Living and Dying near Gaza


         

Kibbutz Memory - Living and Dying near Gaza

 
 
 
 

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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 jeep?"

What happened?

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.

Who went?

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 apart.

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?

No.

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 marks.

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 word.

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 seventeen.

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.

Four 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 strip.

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 around it.

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 immediately.

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 did we? 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

 

 

 

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