Fallen heroes

What are the stories behind our country's lesser known memorials?

On June 10, 1948, the Egyptian army utilized ground, tank and artillery forces to attack a small Israeli position near Ashdod called Giva 69. After several hours of savage fighting and heavy casualties, Israeli soldiers were given an order to retreat. Communication lines had been severed during the battle, so a runner was sent to relay the message to the troops. Tragically, he was almost immediately mowed down by the enemy and as a result, many of the men stayed - and were slaughtered. Those soldiers who did attempt to retreat had no idea where to find safety, and walked straight into the clutches of the Egyptian army. One day some time ago, a former army commander took a group of foreign visitors up Giva 69. Standing next to a memorial for the soldiers who fell defending the outpost, he described this and other disasters from the War of Independence. Appalled, one of his listeners couldn't hold back a question. 'My God!' she burst out. 'How did you ever win the war?' 'What other choice did we have?' he replied. During the 1950s, the Jewish National Fund was charged with perpetuating the memory of the extraordinarily courageous men and women who gave their lives to ensure the creation and continued existence of a Jewish state. This year on Independence Day you might want to enjoy the traditional picnic at a park, grove or forest not only developed and maintained by the JNF but dedicated to soldiers who died serving their country. There are countless moving memorial sites all over the country. Here are a few you may not yet have seen. GIVA 69, completely barren in 1948, is now almost covered with trees. Water towers built by the British, who used the strategic hill as a base until November of 1947, make it easy to spot from the road. Look inside the towers: we saw a barn owl there one day. The site includes picnic tables and a stone monument dedicated to the men who fell in the battle for Giva 69. To get there, follow Highway 4 to Eshkolot Junction, take the road east for a few hundred meters and you will see a sign on your left. YISRAEL 'ZUZIYA' SHAPIRA was born in Russia about a century ago and, as a youth, was exiled to Siberia because of his connections with the Zionist movement. When released four years later, he made it to British-controlled Palestine and joined Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim. During World War II, he fought in England's Jewish Brigade and afterwards was instrumental in bringing 'illegal' immigrants to Palestine. When Jerusalem came under siege in 1948, he drove convoys with supplies on their dangerous journey to Jerusalem. In May of 1948, as the Jordanian Legion advanced towards Kibbutz Ma'aleh Hahamisha and Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, he was sent to the sanitarium outpost in the Judean Hills to help ward off the Arab invasion. When he realized that shells were penetrating the three-story cement fortifications, Shapira commanded his soldiers to take immediate cover, while he stayed outside spotting the enemy for his snipers. Not long afterwards, he was hit by a fatal shell. A metal Torah scroll stands at the entrance to the Gazelle Monument erected by Shapira's son Michael, which was dedicated in 1979. Located in a forest on the eastern slopes of Har Hahagana just north of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, it is inscribed with the biblical passage: 'The beauty of Israel is slain upon your heights: how are the mighty fallen!' (2 Samuel 1:19). Perched on the roof of the three-storied former outpost, the monument - an enormous metal gazelle - practically beckons visitors to leave the forest trail and clamber up to the top for a view of the Judean Hills. PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon was in attendance last year when the JNF inaugurated a monument above the Ayalon Valley across from Latrun. His presence was no accident, for in May of 1948 Sharon was seriously wounded not far from the site. Today, a multi-lane highway runs between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. But in 1948, the narrow, winding road to Jerusalem ran beneath the Jordanian-held Latrun police station and hills populated with hostile Arabs. Jerusalem was under siege - and it was up to the army to set her free. Designed to resemble the walls of the holy city, with deep red stripes that represent blood spilled during battles to liberate Jerusalem, the new monument is dedicated to troops of the Alexandroni Brigade who fell in a series of gory, unsuccessful attempts. Latrun was only taken in the Six Day War - without even a fight. To reach the monument, turn into Neveh Shalom off Highway 3, travel 200 meters and look for the sign. FEW ARE familiar with the story of Hirbet Yarda, located off Route 91, between the Mahanaim and Gadot Junctions. Once a splendid farming estate, Yarda was built in the 19th century over Roman and Byzantine remains. From here, Mt. Hermon at sunset is an extraordinary sight, and it also offers a wonderful view of the Huleh Valley, Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar and Yesod Hama'ala. It was at Hirbet Yarda that Israeli troops were able to halt the Syrian army's attempt to cut the eastern Galilee off from the State of Israel. During the War of Independence, Hirbet Yarda changed hands several times, in gruesomely bloody battles. At the time of the first truce in June of 1948, Israel had forces at Hirbet Yarda, and Syrian troops were stationed on the hill facing you just across the valley. In July, after the fighting resumed, Israeli forces unsuccessfully attempted to surround the Syrian bridgehead located on the hill and force a retreat. In desperation, Israel tried to trick them into thinking they were about to be attacked. In the little-known Oren Campaign, for example, Israel brought in convoys of empty cars and removed them stealthily at night, hoping the Syrians would believe the Israelis had strong reinforcements and would be soon on the attack. The Syrians weren't pushed back - but were unable to advance any further. Ruins of the splendid estate, a striking three-part monument and the view make this a lovely place to visit. If you leave your car here and walk back about 200 meters you will see a turn leading down into the wadi. It leads to a perfect and still undeveloped picnic spot next to a spring called Ein Yarda. DARDARA IS the Arabic name for Ashmura, a pioneer settlement that was once situated along today's Road 918, five kilometers north of the Gadot Junction. It sat on a tiny strip of land next to the eastern edge of the Huleh lake, and supplies came by boat from nearby Yesod Hama'ala and Kibbutz Hulata. Eventually, a barge was constructed that could transport equipment and even tractors to the little settlement. As you will see when you reach the site, Dardara was located directly below the Golan Heights, with the international border 300 meters up the slope. In 1948, after nearby Mishmar Hayarden was conquered by the Syrians, the kibbutz was cut off from the rest of Israel and came under severe attack. With the help of reinforcements, however, defenders were able to hold their own and as a result, the area remained part of Israel after the war. Nevertheless, with only water for company, the settlers moved further into Israel and onto Kibbutz Ayal in 1952. Look for remains of the settlement, including parts of the bunkers, and the well from which the settlers drew water. But you won't find the defensive tower which was reportedly four stories high. Some believe that the Israeli Air Force bombed the tower in 1973 so that the Syrians wouldn't land here and use it as a defensive fortification; others claim that a contractor carted off the tower's stones to build a development. Near the picnic table and under the shade of 50-year- old eucalyptus trees you will find a lovely pool in which JNF rangers are growing water foliage such as papyrus and water lilies. Little foot bridges add to the appeal of this enchanting site; so do the clear waters of a babbling brook fed by Nahal Ashmura. THE MOST famous foreign volunteer to serve in the War of Independence was Colonel David 'Mickey' Marcus, who became the first brigadier general in the Israeli army and was accidentally killed by his own troops. Yet over 3,500 volunteers from 44 different countries also participated in the war. Their experience and expertise were crucial to the fledgling Israeli army, for many had served in armies and navies during World War II. Paul Shulman, for example, was a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy - an American who became the first commander of the Israeli Navy. And there were so many Anglo-Saxon veterans in the Israeli Air Force that many operational discussions were held in English. One hundred and nineteen overseas volunteers (called machalnikim in Hebrew) were killed or went missing in action during the War of Independence. Many others were wounded or became prisoners of war. A beautiful monument and picnic ground dedicated to those volunteers who fell while serving in the Israeli army is located at the entrance to Burma Road in the Sha'ar Hagai Forest (along Road 38). LARGE NUMBERS of soldiers who served in the newly formed Israeli army during the War of Independence were Holocaust survivors for whom the land of their forefathers was the final refuge. Barely off the ship before they were drafted into - or insisted on joining - the army, many had never held a gun and knew little, if any, Hebrew. One of Israel's most poignant memorials is dedicated to 436 immigrants who lost their families in the Holocaust and didn't have a chance to get to know their new country before falling in battle. Called From Crisis to Hope, it consists of a large, cracked rock split in the middle by a fast-growing tree. It faces Latrun, where an unusually large number of the immigrants met their deaths. Nearby, you will find an amphitheater and picnic site inaugurated in 2003 and dedicated to the memory of Major Asaf Asolin. Commander of a paratroop unit, he was attending a course when, in 2002, his men were sent to Jenin. Another officer took over Asaf's duties but after his replacement was killed in battle, Asaf abandoned his studies, resumed command, and he, too, lost his life. Both the Holocaust survivors' monument and the site dedicated to Asaf Asolin are situated in Ya'ar Hamagenim (also known as Ya'ar Nahshon), a forest dedicated to fallen soldiers (it is accessible from Road 44 about two kilometers north of Nahshon Junction). Once you enter the forest, signs lead to Asaf Asolin and the memorial site. As you walk, drive or bike through nature trails, you will encounter very personalized memorials, for families and friends paid tribute to their loved ones in a manner they thought fitting. Units to which the soldiers had belonged often added an extra touch: a piece of a plane, perhaps, or part of a half-track. One special section of the forest has been set aside for monuments brought here from other sites. When the Armored Corps' 500th Brigade was disbanded, for instance, monuments that had been dispersed in the Golan Heights or stood in the former base camp were brought to Ya'ar Hamagenim and concentrated in one spot to create a tribute to the Brigade. Nearby you will see a memorial to a soldier killed in Lebanon: after Israel pulled out of the Security Zone, the JNF brought the monument to Ya'ar Hamagenim. The forest continues to grow, swiftly becoming one giant memorial to our fallen heroes.