Experience Reflection by Daniella Retzkin
Texas, my great uncle, who was literally blown up during The Yom Kippur War, survived and shares his story more easily now than years ago. The war memories, which for several years haunted his daily thoughts, terrified his small children and startled his wife and friends. Eventually, these constant reminders subsided into occasional occurrences. The shrapnel of a grenade is forever lodged in his brain and sometimes gives him terrible migraines. When the migraines hit: his blood pressure rises, he begins sweating, and screaming in terror as flashes of war make him relieve his injury.
Wake up! Wake up… it’s okay’, my eyes opened to the kind face of my wife, her gentle shaking a reminder I live. Snap, boom, time stops– at any time of day I find myself in a trance. Transported to a cave in the Golan Heights, surrounded by gunshots and strangers, I relive my past. The worst day of my life and perhaps the history of Israel. 44 years later, this happens occasionally and I reflect with vigor and endurance. I remain a steadfast, active citizen. I must. My two eldest grandchildren, twins, a boy and girl each begin their obligatory military service this summer. It’s become a surreal moment in time that has marked a lifetime’s journey recounted time and again. Citizen, soldier, neighbor, friend it’s the same.
-Texas, Israeli Soldier
On Friday, May 14, 1948, on the small rural streets of what had been Palestine, people rushed out of their homes, spinning, dancing, and cheering. Neighbors came together to celebrate the newly created state of Israel. Those fortunate enough to be in the Holy Land saw first-hand the strengthening of a fierce nationalist force among its residents. This unification and tenacity is the only thing that has allowed the independent country to survive. Since that day, Israel has been targeted multiple times by countries that make claims to the land; they do not want Israel to exist. After the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, temporary peace blanketed the country.
Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, is considered the most important Jewish holiday. The day encompasses a 10-day period of self-reflection and remorse. Jews typically go to temple, fast, and ask forgiveness for their sins from God. Many follow this ritual out of custom. For Texas, the holiday acts as “a reminder to live fully and actively and to appreciate every second in life.”
In his comprehensive history of Meir’s term, Abraham Rabinovich notes that on Yom Kippur, Saturday, October 6, 1973, Prime Minister Golda Meir was woken by a phone call at 3:45 a.m. (Rabinovich). This marked the beginning of the unanticipated war. Texas remained asleep, completely unaware of the events that were about to happen. Egypt and Syria combined forces to win back territory, the Sinai Peninsula, and Golan Heights respectively, lost to Israel during the Six Day War. While the Israeli government had prior warnings about the attack, the allegations were not taken seriously. As a result, the reserves were not called until the last minute and the initial 100,000 Egyptians soldiers crossing the Suez Canal were met by a mere 450 Israeli troops (Ephross).
Golda Meir stood at the head of a long table, addressing a conference room of the Israeli Cabinet. Constantly shrouded in a cloud of cigarette smoke, the Prime Minister detailed the events of the past couple days that led to an all-out war Israel was unprepared for. “The Arab deployment on the borders that had suddenly taken on an ominous color, the hasty evacuation of the families of Soviet advisers from Egypt and Syria, the air photos, the insistence by military intelligence that there would be no war despite mounting evidence to the contrary” (Rabinovich). These were all early warning signs of the attack that were left unnoticed by the cabinet. Soldiers, including Texas, who was on active duty, were still, during the length of this meeting, unaware of the war coming their way. The meeting ended with an announcement from the defense minister declaring that Egyptian planes were attacking in Sinai. Sirens wailed in every corner of the country, finally announcing to the people war was upon them. As it is a requirement of all citizens to join the army upon turning 18 and thereafter to be a member of the reserves, most people were called to active duty. For Texas, and most others, being in the army wasn’t only to fight wars, but to fight for existence. To fight for his family’s right to exist and the ability to sleep peacefully at night. However, he could not have anticipated the extent of the battle he was about to face.
Called into service two weeks earlier, Texas had been fulfilling his annual 30-40 day reserves requirement. For those stationed in a cave bunker near the Suez Canal, a group of about 130 soldiers, the war was the last thing on their minds. Everyone sat around keeping to themselves or speaking in groups. At this time, everyone knew what job they had to do, as they had done the past few years in the reserves. While looking for a new member of his regiment, Yehudah Avram approached Texas. Before long, the two discovered that they both attended Katori High School and grew up in the same hometown. It was during this seemingly inconsequential conversation that the war had begun. In the commotion, Texas and Yehudah had been separated. The silence was interrupted only by the steady stream of Egyptian bombs detonating outside the safety of the shelter. Without preparation or special training, these men and women were about to be eye to eye with the enemy. After the booming explosions seemed to have died down, Texas, along with his platoon of 21 soldiers, fastened their helmets, and slowly left the shelter. Frozen in their tracks, the men found themselves 150 meters away from Egyptian soldiers.
“I am very afraid, very, very, very afraid,” Texas shook this off, reminding himself, “I am a soldier of this keep. I don’t have the powers to be afraid.” In order to leave the war alive, the only option was to shoot. And so he did. Back and forth gunshots and grenades went off as if they were shooting into the air and not at the hearts of men.
While fighting at the Suez Canal continued, battle in the north at the Golan Heights only escalated. Three Syrian infantry divisions crossed the Purple Line, a ceasefire line established between Israel and Syria after the Six Day War (Ephross). They were successful in capturing most of the southern part of the Golan Heights and re-occupying the regional capital Ounavtirah. The fighting moved into domestic areas; no area was off limits.
On the battlefield, Texas had not lost momentum.
“You are afraid, and you know that there are people, and you don’t know who they are. I didn’t know anything that happened 10km near me. I didn’t know nothing.” With the enormous helmet on his head, Texas could only see straight ahead of him. Motivated by survival and duty to his country, he continued to shoot his gun and stand in the line of fire. To him, he was alone against every Egyptian across the field. As shots continued, a body thudded next to Texas. Up until this point, it was easier for him to view the people in front of him as empty bodies, targets of war. It was not until a body had fallen next to him that he had noticed death occurring and took a second to look over at the fallen mass. “My friend was killed and he was next to me. Only when he was killed did I see that it was a man.” While in battle, you don’t want to recognize that there are human beings being killed, people with lives and loved ones. But, there was no time to cry for the loss of his friend, as the battle did not stop to mourn.
Government officials in Israel were desperate to strategize and make strides in the war. Golda Meir, though not a militarist, was a strong politician and made decisions that moved Israel closer to victory. All she could think about was saving her country and protecting every Israeli. By not attacking Syrian forces on the Purple Line preemptively, she insured American aide in the war. With the support, Israel gained an advantage in the fighting and started driving Egyptian and Syrian forces out of the country.
Three hours into the fighting everything changed. “BOOM,” Texas heard in his ear. He looked up and saw a grenade had exploded. “I saw something, a giant, a big tree, and shoot on my head, and I finished.” Alongside his friend, Texas was left for dead, suffocating from his own helmet. “In war, you have a special hat, it is closed under the neck, and it was closed too much, and didn’t give me air to breathe.” And that could have been the end of Texas’s story.
Unbeknownst to Texas until years later, Yehudah Avram unintentionally found him once again. Seeing him on the ground, Yehudah immediately opened his helmet. Despite Yehudah’s small size, compared to Texas, he carried him to receive medical attention. Two days later, Texas regained consciousness.
Paralyzed on his right side, Texas woke up with no memory. “I didn’t know my name, nothing.” The first thing the nurse said was that all his friends had died in battle. His thoughts swirled with the horrible outcomes of what had left his friends dead. Had they been shot? Or struck by a grenade as he had? Or tortured by Syrian soldiers? His thoughts moved to family, though he could not remember specifics, he felt a pang of anxiety. Were his parents and siblings okay? Did he have a wife and children of his own? Memories came in flashes of faces and specific moments of time. Celebrating Rosh Hashanah with his parents, his wedding, the birth of his first child.
On the fourth day of the war, Israel had completely driven Syrian troops out of the Golan Heights. It was then Meir decided to immediately attack Syria, preventing time for the UN to call a ceasefire (Rabinovich). By October 9, Israel had acquired desperately needed U.S. support. With the Soviet Union aiding Syria and Egypt, Israel needed the manpower. 10 days in, Israeli troops crossed into the Suez Canal and the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat began to talk of a cease-fire. It was then someone showed Texas a newspaper photo and in it were two friends he recognized, his eyes lit up for the first time since being injured. From his platoon of 21, 12 died, two were injured, and seven were captured as prisoners of war in Egypt. It took time, but he regained most of his memory and started coming back to his life.
“You have to understand; war is not a normal situation. It changes every second, but I did it, and I live.” On October 22, the UN called for an immediate cease-fire. The following day the fighting continued and another cease-fire was called. The cease-fire was enforced on October 28, 1973, at the “first meeting between military representatives of two countries in 25 years” (Ephross). By 1982, due to their 1979 peace treaty, Egypt regained the Sinai Peninsula. Syria was defeated and Israel gained even more territory in the Golan Heights.
“It was a very bad experience you know, to be in a war, you are very afraid, but you know you want to leave. But, you cannot run away. You have to do something.” 44 years later the memories of war still haunt Texas in his waking moments and in his dreams. Since the war, Texas attained a master’s degree in Russian History and has spent countless hours reading the newspaper. Due to his injury, he cannot read books as he had in the past. Before, he had read about two books a day. Yehuda, though captured as a prisoner of war, was freed, and Texas and he see each other once a year.
“To be a soldier is to be a soldier.” For Israel, enemies constantly want to destroy their home. Despite illusions of peace, the country is in a perpetual state of war. This binds the Israelites in a way that is incomparable. “Here we have the Arabs who want to kill us, want that we don’t exist, the state of Israel will not exist, so you fight for your life.” Israel fights on its borders and land, bringing the battle, literally, closer to home. “Like in all the wars, you know why, we fight for our lives, the Egyptians fight far from home, and the Syrians, they have not the… I don’t know… but we fight for our home.”
This past October 2016, my mom, Talia, spent Yom Kippur with Texas (her uncle), her aunt, their three kids, spouses, and nine grandchildren in the North of Israel. It was the first time since the Yom Kippur War that Texas observed the holiday away from his home in Jerusalem. In their Temple up north, the Rabbi asked anyone who fought in the war to share their story as a way to honor those who served. Texas spoke humbly, emotionally, and listened intently to the few other stories. He managed to sit through all the recollections until the ending of the fast: the break-fast. In the meantime, small children everywhere had taken over the streets, as has become tradition, with their bikes. Some learning for the first time on new bikes, other racing in groups. It is the one day a year the country stops- there are absolutely no cars on the road. As there had been during Yom Kippur 1973. Soon after dark, Texas returned, walking slowly down the street, a bit weak and disoriented. He was burning up; he ate and spent the rest of the day in bed with a high fever. The grenade shrapnel forever in his head as a constant reminder of the worst day of his life.
Photo of Texas provided by Daniella Retzkin.
Photo of Demolished Tank Retrieved from https://www.timesofisrael.com/40-years-on-yom-kippur-war-intel-chiefs-trade-barbs/