Real Life Adventure on the Israeli Border near Gaza, 1949

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A Friend Was Shot, It Saved My Life.

By Matania Ginosar

The sun was still high in the sky at that warm summer afternoon in 1949 when I was silently celebrating my 20th birthday, enjoying the ads my family put in a national newspaper congratulating me. My older brother Pinhas' private letter touched me the most. He wrote me: "I hope your future conduct will honor your first-rate past." It sunk in well.

I finally relaxed, my work was over for the day, and I felt lazy and uncomfortably dirty, even more than usual. I was building up our electrical system from scratch, starting with the control panel in our generator shed. I did a lot of hand drilling in the control panel and wiring. It was a particularly messy day, but it was worth any effort I could spend. We were about to get electricity to our dark kibbutz. Initially we were without any electricity. Darkness was slightly relieved by oil lanterns, dim flashlights and candles, and we went early to bed. It was hard to dance lively Israeli dancing in the dark. And I did not know yet the tangos I learned to love. Darkness would have been just fine with them.

The generator was a marvelous gift to our new kibbutz Nve Yair, in the upper Negev. Friends in the Army found the generator in an abandoned hurva (old structure) many miles away from us, and we had to move it to our kibbutz by truck, but we had no truck, only a jeep. We rented a truck with some difficulties since all the country was short of trucks. The new country was on a construction boom, building simple homes for the many thousands of new immigrants. They were flowing into the newly liberated country from many lands, but mostly Jews from Arab countries. We finally found an old truck that its best days were well behind it.

I had no tools to check the generator under operation, and the fuel tank was empty. It was very old and covered with dried oil and dust; I bushed off what I could with some newspapers, and inspected it from all side. I moved all the parts that I could move to see if it could be in useable condition. I finally was glad to approve the transfer.

So I was on that miserable truck when we moved this new-old generator to the kibbutz. And I was scared. I was scared because the only place I could sit was behind the generator on the old truck bed. Despite the many ropes securing the generator to the truck structure, it was moving around too freely. I was always ready for jumping off the truck if the generator would get loose.

Flat roads were ok, but as we were approaching our kibbutz we were on unstable loose-dirt roads and had to cross a few more narrow wadis. Those wadis were steep. Every time we drove up the slope of a wadi, the old, weak, truck was groaning in misery. It was as if it was saying: "Fellows, be kind to me, at my age I should not be asked to do that kind of task, it is too heavy for me."

Going down I was not worried, because the generator was sliding forward away from me, toward the driver's cabin. But I was very worried when the truck was attempting to move upwards towards the top of the wadi, its gears as low as possible, and the engine working as hard as it could. Then, despite all the ropes that attempted to hold it in place, the generator was sliding backwards towards me again. And at each crossing of a new wadi, all these up and down movements started again, not letting me relax even for a few minutes. I was seriously wondering if we would reach our kibbutz before the ropes, or the truck, would give up.

The truck and generator withstood the experience, and we arrived in the evening to a dark kibbutz, just in time for our simple, mostly vegetarian dinner. We had a small dinner and fell asleep exhausted, still feeling the truck's motions from side to side. Later I found out that a cheapskate in our kibbutz decided to rent the cheapest truck he could find, and the driver did not realize the type of load and roads he would have to navigate. I wanted to kick this cheapskate; he did not have to face the agonies and dangers that we did. But I did not.

The next morning I could see the details more clearly. The generator was made in Germany, very solid, and particularly heavy despite its relatively small electrical size, just five kilowatt capacity. However, that small amount of electrical power, a capacity to light just a hundred 50 watt watts light bulbs for the whole kibbutz, was a tremendous improvement over using just candles and flashlights.

The generator was made in the early part of the century; I believe its plate said 1909. It was ruggedly built with a solid cast iron base holding all the parts together, including the round electrical generator, the small diesel engine, and the small tank of diesel fuel. The heaviest part must have been the five inch wide, 30 inch diameter flywheel. It had high momentum and was the critical part that allowed the generator to rotate in a continuous smooth motion despite having just one, very slow moving cylinder.

We dropped the heavy generator from the truck bed on a flat sandy base near our storage building, an old Arab building with a thick thatched roof and eighteen inch thick dirt walls. I was under subtle pressure to finish my job to spread the electricity everywhere across the kibbutz. But even so, I could not do it in a jiffy; it did take time and I had to work extra hours daily with Moshe, my assistant, a young new American immigrant.

First I wanted to see if the generator would actually work. After I filled the small tank with diesel oil, put the solid built starter handle on the flywheel's center, and rotated it several times very hard, I happily heard an erratic starting noise: Tak, Tak, Tak. I pulled the handle quickly off and in less than half a minute the engine caught on. The smile on my face was a mile wide, sorry - a kilometer wide in Israel. The group of onlookers around me cheered.

Moshe and I were smeared with dirt and were eager to wash ourselves, but water was always in short supply. We got water to wash ourselves only on Friday afternoons, almost a full week ahead of us. When I saw a few more friends almost as dirty as I was, we started dreaming about washing ourselves with all the water we wanted.

We could not live with ourselves so smelly, dusty and sweaty. And if we felt that way, just think what our friends felt even ten feet away? Not a pleasant adventure for any of us who grew up in the city, accustomed to opening a faucet and taking a shower. So we decided to try to find one of the abandoned Arab wells that, according to rumors, were still around.

We went back to our rooms, taking our white towels, (who was so nuts to give us only white towels in a new dirty kibbutz?) and two of us carried rifles too. You never know, they said. I did not feel I needed mine at that time of day. However, I did put my shoes on, I usually did not use shoes in the kibbutz, the ground was clean white sand, but outside I was not so sure what the ground would be like. And I am glad that I did, I needed them for a very good cause.

We told someone that we were going out, and the six of us grabbed and slid open our movable barbwire barricade, the only opening in the kibbutz' permanent barbed wire fence. We went out, and dragged the barricade back to its shut position. We were covered by light dust on top of our other greasy dirt.

We walked two by two eastward, where the wells should have been. Shmuel and Haim wound their white towels on their heads and walked a few feet ahead of us sharing stories. Avraham and I trailed a few feet behind them, with our towels on our shoulders, as did Zvi and Yosef, while trailing slightly behind us. We were walking fairly fast, the sun at our right towards to Mediterranean Sea in the far distance, beyond our border. We had a good view of the open, treeless, slightly undulated range, and did not expect to find a well for another mile or two.

Suddenly I heard a shot and saw Shmuel falling to the ground directly in front of me, his body contorted with pain. We all shouted together "artza pol!" (hit the dirt) and dropped to the ground ourselves.

I looked forward in the direction the shot seemed to have come from, and realized in an instant that some of our kibbutz members had shot at us thinking we were Arabs infiltrators. Two of our fellows went that morning in that direction shepherding our goats and sheep. Since a few more bullets were coming in our direction, I pull my towel off my shoulder immediately and waved it frantically up above my head to stop the shooting.

Luckily they stopped and did not hit anyone else. After I realized that the shooting was stopped and the shooters understood who we were, I stood up and approached Shmuel. Haim was on his knees by him and told us that Shmuel was hit badly in the stomach and needed immediate medical attention. Most of our members were in military combat and saw many friends falling. They knew a lot about bullet wounds. They tried to stop the bleeding without any first aid of any type.

I grasped our key problem immediately; we did not have any vehicle to transport Shmuel to a hospital. The closest hospital was in Beer Sheva, an hour of horrible drive on mostly dirt roads. I told them that I would drive my motorcycle to Nirim, the closest kibbutz, and ask them to send one of their vehicles to take Shmuel to the hospital.

Nirim was a much bigger, well established kibbutz with a number of vehicles. We had only the jeep, but it was away on an errand in the city. I ran the mile or so to the kibbutz with all the speed I could gather arriving there breathless. While I ran to my motorcycle almost every one gathered around me to find why they heard rifle fire. I explained briefly what happened, jumped on my BSA motorcycle and drove full speed toward the exit and to Nirim.

The dirt road, at the best of times, was rough, cut by several steep wadis. I did not have the luxury of slowing down and gave it all the gas I could. The BSA was jumping up and down underneath me, as it hit bump after bump on the dirt road. When I came to cross the first wadi, I could not see our kibbutz any longer.

I did not know at the time, but everyone in the kibbutz was following me with their eyes as far as they could see, and were convinced that we would end up with two casualties, Shmuel and me. They saw the motorcycle jumping under me so wildly that they believed that I would not make it. They did not know that when needed, I could handle a bucking motorcycle well. It was almost automatic for me to adjust my ride to the road. I simply stooped with bent knees on the motorcycle's foot supports and let the BSA jump under me as it had to, while I was reasonably stable. My legs were the shock-absorber.

I knew that if I did not reach Nirim there was no way to contact any other kibbutz for help. We had no phone connection and did not have yet any reliable communication. That was a stupid arrangement, to say the least. We did receive a simple, not too reliable radio transceiver sometime after that incident.

In the meantime I was riding with all the speed I could get out of that slow BSA, I would guess not more than 40 mph, feeling the urgency and wishing, praying that I would reach Nirim in time, so that Shmuel would receive medical care before he lost a lot of blood. The four guys that remained with Shmuel arranged a hand-chair for him, and carried him, completely white faced and weak, back to our kibbutz. The truck could not meet them where Shmuel was, there were no roads to that isolated place.

Eventually I reached Nirim in one piece, drove directly to their garage, and told them the story. They were fast! It seemed just a few seconds it took to get the driver and a truck together, and on their way to pick up Shmuel. I drove back much slower, my task was accomplished.

Shmuel never returned to Nve Yair from his military hospital. He was in critical condition and stayed there six months, some of it near death. He lost his hair for a long while, and his fine good-sized body lost tremendous amount of weight and strength. His handsome figure, and his attractive face, did not recover until more than a year had past. He was lucky. He returned to life, not a full life as he was before. But many others did not even do that.

I saw the remaining impact on Shmuel even two years later, when I happened to meet him on the streets of Tel-Aviv. He had heard about my sad separation from my lovely girlfriend Yael after our almost 5 years as a very close couple, and did his best to cheer me up. The way he looked, I felt I should try to cheer him up. He was one of the nicest fellows I ever knew. He always tried to help others.

Fortunately he later got married and had a family, but this bullet made him an invalid for the rest of his life.

We never blamed our friends for shooting Shmuel; after all they thought we were six dangerous Arabs with white turbans on our heads approaching them straight on, and there were only two of them. They had no alternative, they had to protect themselves. It was either them or their "enemies."

I had a lot to thank Shmuel for. If he did not stop that bullet with his own stomach, it would have gone directly into my heart. He was taller than me and we compared bullet locations when I visited him in the hospital some time later. Yes, I would have been a goner. But I would have risked my life and drove like crazy to find transportation for him even if it had nothing to do with me directly. I knew that his life was in my hands: I was the only one with transportation, and I did it. Any one of us could have gotten that bullet; we had to be our brother's keeper.

That was the only way we could survive.


from the 2015 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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