To Yossi –
With fond memories from the radio –
And in great friendship
May 4, 2008
At first glance, this handwritten note scribbled by David Grossman in a copy of his novel, To the End of the Land, appears unremarkable. A few words from an esteemed author to a former colleague at the Kol Yisrael radio station. But behind this seemingly ordinary dedication hides an extraordinary story. Its beginning goes back to the first terrible hours of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and it ends with Grossman’s epilogue in his masterpiece To the End of the Land, published thirty-five years later, after the death of his son Uri in the Second Lebanon War.
While sitting at home and reading Grossman’s book shortly after its release, Yossi Rivlin was struck by a passage that sounded very familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember from where:
“Hello, hello? Anyone left? […] Why doesn’t anyone answer?…What is this, are you playing with me? Over, over, over,” Avram mumbled hopelessly.
“And I need clean water and bandages,” Avram mumbled, exhausted. “This thing stinks. It’s a rag…Hello? Hello? Can’t hear. Why would you hear, you assholes. Well, if you don’t hear, you’ll soon smell, with this wound. Gangrene for sure, fuckit.”
“Plant, this is Peach.” A new voice rose dimly over a rattling engine sound. “We’ve been hit on Lexicon 42. We have casualties, requesting evacuation.”
“Peach, um, this is Plant. Copy. Sending evacuation momentarily, over.”
“Plant, this is Peach. Thanks, waiting, just hurry ’cause it’s kind of a mess here.”
Peach, this is Plant. We are handling, we are handling, out.”
“Hello, hello, answer me, you sons of bitches, you quislings. You left me here to die? How could you leave me to die?”
In the background, Avram sang vigorously, “My sukkah is a delight – with greenery and lights!” and the radio operator hummed along with him, bobbing his head to the rhythm. “Listen to him. Thinks he’s on Sesame Street or something.”
The song broke into a groan of pain.
(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 549-552)
For hours Yossi racked his brain until he finally recalled the event that took place two decades earlier.
It was back in the 1980s, when Yossi was working as a reporter for Kol Yisrael radio. He was tasked with doing the research and then handing over the material to more senior journalists who would turn what he had found into a news item. Always on the lookout for a good story, one day a co-worker mentioned man named Avi Yaffe. Avi was a recording technician who lived in Jerusalem and had some rare and interesting recordings in his possession. In late September of 1973, Avi was called up for army reserve duty and he brought along a large Nagra tape recorder thinking that he would be able to listen to music and maybe also document the unique atmosphere that prevailed in the military outposts Israel had erected along the Suez Canal.
But Avi had no idea that within a few days war would break out and that he would find himself at the frontlines of the fighting, stationed at the “Purkan” outpost on the banks of the canal. The Egyptian attack began with an intense artillery barrage directed at these Israeli military positions, as Egyptian soldiers began to cross into Sinai. Instead of listening to music, Avi used the machine to record the communications during the war’s first few hours between the headquarters in the rear and the heavily bombarded frontline outposts, including his own.
Yossi went to see Avi. In a long and painful interview, he listened to Avi’s chilling stories about the early days of the Yom Kippur War on the southern front, and how he had managed to save himself and the four tapes he had recorded.
From among Avi Yaffe’s stories about that frightening time, Yossi could not shake off one story in particular – about Sergeant Max Maman, a reservist trapped in one of the outposts that was being battered by Egyptian artillery and his pleas over the radio for backup. Those at the headquarters tried to calm him knowing that there was nothing they could do. The helplessness in his voice, his pleas that went unanswered – it was unbearably hard to listen to. So much so that Avi eventually turned off the tape recorder because he simply couldn’t continue listening to the voice of the soldier begging to be rescued, knowing that his fate was already sealed.
Here is a transcript of that recording from the “Hizion” outpost. Sergeant Max Maman, codename “Troublemaker”, is in communication with the contact post, codename 22:
“22, Troublemaker here, urgent, over.”
“22 here, over.”
“Troublemaker here. They’re firing at the outpost with artillery, we have to destroy them, over.”
“Endless tanks, endless, need immediate assistance, urgent, aerial, artillery cover, help us, over.”
“Everything will be OK, hang in there, things are a bit difficult but it’s not too bad, over.”
“Troublemaker here, over. I hope you are right, I also hope you get here fast with the air support, because there is no possibility to even lift up our heads here, over.”
“Attention, they’re coming at me through the gate, I’m asking, uh… artillery through the gate…”
“Voices from the Inferno” – part one of a special program produced by Israel’s public broadcaster, Kan, based on recordings from the Yom Kippur War (Hebrew)
It’s a gut-wrenching experience to hear Sergeant Maman’s trembling voice over the radio transmitter asking over and over again for help, and the evasive response from the headquarters.
In another recording, from Avi Yaffe’s outpost, one can hear singing. One of the soldiers starts off with “Hava nagila, hava nagila, hava nagila venis’mecha” – let us rejoice and be glad – and the others join in. The singing sounds almost macabre against the background of gunfire, explosions and calls for help coming from the outposts around them. But, when you think about the impossible reality they found themselves in, this song must have provided some kind of relief from the tension and sense of helplessness.
What does all this have to do with David Grossman? Yossi and Grossman worked together in the 1980s at Kol Yisrael radio’s Reshet Bet station, where Grossman was a broadcaster. Grossman used Yossi’s research and Avi’s recordings for a special report about the Yom Kippur War and the difficult decisions those few soldiers were forced to make while under heavy fire in the outposts along the canal. The program, broadcast on the eve of Yom Kippur 1987, was very well received.
Yossi eventually left his radio job, became a writer and published a number of works of fiction. David Grossman went on to become one of Israel’s most celebrated authors.
Years later, David Grossman’s son, Uri, was killed together with his entire tank crew in the last few hours of the Second Lebanon War, in August of 2006.
Grossman wrote To the End of the Land years before his son’s death. But in the epilogue, he writes about the book’s close connection to Uri and his death:
Uri was very familiar with the plot and the characters. Every time we talked on the phone, and when he came home on leave, he would ask what was new in the book and in the characters’ lives. (“What did you do to them this week?” was his regular question) […] At the time I had the feeling – or rather, a wish – that the book I was writing would protect him. […] After we finished sitting shiva, I went back to the book. Most of it was already written. What changed, above all, was the echo of the reality in which the final draft was written.
While reading To the End of the Land, Yossi remembered that broadcast about the lone soldier stuck in the outpost, begging for help during the Yom Kippur War. He decided that he had to ask Grossman about it.
But Grossman rarely discussed his new book in public, and even if he was able to attend an event with the writer, Yossi wasn’t sure Grossman would even remember him.
When Yossi heard that Grossman was scheduled to appear at the Tmol Shilshom café in Jerusalem, he decided to try his luck and meet with him. At the end of the event, Yossi sheepishly raised his hand and asked Grossman whether it was possible that a certain section in the book was based on the broadcast they had both worked on many years before. Shading his eyes from the glare of the lights, Grossman looked out into the audience, then stood up and walked over to Yossi, a giant smile on his face:
“’Yossi?’ he asks me. ‘Yes,’ I answer… and he says: ‘Yes! Of course! It’s from your broadcast!’”
Both of them were overcome with emotion, and at the end of the evening, David Grossman inscribed the copy of the book that Yossi had brought with him, a memento from a uniquely tragic yet oh-so Israeli story.
To the End of the Land tells about the reality of life in Israel. A reality that cannot be avoided, a reality in which war, bereavement and PTSD are an inseparable part of life. Grossman’s story had proved prescient in a most personal way.
In the story about a woman trying to escape bitter news, a scenario which haunts everyone who lives in this country that has known its fair share of wars, Grossman included his and Yossi Rivlin’s broadcast about those rare recordings from the early days of the Yom Kippur War. At the end of the book, the reader is left not knowing whether she succeeded or not. What we do know is that Grossman could not escape his own tragic news, the death of his son Uri, killed on the last day of the Second Lebanon War.
But perhaps Grossman was able to do for Ora, the book’s heroine, what he was not able to do for himself and for his own son. He did the very thing that all the soldiers who listened to Max Maman’s pleas from the outpost on that day and those who listened with dread to the tapes years later could not do. In the book, he chose to save the character Avram, the soldier stuck in the outpost. Yet while Avram survived, he was not spared the post-trauma that many of those who made it through the war suffer from.
On the last page of the book, Grossman does one more thing – perhaps the only thing one can do for those who are gone. He offers the possibility of the existence of hope:
“(…) I thought that if we both talked about him, if we kept talking about him, we’d protect him, together, right?”
“Yes, yes that’s true, Ora, you’ll see –”
“But maybe it’s the exact opposite?”
“What? What’s the opposite?” he whispers.
[…] She grips his arm: “I want you to promise me.”
“Yes, whatever you want.”
“That you’ll remember everything.”
Yes, you know I will.”
(David Grossman, To the End of the Land, trans. Jessica Cohen, New York: Vintage International, 2010, p. 650)
Grossman’s decision not to shelve the book after his son’s death, may also have been a decision to choose hope.
For more on the rare recordings from the Yom Kippur War, and what transpired in the outposts in its first few days, watch the series produced by Kan 11 (Hebrew): part one, part two and part three. Information about those recordings is also available on Avi Yaffe’s website, and in his recently published book (Hebrew) documenting the complete story: Shovakh Yonim (“dovecote”, the codename for the outbreak of the war).