A Kibbutz Memory from 1950
By Matania Ginosar
The explosion was powerful. I stopped filling the generator,
put the gerrycan of diesel oil down and ran towards the
kibbutz dining hall. Zalman and Yitzhak were running there
too. They turned to me and Zalman asked: "Can you drive the
Matania, can you drive the jeep?
Tell me - and I looked at both for an answer.
Stop talking, let's go - said Zalman.
I did not move. And Yitzhak reluctantly answered:
They left for Kibbutz Kisufim an hour ago.
All 18 visitors, your Rina too.
Who took them?
Pinhas took the small wheel tractor and the flat wagon.
I could not even contemplate that my girlfriend with whom I had just spent
a lovely evening with, and the rest of our young visitors,
could have been blown apart, but I had to ask:
Could it be them?
Let's find what happened, Yitzhak said.
So, can you drive the jeep? Repeated Zalman.
Not too well - I answered.
You are the only one, no choice, let's go.
I ran barefoot, as usual, to my room, got my rifle, which
was standing fully loaded near my bed, grabbed it, a spare
magazine for it, a pair of sandals to drive with, and ran to
our dusty jeep. It was parked near the gate, the key in the
ignition. I laid the gun on the back seat, latched the
sandals on and climbed into the driver seat. Zalman sat
quickly near me and Yitzhak jumped into the back while I
started the jeep. I pulled the chock half way and push on
the starter. It was a warm morning and it started
on my first trial.
Yitzhak pointed left to the narrow dirt road going towards
Beeri and I drove there slowly. I looked through the dusty
windshield for the wagon wheel marks in the soft sand and
followed them religiously. When it curved slightly left, I
turned the steering wheel gingerly to the left, and followed
the wheel marks in the sand. I knew instinctively that if I
deviated from their own path, a road mine could blow us also
I drove very slowly for about a mile. No one said a word,
but we knew, we saw the slight smoke ahead.
I saw the tractor on its side two hundred feet a head, the
wagon seemed destroyed, but no one was moving near it. I
stopped the jeep, we looked first on the ground for any
danger and stepped gingerly down. As we started towards the
tractor, Zalman, a veteran of the Russian army and Israeli
desert war, turned towards me and asked:
Have you been in a battle?
You do not need to see this. Stay here.
I sat on the hood while they went carefully ahead looking
for additional mines. They walked directly on the wheel
A few minutes later Yitzhak returned and said quietly:
Pinhas is dead.
Is he alone?
Yes, we did not see any one else nearby.
How do we take him?
Drive back and get a few blankets to cover Pinhas.
I turned the jeep around very carefully and headed back
slowly, driving directly on my previous wheel marks.
When I arrived at the kibbutz everyone gathered around me
and when they saw my face they knew Pinhas was blown up. This
was the second member we lost in a few months so we did not
say much. I added few details and proceeded to the storage
room, took three army blankets and rode slowly back. Another
road mine was still a possibility.
I drove back to the kibbutz with Yitzhak and Zalman holding
the body on their lap on the back seat. We did not utter a
I did not feel anything, just went through the motions, did
what was required. No one showed any emotions as we arrived,
except Tova. She cried quietly, Rachel holding her shaking
shoulders. Pinhas was so young, Rachel murmured, just
I put my backpack on containing my Stengun (an automatic
weapon), shoved my pistol into my holster and bucked it to
my left side (I had to learn to shoot with my left hand, my
right was needed to drive the motorcycle) and jumped on my
renovated British Army motorcycle. I kicked started it with
anger and drove rapidly to kibbutz Nirim, 4 miles away. We
needed a truck and a casket to transfer Pinhas to Beer
Sheva, the emergency center for the region. We did not have
a walky-talky, only red flares for dire emergency - meaning a full
scale attack on our kibbutz. Nirim, the biggest kibbutz in
our area, carried the caskets for all the kibbutzim. This was
standard procedure. This was the second time we used their
caskets in six months, others have used them too.
The Nirim people were very effective and displayed no
emotions whatsoever. The story was a familiar one, they
would send the casket, truck and its driver, Ziv, as soon as
they can locate him in the fields, the kibbutz manager told
me. I drove quickly back and their covered truck arrived
half an hour later, Ziv driving alone. We took the casket
down, put it on the sand, Zalman and Yitzhak emerged from
the dining room cradling Pinhas body and put it into the
casket, nailed it shut and loaded it back on the truck.
of us, including me, who had some business at Beer Sheva
and beyond climbed into the back of the truck and sat on the
benches, the casket between us. Friends shut the truck rear
gate, and we were on our way. It was by now early afternoon
and the sun was as bright as usual, the slight breeze
continued and the dust in the air just normal. A typical day
in the upper Negev, just two miles from the volatile Gaza
Ziv, a thirty year old veteran driver, much older than most
of our kibbutz members, (I was 20), and familiar with the
unstable dirt roads of the area, drove; Zalman sat near him,
both completely isolated from the four of us in the back.
For a while we sat there quietly, the casket between us,
holding on to our seats as the truck jumped, twisted and
heaved with each drop and rise of the dirt roads, as we
crossed many empty wadis (dry river beds). After the road
straightened, suddenly, out of the blue, one of us started
to laugh, and the rest joined in. We started to tell funny
stories, and jokes and we were engulfed in a perpetual
laughter. We utterly ignored Pinhas and his casket. We
continued to laugh until we reached the main wadi. It was
full of rapidly flowing water and our path was blocked. The
river extended for many miles in each direction, no way
Ziv decided to drive through the rushing water hoping that
it was not too deep and the engine would not be flooded. He
was wrong. The engine stopped in the deepest place, the
middle of the stream. Ziv stepped down to the riverbed,
clinging to the truck, waded into the deep water to the
electric winch mounted on the front fender, and released the
hook and steel cable. Zalman came near him almost
Ziv was tall enough to drag the hook to the
opposite shore without a danger of drowning. He searched for
a stable point to tie the hook to, and the only one was a
large rock. Ziv wrapped the steel cable around it and
shouted and waved to Zalman to try it. He did, turning the
electrical hitch motor on. Slowly, slowly the truck inched
its way towards the shore. It was late in the afternoon when
he turned the truck engine on and it caught on. He let it
idle for a while, just to be sure, and we started on our way
to Beer Sheva again.
Our mood of nonsense and laughter returned and we could not
stop. Strangely, the casket in front of us disappeared from
our mind. We paid no attention to it or Pinhas' death. Or
Was the laughter to cover our pain?
All the way to Beer Sheva we had lots of hilarity, nonsense
and utter stupidity, we left no quiet moment. We knew, next
time it could be any one of us in a casket.
We reached Beer Sheva at night and Ziv and Zalman left us at
the small military base to spend the night. Beer Sheva, the
4000 years old community was tiny then, probably a thousand
people living in mostly old Arab buildings of unknown age.
(A city of 200,000 today). The city was fully asleep on our arrival,
nothing open, no restaurants, and the base kitchen was locked
too. I did not care about food, I was drained and hoped just to sleep, just like my friends.
The minute the four of us had a room, we picked a folding
bed, a pillow and a blanket each, and started to laugh
again. We threw pillows on one another, the room was full of
them, and we doubled with laughter that could not be
stopped. But by three AM we were fully drained and fell
asleep any place we could lay our tired bodies on.
We did not talk at all about Pinhas. We did not cry for him.
Neither for his brother who was killed two years earlier by
Egyptians in the War of Independence.
However, ten years later, in Los Angeles, California, with a
wife, two lovely kids and an excellent job, I did my crying
for Pinhas Cohen and for all the other friends I had lost
but never had cried for.
A quarter of my school friends died in the fight for
Israel's freedom; some in the underground against Britain,
some in the War of Independence, and some by terrorists. I
am looking at the photos, one out of each four of my class
mates died then. We were the right age, seventeen to twenty,
the ones who gave six thousands lives, a full one percent of
the Israeli population, to create, and to liberate Israel
from Arab attacks. And this story can now be told twenty
three thousands times, the number of Israelis murdered
during British occupation, Arab wars, and terrorism to date.
Sometimes I wondered why not me? I often felt guilty. After
all, each of my three murdered friends ventured only once
out of the kibbutz, and did not return alive. I ventured out
probably more than any one else in the kibbutz because of my
technical duties. I drove my motorcycle so often to the city
and once, irresponsibly, walked hours at night alone from
Nirim to our kibbutz just two miles from the Gaza border,
and I never got even a scratch. My guardian angle was on my
shoulders all the time, probably.
Although this occurred in 1950, I had tears and pain
now while writing this story. This kind of experience never
disappears from the soul.
from the July 2006 Edition of the Jewish Magazine