Saturday, January 22, 2011

Chapter 9 - Anglo-Saxon Volunteers on Leave

Life was more pleasant while I was stationed at Sarafand. The truce, uneasy as it was, continued for several months and opportunities for leave dawned more frequently.

Before commencing my first leave of four days, two others and I, who had been elected as representatives of our unit, attended a conference of one day’s duration to discuss post-war settlement problems of Anglo-Saxon Volunteers. It was held at Ayanot, a girl’s training school run by the Women’s International Zionist Organisation (W.I.Z.O.), and the serious sessions were liberally interspersed with adjournments for tasty teas and meals.

A certain Anglo-Saxon officer endeavoured to team-roller the proceedings and refused to allow the delegates to air their many complaints, particularly against the increasing restriction of democratic privileges in the army. An opportunity to speak was demanded by delegates and some members of the Soldier’s Welfare Committee (organising the conference) also wished to allow the soldiers to air their grievances. Kindly Joseph Baratz, pioneer settler from Dagania and one of the veterans and leaders of the communal settlement movement, intervened to urge a compromise and it was decided to limit discussion to post-war settlement and to hold another meeting at a later date to discuss grievances.

The tone and purpose of the official speeches delivered to us was soon apparent. No effort or subtlety was spared to persuade the volunteers to settle in Israel. Strangely enough most of them knew little about Israel and had seen still less due to the confinements of army life. Soldier speakers suggested that the soldiers should first be given an opportunity to tour Israel and to learn the language. Delegates from our unit could offer practical advice for it appeared that we, by our tours in the Galilee, were comparatively well versed in local conditions.

Tel Aviv was livelier and more congested than ever. Uniformed men and women were conspicuous everywhere, many on leave and fresh from the battlefield. Friendships were renewed. One seemed to meet formers acquaintances at every turn in Tel Aviv even without looking for them.

The Anglo-Saxons were augmented in number and English was heard with greater frequency. We had been given a name “MAHAL” - an abbreviation of the Hebrew words for “Volunteers from Abroad.” Mahal included Anglo-Saxon, French, Scandinavian, Belgian, Dutch and South American Volunteers and differed from “GAHAL” which was derived from the Hebrew for “Enlisted Men from Abroad”. It was a subtle distinction in many cases, and led to some snobbishness. Whereas Gahal came from the ranks of the refugees who had had no option but to go to Israel where they were conscripted, Mahal were volunteers who voluntarily came to Israel for the express purpose of joining the Israeli army, as volunteers.

They were considered to possess more privileges by virtue of the fact that they had valid passports and could theoretically leave the army and Israel whenever they wished. Practically, however, the army authorities endeavoured to treat all soldiers, local born, Gahal and Mahal, as equals. Mahal did not like this and bad feelings were sometimes engendered. They demanded, sometimes justly sometimes unjustly, special consideration. Were they not in a strange country, without family and friend? Had they not come of their own free will to risk their lives? Were they not accustomed to the luxuries of Western civilisation? Had they not memories of lavish entertainments and facilities for soldiers, sailors and airmen in the U.S.A., England and the Dominions?

In Israel they found the brusque and matter-of-fact manner of the Palestinians rude and disheartening. Mahal members expected to be treated as saviours and heroes and were often ignored or simply treated as comrades. Many welcomed this quiet appreciation from the Palestinians, who had lived through thirteen years of riots and crises and wars and were quiet and sober in their actions. But others were snubbed and annoyed and soon let their opinions be heard. Some Palestinians were very sympathetic to Anglo-Saxons and certain Mahal personnel took advantage of this hospitality and generosity, demanding the world and tolerating no obstacles.

Mahal numbered between two and three thousand. Among the Anglo-Saxons, men and women from South Africa, Great Britain and Canada were in the majority followed by the United States of America which, in proportion to its large Jewish population, had not responded too well, perhaps since certain technical complications made it difficult to send people across.

The Americans as a whole were not very popular in Israel. Israelis found them boastful, demanding and too critical. A fair proportion of American volunteers left the country as soon as they could to return to their homes.

The Canadians had a mixture of exceptionally fine and comparatively bad people. In some of the cities volunteers had been screened by local committees and only selected individuals had been sent. In others, all and sundry had been accepted and a few unsavoury characters slipped through the net. Several found themselves in prison in Israel for civilian offences.

The British Jews were fine people on the whole, quiet, hard-working and efficient. They had been well trained in the Zionist movement and on agricultural farms and soon adapted themselves to local conditions.

The South Africans were the most popular in Israel although a few unsatisfactory characters blemished the good name. For many years the Palestinians have thought highly of the South African Jewish community for its outstanding contribution to Zionism and we thus had an extremely favourable advance publicity.

When Mahal arrived Israel had been thankful but too busy to pay them any special attention. We went through the mill like anyone else often being subjected to aggravating stupidities, inefficiencies and lack of consideration. Some bore this in silence and understanding. Others were embittered and antagonised.

Much harm was done by the Israeli authorities not endeavouring to understand the mentality and background of Mahal members. Granted that conditions were abnormal but some scope for more consideration did exist.

It was not easy meeting civilians in Israel. One can be very lonely in a big city. In the crowds and multitudes an individual passes unnoticed. Many months were required before some of the Mahal made friends and it was a general complaint that soldiers in Palestine during the Second World War, generally non-Jewish, received more hospitality than Mahal volunteers did in the Israeli war.

Facilities for spending leave were not too good or efficient in Tel Aviv, the magnet of most soldiers on leave. As many as eight thousand arrived on some days seeking accommodation and meals and it was a problem accommodating them all. As everywhere some people exploited the situation for their own interests. When a soldier on leave came to Tel Aviv he reported to the Town Major for accommodation and stood in a lengthy queue whose tardy progress often consumed a fair proportion of his leave. His pass had to be entered, he was given a slip for an “hotel” and then went on a third queue to have the slip filled in.

The “hotels” were not of the best and crammed to capacity. Proprietors found all the floor and roof space they were able and juggled beds into the area. Health inspectors would have been appalled by the congestion. In a room normally meant for one or two people four or five were placed. In most cases no cushions were available, sheets were an unheard-of luxury and blankets were reduced to the minimum. Comings and goings of fellow-residents interrupted sleep and early each morning the proprietors began folding up beds and walking in and out. What good is leave if one cannot sleep and get some rest in moderate comfort? Ventilation was a sore point and I had many an argument demanding that a window be opened. The Gahal, who comprised the larger proportion of those accommodated, (the Palestinians went home) had an aversion for fresh air in the bed-rooms. Nor did they engage in ablutions too often and unwashed feet in close proximity in unventilated rooms are not conducive to good or pleasant sleep.

Meals at the civilian restaurants were beyond the reach of soldier-finance so special restaurants were established for soldiers where meals were obtainable at reduced prices. All three meals could be bought for 350 mils (seven shillings) per day. For the four days leave due to him every three months, each soldier received a ration allowance of 560 mils per day often paid only at the conclusion of leave since no money was available.

What the poor soldier was to use for money in the meantime was not considered important.

If one were on less than four days leave meal-tickets were provided in the beginning but later this practice was stopped and the soldier had to pay his own way. One realised that Israel was not a rich country and when pay did not arrive regularly one understood, but difficult situations arose - people must eat. It was no uncommon happening for soldiers to refuse leave because they had no money.

In the cities soldiers obtained concessions in prices at the cinema, theatre and on the buses while special clubs enabled them to obtain refreshments at reduce prices.

In Tel Aviv there was a large camp, formerly occupied by the British, where leave personnel were accommodated. Reaching it was somewhat awkward and toilet and washing facilities were scattered. A lack of windows in many of the bangalows provided an abundance of fresh air in summer - which was an advantage - and gusts of icy-cold breeze in winter.

I seemed to be billeted regularly in this camp, Machaneh Yonah, and could never understand why I was the only English-speaking soldier there. It puzzled me until I discussed the matter with a girl who worked at the Town Major. Her answer was simple. “You were sent to Machaneh Yonah because you spoke Hebrew. Speak English and you’ll be sent to an hotel.” In the future I employed her formula and never went back to Machaneh Yonah. Soon I found a few better but still not satisfactory, hotels and used to ask for these, in English, and often succeeded in getting accommodated at one of them.

There was a great deal of bureaucracy in the army and in Israel in general. I learnt that one had to shout at clerks and be domineering in a tactful yet threatening way. It brought results - in the majority of cases.

Those of us who had endeavoured to employ the Hebrew language whenever we could in Israel found that in several instances this policy did not pay. Hebrew questions and requests often brought brusque answers, inconsiderate action or simply inaction and no response. English evoked a different response, but not always. Some Palestinians, and rightly I think at times, became annoyed with the way Anglo-Saxons expected everyone to understand English and took no pains to learn Hebrew. So sometimes it paid better dividends to employ the Hebrew language.

The best results were obtained by a mixture of the two languages or by a Hebrew with a deliberately accented English accent. These methods showed a desire to learn the language.

Bus drivers forced me to speak English. Soldiers obtained special reductions on buses and if requested had to produce their pay-books to the driver for identification. For many months my pay-book failed to arrive and when the driver asked me for it I went into a lengthy explanation in Hebrew. Fellow-passengers became impatient, the driver was loathe to believe that I was a soldier and thanks to language difficulties I received the worst of the argument. So I decided to speak English plus a word or two of Hebrew. I’d say to the driver: “One soldier’s ticket- k-k-kartis c-c-chayal”, deliberately stuttering the Hebrew to show that I was eager to learn. The driver invariably smiled, was friendly and gave me a soldier’s ticket.

But there was one sphere were it was extremely inadvisable to speak English - in the shops. City dwellers of Israel seemed to believe that the Anglo-Saxons were extremely wealthy. The Americans and others continually boasts of factories, and mansions, and millionaire relatives and motor-cars back home and the Israelis took them at their word. In reality we were paupers for whatever money we had back home the stringent currency control regulations made it almost impossible for us to have money sent. But the Israelis were ignorant of this and raised their prices to Anglo-Saxon customers whom they probably regarded as commercial fools. This did not help to promote better relations but fortunately some shop-keepers did not indulge in such practices.

Later I discovered that it was more pleasant to spend leave in Haifa or Jerusalem, not such great centres of leave traffic, less congested therefore and offering better hotels and facilities and more hospitality since each soldier could receive individual attention.

With time, conditions improved in Tel Aviv. In 1949 a special club for Mahal was opened run by Mahal personnel. Arrangements were made at various clubs for private families to invite soldiers for meals and the “boys” began to feel less lonely.

I managed to make many friends privately, thanks to my rapidly increasing knowledge of Hebrew.

The Israeli army began to enlist more and more girls including married women without children. Most of the women were not too happy at being recruited and large numbers avoided enlistment by failing to register when called upon to do so. Then one day the army took drastic action in an “Operation Round-Up” cordoning off areas in Tel Aviv and carefully combing them out for “deserters.” The catch was enormous and brought rich dividends to the army.

Coming in on leave I found most of my girl-friends away from home in the army. When I had leave they had none and vice-versa. In some instances a wife who was stationed out of town had to obtain leave to come into town to see her husband, who was stationed there.

The army livened up, however. The women’s services known as “Chen” were now apparent in offices and mess-halls in all the base camps.

Travelling in Israel, if one did not wish to pay bus fares or could not, was no easy matter. The army rarely provided sufficient transport for leave and recourse had to be had to hitch-hiking, known in Israel as “tramping.” It is a national habit and before holidays half of the inhabitants seemed to be on the highways coming and going.

They lined the roads on the outskirts of cities and towns and there was intense competition. As soon as any vehicle, however dirty or dilapidated, stopped, crowds clambered aboard. Restrictions were imposed by the Military Police on the load army vehicles were permitted to carry. The Sabras (locally born inhabitants) are notorious for their obstinacy. Generally more clambered on army transport than the number the driver was legally permitted to carry. The excess, who had jumped on last, were asked to alight. No one moved. Everyone claimed that he or she had been the first on the truck. Pleading, importuning and threatening were of no avail. Minutes passed. The driver swore and grew red in the face. Nothing happened. Not a person moved except the driver who paced up and down. Empty vehicles passed. Several times I saw the driver return with truck and passengers in the direction from which he had come. Seeing that they were going further from and not nearer to their goal the obstinate passengers came to their senses and alighted.

This hard-headedness of the Sabras played no small part in Israel’s salvation and victory for when the British and other experts said that success was impossible the Sabras called them liars and went on to do the impossible - most successfully.

In Israel they believe that few things are impossible and after seeing things during Israel’s struggle for independence I almost believed it myself. Sabras are very averse to criticism, a bad trait I think. To all our complaints, justified and unjustified, there was one answer. “We are a young state.”

Once this answer made me reply vehemently. A girl-friend and I were waiting for a Canadian friend Dan, the gun sergeant, to obtain accommodation. It was late at night and there was a small queue at the Town Major’s office. And it was not moving. The few soldiers on duty completely ignored its presence. Rumours circulated down the queue that there was no accommodation available but no definite answer had been given and the fellows didn’t know what to do. They were simply left standing, in the cold.

The girl-friend admitted that the Town Major’s offices were at fault but added, “We are only a young state.”

“I’m tired of that answer,” I replied. “Of course it is a young state and certain things cannot be done yet. I don’t expect you to make tanks, or guns or aeroplanes. I don’t expect you to build skyscrapers and big ships. These things take time but surely organisation could have been learnt by now. It needs no great art and training to be considerate and courteous and to organise a simple queue.” She agreed.

I spent more time than ever in Yarkon Street, the hub of Tel Aviv’s “foreign life” with cafes, hotels and soldier’s clubs. Drinking beer at the Armon hotel became a regular habit. Richard the barman was one of the finest and most practical philosophers I have ever met. Words of wisdom were intermingled with the drinks he served and cocktails he expertly mixed. Foreign correspondents stayed at the Armon and they were friendly towards soldiers from the English-speaking countries. I learnt a lot from them especially from those who flew up and down between Israel and the Arab states. They knew what was happening in all the Middle Eastern capitals and revealed much interesting information “off the record.”

A special correspondent arrived from South Africa and it was good to talk Afrikaans again over a drink. He was a fine and capable man and seemed impressed with Israel although he complained bitterly of the exorbitant prices. He said that the people in South Africa had never realised how few arms the Jews had possessed on May 15th, when the State had been proclaimed. People also thought that the collective settlements were merely in the experimental stage. Few realised that they were well established.

U.N.O. observers were also frequent visitors and the main topic of conversation was truce violations. Their activities were not always safe and comfortable and several observers were killed or wounded in the execution of their duties. The truce was merrily violated. Arab irregulars blew up the Latrun pumping-station while discussions were taking place on restoring the water supply to Jerusalem. Two U.N.O. observers were shot at and killed at Gaza airport. Jerusalem was continually shelled, the Arab heavy guns having opened up.

In Tel Aviv there were new currency notes and the inhabitants were proud and sometimes critical of them. The Israeli pound became legal tender and the crispy new notes replaced the old notes of the Mandatory. Inflation forced prices higher and higher. Yarkon Street saw inflation at its worst for the fashionable hotels and clubs had foreign and English-speaking customers. Mahal could be found dining and dancing. Money was getting through from home now.

One evening I arrived at the Park Hotel in time to see a tussle. Some members of Mahal, including several South Africans, had taken off their shirts and naked to the waist began a Zulu war dance on the dancing-floor. Objections were raised and in the scuffle furniture was flung around and glass broken.

During the day Tel Aviv was quieter and most of us could be found on the beach, swimming and sun-bathing.

Like all good things the leave soon ended and we found ourselves back at Sarafand for training. Our numbers were fewer for many of the members of our old unit had transferred to other units.

The new training began from scratch on the basic but false assumption that we were rookies with no military experience or training. Parade-ground drill, turning by numbers, rifle-exercises and sten-gun drill comprised the programme. We almost rebelled. Here we had just returned from action, many of us had had years of experience in the last world war and now we were being treated as new, raw recruits. Yet we did not demur.

One day we had a lesson on how to hold a rifle. During a rest period some of us, on our own, did more complicated rifle-exercises and the instructor’s eyes almost popped out of his head. Good-naturedly and in all sincerity he said,” You know your drill perfectly. You should be teaching me and not I you.”

We told him all our grievances and they were reported to higher official quarters. The fact that all the training was in Hebrew and that we learnt the Hebrew terminology for the drill and parts of the rifle and sten-guns, was a redeeming factor in the opinion of some. Physical culture, playing with a medicine ball and basket-ball helped to relieve the tedium and monotony although the hours chosen, often in the heat of the midday sun, made certain of the exercises exhausting.

Our N.C.O.’s on the courses were friendly but too meticulous and industrious for our liking. They observed the training programme to the second and were continually goading on our happy go-lucky crowd. Mahal did not take lightly to discipline and time-tables.

Higher quarters heard our complaints and we began gun-drill in Hebrew. The guns were 65 millimetre French mountain guns and diminutive. Gun-drill meant manipulating them with speed and ease. I quite enjoyed it. The instructor, a little corporal who had been with the Red Army and knew much about artillery, had no knowledge of English. So, where necessary, I interpreted from the Hebrew.

After the preliminary training we were due to be posted to different units and I made a special request to be sent to a Hebrew-speaking unit, if possible, on the Jerusalem front. I had never been to Jerusalem and had a burning desire to go there. Whereas hostilities were at standstill all over Israel Jerusalem was the scene of countless truce violations and shellings and one would not be idle there.

The short course ended. I was not sent to Jerusalem but to Haifa and not to a unit but to a ten-day course of Anglo-Saxon Mahal. Its objects and aims were to teach Hebrew and Palestinology - and to instil a spirit conducive to settlement in Israel. It was a welcome rest although our movements were rather circumscribed by childish regulations, compulsory attendances and the locking of the doors at an early hour in the evening.

Once, on a free night during the course, we returned shortly after midnight to find the large building, in which we were housed, closed. Our knocking awoke the supervisor and the head of the course. They were cruelly adamant and refused us admission. Our demands to be allowed inside raised their ire and we were told to sleep outside and warned that if we persisted in our clamouring military police would be called and our arrest would consequently follow.

The mansion at whose doors we were knocking had belonged to the late Pincas Rutenberg who had pioneered the electrification of Palestine. He had bequeathed the building as a youth hostel, complete with luxurious furnishings and a well-stocked library. Most of the windows were barred including all those on the ground floor and it was virtually impossible to gain entrance. It took us two hours to discover an openable window in an upper floor, reach it, and send one man through. He, taking an uncomfortably long time, crept through to a side-door and let the others in. As we neared our rooms we were surprised and one or two caught, the remainder dived under the blankets, boots and all.

That evening had been great fun particularly the “burglary.” Earlier we had gone dancing on Mount Carmel and witnessed a floor show. One of the entertainers had been a Negro on the U.N.O. staff who sang “Song of the Negev” in Hebrew.

Regular lectures by a prominent personalities were held at Beth Rutenberg and local citizens, from different walks of life, explained their settlement in Israel and adjustment.

One lecture was particularly interesting - that of the personal assistant to the Minister of Defence who answered critical questions in an endeavour to justify the attack on the “Altalena” and the new disciplinary measures in the army. He revealed that on December 1st, 1947, after U.N.O. had passed the resolution accepting a Jewish state, which was followed by the outbreak of fighting in Palestine, the Jews only possessed two thousand rifles and ninety-six mortars, most of the later old and rusty.

With fiery remarks he painted an inspiring picture of the future, when it was planned to have a permanent Israeli army of ten thousand men. They would not only be soldiers but also builders and pioneers and one of their main tasks would be to build a highway to Akaba on the Red Sea.

While at Haifa I went to visit some nurses at an army hospital and they invited me to a film performance held in a large hall. Every patient, and there were several hundred, was an amputee. They had last an arm, a leg or both. Almost without exception youngsters from that fine band who had borne the burnt of the fighting. The films, prepared for U.S.A. army casualties, dealt with therapy and mechanised aids to enable the amputees to lead a normal life. Great strides had been made in America and the youngsters felt more hopeful for the future.

After the course I returned to Sarafand to hear that I had been posted to a unit whose terrain included the Burma Road and the Jerusalem front. . We had all then scattered and sent to units in diverse parts of Israel. I went to the base camp of my unit, a Hebrew speaking regiment

I told the adjutant that if nothing was due to happen, I would like to go on an artillery course to learn the Hebrew terminology for the work I had done before. He was flattering, but most unencouraging. It was not the policy, he said, to send capable men on courses because they were grabbed by other units and never returned. I was considered a capable man. Queer, unpatriotic logic, I thought, refusing to train capable people. He told me that I could learn all the terminology from my unit and advised me to consult its commander. I agreed. My new troop was out on manoeuvres and returned late that afternoon.

I was pleased to meet Dan, the Canadian gun-sergeant, again. He was in the troop. Now he had no rank for he knew very little Hebrew. Other Anglo-Saxons were an English Jew, Phil, and a Canadian Jew, Milton, a clumsy, childish fellow.

The unit consisted of about fifty men and only contained one Palestinian-born soldier. The majority were recent immigrants having been in Israel for periods ranging from three months to many years. While Hebrew was the official language most of the ordinary conversation was conducted in Yiddish. Several of the unit knew a little English while the sergeant-major and the two officers knew English very well, but I rarely spoke it to them unless I was lost for the Hebrew words. The commanding officer was a Czech Jew, I think, or else a German, obstinate and very sincere.

To him nothing was impossible and he learnt a great deal by bitter experience, particularly when he instructed the driver to take the command-car over rocky terrain- which he considered passable and the driver considered impassable. The driver was always proved correct and the command-car took a terrific punishment. Ravlevai, the O.C., tended to his men before he thought of himself. Never would he eat or sleep unless his men could. Yet he was a hard master often affirming that twenty-four hours’ service was expected from each soldier every day and that any concessions, like leave, were a privilege for which the soldiers ought to be thankful.

Guya, the other officer was a Polish Jew. He was one of the most taciturn men I have ever met, solid and seemingly slow, particularly in his calculations - but deadly accurate.
We had four guns, 65 millimetre calibre, somewhat of a come-down after our larger guns in the Galilee. The new guns had a range of five kilometres, or three miles.

I had a talk to Ravlevai who said that I would soon be able to learn the Hebrew terminology in the unit. I gathered from reports I heard that there was a good possibility of our troop going into the field soon. In view of this, since I wished to go along, I made no further representations about the course.

Len and an English Jewish officer, both in my new regiment, wanted me to join them but I declined their separate offers. With them I would always be talking English; with the officers in my new unit I would talk Hebrew.

On Friday, September 17th, my new unit “Solela Yud” received sudden movement orders. Within a few hours we were on our way, complete with guns and full equipment. Destination Abu Ghosh, an Arab village 15 kilometres (ten miles) from Jerusalem, on the main Tel Aviv- Jerusalem highway.

It was an interesting journey through areas I had not yet seen. Through the pretty Jewish villages of Rishon-le-Zion and Rehovot, past verdant fields and scented orange-groves, through Kfar Bilu and Ekron. Shortly after Hulda we turned off the main highway along a new road made through the fields. A sign-post said “Jerusalem!” This was the beginning of the Burma Road, constructed in a hurry to open a life-line to Jerusalem. Primitive and temporary, barely distinguished as a road, dusty and bumpy and sandy and wild; leading into the hills of Judea.

A sudden rise and we are in an Arab village, perched on a hill, over-looking valleys. Darkening light. Arab-held Latrun lies to the North, to the East hill follows hill. The moon is a big ball of light suspended so close that you feel you can touch it and perhaps impede its slow ascent. Ascent-descent, the valley drops and the road hurtles below. Strips of wire laid on the sand. Difficult going. One by one on the vehicles of the convoy descend, crawling and slipping along narrow, winding sand stretches. Mechanically feeling in the dark, shouts and warnings.

Tilting downwards as the moon rises upwards, trucks at the bottom waiting for vehicles at the top and on the slope. Gaunt shapes of gun-barrels against the light of the moon. All down safely and onwards through the valley. No lights allowed. The foe is near. Silence punctuated only by the purr of engines and the chatter of men. On to an asphalt road, a mad hurried dash round the danger corner. We are on the main highway at Bab-el-Wad. A good macadamised road. Lights go on. Chatter is more animated. Blood was shed here, carcasses of vehicles, stark wheels and chassis lie on the road-side. Monu

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