisted we stop so that he could say his morning prayers. He had not forgotten to bring his prayer shawl and phylacteries – and there he was, a dramatic lone figure in the desert, looking like some biblical prophet as he communicated with his Creator.
When we reached our destination, we saw a cluster of Egyptian soldiers sitting on the back of an army jeep. They were blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs. An Arabic-speaking Israeli soldier who was guarding them had lit cigarettes for those that wanted one, and was spending his time giving each of the Egyptians who wanted one a cigarette to inhale, and then removing it, so that could exhale.