A story that calculates the value of victory
As I sit here with these yellowing sheets of paper in my wrinkled hand, contemplating the prospect of another war between the Muslim world and us Israelis, my memory takes me back more than half a century to when I visited Israel for the first time, in the summer of 1965. I was then a young buck of twenty-nine.
It has always amused me to set down observations that divert me. They do not have to be profound nor reveal some unusual facet of life or human behaviour, but they must always be diverting. To this end, I would thrust myself into situations and even people’s lives without reservation or embarrassment.
These old pages here in my aged hand, speak of the day I was on the platform of the Haifa train station, seated at a table in the station restaurant with a cup of coffee and a piece of cake. I searched for a way to speak to two young friends at the table next to mine. They were chatting volubly in Hebrew or, rather, the dark one was while his blonde companion listened to him with obvious enjoyment. I hoped they spoke English, as I would be glad of their company on the hour-long journey to Tel Aviv.
The dark one was so exuberant that I watched him with fascination. In his mid-twenties, with a firm bronzed face that broke into quick disarming smiles, and a head of curly inky-black hair, he was using his hands to emphasize his points, stabbing the air or making rosebuds of his fingers. So absorbed was I in watching him, I did not register the distant hissing and puffing of the approaching train until a shrill human cry made me spin around. An Arab woman, covered head to foot in black, stood at the edge of the platform pointing down to the tracks, screaming in anguish as the train rumbled slowly forward. The train driver, leaning out of his cabin, reached in alarm for the whistle. He tugged frantically on it, filling the air with deafening toots. He yelled something to his partner inside and the train groaned with the application of the breaks.
The two young men leapt from their seats and ran toward the distraught woman. I followed. The dark one jumped down onto the tracks and a moment later, lifted a bruised little girl into the waiting arms of her mother. He reached out a hand and his friend lifted him to safety, just as the train screeching and juddering, passed over the spot. The whole incident could have taken no more than ten seconds.
The woman clung fiercely to the child, swinging her body from side to side and wailing along with the little girl. Almost immediately, the excited crowd on the platform, gathering around, swallowed them up. The two friends stood apart and climbed aboard when the train came to a grating halt. I followed into the compartment and took a seat facing them. I now had a good excuse to initiate a conversation.
When I expressed my admiration for their quick-wittedness and courage, they simply shrugged their shoulders and said in tolerable English, ‘Everyone do the same.’
‘I didn’t,’ I said.
‘Maybe our army training,’ said the dark one with extreme tact, indicating that the topic should end.
We exchanged names; the dark one was Haim and his friend was Ehud. They had grown up together, served in the army together and were suffering the recession together. They had travelled up to Haifa in the hope of finding work on one of Zim Line’s ships. Jobs were hard to come by, he said. Still something will turn up. He spoke with optimism, good humour and considerable charm.
They questioned me about myself and I explained I preferred to hitchhike round the country. It brought me into contact with the land and its people. I was just too tired to hitch back to Tel Aviv.
‘We wonder how a culture man like you is dressed like you,’ said Ehud indicating my sandals, white shorts and red singlet.
I laughed. ‘I like to blend in with the scenery,’ I said, adding, ‘and what magnificent scenery this little country has to offer.’ I sang the praises of the Galilean mountains, the Hula Valley with its patchwork of cultivated fields, pretty villages and kibbutzim, and the city of Tiberias with its lake.
‘Lake! Lake!’ they cried. ‘It’s the Sea of Galilee.’
I laughed and apologised profusely. I lauded the generosity and friendliness of the Israeli people; I waxed eloquent on the miracles wrought in the building of their country. My sincerity must have impressed them for they were regarding me with faces aglow with pride. They took my hand and shook it warmly.
‘Why you not come to live here?’ said Haim.
‘I will,’ I said and they thumped me heartily on the back. ‘After the recession,’ I added artfully.
If it is possible to become friends in an hour, we did. We exchanged histories and found much of interest in each other’s lives. When the train pulled into the Tel Aviv station, we were conscious of a mutual feeling of wanting to see more of one another.
‘Where you staying?’ asked Haim as we descended the station steps into the hot late-afternoon sun.
‘With friends,’ I told him.
‘We never met tourist like you,’ he observed. ‘You very interesting fellow. I like for my family to meet you. You come to my house Friday four o’clock, yes?’
I accepted the slip of paper on which he wrote his name and address. We shook hands and went our separate ways.
As I pressed the bell outside the apartment the following Friday, now dressed in long pants and a short-sleeved, well-pressed shirt, I wondered at the sort of reception I might receive. Haim opened the door and led me to the lounge crowded with about twenty expectant faces. They were hushed as I entered.
‘This,’ said Haim with a flourish, for all the world as if he were presenting a prophet of old, ‘is my tourist friend from England.’
He introduced me to his parents, his two brothers and their wives, his sister and her husband, in-laws of the aforementioned and assorted children. Ehud was there too. And, sitting by Haim’s mother, was a pretty young thing.
‘My girlfriend,’ said Haim, ‘her name is Dahlia. We shall to marry in November.’
‘Mazal tov,’ said I, and everyone clapped and cheered.
They sat me down in a comfortable armchair facing them, thrust a cup of coffee and a plateful of goodies into my hands, beseeching me not to fuss and eat ‘with appetite.’ Haim pulled up a chair next to mine and, with a proprietary air, encouraged me to talk about myself, and my impressions of Israel. As I spoke, feeling much like a respected actor before an adoring audience, I was conscious of Haim’s animated face, his smiles of pleasure, his ‘I told you, you would like him’ attitude. It gave me the confidence to speak simply and movingly about a country with which I had fallen in love. I spoke of the pride all Jews felt, now that they had some standing in the international community; I spoke of the new ‘sabra’ Jews, born on the soil of their own land, vigorous and mature beyond their years, knowing that the destiny of this land fell upon their shoulders. I talked of my own experiences with the people, of their friendliness and hospitality and, of which, this meeting was a typical example; and I told them of the strangeness and the beauty of the sensations of seeing trees and lakes, sea, sand and sky that belonged to my people and was my heritage.
They came and shook my hand, the women with tears in their eyes. They wrapped me in a cloak of kindliness that I wore for many months after I returned to England.
When Haim saw me downstairs, he embraced me and said, ‘My sister’s husband, he bitter man. He don’t find work for two months and he want to go with my sister to America.’ He smiled. ‘I don’t think he go now.’
‘I will come again when I return to Israel, Haim,’ I said.
‘You must to return.’ He was emphatic. ‘We need more like you.’
This outspoken and generous giving of praise was not uncommon and, I suspect, it went the other way, too. It takes getting used to straightforwardness, especially after decades of British reserve.
I left him but the image of the young sabra remained with me. His strong face, burnished by the Mediterranean sun; the quick smile and the sheen of his curly black hair; the image of his swift leap down onto the tracks of an oncoming train; his naïve pleasure on receiving praise and his unselfconsciousness in the giving of it; his jaunty exuberance, his animation, and the liveliness he radiated, like a wild stallion luxuriating in its freedom. I was to recall this image even more vividly two years later when I returned to Israel in June 1967, just after the Six-Day War.
The face of Israel had changed. More uniforms were visible, which meant more civilians drafted for the war effort. I saw amputees on wheelchairs, some with stumps for arms. The blind, some still bandaged, tapped their way down pavements thinned of people. Victory looked bitter.
Israel had changed. The old-timers, once afraid how the new generation would fare in the inevitable battles, were astounded at the way the young had acquitted themselves. However, rejoicing was muted, but one could observe a release of tension in the faces of the people. The old now trusted their sons and daughters but also feared for them.
Israel had changed. In place of happy families, now widows and orphans wept at cemeteries. Parents were abruptly bereft of sons, wives of husbands, children of fathers. The sound of the Kadish, the prayer for the dead, mingling with the wailing of mourners, reverberated throughout the land. Everywhere, one was sensible of the terrible price of war.
Armed with a basic knowledge of Hebrew acquired from tutors in London, I went to Ramat Gan to visit Haim. Only his mother was at home. She welcomed me soberly but sincerely.
‘Haim is married now,’ she informed me and I expressed my delight and asked if it was to the pretty Dahlia. She was surprised and pleased I had remembered.
‘Yes,’ she said, ‘but Dahlia has not seen him since two weeks before the war. I believe he is due home today. Here is his address.’ She wrote it out and handed me the slip of paper along with an envelope for her son. ‘It’s not far,’ she said. ‘You can walk.’
As she escorted me to the door, I remembered to ask, ‘How is Ehud?’
She lowered her head for an instant then raised her eyes and said softly, ‘He died on the first day of the war.’
I climbed the stairs to Haim’s flat and pressed the bell. The door flung open and the smiling, happy faces of Haim’s sister and her husband greeted me. Their disappointment at seeing a stranger was obvious. Two years is a long time and they had met me but once.
I explained who I was and recognition came into their eyes. They invited me in, explaining they had thought I was Haim as he was due at any moment. Dahlia came forward to shake my hand as she wiped a surreptitious tear from her cheek.
‘He has been away almost a month,’ said the sister, adding significantly but with a hint of apology, ‘We are staying only a few minutes to greet him.’
‘I too shall not stay long,’ I assured them. ‘I couldn’t leave the country without saying hello to him and Dahlia.’
I broke the awkward silence that followed by presenting Haim’s mother’s letter to Dahlia. Another awkward moment, no doubt because the tension of the wait left them with nothing to say. The shrill ringing of the doorbell happily shattered the silence.
I could not see Haim when his sister and brother-in-law opened the door but I noticed the change in their faces. Their welcoming smiles vanished abruptly. His sister embraced him and I could see his brother-in-law shaking his arm. It was only after his sister released him and he moved into the room to go to his wife that I understood why it was impossible to smile.
It was not the streaks of sweat and sand on his unshaven face, nor his grimy clothes. It was not his skin, burned almost black by the desert sun; nor that he was gaunt and drawn from tiredness. It was the lost, haunted look in his dark eyes; those eyes that gazed past me to his wife. Fear possessed them. No, not fear – terror. The kind of terror that carries the knowledge that the experiences responsible for it never can be erased, the nightmares never cease. It had driven the light from his eyes, the zest from his body and the charm from his soul. He did not see me. He was looking only at Dahlia. They moved slowly toward each other, she in distress at his pain. She reached out to touch him. He fell to his knees before her and began to sob, those heavy gasps that come from the innermost reaches of man. He blabbered incoherently of death, of rotting bodies, of burning flesh, of the hell he had not known existed, and of the stench of death that even now filled his nostrils. ‘Oh God! Oh God!’ he kept repeating, ‘The smell! The smell!’
She pressed his head to her bosom, tears coursing down her cheeks. His body heaved in torment against her. I looked over at his sister and brother-in-law and, with one accord, we moved silently to the front door and stepped out. We walked down the stairs and away from them without looking back.