To the Last Furrow: The Blood, Sweat and Tears of Nahal Oz

The morning of Simchat Torah 2023 was supposed to be a day of celebration - marking 70 years of Kibbutz Nahal Oz. But with chilling similarity to another event that took place just three years after Nahal Oz was founded, this day ended entirely differently – in unimaginable tragedy. Is this what life is like for those whose homes are the border itself?

A child in Nahal Oz, 1957. The photo is from the Kibbut Nahal Oz Archive and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the archive, the Ministry of Heritage and the NLI

At first, there was no fence – just fields. And young men and women whose hearts were full of faith, courage, and love of the land they worked.

Kibbutz Nahal Oz began life as the first agricultural settlement of the IDF’s Nahal program. This program combined military service with community-building and agriculture. Members of the founding core group arrived with the declared intention of settling the border area. They were young soldiers (some very young) who had been given agricultural training in order to fulfill the role of settling and protecting the country. The furrows of their fields were the border, and they – its guards.

Members of the first settlement group. Photo: Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-03-10-19-007]

They ploughed and sowed and planted and built and established a home on the lands of the old Kibbutz of Be’erot Yizthak, whose members had decided to move north after a heroic battle during the 1948 War of Independence. “Nahlai’m Aleph – Opposite Gaza” is how they were called in the first two years, a kind of declaration of awareness of what they faced, what they could see from their windows.

Working the land, 1954. Photo: the Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-02-09-02-031

In the heavy shadow of the terrible massacre of Simchat Torah 2023, we spoke with Yankel’e Cohen, one of the two members of the original settlement group who are still members of the kibbutz. He lived there for 70 years, among the greening fields and opposite the Gazan neighborhood of Shejaiya in the distance. He told of an idealistic group which succeeded – despite and perhaps even thanks to the security tensions – in founding a family community. “The togetherness,” he said, “was always stronger than elsewhere. The gathering of welcoming people who were much less individualistic.”

They paid in blood almost from the first for this effort. Shortly after celebrating the founding of the settlement in 1953, Yaakov “Tommy” Tuchman was murdered. After the murder, kibbutz members continued to suffer from infiltrations by the fedayeen, mines laid in the area, and thefts from the fields. The peak came in 1956, with the tragic murder of Ro’i Rothberg.

Ro’i Rothberg on his horse near Kibbutz Nahal Oz, early 1950s. Photo: the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Ro’i Rothberg was the model Nahal soldier – a good-looking Israeli, an educated man who didn’t neglect his physical health, a military officer and farmer who didn’t let the hard work coarsen his gentle conduct, and above all – a beloved friend who refused to let the hard life on the border affect his natural happiness and sharp wit.

He volunteered to serve in the army despite being younger than the official draft age, and registered into the officer’s course as soon as he could. At age 21 he was in charge of regional security, married to beautiful Amira, and father of a baby boy – Boaz.

Ro’i and Amira Rothberg. Photo: the Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-02-03-01-060

That spring morning when his life was taken, kibbutz members were excitedly preparing for a major event: a “quadruple wedding” for four young couples from the community. A stage was strewn with flowers and twigs, some of the food was already being prepared, and guests had even started to arrive – including Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan and reporters from the IDF magazine BaMahaneh, who meant to document the celebration.

Earlier that morning, there were reports of fedayeen infiltrators raiding the fields for the umpteenth time. Ro’i set out on his beloved horse to scare them off. It was something he did every day. But this time ended differently. He ran into an ambush and was cruelly murdered. His body was mutilated and dragged beyond the last furrow – and into the Gaza Strip.

It was only after threats were issued by the security establishment and the UN intervened that his body was returned through the fields he defended.

Instead of dancing at the weddings (which still took place, though they tearfully moved to another location), the kibbutz members dug the first grave on their land.

Moshe Dayan stayed for the funeral of the young regional security coordinator, who deeply impressed him in their short meeting a day before. The IDF Chief of Staff gave a famous eulogy which over the years has been interpreted politically in complex ways.

“Have we forgotten that this group of young people dwelling at Nahal Oz is bearing the heavy gates of Gaza on its shoulders?” he asked clearly above the fresh grave, as though he knew how heavy those gates would be. How similar they could be to the gates of Hell itself.

Guarding the fields, 1956. The Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-03-10-18-088

“How do you continue to live in such a place, for so many years?” we asked Yankel’e. “A great deal of Zionism. And faith,” he answered without hesitating. Matters of the spirit.

When Gaza was occupied in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, the Egyptians withdrew from that last furrow. But there was no real quiet.

Less than a year after Ro’i’s murder, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion himself arrived along with Dayan to visit Nahal Oz. They sat with the kibbutz members in the local social club and explained their approach – why and how Gaza was being returned to Egyptian hands. Don’t worry, they tried to tell the kibbutz members – it will be quiet now. The UN will keep the peace.

Days of quiet? Nahal Oz youth working the fields in the kibbutz. Photo: Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-03-08-09-049

Ben-Gurion (whose view of the UN was well-known even then) respected the members of the “security settlements”, as they were sometimes called, often mentioning his belief that without them “security will not be established in the country.” He came to promise them that he truly believed quiet would come, but when he left that meeting in the clubhouse, he left men and women behind who were frustrated and fearful.

Thus far, a well-known story.

Yankel’e told us what happened afterwards: Ben-Gurion left, but Moshe Dayan stayed as the members spoke more freely of their fears. The army chief wasn’t impressed. To the contrary, he railed against the “complaints”, reminded them of the compensation they’d receive if something happened and contemptuously added – those who don’t like it, can go back to Ramat Hasharon [a safer town in central Israel].

The offended members wrote to Ben-Gurion, and he – who always respected deeds more than words – forced Dayan to return to Nahal Oz and apologize to the members he considered to be the shield of the state.

A community that is also a family. Children in Nahal Oz. Photo: Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-03-10-14-056

Years passed. Gaza was conquered in 1967, before Israel again withdrew decades later, in 2005. The “Um Shmum”, as Ben-Gurion called the UN, was very limited in its ability to keep the peace. The fields flowered, and burned from time-to-time following terrorist actions or shelling. Each time they were sown anew. New graves filled the small cemetery. The furrows continued to be carefully cultivated but were far from sufficing as a barrier to the repeated attacks out of Gaza. A fence was built, and then another one, and then another one deep underground.

Life during tense times. Nahal Oz children on a “missile” in a children’s playground. Photo: Nahal Oz Archive, IL-NAOZ-001-p01-01-18-01-007

But like that furrow in 1956, the fence was also crossed by the successors of the fedayeen on the cursed Shabbat of October 7, 2023.

In a chilling repeat of that day in 1956, the Saturday morning in October of 2023, the day of Simchat Torah, was supposed to be one of excited preparations for a major event – the celebration of 70 years since Nahal Oz’s founding.

In congratulations recorded in advance for the celebrations, some of those visiting wished “that we should hear from you and about you not just when there’s sad and scary news, but precisely when there’s good, of which you have so much.”

But there were no celebrations. On the Saturday morning of October 7, 2023, bloodthirsty terrorists broke into Kibbutz Nahal Oz and massacred its members, murdering whole families and taking others hostage. There was hardly a home that was unaffected.

“Ro’i,” Moshe Dayan said at that eulogy in 1956, “who left Tel Aviv to build his home at the gates of Gaza to be a wall for us was blinded by the light in his heart and he did not see the flash of the sword. The yearning for peace deafened his ears and he did not hear the voice of murder waiting in ambush. The gates of Gaza weighed too heavily on his shoulders and overcame him.”

“But we will rise,” Yankel’e says with chilling simplicity, 67 years later, as we hear of the kibbutz dairy resuming its work. “We have no other way.”

Even if the gates of Gaza are heavy, Nahal Oz – its spirit and its people – stand defiant and unconquered.

—-

Many thanks to Yankel’e Cohen, a member of Kibbutz Nahal Oz, for helping in the preparation of this article.

Pictures appearing in the article are held at the Nahal Oz Archive and are now digitally available thanks to the collaboration of the archive, the Ministry of Heritage, the Landmarks Program, and the National Library of Israel

 

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories

The Fall and Revival of Netiv Ha’Asarah

When the bulldozers came to knock down the houses of Netiv Ha’Asarah in the Sinai Peninsula, the residents experienced real trauma. They could have moved to the center of the country, far away from any danger, but their pioneering spirit led them to resettle just a few feet from the Gaza Strip.

The original location of Netiv Ha’Asarah in the Sinai Peninsula, 1973. Photo: Herman Chanania, Government Press Office

In October 2023, Netiv Ha’Asarah was evacuated. Again.

Dozens of residents of the moshav, an agricultural settlement mixing private and public ownership of property, were murdered in the Hamas surprise attack of October 7. Netiv Ha’Asarah was evacuated of all its residents along with other border region communities.

After the images of horror and the hellish testimonies, will the residents of the moshav return to their homes? Will they succeed in rebuilding this community located just a few feet away from the Gaza Strip?

This is not the first time that the people of Netiv Ha’Asarah have been evacuated from their homes. But the last time this happened, it was a peace treaty rather than a war that forced them out.

Netiv Ha’Asarah was established as an agricultural moshav in 1973 in the Yamit region of northern Sinai. The Sinai Peninsula was one of the territories captured by Israel in the Six-Day War of 1967. At first, the community was called Minyan [lit. “prayer quorum”], but pressure from residents ultimately led to it being renamed Netiv Ha’Asarah [lit. “path of the ten”], after the ten soldiers killed in a Yas’ur helicopter crash in 1971.

Minyan – A New Settlement at the Entrance to Rafah” Report on the founding of Minyan, later Netiv Ha’Asarah. Maariv, July 6, 1973, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

At its peak, some 150 residents lived in the Sinai moshav, primarily engaged in agriculture.

“Everything there was open, everything was spacious,” said Eshel Margalit, one of the founders. “Beaches that were something amazing, and the greenery of the palm trees … an exceptional landscape. In short, heaven.”

“We were strongly encouraged to join the settlement,” said Aviva Fuld. “I came for ideological reasons. I grew up in the Beitar movement which settled the country. I saw it as [ideological] fulfillment, we were seen as pioneers. I liked it very much. My husband was very tied to the land and to agriculture, we grew flowers, beautiful chrysanthemums, roses, vegetables. We were very successful in agriculture. Later on, I worked in the kindergarten as a kindergarten teacher. Many of my friends from the Nachal [an IDF program that combined military service with agriculture and community-building] were there. I didn’t come to some ‘nowhere,’ I came to a place that was familiar and pleasant and full of good company.”

Road leading to Netiv Ha’Asarah in Sinai, 1973. Photo: Herman Chanania, Government Press Office

The Fall

This idyllic existence was suddenly cut short, however, when a peace treaty signed with Egypt stipulated that Israel must withdraw from the entire Sinai Peninsula. The meaning for Netiv Ha’Asarah was clear – the end of their settlement of Sinai and the evacuation of the moshav.

In the month of April, 1982, the residents officially said goodbye. They packed up their things and their families and left Sinai.

“It’s a difficult story,” Hagai Shaked, a resident, recalled. “After nine years, we realized what was happening when Sadat came to Israel, we knew it would happen. The majority chose to stay and so did we… Most of the residents didn’t see the destruction itself. People went through trauma. We were all together. We all went through the evacuation. This trauma is something that binds. It’s glue.”

“There was very, very serious trauma,” Shimon Sahar concurred. “To see the bulldozers with the wrecking ball that destroys the house. The trailers packing up all the equipment and the demolished home.”

 

The Rebuilding

But at least in this case, the evacuation didn’t come as a surprise, even if it came as a shock. The warming relations with Egypt, even before the peace treaty, were a very big hint for the Israelis in Sinai. Already in the years prior to the evacuation, residents of Netiv Ha’Asarah worked on finding on alternative location. The place they chose was in the northwestern Negev, right on the border with Gaza.

After the evacuation from Sinai, the residents moved to a temporary residence in a holiday resort in Ashkelon, since work was still needed to lay the foundations in the new location.

Netiv Ha’Asarah’s new location in the western Negev, May 1982. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Some decided to resettle in other places, but many of the residents of Netiv Ha’Asarah wanted to continue the sense of “togetherness” they had in a new location. They wanted to reestablish the spirit of community, of pioneering, in a new home. “We came to [neighboring] Kibbutz Zikim, we walked around, we went up a hill and looked out at the sands of Zikim,” Shoshana Ta’aseh would later recall. “What a nice place here! The view is nice! The air is good! Here, this is what we want! And right next to the sea, close to family, to the city, I said – this is great, I like this place!”

The future will prove whether the price we paid in the evacuation of the Yamit region was justified […] the future of this land is in the hands of those who grasp it.” – Amos Hadar, secretary of the Moshavim movement, is quoted in this report on the reestablishment of Netiv Ha’Asarah. Maariv, October 22, 1982, the Historical Jewish Press Collection at the National Library of Israel

And indeed, Netiv Ha’Asarah arose anew and flourished. Many of the residents worked and still work in agriculture as well as domestic tourism. The moshav was even expanded in the 1990s to make room for the next generation.

And why specifically on the Gaza border?

“We made a very good decision,” recalled Ovadiah Keidar. “We decided that we have to fulfill our Zionist mission and settle here up to the border with the Gaza Strip. There was a euphoric atmosphere due to the notion that peace with the Palestinians was just around the corner. And indeed, in the beginning, we worked in tandem with the Palestinians. There were no borders, and no gates and no walls. And then things started to deteriorate … And then it was decided to put up a fence and a wall, and this troubled us greatly as well.”

Border fence with Gaza, near Nativ Ha’Asarah’s new location in the western Negev, May 1982. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The Future

And what now? Can Netiv Ha’Asarah rise again?

We returned to Aviva Fuld. Two weeks after the massacre of October 7. She, her family, and many of her friends from Netiv Ha’Asarah are presently in a Tel Aviv hotel. She and her family were saved, but many of her friends are no longer among the living. “The old timers will return,” she says with pain. “Regarding the youth, it’s too early to tell. For us, we don’t have many options. We paid with our lives, with our bodies. But this is our country and we have nowhere to go.”

But Fuld says the young residents and maybe even the old timers will not agree to go back without a fundamental change. They have a clear condition: The future cannot be anything like the past. After the fighting is done, Hamas cannot continue to exist. Only after laying down this condition, does Aviva add, with a slight tinge of optimism: “We will arise from this black hole and rebuild our homes.”

Locals at the moshav of Netiv Ha’Asarah in the western Negev, May 1982. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

We will end with a beautiful little poem, written by local resident Dani Tzidkoni, which we happened upon entirely by chance. This poem was written in Hebrew when the moshav was being reestablished for the first time, but it may also ring true now, following the difficult days Netiv Ha’Asarah has endured and during the challenging period ahead.

 

Here is an English translation:

 

When we came here for the first time,

We felt at home,

Almost.

 

The sand is the same sand.

The sea the same sea.

The people are the same people,

And the beginning the same beginning.

Almost.

 

Less young.

Less innocent.

More polite,

And again we make the desert beautiful.

 

Anew, fields are sown,

Houses are built,

We try for grass.

 

With determination, we repeat it all from the beginning,

The daily struggle to succeed,

To profit, like the first time.

This time the beginning is not exactly a beginning,
And not exactly a continuation,

This time Netiv Ha’Asarah is a revival.

(Danny Tzidkoni)

 

 

Some of the quotes from residents are taken from the  Nativ Ha’Asarah – Local Story website (Hebrew)

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories

The Be’eri Printing Press: Israel’s Print Shop

For over seventy years, Be'eri Printers – Kibbutz Be'eri's famous printing press - has touched the lives of all of us in Israel. On October 7, many dozens of Be'eri's sons and daughters were murdered. Despite this disaster, the printing press was back in operation less than ten days later. This is the story of a pioneering project that has risen from the ashes, like a phoenix.

Lazar Zorea taking a moment to rest while working at his lead printing machine at Be'eri Printers in the 1960s. Source: 'Lines and Dots' (Kavim VeNekudot) Blog (Hebrew), Yigal Zorea (Lazar’s son)

When Levi Zrodinski (Zorea) made Aliyah to the Land of Israel from Ukraine in 1925, he could not have imagined that his vision and initiative would be realized in a kibbutz in the Negev. He couldn’t have foreseen how this small kibbutz would become a printing giant in Israel over time, turning into one of the most advanced print shops in the world.

Levi, an enthusiastic Zionist, entrepreneur and industrialist, settled in the city of Haifa and established a successful print shop there. His idealistic and daring 18-year-old son, Lazar Zorea, was one of the group of pioneers who founded Kibbutz Be’eri.

Lazar Zorea at the Be’eri print shop in the 1950s. Photo: Hanan Bahir, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 

Babel Lev, co-founder of Kibbutz Be’eri and Be’eri Printers. Photo courtesy of the Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

In a clandestine operation immediately following Yom Kippur, October 6, 1946, Lazar Zorea and his pioneering friends settled 11 new locations overnight. These settlements, which included Kibbutz Be’eri, have since been called the “11 points”, and were highly significant in strengthening the Jewish population of the Negev.

Be’eri Printers in the 1950s was located in the Kibbutz’s first stone structure (center). On the right – the granary. On the left, the water tower with the menorah designed by Lazar Zorea in the kibbutz’s early days. From Yigal Zorea’s blog ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) (Hebrew)

 

Children at Kibbutz Be’eri. Photo: Boris Carmi. From the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The members of the young kibbutz sought after a stable source of revenue which would provide economic security for a small community located right on Israel’s border with Gaza. Zorea, who had witnessed the success of his father’s print shop, worked with three other members to found the first print shop in the Negev desert. The idea of a print shop was very unconventional in the kibbutz movement, but Lazar and his friends insisted and the project finally came into being after many talks between the kibbutz members. Zorea’s experienced father aided and encouraged them and the same was true of the Jewish Agency. Both worked to ensure the enterprise flourished.

The original note by Buda, a Kibbutz Be’eri member, to the Jewish Agency offices in 1949, asking for aid in acquiring the initial equipment for establishing the print shop. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

Print shop workers at Kibbutz Be’eri. Photo: Hanan Bahir, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

 

Moshka, Kibbutz Be’eri member, next to the printing press, 1950s. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

Yigal Zorea, Lazar’s son, tells of how it all started, from almost nothing: “The press was in the beginning no more than an abandoned stone house with one letterpress machine, a compositor whose lead letters were bought at a discount, and a modest binding machine. They printed a few simple forms and some documents of the new state institutions in the beginning.”

One of the first documents printed at Be’eri Printers in the early 1950s – listing parts of the Kibbutz Be’eri workshop. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

A Magen David Adom document, also among Be’eri Printers’ first documents printed in the 1950s. Courtesy of Wikibbutz – Kibbutz Be’eri Archive

 

A German newspaper reports on a visit to Kibbutz Be’eri in the 1950s: “Most of the villages also have a small industry which in case of drought or locusts can cover the deficit. There is here – in the desert! – a modern print shop, which carries out orders from around the country.” From Yigal Zorea’s blog ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) (Hebrew).

Yigal tells of how, as a youth in Kibbutz Be’eri, he had a job arranging the lead letters at the print shop, before moving to work in the orchard which was considered more “prestigious.” After his military service, he continued the family tradition, and after learning graphic design at Betzalel Academy he became a part of Be’eri Press, where he worked for 50 years, leading the transition from manual to computer design as a senior designer.

A child arranges printing letters at Kibbutz Be’eri, 1975. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Over the years, members of Be’eri never stopped inventing and developing new innovations, new ideas and ways to improve and increase the range of services which the print shop provided any business, company, or organization in need of its services. Thus, the print shop grew and grew, until it moved to a permanent structure which also changed and increased in size when needed. Over time, Be’eri Printers provided a livelihood for more and more residents throughout the Gaza border region.

Be’eri Printers in the 1970s. Yigal Zorea, who designed the company’s logo, describes how it was created: “With the aid of compasses and curve rulers, I drew a geometric logo representing a combination of a print roll and a paper roll, which combine to create the unique letter bet. I also drew the logotype (letter type for company logo) using a compass.” From the Be’eri Printers Blog (Hebrew).

But the importance of Be’eri Printers stretched far beyond this southern region of Israel. Over time, the company became Israel’s printing press. Its knowledge and technology enabled processes of economic modernization necessary for the growing country – the move from the Lira to the Shekel, the introduction of magnetic checks used by all banks, and more.

You may not be aware of it, but Be’eri Printers is an integral, daily part of the lives of all Israeli citizens and everyone living in the country: all credit cards and driver’s licenses are printed there. The same is true of all the envelopes sent to you by the banks and official state institutions. In fact, it is at Be’eri Printers that the ma’atafit – the letter printed on the envelope itself – was invented. This innovation has saved enormous amounts of paper over time.

Report on the new invention of the ma’atafit – a letter printed on an envelope – at Be’eri Printers. The company was awarded the Kaplan Prize as a result. Reported in Maariv, March 27, 1988, the Historical Jewish Press collection at the National Library of Israel

On the Black Sabbath of October 7, 2023, Kibbutz Be’eri suffered unspeakable losses. At least 91 of its members were slaughtered. That number is not final. Heroic battles took place among the pathways, and many areas in the beautiful kibbutz were entirely destroyed. Miraculously or thanks to good luck, the print shop structure was unharmed.

Despite the heavy mourning over the murdered kibbutz members, which has not ended, and despite the fact that there are still members missing and held in Gaza, the surviving kibbutz members decided to renew operations at the printing press as fast as possible, rather than give up on the illustrious project they created and cultivated for decades. Ben Suchman, CEO of Be’eri Printers in recent years, along with other kibbutz members, did not let the shocking news and difficult situation drag them into despair. Ten days after the massacre at their kibbutz, they declared – “Be’eri Printers is open,” and they intend to bring the print shop to full capacity.

Ben Suchman (left), present CEO of Be’eri Printers, and Naor Paktzierez, member of the board. In the background is a sign saying “We are here.” It is a sign which Yigal Zorea designed in previous wars and which was unfortunately updated for a 2023 version and hung at the entrance to Be’eri Printers. Photo from the Tmunot Be’eri (“Be’eri Pictures”, Hebrew) Facebook page

 

The current Be’eri Printers building, which has resumed operations in the last few days

Yigal and his family were among those extracted from Kibbutz Be’eri and they are currently residing at Kibbutz Ein Gedi, which is hosting many of those remaining from the Be’eri community. In a conversation with him, he shifts constantly between past and present. Every name and every event from the past of Be’eri Printers is tied to the disaster which befell the impressive, creative, and cohesive kibbutz community.

“For us, this is home, no more, no less. And that, on its own, says it all.” – The song Bishvileinu Ze Bayit (For Us, This Is Home) was written by Yigal Zorea, a graphic artist at Be’eri Printers, in honor of the 30th anniversary of Kibbutz Be’eri’s founding in 1946. The words were put to music and the song was performed during the Kibbutz Be’eri farm festivals for many years thereafter. From the ‘Lines and Dots’ (Kavim VeNekudot) Blog (Hebrew)

We all hope that Be’eri Printers, which is already up and running, can once again embody the pioneering spirit at the heart of the dear community of Be’eri. This enterprise can be the vanguard of efforts to rebuild all of the kibbutzim, towns and cities of the Gaza border region. They will rise, like a phoenix, from the ashes.

You can support Be’eri Printers by ordering stickers, or by ordering pictures and picture albums from the “albume” website, a Be’eri Printers project. You can also visit the PIX website, another product of Be’eri Printers, where you can find different kinds of stamps, envelopes, stickers, signs, and more.

 

This article is part of our special series: “Life on the Border: A Tribute to the Communities of the Gaza Border Region”

Click here to see all of the articles and stories

 

Women on the Homefront in 1973: How the Kibbutzim Coped With War

When the Yom Kippur War broke out, the women of Kibbutz Beit Alfa mobilized to protect the delicate fabric of community life, something that happened across Israel. They were determined and resourceful, despite the uncertainty and anxiety: “All we thought about was how we’d survive the next day.”

Children gather in a kibbutz bomb shelter to protect them against shelling during the Yom Kippur War. Photo: IPPA staff, the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Rachel (“Rochaleh”) Peled, a member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa, remembers the months of Autumn 1973 well. At the time, she was studying education at the Kibbutzim College of Education, Technology and the Arts (Seminar HaKibbutzim) while simultaneously working in the kibbutz children’s home. “That Yom Kippur, I came to Beit Alfa and was assigned to work in the kindergarten. I would come on Saturday mornings, wake the children up, and then they’d go to their parents to eat, etc. I went to rest around four in the afternoon. Someone who lived nearby woke me up. She was very stressed. We listened to the radio and heard that war had broken out. No one knew what had happened; it was incomprehensible and frightening. Afterwards, I discovered that some of the pilots had already been called up. On the radio, there were codes for each army unit, and based on those codes, people knew they needed to report for duty.”

An announcement on the Kibbutz Beit Alfa bulletin board during the Yom Kippur War: “For the public’s information, when you hear these code words on the radio – eshet khen [“woman of grace”] is the alarm signal, mavreg kis [“pocket screwdriver”] is the all-clear signal.” Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives.

“When I returned to Tel Aviv, there were no buses. They used to finish running at 8 pm, because there were hardly any drivers and people weren’t going out. It was a depressing atmosphere,” Rachel says. Her classes were also canceled. In fact, she didn’t return to school until Hanukkah. “We had a biology teacher that we saw maybe three times the entire year.”

Due to the situation, Rachel spent most of her time on the kibbutz, where she was needed. “My mother, Chaikeh, underwent surgery in Afula during the war, so in between, I was with her in the hospital. The entire hospital was full of injured soldiers. There were several bomb shelters on the kibbutz, trenches, and the corridor of the dining hall that also served as a shelter,” she says.

Rachel Peled in her youth, from a private album

The women remained behind in the half-empty kibbutz. “We didn’t know our left from our right, and we were surrounded by a sense of chaos and confusion.” Most of the kibbutz’s young people were enlisted. Those that remained were older men past the age of military service and women, who accepted this new order and created a new reality that sought to maintain routine for the sake of the children and for the sake of the kibbutz. Their strong friendship, familiarity and shared destiny helped them support each other and survive the difficult period together. “We would sit on the grass in the evenings, to feel a sense of togetherness. We didn’t know the extent of the disaster or what had happened. To this day, I have a good friend, Shula Reshef, who I met and became friends with during those meetups on the grass.”

Given all the uncertainty, those meetings and conversations among the women provided them with strength and support, and they tried to pass this sense of security on to the next generation. “We tried to maintain some routine for the children. In the afternoon, they’d go to their mothers, and then they’d return to sleep in the children’s home,” Rachel says. “I stayed to work in the kindergarten. In Gan Kalanit (“anemone garden,” the name of the kindergarten), there was a basement under the building, a sort of shelter, but in general, there were hardly any air-raid sirens.” The caregivers made sure to sleep with the children in the children’s home, everyone in turn. “Most nights I slept in the kindergarten, on a fold-up bed with a mattress inside the showers. Even though the children didn’t understand what was happening and there was tension in the air, they never cried and were never hysterical.”

Everyone’s main challenge revolved around the lack of communication with the kibbutz members who were fighting the war. 50 years ago, television sets were a rare commodity in Israel, though one could usually be found in the kibbutz dining hall. There was no real communication with the soldiers at the front. “The children were tense because we didn’t have a television. No one understood what was happening. We were all in a panic. Despite this, we functioned at full capacity because we had no choice.” One of the things that stands out most prominently in Rachel’s memory is the time she spent answering the phone. “If anyone called the phone at the kibbutz, we’d pass on a message through the children. We had a call center that we manned with women who worked shifts.” The phone shifts, which were set 24/7, were another role the women took on, in addition to manning the other kibbutz enterprises and replacing the men in their regular jobs.

An announcement on the Kibbutz Beit Alfa bulletin board during the Yom Kippur War: “For the members’ information, the Danish Embassy has offered to return its citizens back home to Denmark. After a discussion, all the Danes among our volunteers decided unanimously to stay!” Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

Rachel remembers how the young children would cope with their parents’ absence. “In the children’s home, there was a doll corner with a toy phone. One child would take the phone and “speak” to his father who was on the front lines. ‘Hello, Dad? How are you? I’m ok…’”

For lack of any other option, the women of the kibbutz also took on the roles that the kibbutz men who were called up to serve generally filled.  “We worked the chicken coop, the fields, and all the other jobs. The bigger children who were already in eleventh or twelfth grade and the adults who weren’t called up helped a great deal in the fields with the tractors.”

The war continued into the Sukkot holiday, and the women of the kibbutz were debating how they’d mark the holiday while their loved ones were in danger. “We didn’t celebrate the holiday, of course, but I remember that it was important to everyone to be together and give the people strength and power. There were many women and children, and we needed to prepare food. I didn’t know how to cook a thing, I had never been in a kitchen before, but they asked me to be in charge of the special dinners. They gave me some quick instructions on how to cook rice in an enormous pot and how to cook chicken. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I did what was needed.”

Similar to what was done in the other kibbutzim, Beit Alfa, a kibbutz established by the Hashomer Hatzair movement at the foot of Mt. Gilboa, took in “refugees” from other kibbutzim that were closer to the more dangerous areas. Mothers, women, and children arrived from Kibbutz Snir, which sat at the foot of the Golan Heights to the north.

A page from Kibbutz Beit Alfa’s bulletin board. “Yesterday, 14 October, 20 girls from Snir [a kibbutz in the north, close to the border] who were evacuated to us immediately after Yom Kippur, left us to go back to their home. They had come with 4 children and one 80 year old woman (the grandmother of one of the members)…” Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

Tamar Paz, another kibbutz member who had worked many years as Beit Alfa’s accountant, was 33 years old when the war started. She was a mother to children aged six, four, and two. “My husband was from Kibbutz Ashdot Yaakov. After we got married, we lived in Beit Alfa, where he was the kibbutz janitor.” When her husband was called up to fight, Tamar stepped up to help run life on the kibbutz. “I continued working and in addition, took on the phone shifts. There were only 4-5 phones on the kibbutz but there was a phone room in the accounting office, and we took shifts. If the shift was at night, I’d sleep there so I’d be able to answer every phone call.”

A large bulletin board had the names of all the kibbutz members and the dates when they were on the frontlines, along with other relevant dates. “Every time we got a phone call or letter, people would write it down on the board so we could track everything.” Tamar managed her daily life while in constant fear. “I didn’t want to believe my husband was not going to return, even though I was afraid. I tried not to think about anything at all. I was exhausted at night.” Tamar got a sign of life from her husband thanks to her shift work. “One night, when I was sleeping in the phone room, I got a phone call. They asked to speak to the wife of Yehuda Paz and sent me warm wishes from my husband. I was very emotional.”

A note on the Kibbutz Beit Alfa bulletin board: “15 October 1973, 9:00 AM, to all the families who sent packages to our soldiers on the [Golan] Heights, Gaverush says the packages were delivered to their destinations and they send their thanks and they are perfectly well. (relayed wirelessly)” Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

The women on the kibbutz found themselves in double, and sometimes triple, roles. They continued working their regular jobs, in addition to the extra jobs they took on in the absence of the kibbutz men, all while functioning as single parents to their children. “My son was excited that I was suddenly the one putting him to bed instead of his father. The children’s homes continued operating as usual. As it was, at the time, we didn’t have the option of living as a family in our apartment. We had tiny single room houses. Other mothers were doing shifts in the children’s homes. They were responsible for bringing the children to the shelters when there were air-raid sirens.” Tamar and the other women from the kibbutz oscillated between hope and anxiety. “I tried to live in a bubble, not to show my children that there was anything unusual. They were so small.”

A note on the Kibbutz Beit Alfa bulletin board during the Yom Kippur War, assigning the women to the various shelters when needed. Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

They functioned amidst uncertainty and great chaos. “After four weeks, my husband returned for two or three days. I remember the day he returned; suddenly without warning and without anyone saying anything – the door opened and there he stood. When my husband came to visit us, he bought us a television from the city of Afula, and all the kibbutz children would come to our house instead of the dining hall. After that, he went back to the army and we continued working as usual, including the phone shifts at night. It was tiring, of course, but we didn’t complain. All day, we just thought about the next day, not the distant future. We thought about how we’d survive the next day.”

Yael (Yaelik) Halperin was 23 years old with a baby during the war. Her husband was not called up and he worked the fields to replace those who were. She was the coordinator of the women’s shifts on the kibbutz. “The atmosphere was tough, one of anxiety and distress. On the third day, a Syrian plane appeared and dropped a bomb that caused a fire to break out in the fields. I was terribly frightened, until I was able to make certain my husband was fine and unharmed.”

The bulletin board for emergency notices at Kibbutz Beit Alfa. Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

The women who remained on their own hurried to organize themselves in order to allow routine life to continue on the kibbutz, as much as possible. Yael explains, “There were some who did jobs that they weren’t used to. For example, if someone used to knit sweaters, that was a job that could be dismissed during this period, and she was moved over to the children’s home or the chicken coop or the cowshed, somewhere in need of more working hands. There was a great spirit of volunteerism in order to fill the places of those who were missing.” Yael still remembers the trauma that her friend Edna Bashan, a teacher in the children’s home, experienced when her husband Yehuda Bashan was taken captive. “She spent a lot of time in my house, and we tried to make sure families like hers and families who hadn’t heard from their loved ones were surrounded [with support].”

The nephew of Michal Lans, who currently acts as the director of the kibbutz archives, fell in battle during the war. At the time, she was a teacher in the children’s home along with Edna Bashan. “The casualties and the captive from the kibbutz, those things were very traumatic of course. I was a teacher in the school. We were tense. When Yehuda Bashan was taken captive, his wife was teaching at the same school as me, and it was really difficult. We tried to continue the lessons despite the difficulty. I remember that a month later, we received word that Yehuda was returning from captivity, and the kibbutz erupted in joy. Everyone ran out to the grass and jumped up and down.”

Yehuda and Edna Bashan during the kibbutz celebrations upon Yehuda’s return from captivity. Courtesy of the Beit Alfa Archives

None of the kibbutz women who were interviewed for this article, including those who lost loved ones or had to deal with the absence of the men and raising the children alone, thought twice before taking part in the joint efforts. Even today, they pause a moment to think, and then agree unanimously that there was no way they could have stopped working and taking care of their shared enterprises. Kibbutz families who suffered loss during the war praise the sense of support and shared fate that characterizes the atmosphere of a kibbutz. Perhaps it also had something to do with the historical period, when there was less emphasis on the individual.

“When I think about it, what could I have done? Working protected me,” Edna says. Rachel, Yael, and Tamar agree with this feeling, and Tamar adds, “We did what was needed. There was never any thought about ‘I won’t, and she will’.” And as Yael summarizes, “Routine provides strength.”