Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 10 - At Abu Ghosh

Abu Ghosh was an interesting and pretty village lying athwart the main highway from the coast to Jerusalem and dominating the road. Its inhabitants were friendly and many had remained behind in their homes when the Arabs of neighbouring villages fled. For years they helped the Jews with arms and information and the Sheik of Abu Ghosh, one of the village leaders, and members of his family and village had belonged to the Stern Group. He was amongst those arrested following the assassination of Count Bernadotte. Later he stood as a candidate for the first parliament of Israel but was not elected as his party only polled a small percentage of the votes.

The houses of the village clung to the terraced slopes of the valley and to the pass that ran through the hills. On the summit of the hill a large white Madonna, visible for miles, overlooked the surroundings. It rose from a little church belonging to a French religious order under whose auspices was a monastery run by a priest and nuns. This institution stood apart from the village itself but in the village there was another, older church, famous in the history of the Crusaders and fount of many a legend and story. Inside its thick walls a well was preserved as a reminder that invading armies sojourned at Abu Ghosh for refreshment.

Abu Ghosh village was out of bounds to all troops not on special duty and the inhabitants were left unmolested. The troops lived in the police station, which served as brigade headquarters, in peripheral vacated houses and in tents.

An exquisite and comprehensive view was obtained from Abu Ghosh of the approaches to Jerusalem, the valleys and hills westwards and villages on the way to Bethlehem. Fruit there was in abundance particularly grapes, figs and plums. Dan and I often went exploring and found many an ancient well, wall or other interesting object. Dan was the most observant person I have ever met. His knowledge of nature was profound and he was blessed with a capacity to be intrigued by and enthusiastic over every occurrence and phenomenon no matter how insignificant.

In the unsteady truce prevailing, our task was to hold the narrow strip bounding the road to Jerusalem. To the north, one or two kilometres away, lay units of the Arab Legion based on a village Rada, a target for our guns. To the South we were hemmed in by Egyptian and Palestinian-Arab units. Forces of all parties were thinly scattered at strategic points and patrolling was an essential feature of the routine. The road was not yet completely safe and on numerous occasions the Arabs fired on it. These attacks necessitate the division of our troop and two of our guns were sent to cover the Burma Road from positions at Sara, the birth-place of Samson.

I remained at Abu Ghosh. Days passed pleasantly enough in perfect weather, ideal for open-air life. From our heights we could see Tel Aviv on clear days. Most of Israel stretched before the eye. The smallness of the new Jewish state was apparent. And yet one felt isolated. There was no mail and few English newspapers for the “Palestine Post” rarely arrived.

Our troop was attached to a Palmach brigade named “Harel.” They were renowned for their exploits and we were proud to be with them. Palmach was the permanent, striking force of the underground Haganah. Boys and girls leaving the schools did national service for a year or two and many opted to serve in the Palmach. They were dominated by the spirit of “chalutziut” (pioneering) and wished to do constructive upbuilding. They trained on the settlements. There they were more secure and less likely to be discovered by the British army and police activities. They worked half a day and trained half a day. The work was not only an expression of their desire to create in a pioneering economy but also enabled them to pay their way - the Jewish authorities could not afford to keep full-time soldiers.

The Palmach training was severe and efficient. They came to know and understand the Palestinian terrain; they learnt to improvise and compensate for lack of arms and ammunition by ingenuity and courage.

Wingate, beloved in Israel, had played no small part in their training. During the Second World War members of the Palmach performed daring sabotage work in Europe, Africa and Asia. In the eventuality of the German armies succeeding in reaching Israel they had been trained to form an underground of sabotage.

When fighting broke out in Israel the Palmach bore the brunt. The cream of the youth fell. Young, enthusiastic, spirited, they fought against superior numbers and superior arms. They captured cities and villages, protected settlements and opened the road to Jerusalem.

Now, in September 1948, “Harel” contained few of its original members, whose graves dotted the countryside. Large numbers of new immigrants had filled the gaps but the old spirit and striking power were still evident.

The sabras of Harel were a queer bunch, different types. Those from the settlements and villages were hard and obstinate and tough. Their range of knowledge was narrow and prejudiced and the gist of their conversation consisted of reminiscences of friends and occasions. Their common background provided them with conversation. The world outside Israel was no concern of theirs.

I found it difficult to converse with them at any length. One had to create conversation and it was difficult to adjust oneself to their abrupt ways. Their sincerity was crystal-clear. There was no doubt in their minds and they were superbly confident.

Those from the cities were different. They had had more schooling and education; they were better read and interested in the world outside their own immediate sphere. One could talk to them about diverse things. Yet many of them sank into the rut of humdrum life, amidst excitement.

These youngsters had grown up too quickly, the hard way, amidst death and destruction. They took most things for granted. Some were genuinely tough. Others felt that they had to be - if on were a Palmachnik it was desirable to be tough. So they grew moustaches, handle-bar moustaches, and cultivated a slouch and a slang of their own. And they drove wildly in staff-cars and jeeps. I remember one girl particularly. She was from Haifa and had probably been quiet and city-like. But her friends were tough. So she endeavoured to be tough. She shouted, was abrupt and rude. Her voice was hard and brusque and commanding.

What would these youngsters do when the war was over? Many would join a co-operative settlement - the life they liked. Some wanted to continue their studies, and the others? But I liked them. They were sincere and honest. And good fighters. I was pleased that my duties on observation enabled me to be with them a great deal, often for days on end. There was democracy in their ranks, comradeship, an elan, an esprit de corps. No snobbishness existed. From brigade commander to private all were treated as equals. There was no saluting or officer privileges. Everyone called everyone else by their first names no matter what the rank. The officers were young, capable and experienced. Their men followed them freely. And this freedom did not impair discipline. No complaints could be lodged against the fighting prowess of “Harel.”

We had interesting chats in the reading room in the police station. We came from all over the world and told each other about our respective backgrounds. And we sang songs.

The girls in the Palmach were natural. No make-up was worn. But they were always neat. No fads of diet worried them and several were extremely stout. Others were very masculine particularly one Bulgarian girl who sang nostalgic songs in a husky voice.

Our troop did some training at Abu Ghosh. Each gun-number was not able to perform the duties of all the other numbers with efficiency, as good crews should be able to do. So there was gun-drill with gun-numbers alternating positions. One day I gave my first fire-orders in Hebrew and was extremely happy at the feat. My knowledge of this language was improving mainly due to my association with friends in the brigade.
Dan still spoke English largely. We were often together for whenever I had a special task to do I managed to get permission for him to come along as well. He was our machine-gunner. We had a Spandau and I was his assistant besides my duties as “ack.”

Lectures and practical demonstrations on the Spandau were given to members of the troop by Dan and since he knew little Hebrew I translated where he could not improvise with his knowledge of Yiddish.

Members of the troop were given a special first-aid course at the army hospital in the monastery and we acquired useful knowledge which we hoped we would never be called upon to use.

It was not all work and no play. Entertainments were provided at odd intervals.

One night  there was an orchestral concert by the Jerusalem Police Band, held in the grounds of the monastery. The atmosphere was beautifully peaceful. Lightly waving trees, twinkling stars, the sweet sound of music and the timid, swaying conductor. Some silly fool in the audience disturbed the harmony by whistling during the overture to the “Barber of Seville.”

Sometimes there were cinema performances at neighbouring settlements and camps where members of the brigade gathered. New immigrants, not knowing English or Hebrew, and not understanding the dialogue of American films, chattered to their hearts’ content during its screening. Such a background of voice spoilt the reception of the films.

Once or twice army concert parties gave performances. Some of the troupes were good. Others overestimated themselves and tired with excessive, voluntary encores. Soldiers in our and other units went anywhere, even on foot, for a film or a concert irrespective of how many times they had witnessed these before.

Every soldier in my unit was a special character in his own right. A veritable League of Nations. All the commands and “official” transactions were in Hebrew, but regularly employed languages in private conversation included Yiddish, German, Romanian, Russian, Hungarian, Polish, English and Dutch.

Hausler, the signaller, was from Holland. I understood his Dutch and he understood my Afrikaans. Like the majority of the unit he had been in a German concentration camp during the war. Several soldiers bore the tell-tale branding of concentration camp numbers on their arms. But they never spoke about those days. We used to live with our thoughts in the future for the past carried too many tragic memories.

Eli Harari, another “ack”, was young and keen as mustard. His greatest ambition was to be an officer although, in principle, he disagreed with the institution of officers. He knew a little English and whenever strangers were in the vicinity tried to air his few words. Walking up to me, he’d slap me on the back and say: “How you” Goot?”

Chernik, the third “ack”, knew English well and possessed a small English “library” which was a well of learning in the isolation of Abu Ghosh. Because he had been taken off an officer’s course he was bitter.

Frischman was a married man with two children. He came from Czechoslovakia and had visited South Africa during the war as a member of the Imperial Forces. I learnt a lot about Palestine from his stories and accounts of the diverse jobs he had held. He never had a decent wash all the weeks at Abu Ghosh although whenever we returned from showers in the Police-station he spoke of following our example. But he limited himself to a few drops from his water-bottle.

Frischman had a sickening habit of expectorating everywhere, in the tent, while at meals. It was a habit common to many of the unit and one which sickened Danny and me. Most of the new immigrants expectorated excessively without any hygienic consideration and irrespective of where they were. I thought of South Africa where the practice is generally forbidden in public and punishable by a fine of five pounds.

One had to be understanding in one’s attitude to former inmates of D.P. camps. They had spent their formative years in uncongenial environments without any training or sets of values. One could understand and condone their unhygienic habits but one still felt sick and disgusted.

The nights and sometimes the hours of day were noisy around the Judean hills. The rumbling of cannon could be heard rolling in from the distant Negenv and the staccato rattle and colourful display sounded and flashed from Jerusalem. Time dragged on. U.N.O met and discussed. Jerusalem had few peaceful nights. From Abu Ghosh we were interested spectators. Some nights ‘planes flew overhead and shortly afterwards the air-raid siren sent its stream of noise through the night from Jerusalem. No bombs were dropped. The uncertainty of the defective peace was fatiguing and irritating. One never knew what would happen next.

The days were deceptively peaceful. Ripe fruit on the trees and clear skies and a magnificent view. And the nights noisy and the road deserted.

One afternoon, the day after our arrival, Dan and I were picking figs when we saw two girls a few trees away. I noticed that they were listening to us and understanding. One spoke up with an American accent: “Where are you from?” We answered her questions and asked ours in turn. She was an American girl who had been a student at the Hebrew University. Now she was in the army nursing services. Her friend was a Sabra, also a nurse, who knew English well. Both were at a hospital in Jerusalem and had utilised their few hours’ leave to get into the country. So now we knew someone in Jerusalem.

From Abu Ghosh there was a good view of the outskirts of the Holy City and I regularly asked for permission to go there. I had a burning desire to see Jerusalem and meet its in habitants.

Finally, A few days after our arrival at Abu Ghosh, Dan and I wheedled leave to go to Jerusalem. We had a pass from 5 p.m. that afternoon to midnight - not much time considering the lack of transport. We hitched a ride on a ramshackle truck loaded with grapes and a bunch of gnarled, slovenly dressed, Shephardi Jews, Arabic looking and very friendly. They offered us grapes. It was a slow trip which enabled us to survey the surroundings. Famous hills, guarding the route to the Holy City. Contested for centuries by Crusaders and Saracens and recently bitterly fought for by Jews and Arabs. We entered Jerusalem through Machaneh Yehuda, a dingy, crammed quarter, a veritable slum. Our grape-pickers lived there.

Ragged, dirty kids; muddy, dank, evil-smelling drains; washing flapping in the breeze. Further on busy, market-stalls, jostling mixture of the old world and the new; pious men in black garments and forelocks, little children with forelocks and rosy-checked faces and skull-caps. And on the market-stalls an abundance of fruit and vegetables. Gone are the days of the siege.

We continue. The surroundings become more modern, the people better dressed. The streets are busy and the children play in the dwindling sun. Uniformed men and women everywhere. Shops well-stocked with necessities and luxuries. Books in all languages, chocolate and sweets and children’s toys, cigarettes and liquors. Clothes and dress materials. A siege seems remote. Even now it is difficult to bring in goods over the rugged, lightly-held Burma Road. The people are happy and contented.

Twisted girders and shattered walls, vacant gaping holes in buildings. There had been an explosion in Ben Yehuda Street and there are ruins. No, this was not the work of the Arabs, not a result of their shelling. It happened in mandatory days. The impressive Jewish Agency building also bears the scars of a former outrage. But now the gates are closely guarded. Ravage and destruction in Jerusalem, but not from Arab shells.

To me the Arab shelling seems to have been most ineffective. Here and there little craters and wounds in houses and buildings. Building regulations laid down that new buildings in Jerusalem had to be faced with stone. They say unfriendly authorities promulgated the regulations to make building more expensive and handicap development. A blessing in disguise. Shells have done a little damage. If the buildings of Jerusalem had been like the flimsy buildings of Tel Aviv much damage would have been caused. On the outskirts of New Jerusalem, near the Old City wall, it is a different story. Destruction and ruin and a deadly quiet of no-man’s-land, disturbed only by the whine of snipers’ bullets and the screech of shells. An attenuated no-man’s-land over which the Old City looms.

And from its confines the steel of hate flashes and whistles into the new city. Everyday there are casualties of the truce. Brick walls and barricades to screen the New City from the deadly missiles. Through slits the ramparts and ancient walls of the Old City are visible.

I am in Jerusalem. A dream come true. Children’s voices and the slow noise of slow traffic. And no water runs from open taps. Water is rationed and scarce - carefully divided.

Up on Mount Scopus the University and the Hadassah hospital; in between the Arabs cutting us off and barring our movement.

In Katamon, where wealthy Arabs once sipped cocktails on terraces and planned for their peasants to drive the Jews into the sea, Jewish refugees from the Old City now live. They are ill at ease in their new mansions. They have grown up in narrow lanes and dark rooms. Their men-folk are prisoners-of-wars in Transjordan.

It becomes dark as the sun sinks behind the hills. Black-out. No light. People go home and the city is quiet as death and Dan and I are strangers in its midst.

It is no easy task to find the hospital where our nurse-friends live. They are pleased to see us. They work hard and long hours and study for their nursing examinations. Ten sleeping in one room-there are many patients who need place.

Jochevet and Dina show us more of Jerusalem. We go to Bevingrad, the former British security zone. Buildings looming in the night. The shops and offices are still sealed as in mandatory days. Fierce fighting took place for this vital zone which dominates New Jerusalem. The girls tell how the British shot indiscriminately from here down some of Jerusalem’s thorough fares. The Anglo Palestine Bank buildings, partially burnt and pock marked. Not too far from the Old City. Jagged edges of masonry and brick work, barbed wire and dug-outs.

In another direction to more pleasant Rechavia, a residential quarter, pleasant, verdant surroundings. Modern houses and blocks of flats.

“Would you like to see a Yeshiva?” Jochevet asks.

We are interested to see a training college of the orthodox Jews.

Every few minutes martial noises are heard. Scattered and dispersed. Women are not allowed to enter a Yeshiva so our escorts remain in the porch.

We pass through the black-out curtains. Murky rooms lit by candle-light. Several rooms. Flickering lights and open books on the tables and people poring over them in muttered study, sitting, and standing, swaying and bending. Young and Old. Bearded men and forelocked youngsters. A remote world. So unreal in times like these. Outside war and violence and men manning the dug-outs. Inside quiet and reflection and men praying. We shake hands with the students. Flabby, soft, girlish hands. Cold and clammy. Red-cheeked youngsters, tender years. One young man claims he can talk English. His friends persuade him to talk. He is dressed in working clothes and a peaked cap, a contrast to his black-coated friends.

We return to the girls. The air is noisier. The previous night was bad, hours of concentrated barrage and counter-barrage.

Dina says she hopes to-night will be quieter. The people in Jerusalem are brave, but tired and restless. The siege is over and the Arabs are held but they have many guns and there is neither peace nor rest. We go to a café. Bright lights behind curtains. Dan and I have not much money. Coffee and cakes and high prices. After paying we have little left. Strange worlds in the Holy City, war and shelling, contemplation and prayer, coffee and lights and money.

Some Palmachniks are gone to Abu Ghosh. The girl from Haifa says they have place in their limousine, the latest model. We say good-bye to Jochevet and Dina and are on our way.

The driver must be sixteen or seventeen. He is in a hurry. After that I went to Jerusalem fairly regularly. Sometimes I found quiet, sometimes I found heavy shelling and people indoors and troubled. When the guns opened up the streets cleared in a twinkle and the cinemas emptied and a hush hyphenated the explosions. So people lived and died and defended their city.

Once I went to Jerusalem with Ravlevai and Guya. We visited some of the look-outs and surveyed the Arab positions. That day I saw the 75 millimetre gun, which had been sent from Herzlia to Jerusalem, just before Mike’s troop had left for the Galilee. The Arabs had not found its whereabouts yet and the Jews returned the Arab fire with impunity. A lucky gun, unlike our two in the Galilee. Never did an Arab shot find them.

I saw most of Jerusalem that afternoon and had a good view of the Arab lines. Names of places made famous during the siege. It was a strange war in Jerusalem. A city almost surrounded. In one street Jews, in another Arabs. A fortress city. Most of the soldiers on duty in Jerusalem were inhabitants of Jerusalem. For non-combatants the anxiety of having dear ones fighting nearby; for combatants the anxiety for dear ones under Arab shelling behind the lines. Yet the Jews of Jerusalem knew what they were fighting for. They saw their own homes and families threatened and responded gallantly.

At Artillery H.Q. in the basement of the Jewish Agency buildings I had a pleasant surprise. I met Len, now second-in-command of the Artillery in Jerusalem. Ravlevai and Guya were somewhat astounded at the way Len revealed all the information to me, introduced me to all the officers and showed me all the maps and plans. That was typical of Len. He did not care about preserving the sanctity of an H.Q. My knowledge that our artillery was hopelessly outnumbered in Jerusalem by the Arab artillery was confirmed by definite data. Len told Ravlevai that he would like me to be transferred to Jerusalem but Ravlevai refused to agree, saying that he wanted me. Len and I spoke Afrikaans to each other. Perhaps it was rude to speak a “foreign” language but in enabled us to speak freely. On Len’s request Ravlevai agreed to allow me to remain over in Jerusalem that evening.

While I was at H.Q. telephone communication was established with Tel Aviv for the first time in many months.

It was a “Shabbat” and citizens were taking a stroll in the streets.

Len and I visited two girls and made an appointment to take them to the cinema that evening.

It was getting noisy when we arrived to fetch them. On the way, in Len’s little car, we saw the inhabitants clearing the streets in a hurry. By habit everyone crouched, involuntarily almost, at the sound of shells even if they fell far away. The Arabs were shelling quite heavily and the mothers of the girls refused to allow them out. So we had a little party at the home of one of them.

Len took me back to Abu Ghosh that night. It would have been impossible for me to have returned otherwise for trucks and cars rarely travelled from Jerusalem at night. Stringent transport regulations were in existence and Len had to obtain a special permit to travel to Abu Ghosh. My conscience bothered me somewhat for my journey was not exactly essential but Len insisted and not being eager to walk home, I acquiesced.

The following day Len ‘phoned me from Jerusalem and I took the call in Ravlevai’s tent. We spoke in Afrikaans. Len wanted to know whether I could get him any grapes or figs, a trivial matter which did not warrant the call. When I had put the receiver down Ravlevai enquired whether Len had broached the matter of my transference to Jerusalem. I replied that Len had not even mentioned it. Probably Ravlevai doubted my word but I could not reveal that we had merely discussed grapes and figs.

Two unhappy incidents occurred in the area covered by our regiment. On September 22nd, a Jewish convoy, under U.N.O. auspices, was on its way to Jerusalem along the main highway when it was attacked by the Arab Legion at Latrun. Four people were killed including a woman and an American civilian visitor. A U.N.O. officer had pleaded with the Arab Legionnaires to spare them, but in vain. In my opinion this was cold-blooded murder for according to the truce agreement the Arabs were to guarantee the safety of the convoy.

Two days later a Jewish-held height at Midya, near Lydda, was captured by Arabs and re-taken by the Jews in counter-attack. It was found that the Jewish prisoners, captured in the first attack, had been killed, decapitated and mutilated.

Count Bernadotte’s report had been published. It made unpleasant reading and was a disappointing document. He proposed a smaller Israel, refused Jerusalem to the Jews and wanted Haifa internationalised.

These incidents and the report were embittering.

I thought of the people of New Jerusalem. And it was suggested that they be denied their freedom!

I thought of Neve Ilan which I had visited and which would not be in the Jewish State, in terms of the report.

Neve Ilan was a communal settlement situated on a hill near Abu Ghosh. A steep climb brought one to the few bungalows and tents dotting the rocky ground which comprised the “meshek”. Shelters, storage-cellars and fuel-reservoirs had been hewn out of the rocks. A drill enabled the settlers to evacuate two meters deep. Very little was cultivated. The earth was being reclaimed and cleared and the settlers were paid for their reclamation work. Most of the settlers had been with the Maquis underground in France, some were from Holland, others from Trieste. Long Island Jewry had taken a special interest in their progress and sent regular gifts of equipment. Neve Ilan was a stronghold and withstood many a siege and attack, although completely surrounded by Arab villages. ‘Planes and artillery were used against them.

There were casualties, wounded and dead. But they stood firm. The lesson of Neve Ilan and the few other settlements along the road led to the construction, at a later date, of new settlements flanking the Burma Road as a protective measure. The war had taught that a life-line must be protected and that strategic settlements were the best ways to do this.

One morning a convoy came along the road and stopped at Abu Ghosh for breakfast. An artillery convoy with guns, new ones of 75 millimetre calibre. Field-guns and light, not like our three purpose, six ton, 75 millimetres. They were on their way to Jerusalem to reinforce our meagre artillery strength. Another happy and auspicious occasion. More weapons. Now the Arab guns would receive a deadlier answer.

The Jewish New Year dawned and the army chose its occasion for our brigade to move from Abu Ghosh to cover the Burma Road more strongly.

All the units had gathered a diverse assortment of equipment and furniture and trucks were crammed to capacity. Before our departure the priest and nuns came down from their quarters to reclaim the belongings which they had lent us. I returned a wide, soft, spring mattress and a book-case. The articles were handed over in the friendliest of spirits. The priest asked so many questions that Hausler, who spoke French and provided the answers, was told to desist, lest he reveal military information.

Before moving we went to Sara to join the other half of the troop at a party to celebrate Rosh Hashana, the New Year. We travelled by a round-about route to avoid observation and gathered round a lantern in a dip out of view of the enemy. It was the first New Year in a Jewish State for two thousand years and a fine close spirit reigned. Sketches and songs and speeches. Ravlevai gave a stirring address. Here present, he said, were people from all over the world, many from countries where they had lived in luxury. This had been a year of victory. Nothing was ready-made in Israel. Everything had to be built and demanded immigration, pioneering and settlement.

Nor did we forget those who had lost their lives for Israel. The night was silent and the sky clear. Jackal calls disturbed the peace. Songs in Hebrew and Russian rose. The enemy did not intervene.

But the food, for a Jewish festival like Rosh Hashanah, was poor. One sardine sandwich, one biscuit and a little wine.

On the second day of the festival prayer services were held at a neighbouring kibbutz, Kiryat Anavim, and in an Arab house at Abu Ghosh. Ravlevai, Guya and I went to reconnoitre gun-positions, spent the day bumping and jostling in the Judean hills and returned past ten that night. It was difficult finding a suitable position. The roads were bad and there was no water at most places.

Deir el Hawa, which I had noticed before, appeared to worry Ravlevai. He pronounced the name with awe. It was a height held by the Arabs overlooking the Burma Road. Passage on the latter would never be safe until the former had been captured.

We decided that Sara was the best position and on Tuesday, October 5th, we moved thither with guns and impedimenta.

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