Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 3 - Tel Aviv on the threshold of a new state

 Tel Aviv was sighted in the half-light of the early morning. It appeared drab and unimpressive in outline- a cluster of buildings cresting rolling stretches of sand. Not a scene to dazzle the eye. Yet it pleased the heart. We were like pilgrims seeing the promised land. The mere fact of being there was important. Especially at that time for the State had not yet been proclaimed.

The sea was unsteady and murky and the boat rolled from side to side with a gentle swell. The possibility of going ashore seemed remote. Shapes in the gathering light turned out to be other ships lying at anchor in the bay and they rose and fell in vision with the motion of the waves.

Slowly the city’s outlines were accentuated as the day broke. The massive and towering Reading power-station on the seafront loomed larger and larger.

The small vessel, bobbing and pitching like a cork, was a lighter on its way from the port and coming towards us. Perhaps it was possible to land after all. The passengers crowded the rails in expectation, watching the progress of the sturdy little craft as it dived and squirmed in the tossing waves. Soon its occupants were visible. A mixed bunch, some tough looking and weather beaten, others clad in suits and holding brief-cases.

They drew nearer and endeavoured to tie up alongside. No easy task and one which took them the better part of ten minutes and was accomplished only after several unsuccessful attempts. A ladder was lowered from our ship and one by one and precariously they came aboard.

Willing and strong hands helped them from the lighter on to the ladder and from the ladder onto the ship. The passengers looked on nervously expecting someone to fall into the sea at any moment. They seemed to be well versed at their task, however. The Hebrew in which their instructions were shouted came as sweet music to our ears.

The passengers were ordered to report in the lounge with all their papers. We were going ashore at Tel Aviv. A queue formed outside the door and whispered discussions were held as to whether the officials were Jewish or not. It was impossible to tell from their features.

My turn arrived soon;
           
“Where do you come from?” the official asked.

“X”. I said, giving the name of the Eastern European country which my papers said I had come.

“I want the truth.”

“X,” I persisted.
He was getting impatient. “Listen,” he said, “I’m one of you, you can tell me the truth.”

I remained somewhat suspicious. “X,” I replied. He was at his wit’s end. “Don’t you realise that this is Tel Aviv and that I am Jewish?”

I took a chance. “I come from South Africa.”

“That’s what I wanted to know all along.”

This same individual asked the Danes whether they had come “to shoot” and they were rather taken aback by the abruptness of this question.

Going ashore was a minor adventure in itself and it took some hours to disembark us all for the lighter had to make several trips. No one fell into the water fall although there were several narrow shaves. The trip from the boat to quay was agony -something like riding a bucking bronco. Many people became sea-sick in those few minutes. Touching the shore of Palestine at last was more than adequate compensation for all the discomforts.

Tel Aviv is not a big port and on superficial observation seemed to conduct its stevedoring and other operations very primitively. Port machinery was lacking and many task appeared to be inefficiently manhandled. Uploading cargo from the ships onto lighters was an arduous and slow process.

Some time passed before our luggage arrived and was cleared. A man had been sent to attend to the English speaking volunteers and we were warmly welcomed and given tea and sandwiches.

Then we were put in buses and taken to an hotel in the centre of the city. There were few signs that a war was imminent and that severe fighting was already in progress. Large brick barricades in certain streets, to ward off sniper’s bullets from Arabs atop Jaffa’s minarets and shooting into Tel Aviv’s streets, were the only indications of a state of war. Tel Aviv was alive, the streets were crowded and the shops were busy but the people did stop momentarily to look at the singing busloads of new immigrants. They always do in Palestine, even now.

Several building and blocks of flats were in the course of erection with workmen busy on the scaffoldings. It was a good omen for building is sign of confidence in the future and people don’t build if they expect an enemy to drive them out.

The populace, especially the women, were well dressed and brisk and alive. To a Jew a first impression of Tel Aviv is moving and thought provoking. All these people were Jewish, the waiters, taxi drivers, porters, bootblacks, policemen, firemen and even the beggars.

All these large buildings had been built by Jewish labour and all these streets had been laid by Jewish hands. Everywhere signs of a people reborn. Shops, and pharmacies and cafes and cinemas and stationers and street kiosks with signboards in Hebrew and English. A dream world for the volunteers who felt that what they had come to defend was indeed worth fighting for.

We were billeted in an hotel. There was no full-scale mobilisation yet and while the Haganah had to some extent come out from the underground in Jewish areas, there was no military ostentation as yet and few camps. Our baggage having been deposited we were taken to a tented camp on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, which was the reception depot for all recruits. They were sent here from all corners of Palestine and then assigned to units and turning camps. Youngsters were continually coming and going. Fine fellows, healthy and strong and determined - the pick of Palestine’s youth.

The camp was staffed by Jews who had served with the British army in the Second World War and most of them knew English so we had no language difficulty.

We met all types, speaking all languages and speaking English with a variety of accents. Palestinians have a knack for learning languages. A blonde, very Aryan looking, Jew amused us by his Scottish accent. He had never been to Scotland but had been in a Scottish unit. Another spoke a very good Afrikaans, learnt from South African soldiers in Egypt. We were soon made to feel at home.

Our coming was a link with world Jewry, a sign of confidence in the future and a promise of aid to come. The fact that most of us had had several years of active military experience was additionally welcome. We were inundated with questions, an experience to which we were soon to accustom ourselves. How many more are coming was always the question. And arms? Our answers bordered on the optimistic as far as manpower was concerned, but we could offer nothing definite or encouraging on the question of arms.

That day we joined the army and completed numerous forms. Pretty young girls did most of the clerical work and they were extremely friendly and efficient and asked many questions that had nothing to do with the information sought on the forms.

The problem of now arose of what units we were to join. It was difficult to decide since so much information was lacking. Nothing definite was known as to the few existing units or even as to the plans for intended units. If a man had tank experience where should he go? Did the Jews have any tanks? If not were they expecting to obtain any? No answers. Were there any guns? No one knew or if they knew they would not talk. So some joined the air-force (in anticipation of ‘planes to come) some the armoured cars and some the infantry.

Jack, Uri and I formed a category on our own. In South Africa a private doctor, applying rigid army standards, had rejected us as unfit for military service. We had come across hoping to find our way into the army and, failing that, we intended to go to a frontier agricultural settlement where manpower was urgently required. Here in Tel Aviv there was no medical examination - no time for that! If a man thought that he was fit and was willing that was sufficient (My first real medical examination was to come ten months later.) Jack, Uri and I had all had combat experience and we were told that our military knowledge would come in very useful and that we were badly needed by the army. We all expressed a willingness and a desire to join the army. A hitch arouse, however. The representative of the agricultural settlement claimed us. The settlement, right on the order of both Syria and the Lebanon, was urgently in need of men who knew how to handle arms. They were expecting an attack at any moment. It was mainly a South African settlement, many of our friends were there and since we had had some affiliations with the group in South Africa we had a moral obligation to be with them. There was considerable justification in some of the representative’s arguments. The three of us, having just arrival in the country, were unable to weigh the merits of the two alternatives and left the decision to the representative and the camp commander.

The representative, a skilful debater, carried the day. A compromise was reached. We would go to the kibbutz (settlement ), as military personnel, for one month at the end of which the position would be reviewed. By then we should have had an opportunity to see where we could be of most use.

So we were in the army and until our departure to the kibbutz, in a few days time, we were to remain in Tel Aviv at an hotel and have our meals in the camp. We were each issued with a pair of khaki trousers and a khaki shirt. These, together with a few other items, comprised a partial issue of uniform. An identity card was issued and we were informed that the pay would be two pounds (six dollars) per month. Its receipt was dependent on the availability of the money and there was no guarantee of payment.

The uniform was not particularly distinctive for many people in Tel Aviv wear Khaki in summer. That night we saw the town with the help of a guide, one of our recruiting agents. The streets were brightly lit and the colourful and well-stocked shop-windows seemed as remote from war as anything can be. Prices were extremely high, especially for foodstuffs, these costing more than double their price in South Africa.

According to our guide this would be our last night of luxury. Now we could afford to buy and shop anywhere and frequent the most expensive cafes, but once we were soldiers the situation would be different. Then our meagre pay and the high prices would force us to stint ourselves of most things. Not a very comforting thought, especially since it appeared obvious that the civilians could do with a little austerity too.

We went to one of the largest cafes for a beer. An orchestra was playing and the café was crowded with young and middle-aged people.

“There seems to be no war or national emergency,” some-one remarked to the guide. “Look, everyone seems obvious of what is happening in other parts of Palestine. Why aren’t they in the army?”

“They are all doing their duty, quietly and secretly,” he answered.
“All these pretty girls are in the Haganah and play their part doing guard and convoy duty. People have a hard time in Israel and a dangerous time so that when they can snatch some moments of relaxation and pleasure they make the most of it. Only a few days ago bullets and mortars from Jaffa were killing and maiming in this very area. We cannot afford to live in the past.”
           
I believed him then. Later I realised that this statement should have been qualified. The people rallied magnificently in Palestine but shirkers were not absent and many did not volunteer for any task if they could avoid them. It was only after the proclamation of the State that compulsory mobilisation was introduced and all, shirkers included, were forced to play their part.

At the camp that afternoon we had been warned to resist the blandishments of the “Irgun Zvai Leumi” , known in Palestine generally by the name “Etzel”, an abbreviation of their full little. According to reports they were making lavish offers to English-speaking ex-servicemen in order to encourage them to join their ranks. Bait included the promise of a commission, thirty pounds a month and the use of a car. So we kept our eyes skinned for suspicious looking characters, but never found any. Thanks to them, however, we were most apprehensive about speaking English in public. As it was, the sound of English in Tel Aviv would cause the surrounding populace to pause, stare and cast looks. The reaction of Etzel members was known to be more drastic. One of my friends, who looks very Aryan and speaks with what might be called an Oxford accent, was surrounded and stopped by some men one day and prodded with a revolver barrel. He was asked for his papers and succeeded in proving that he was Jewish and a member of the Haganah. In view of his experiences and reports of similar cases we were reluctant to talk English in public. There were too few English-speaking volunteers in town for the public to regard the presence of one of them as a normal occurrence.

A little after midnight, having returned from the café, someone asked us for a match. We obliged. He was leaning against a telephone pole and was a Yemenite Jew. The Yemenites come originally from Yemen in Arabia and are brown in colour, cheerful and pleasant. Many of them joined the Etzel. This one claimed to be a member. It emerged from the conversation that we had with him- it is easy to begin a conversation in Palestine - that he had taken part in the fighting for Jaffa. He shifted his position and pointed a several indentations in the wood of the pole. “Sniper’s bullets from Jaffa,” he said. On request he told the story of the attack on Jaffa claiming all praise for his organisation and none for the Haganah who had gone to the assistance of “Etzel”. Then he asked the question we inevitably received. “Will arms be coming from America and South Africa?” As usual we had to reply in the negative.

We counter-questioned. “Have you any heavy stuff in Palestine?”

We had often discussed the matter amongst ourselves. Did the Jewish underground have any heavy armaments? If they had were they keeping them hidden until May 15th ? Uri, my friend, was very optimistic.

“You wait for May 15th and then you will see them bring out several batteries of guns, and half-tracks and many tanks”. My personal expectations were not so sanguine. I was unable to see where they could have got them all from and where they could hide them. Still I expected a few artillery pieces, some anti-aircraft guns and even one or two tanks. Even I was to be disappointed.

The Yemenite was big talk, however. “Leave it to’ ‘Etzel’,” he boasted. “We haven’t been sleeping like the Haganah. We have guns and tanks - Shermans. You’ll see them all in a few days time when the Mandate ends and we bring them out of hiding.”

“We felt happier. A few Sherman tanks would come in useful.

“Are you sure we have Shermans?”

“Are you doubting my word? I’ve seen them with my own eyes.”

On the strength of his reply we slept well. That was my first experience of what they call a “schwitzer” in Palestine - a braggart. “Schwitzers” are supposed to retail “Cheesbadim” which is an Arabic word used in Hebrew to connote tall stories.

Early in our army career we had our first experiences of Palestinian military red tape. We were supposed to be at the camp for breakfast early the next morning, but had some trouble finding the right bus for we did not know our way around. At the gate the guard delayed us since we were unable to understand him or to explain who we were. As a result we arrived a few minutes after the meal had commenced, but a considerable time before its conclusion. So we were refused food by some blustering Sergeant-Major, who appeared to be trying to imitate a typical regimental Sergeant-Major of the British army. It was not the last example of imitation I was to see. Unfortunately I was to witness many more and they appeared as irrational and as stupid for the simple reason that this was not the British army and the temperament of the local soldier demanded a different approach.

Most of the N.C.O’s in our section sympathised with us and smuggled food from the kitchen so that we did not go hungry. Lunch was another example of the Sergeant- Major’s inefficiency. Everyone had to parade for lunch at one o’clock sharp and march in units to the mess-hall. Consequently all the columns converged on the mess-hall at exactly the same time and the queue stretched into the far distance. There was only one queue so a meal entailed a long wait in the hot sun. The food was ample and nourishing, containing large quantities of vegetables and fruit. After some time a few of the South Africans, tired of this more or less vegetarian diet of cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, fruit, cheese, cream and herring, sarcastically began to enquire whether they were thought to be goats.

We spent little time in the camp, however, having nothing particular to do there. The Anglo-Saxon volunteers (as we were called) kept in close contact with one another. Those who had joined the air-force were also billeted in hotels but ate together in a civilian restaurant. This fact was supposed to be a top secret but fellow dinners must have been well aware of what was going on.

The air-force, then in its embryo stage and consisting almost exclusively of a few piper cubs, was a frequent topic of conversation. Its exploits were legion and its birth pangs many. Several people, who had had little or no experiences in aviation, were trying to exert undue influence in its management and their obstinacy was breaking the hearts of those Anglo-Saxon veteran pilots and ground and aircrews who really knew their jobs. Some stupid mistakes were made as a result of this obstinacy. It seemed to be the practice in Palestine to learn the hard way and not to regard a straight line as the shortest distance between two points. Yet the air force did a wonderful job of work, then mainly in supplying besieged settlements and in maintaining contact with Jerusalem whose life-line was in jeopardy. A bitter struggle was being waged then for sections of the Jerusalem road with the Jews launching an all-out effort to open the road although it was really the duty of the British to keep it passable and secure. The cream of the country’s youth were risking their lives on the highway from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the price paid was enormous. Sections of road were captured but arms and men were not available in sufficient quantities to open the road completely. At the same time the epic resistance of Kfar Etzion and three little settlements in its vicinity was evoking the admiration and sympathy of all the Jews and many who were not Jews.

These settlements, in the midst of wholly Arab areas, had repulsed countless attack and were still resisting the might of the well-equipped Arab legion. It was only a matter of days now. The settlements could not be saved. They were completely isolated. One could clearly read the sadness on the faces of the air-crew when they returned from the flights to Kfar Etzion. It was hopeless. They had dropped what could be spared but the Arabs were swarming all over. Then one day their faces were sadder than ever. It was all over. Only smoking and charred remains were left.

In Tel Aviv and all over Palestine there were discussions on the wisdom of deciding to fight it out at Kfar Etzion when the settlements might perhaps have been evacuated. Subsequent events and history proved the decision amply justified. The might of the Arab Legion was blunted there and valuable time was given to Jerusalem which helped the Holy City to survive.

Uri and I decided to go to Jaffa to take photographs and to look around. Comparative peace reigned there. Etzel and the Haganah were holding their lines and British troops had moved in between the Jews and the Arabs and had taken up positions to keep the peace.

Uri and I never got very far. The Etzel were most unco-operative and refused to allow us to take photographs. The Haganah were friendlier and allowed us to move around. We were permitted to take snapshots of certain areas. There was massive destruction everywhere and I was reminded of Cassino and other areas of war-torn Europe. Asking for permission to photograph the Jews facing the British and also the British, if possible, we were told that this would have to be obtained from headquarters whence we were escorted. The H.Q. was ideally camouflaged in a little house that appeared completely domesticated and unmilitary, with washing on the line and a pram on the porch. We were refused our request.

A day or two after that Jaffa surrendered to the Jews.

The hospitality of some Tel Aviv inhabitants for the Anglo-Saxons knew no bounds. Each night that we were in the city parties were arranged for us. One I remember as being particularly lavish. It was in a private flat and there was caviar and whisky and several other kinds of liquor. The women were fashionably and smartly dressed and were beautiful. Their husbands, for most of them were married, engaged us in conversation on a variety of topics. All expressed confidence as to the outcome of the hostilities and forecast a great future for the new little state.

Jack and Uri and I made the most of our last few days perhaps for some time, in a city. Here was a little opportunity for sleep and we soon acquired our favourite haunts. Life was gay in Tel Aviv and expensive, but we had some money and did not mind.

One little place recently opened attracted us especially. It was a tiny bar-café holding about fifty people in the basement of an hotel. A man played the piano and a girl, who was not beautiful and didn’t really have a good voice, sang. The warmth of her personality communicated itself however, and the song she sang were moving and inspiring. They were about the Haganah and the Palmach; the permanent, mobile force of the Haganah and regarded as the elite of the army. And every night the man at the piano played a new song which as a rule he had composed himself, and drawn by the girl, the audience was soon joining in like one, happy family. The exploits of the army and its advances were lauded. One new song was about berets and caps. It mentioned that the Haganah and always gone into battle with its men wearing a motley collection of head-gear or nothing on the head at all. Now things would change and there would be hats. Perhaps not a great song, but the audience made it so.

Some Palmach commandos used to come there prior to raids or attacks. Perhaps for some of them this was their last night of life. Such thoughts made the songs the more nostalgic. They and we became firm friends. Our only arguments used to be who should be privileged to pay for the drinks. Everyone claimed the privilege.

It is a pity that not many people came to know this little café for the hotel became the air-force H.Q. and the café was closed.

Each morning, when we reluctantly left there at closing time, we adjourned to another café in Tel Aviv which is open almost right through the night and where the artists, and writers and poets and bohemians congregate. In actual fact, in the early hours of the morning, everyone gathers there who wishes to eat or drink for it is the only café that is open. There we met the men and the women who were really doing the work. They came to drink a cup of coffee before going on or after coming off duty. Tel Aviv was forever alert. One never knew what was likely to occur. Puzzling things happened such as the sudden return of some of the evacuated British troops to Palestine early in May.

One day I was at the sea-front in Tel Aviv, drinking tea at a promenade café, when I noticed everyone looking out to sea.

The objects of attention were a British destroyer and an air-craft carrier steaming in a straight line through the ships lying at anchor outside Tel Aviv port. People wondered what their aim was. Nothing happened. The people had feared lest the ships were up to some mischief. You can never tell, with the British, they said. Few people regarded them as neutral and most were bitter towards their policy, although not always towards their people. Time would show, they said. Now they were waiting for them to get out.

They were not keeping order as they were supposed to do nor were they allowing the Jews to keep order or even to defend themselves. Kfar Etzion was a case in point. So too was besieged Jerusalem.

The great day for which the Jews had waited for two thousand years was drawing nearer. What would world reaction be? Speculation was rife. How would the big powers react? Would the U.S.A. lift the arms embargo? Many people thought that they would and that American arms would pour into the country. They were to be proved wrong. It was to be a hard struggle. I think even the local inhabitants must have been shocked when our army officially came out into the open and the paucity of heavy arms became apparent. Many never knew the true facts until victory had already been achieved.

Jack and Uri and I had had our “fling.” On Friday, May, 14th, we left for the settlement on the frontier.

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