Growing Up in Mandate Palestine


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By Eva Feld

Everyone has a defining moment in his or her youth when innocence dies and real life sets in. When danger lurks around every corner and one's own life does not seem to be in the immediate vicinity of this unknown insecurity, there seems to be a wall of naiveté that protects especially the young. So it was in Palestine, now Israel. We all went to school and went about our business of being young, feeling extremely indestructible - protected and very safe in our increasingly threatening environment.

There was a little wooded area in the center of Mt. Carmel called Lev HaCarmel, the Heart of the Carmel. On Wednesday evenings the adults would bring a gramophone, someone else brought classic recordings, always conducted by Arthuro Toscaninni. We thought and believed there was no other conductor alive except Toscannini. The none event became a happening by word of mouth. I don't know how we gravitated to this seemingly dull occurrence.

Eventually we made it "our" affair. We'd brought blankets, sandwiches, and soda and put it all in the center of our circle. We ate potluck literally, it was dark and no one could see what surprise filling the sandwich held or what flavor the soda was. There we sat, held hands and snuggled a little in the dark and listened to music. A lone naked light bulb showed the hosts where the electric outlet was. When it was all over we went home sometimes not even saying goodbye.

This Wednesday evening ritual became our supper and togetherness and I don't believe that a single parent questioned our outing. I suppose that the adults who were present all knew us and kept an eye on us to make sure nothing got out of hand. They didn't bother us and we did not bother them.

After about a year and half things began to change. At first these changes were subtle. Raphael failed to come regularly. Penina and Gila didn't come at all anymore although we did meet them occasionally in passing. Yaakov didn't show up for two weeks and when our friends returned they never said a word about where they had been. Elisheva and Bilha vanished into thin air. (Actually Elisheva went back to South Africa with her parents and Bilha was sent to Los Angeles.)

Those who returned to our soiree were changed people. They were no longer fun and carefree. They never told us where they had been. They became bitter. They became outspoken about clandestine activities between Jews and the British. It was always the British against the Jewish community. How the British favored the Arabs by selling the Arabs weapons they had just confiscated from the Jews.

Our friends became difficult to talk with and demanded from us viewpoints on various political issues and parties. They urged from us a decisive national commitment an open declaration as to where our allegiance was. Was it with the Hagana - the unofficial Israeli army or were we Etzel or Irgun Z'vi Leumi, Beitar, Palmach, Lechi, some of these organizations were militant and extreme underground movements and no one would ever declare openly a loyalty to those movements.

Our friends became secretive about their own alliance and gave foreboding messages about events about to happen and warned us to become aware of our surroundings and time and again made us look at each other and examine our reasons for selecting each other as friends.

Up until then it would have never occurred to us to question each other, except perhaps as to what movie we would like to go and see. After all we had known each other since kindergarten and had gone together through many grades. Their changed manners were frightening and their attitudes or whatever had happened to them to make them so aggressive puzzled us. And then the Wednesday evening event disappeared as suddenly as it had begun. What happened? War is a terrible thing. It starts with the adults with a trickle down effect to the young. Sometimes it happens fast and sometimes it just percolates and suddenly the very young are involved sometimes against their will and usually very brutally.

Some of our friends' parents decided it was safe to once again return to the land of their origin. They went back to countries like South Africa, The Netherlands, some immigrated to the United States. For us who stayed it was incomprehensible. We felt betrayed. Why leave us at all? We are friends for such a long time and friends don't leave. They knew Hebrew and were taught to love and even die for their country. But dying was not an option. No one just dies especially when young, strong and full of life. That's ridiculous. They never spoke Dutch, English or Afrikaner with us. It never occurred to us that they might have spoken their native language in the privacy of their homes just like most of us spoke German in the confines of our parents protection.

We celebrated birthdays, school events; we suffered insufferable teachers and did impossible homework together. We sweated through exams. We went on scouting and hiking adventures. We picked wild flowers. The same flowers that are now on the endangered species list. We were friends and friends don't abandon friends that's what we learned in school and that's what we believed with all our hearts and souls.

Then there were those who became involved in underground activities. How could they do that and not tell us? Of course all of us belonged to an organization. Most of us belonged to the Zophim-Scouts and most of us went through paramilitary training and got hurt. A broken limb was not uncommon. We never questioned, "How did you break your arm?" Or "How did Amnon break his leg?" How could anyone catch pneumonia in the middle of the summer? I truly believe that angels sat on our lips and kept our mouths shut. When we visited the stricken friends we did so on our own rarely as a group certainly not as representatives of any organization.

Then the British police arrested some of our friends' older siblings and it was uncomfortable being in on our friends' presence. What does one say to a friend. "How is your brother? In what jail is he?" Or, "How did the British arrest your brother?" We knew how it was done. Usually at 2:30 in the morning, there was a knock on the door. By 3:00 the whole community knew who was arrested and why. We shunned the homes where arrests were made. The same homes that for all practical purposes were our second homes. Who would have thought that a family we had known for years was involved with the names of organizations we learned to fear? Not withstanding that sometimes even the parents did not know that their children were involved in covert activities. Long standing friendships broke up overnight. Suspicion and misgivings took its place. Innocence was lost and safety vanished.

I made a commitment to the Magen David Adom (The first aid unit.) Anatomy was not a stranger to me, my father z'l was a physician. The training I received was quick, in depth and thorough and whatever I didn't understand in the classroom my father supplied the details. What scared my parents most I think was the unattached approached I brought to my chosen commitment.

At first these duties were very simple and certainly harmless. I sat for hours in the dispatch center answered the phone and dispatched the ambulance drivers to wherever they needed to go. I could assist in bandaging the occasional scraped knee and bandage the twisted ankle correctly according to instructions. Only once was I exposed to a true knifing. The physician took it upon himself to show me the anatomy of the arm right down to the bone. The training I received was thorough the detachment was nothing short of amazing.

Then came the first ambulance ride. It is that first ride that one does not ever forget. I was alone in the back of the truck. The driver assured me that there was nothing to fear or to worry about. We were called to an area called the Burg. He told me there had been a shooting. So far I had no clue what a shooting was.

It is amazing how adrenaline and training takes over. He was a young man not much older than I was. I was sixteen and he was maybe eighteen and had a bullet in his chest. I could feel the bullet.

"Hold him still, very still, hold him side ways. He must not move. We are two minutes from the hospital. One more turn. Hold on this is a shrap turn."

He was too heavy or was I too weak? Was the last turn taken too sharp? The boy fell over. He was dead.

Innocence escaped and fantasies - whatever they were - shattered.

Mother and I were shopping in downtown Haifa having a mother and daughter afternoon. We kibitzed into windows and promised ourselves a treat with a good piece of cake ice cream and coffee somewhere we did have our favorite place.

The ambulance pulled up to the curb and the driver called out my name. At first I thought he was joking with us. After all, he was a friend and saw me strolling with my mother. I smiled at him and waved back. I was about to approach the ambulance and introduce my mother to one of my buddies. Instead he yelled with a snap that was filled with fury.

"Get in and get in right now!"

After all these years Mother's pale face is still staring at me. The driver didn't just call my name he ordered in a tone and throatyness that defied growl and coarse, it sounded inhuman. His voice was filled with pure terror I had never heard before. Something inside jerked me to the reality of the moment. Without a whimper I tossed my packages to mother and with a dry mouth simply said,


That morning there was a massacre in the Haifa Refinery. The Haifa Oil refinery was the model ecosystem of cultural harmony between Arab, Jews and British. All the officials and charge personnel were British but Jews and Arabs worked together in peaceful compatibility side by side for decades. Even through the Italian Air Force's occasional air raids durring World War II attempts to destroy the facility nothing ever happened. It was an island of tranquility seemingly immune to outside chaos.

Who started it is known. The Arab workers hid weapons under their Kafayas (long wrapping garments). As soon at the gates opened, they swarmed around the Jewish workers and attacked them mercilessly. People were hacked to pieces, thrown into boiling tar pits or hot tar thrown at them burning faces scorching the bodies. People were locked into furnaces and airless tool bins to suffocate. The atrocities were unspeakable and for most part unimaginable.

The dispatcher called our home. Father told them we where we could be found. My father was deadly accurate the driver found me with the first try. On the way to the dispatch center the driver explained what had happened.

"Your job will be to clean the ambulances after they delivered the bodies to the morgue. Do you understand? The morgue not the hospital. There will be no sheets to change or gurneys to clean. These will be raw empty ambulances. You will see things and smell things but you will feel nothing. If you plan to cry do it on your own time in your own corner. Take Lysol and scrub the inside clean and any smudges on the outside as quickly as possible and send it back on the road. Do you understand?"

His language was not a request it was a command. It was more like a decree from above. The driver was a good friend and we had known each other very well. Yet he spoke to me as though this was the first time he ever saw me.

"Do you understand!" He screamed and all I did was nod as we pulled into the dispatch area.

Innocence was gone. Childhood vanished. The massacre was not just at the refinery.


from the June 2002 Edition of the Jewish Magazine




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