The Emotional Reunion With Hannah Senesh’s Notebook

In the 1950s, Katherine Senesh donated four pages containing poems handwritten by her paratrooper daughter to the National Library. Now, with the deposit of the full Hannah Senesh Collection, these pages will be reunited with the notebook from which they originally came

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Hannah Senesh, with the first poem in her notebook in the background, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

In the early 1950s, Katherine Senesh, the mother of the famous paratrooper and poet Hannah Senesh (often spelled Szenes), entrusted a number of documents from her daughter’s estate to the National Library of Israel. Among these were some of her letters: a few she sent to her mother while attending the agricultural school in Nahalal, a letter she sent to her brother while she was with the partisans in the Balkans, and a letter she sent to her friend. There was also a collection of typed poems she had written in Hungarian, as well as four handwritten poems in Hebrew.

The four handwritten poems can be viewed on the National Library website, here. All were written during 1941 in various places linked to Senesh’s life in pre-state Israel: Nahalal, Kibbutz Sdot Yam, of which she was a founding member, and Ginosar. With their donation to the National Library, they joined the Schwadron Collection, which collects portraits and autograph samples of many personalities.

The upper corners of the handwritten pages are numbered, and the pages look as though they have been torn from a notebook, which they were. Now, we can finally tell the complete story of these pages.

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The handwritten text of Hannah Senesh’s Hebrew poem Lamut? (“To Die?”), donated to the National Library by her mother. From the Schwadron Autograph Collection at the National Library of Israel

Hannah Senesh was born into a home where writing was an integral part of family life, and she herself began writing at a very young age. She wrote first in her mother tongue, Hungarian. After arriving in Mandatory Palestine, she began to learn Hebrew and very quickly mastered writing in that language as well. She wrote constantly and kept a diary for years. As is well known, she wrote her poems in secret, with all of them being published posthumously.

Just before embarking on the parachute mission from which she did not return, Senesh copied her poems neatly into a notebook with numbered pages. She titled the notebook Lelo Safa  (“Without Language”) though most of the poems were in Hebrew, and signed it with her underground codename, Hagar. She gave this notebook to her close friend and classmate at the Nahalal Agricultural School for Girls, Miriam Yitzhak. On the first page, she added a dedication: “To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.”

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“To Miriam Yitzhak, my first and dearest reader and critic, in true friendship, Hannah.” Hannah Senesh’s handwritten Hebrew dedication to her friend, Miriam Yitzhak, from the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

When Katherine Senesh arrived in Israel and began collecting poems and letters for the commemoration of her daughter, she asked Miriam, who had kept the treasured notebook, to send her some poems in Hannah’s handwriting. In a letter Katherine wrote to Abraham Schwadron, she mentioned Miriam’s qualms about tearing pages from the notebook: “This time I am sending the poems I promised, the ones that Hannah’s friend, after much hesitation, was willing to tear from the notebook.” This was how the pages reached the archives of the National Library of Israel. Now, decades later, the torn pages have finally been reunited with the complete notebook.

After Miriam Yitzhak’s death, the notebook passed into the possession of Eitan Senesh, Hannah’s nephew, who for years managed, cataloged and maintained the Hannah Senesh collection. In November 2020, when the family decided to deposit the entire Hannah Senesh Collection with the National Library, Eitan confessed that he asked himself many times what had happened to those missing pages – numbered 7, 8, 11 and 12 in Hannah’s handwriting. Eitan did not know that his grandmother, Katherine, had already handed them over to the National Library seventy years earlier, into Abraham Schwadron’s trustworthy hands. Now, the lost pages are finally reunited with the original notebook, from where they were torn. Along with the notebook, dozens of other items from Senesh’s estate were deposited with the Library, among them her typewriter, camera, certificates, documents from Hungary, letters and photographs.

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Two poems from Hannah Senesh’s handwritten notebook. The missing pages are noticeable, as the page on the right is numbered “10”, and the one on the left is numbered “13”. Pages 11 and 12 are among those that were torn out in the 1950s and donated to the National Library. From the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

With this donation, the National Library’s Archives Department now faces a professional dilemma, whether to physically reattach the torn pages to Hannah Senesh’s original notebook, or leave them as separate items in the Abraham Schwadron Autograph Collection. Matan Barzilai, who heads the Archives Department, hesitated but finally made an unconventional decision: “Although there is no doubt that the pages were torn [from the notebook], and that it is our job to reflect the work as it was originally, in this case I am inclined to leave things as they are. Hannah Senesh’s story did not end in 1944. The archive also reflects the commemoration process and the creation of the legacy surrounding her figure. Katherine’s frank deliberation, her communications with Schwadron and the tearing of the poems [from the notebook], for example—all offer an authentic glimpse of the culture of remembrance in the first years of the state, of Katherine’s involvement in her daughter’s commemoration, and the attitude of librarians in those days regarding the preservation of the original work. Therefore, despite the dilemma, I think we will keep the pages out of the notebook, and leave them were they have been for the past seventy years.”

 

The materials above are part of the Senesh Family Archive, with thanks to Ori and Mirit Eisen

Yitzhak Rabin’s First Peace Negotiation (and Necktie)

The twentysomething officer had never been abroad nor worn a suit

“I have had enough of diplomacy and politics,” declared Yitzhak Rabin.

Just prior to his 27th birthday, the modest red-headed lieutenant colonel was abroad for the first time, reluctantly part of the Israeli negotiating team on the Greek isle of Rhodes.

Dr. Ralph Bunche, who would receive the Nobel Peace Prize the next year for his efforts, had brought together Israeli and Egyptian military leadership on the island to work out an armistice agreement in early 1949.

Dr. Ralph Bunche, 1949

Two days into the talks, the Israelis realized they needed a representative from the southern front. Its commander, Yigal Allon, had refused to go. Allon’s protégé, Rabin, also strongly preferred to stay in Israel, where the fighting continued.

Both men had served with distinction as part of the Palmach, the elite fighting force which Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion had recently disbanded, its troops integrated into the newly formed Israel Defense Army (now more commonly referred to as the “Israel Defense Forces” or “IDF”).

Yitzhak Rabin (second from left) and Yigal Allon (center) with other Palmach commanders, 1948. Courtesy: GPO

Palmach fighters had prided themselves in a particular ideology that was in many ways antithetical to the “textbook” conduct of a professional military. In the Palmach, chains of command were blurred, the pageantry of military life nonexistent.

Even after ranks were introduced to the IDF in the summer of 1948, Rabin and others wore them sparingly. The concept of a dress uniform was foreign, unnecessary and disdained.

Despite his reservations, the young Rabin was sent to join the small Israeli delegation at the luxurious Hotel des Roses.

The Hotel des Roses

With the exception, perhaps, of Allon himself, Rabin was certainly the most qualified man to represent the interests of the southern front at the talks, possessing an intimate and battle-worn familiarity with the terrain.

Perhaps most importantly – from Allon’s perspective – Rabin would faithfully promote the strategic interests the two felt most critically needed to be represented and defended in such discussions, especially as they strongly disagreed with many of the opinions held by the others already in Rhodes.

As the front’s deputy commander and chief operations officer, Rabin was quickly stepping out of Allon’s shadow.

Deputy southern front commander and chief operations officer Yitzhak Rabin (left) with his commander and mentor, Yigal Allon (right). Courtesy: The Palmach Photo Collection

In Yitzhak Rabin: Soldier, Leader, Statesman, Itamar Rabinovich explains that around the time of the talks in Rhodes, Rabin “began to be seen on his own as a first-class military planner, the officer who meticulously mapped out the major operations in the south and then supervised their implementation.”

After years of dreaming of a return to the agricultural life for which he’d trained as a teenager, Rabin’s trajectory as a career soldier had now become quite clear. Still a few years shy of 30, he had already achieved one of the highest ranks in the IDF (even though he preferred not to wear it on his sleeve), and was now preparing for his first appearance on the international diplomatic scene.

Never having needed one, he had no dress uniform for the occasion, though, fortunately, one was procured for him.

Recently, another Israeli military official had needed formal attire for a meeting with King Abdullah of Transjordan. For that occasion, a soldier had been dispatched to a Tel Aviv thrift store where he purchased a used World War II American dress uniform, which – now all but threadbare – would be worn by Rabin to meet the Egyptians and United Nations mediators in Rhodes.

A necktie would also be necessary. This, too, Rabin had never worn, nor did he know how to tie (or untie) one.

Yitzhak Rabin, early 1940s. Courtesy: GPO

Walter Eytan, the director general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry and head of its delegation to Rhodes had a spare British-knit khaki tie which he gave to the young officer. Though different stories about the necktie were told over the years, it seems that a number of people, including Eytan, fellow Palmach fighter Yeruham Cohen, and even Rabin’s driver, all tried to teach him the proper way to tie a tie.

Rabin was quite dexterous and had once intended to study hydraulic engineering, yet he famously had trouble mastering the necktie at the Hotel des Roses.

Ultimately, the story goes, his driver graciously tied it for him, leaving it loose so that it just had to be tightened in order to show up to meetings and dinner looking presentable.

“I was terrified of the prospect that the knot might come undone,” the future prime minister later recalled in his memoirs.

Despite the assistance, no one had explained how to properly loosen or remove a necktie, and when he went to the hotel’s barber and was asked to take the tie off, Rabin struggled mightily, eventually forcefully yanking it over his head.

Top Egyptian negotiator Colonel Seif a-Din, with whom Rabin had become friendly, witnessed the event with astonishment. The prime minister would later muse that the distinguished Arab officer probably thought at the time: “What kind of savages am I dealing with here?”

Members of the Egyptian delegation to the negotiations in Rhodes, including Colonel Seif a-Din (third from left)

Following initial coldness and Egyptian refusal to speak directly with the Israelis or even sit in the same room as them, the two sides would not only come to engage with one another in the context of the official negotiations and the barbershop, but would also socialize between meetings, often playing billiards, a game Rabin first learned (and reportedly mastered) at the Hotel des Roses.

Before boarding the UN charter flight to Rhodes, Rabin had been instructed by his mentor Yigal Allon to accept nothing less than a full peace and to not allow Egypt to retain the territory which would become known as the Gaza Strip.

In his first international diplomatic role, the man who would serve as ambassador to the United States before becoming prime minister reportedly said nothing in any of the official meetings between the sides, though certainly not because he didn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation.

In fact, he served as an active and critical adviser behind the scenes, so important in that capacity that when he asked to leave the island after becoming disillusioned with the direction of the negotiations, General Yigal Yadin refused to let him go.

Rabin (right) and other members of the Israeli delegation to Rhodes study a map, 1949. Courtesy: GPO

A number of factors likely contributed to Rabin’s mute presence at the official meetings.

In his comprehensive Hebrew-language biography of the Israeli leader, historian Yossi Goldstein proposes a few reasons, including Rabin’s introverted character, his poor English at the time, his respect for the more senior members of the delegation and – perhaps most significantly, according to Goldstein – the disagreements he had with his colleagues.

He himself recalled being “hardly enraptured by the charms of diplomatic ‘give and take'” at the time.

Nonetheless, according to Rabinovich, who served as Rabin’s ambassador to the United States and chief negotiator to Syria in the 1990s:

“This first experience in diplomacy and negotiations had a lasting effect on Rabin. The lesson he drew from the Rhodes negotiations was that it would be wrong for Israel to negotiate with a group of Arab states because the radical parties would force their line on the others. He would always try to negotiate with one Arab party at a time.”

Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin welcomes King Hussein of Jordan to Israel following a peace treaty between the two countries, 1994. From the Dan Hadani Archive, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel (Photo: Gideon Markowicz)

As the agreement with the Egyptians was being finalized, it became clear that while some of Rabin’s suggestions made their way into the document, especially with regard to the demarcation of armistice lines, neither of Allon’s two primary objectives had been achieved.

Disagreeing with the prime minister and other senior members of Israel’s leadership, Rabin concurred with Allon in his prescient belief that without securing these demands, war would simply break out again in the not-too-distant future.

Prior to the signing, Yitzhak Rabin boarded a flight home, unwilling to be a part of something he viewed as strategically perilous for the future of Israel and eager to help Allon secure control of the Negev.

Continued border tension and four more wars would take place between Israel and Egypt before a comprehension peace treaty was finally reached 30 years later.

 

Many thanks to Ambassador Itamar Rabinovich for generously contributing his time and expertise.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to share stories and connect with people, institutions and communities in Europe and beyond.

How a Map Torn From a Newspaper Helped Decide a Critical Battle of the Yom Kippur War

The Yom Kippur War of 1973 was utter chaos. Armored corps soldiers who joined the battle in the Valley of Tears on the Golan Heights were not familiar with the terrain and couldn't find a proper map to guide them, so they improvised…

Amnon Kafkafi during the Yom Kippur War

Sarah, 3:22 pm:

Thank you for contacting us. A librarian will be with you shortly.

Sarah, 3:22 pm:

Hello, my name is Sara. Welcome to the National Library’s live chat. How may I help you?

Amnon, 3:23 pm:

Hello Sarah, I was wondering if you might have a copy of the front page of the Haaretz newspaper, dated October 7th, 1973?

(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the National Library’s Reference Department)

***

With four more months left to serve in the army, Amnon Kafkafi was on leave and staying at his parents’ house in Ramat Hasharon in central Israel. The year was 1973. Around two o’clock in the afternoon, an alarm broke the silence of Yom Kippur.

A few months earlier, Kafkafi had left his position as a tank commander in the 82nd Battalion of the 7th Armored Brigade, and therefore he was not called back to his unit. Nevertheless, he quickly put on his uniform while reassuring his mother that “it will be alright”. His father drove him down to the nearby highway. He then hitchhiked the rest of the way to the battalion’s base, Natan Camp near Be’er Sheva in Israel’s southern Negev region.

The base was nearly empty when he reached it. Amnon wasn’t aware that the unit’s soldiers had already boarded a flight on the eve of Yom Kippur from the local airfield to Mahanaim, in Israel’s north. He did not know that they had been assigned tanks and gear from the nearby emergency warehouses and sent to fight the Syrians on the frontline in the Golan Heights. The battalion adjutant, the lieutenant on base, ordered him and the other soldiers that arrived to stay on base and assist in various tasks.

They were far away from the critical frontline, where their battalion was deployed. Kafkafi called the Armored Corps Headquarters. The commanding officer asked if there were any tanks at Kafkafi’s base. Kafkafi replied that there was a T-54 tank in front of the battalion commander’s office, loot from the Six-Day War. The officer replied, “I’m sending a transporter vehicle for the tank,” forcing Kafkafi to admit he had only been joking, and that the tank’s frame was merely a monument and completely out of use. The officer told Kafkafi they needed tank operators on the frontline but that he could not spare a vehicle to collect Kafkafi and the others.

Kafkafi told the base adjutant that after two days of hard work, he and his friends wanted to go refresh themselves at Montana Ice Cream, within walking distance of the base. The lieutenant said, “No problem, just don’t forget to bring me back some ice cream too.” The soldiers indeed went out for ice cream, Kafkafi called his mother from a pay phone and told her he was on the base near Be’er Sheva and that there was no need to worry. Then, the seven tank operators crossed the road and began a hitchhiking journey up north, to the frontline.

***

Damaged Syrian tanks near the anti-tank ditch in the Valley of Tears (IDF Archives)

 Amnon, 3:27 pm

On that date, the day after the Yom Kippur War broke out, a map of the battlefield in the Golan was published. This was the only map I had when I fought in the Valley of Tears. Can I get a copy of this map or of the entire front page?

Sarah, 3:29 pm

We can send you the picture, but if you come here, you can get a copy at a much better price.

Amnon, 3:29 pm

I’m not sure if the map was published on October 7th or 8th, how can I find out before I order the page?

Sarah, 3:30 p.m.

I can check that for you.

Amnon, 3:30 p.m.

I’d be extremely grateful…

(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the Library’s Reference Department)

***

“I was asked by a historian studying the war to put into writing everything that had happened,” says Kafkafi. “What sets my tank’s story apart in the war, is that because of the chaos of the first few days, the soldiers in my tank and I had to operate in an extremely unconventional manner. No one in the army ever thought people would go to war the way we did. Guys who had returned from leave and were no longer a part of the unit just took the initiative. Guys who had completed their service as tank operators a few months earlier, guys who chose to go to the frontline and hitchhiked all the way there. We took an unequipped tank, that could not shoot but could only be used for running the enemy over and just found the rest of the gear later [when they found abandoned IDF tanks on the Golan Heights]. We found everything we needed except for a map, because it is forbidden to leave maps behind.”

***

“We climbed up the hill and arrived at dawn on Monday, October 8th, at Camp Philon [on the Golan Heights]. The operations office did not know the exact location of our unit, but they said that the 7th Brigade was assigned the northern front and that the 82nd Battalion no longer existed. I figured this ‘news’ must be false, because after all we were dealing with a long day of battle. We all had in mind the commanders’ promise that anyone who hit an enemy tank would win a bottle of champagne.”

Amnon Kafkafi in a tank during the Yom Kippur War

“At Camp Philon we reunited with the four guys who traveled with us from Montana Ice Cream and together we decided we should go eat breakfast. We found the mess hall and asked the NCO in charge to give us food or at least some bread and cheese. He refused and said we were not assigned to his base and therefore were not entitled to food. We left there empty-handed. I found a newspaper from the previous day with small maps of “The Battlefields in the South and North.” I cut out the map of the Golan Heights, its size was approximately 5×9 centimeters, with a drawing of the Sea of ​​Galilee and to the right an arched line marking the border… I buried it in the pocket of my jumpsuit; it served us from that point on.”

(From the Hebrew book Ashnav 3 [“Window 3: My Yom Kippur War – The Story of a Tank Squad”] by Amnon Kafkafi)

***

Sarah, 3:30 p.m.

You saw the newspaper, and took it with you to war?

Amnon, 3:31 pm

I saw the newspaper and cut out the small map and kept it in my pocket. When I arrived at the emergency storage unit to be assigned a tank, there were no maps left, and so I navigated according to the newspaper clipping…

Sarah, 3:32 pm

Unbelievable …

Amnon, 3:32 pm

Indeed.

Sarah, 3:32 pm

This was before every six-year-old had a navigation tool on their phone.

Amnon, 3:32 pm

I am now writing a memoir and would love to attach that fully schematic map to it.

Amnon, 3:33 pm

In 1973 there were no cellphones…

(A chat conversation between Amnon Kafkafi and Sara Yahalomi from the Library’s Reference Department)

Amnon Kafkafi in the Valley of Tears, at the site where his tank was hit

***

“I knew I wouldn’t find the map in our digital collection of historical Jewish press and that I would have to search the microfilm collection,” says Yahalomi. “I knew he needed help here. He thought the map was published in the Haaretz newspaper and I searched and found a map on microfilm from October 8th, two days after the war broke out. I was sure it was the map from the war and sent it to him.”

***

2017-01-01 18:02 GMT + 02: 00 Sara Yahalomi:

Hello Amnon,

We spoke last Wednesday about the Golan Heights map you were searching for in the Haaretz newspaper.

I am happy to inform you that it was found on the second page of the newspaper printed on October 8th, 1973 (I hope this is indeed the right map).

It is attached to this email in two formats – pdf and jpg.

I must admit I was deeply touched by your story and it was an honor for me to find the map that served you in battle.

(I just wanted to clarify, so as not to create false expectations in the future, that this is not a standard service provided by the Library.)

Regards,

Sarah Yahalomi | Librarian

The Reference Department, Public Services Branch

***

Hello Sarah,

It is very pleasant to meet (even if only on chat) someone who keeps their word, someone who is willing to go out of their way; someone who is simply moved by a simple story that took place 43 years ago.

Thank you so much for your help.

[…]

Did you check the Haaretz newspaper dated October 7th, 1973? I think there was an even less-detailed map published there, that did not specify the location of the Syrian attack. I’m not sure this is indeed the map I had back then. Maybe I was wrong altogether and the map in question was published in Yedioth Ahronoth or Maariv. Anyway, I think it was published on the front page on October 7th.

[…]

I have no doubt, Sarah, that what you have done for me is exceptional and not a standard library service, and for that I am truly grateful.

Please send my regards to your tank-operator nephew and wish him well.

Regards,

Amnon Kafkafi

***

Yahalomi continued to search for the map in the computerized archive of Yedioth Ahronoth, to which the National Library system is linked; she found a map that fit the description and sent it to Amnon Kafkafi.

The maps published in Yedioth Ahronoth on October 7TH, 1973

 

2017-01-12 18:15 GMT + 02: 00 Sara Yahalomi:

Hello Amnon,

I’ve attached a photo of a map published in Yedioth Ahronoth on October 7th, 1973.

Regards,

Sara Yahalomi, librarian

The Reference Department, Public Services Branch

***

Hello Sara,

You are the best!

This is the map just as I had remembered it. Granted, it is not in Haaretz nor is it on the front page – after so many years, memory can be deceptive. In any case, this is without a doubt the only map I had and with which we navigated our tank the whole time we were in the Golan, until our tank was hit and destroyed in the last holding action in the Valley of Tears.

I thank you from the bottom of my heart for all your efforts.

Regards,

Amnon Kafkafi.

***

And Sara Yahalomi adds: “It was an especially moving request. Can you picture the situation? Four guys in a tank with no map! Today, we use Waze for every little thing. They fought with a map they found in a newspaper! It was so surreal and unusual that I decided I wanted to help. Finding the map was exciting as was getting Amnon’s confirmation that it was indeed the map he was looking for.

“I have a nephew who is a tank operator, so the story touched me on a more personal level,” says Yahalomi. “The work of the Reference Department is oftentimes technical, but what’s exciting is that behind the technical searches are people to whom the information we find means a great deal. Amnon contacted us via chat but each of us here responds to about 800 chats every year; yet there was something special about this request.”

***

Kafkafi and the other tank operators barely knew the terrain of the Golan Heights. They were trained in the deserts of the Sinai Peninsula. Before he joined the army, Kafkafi spent a few years in Washington D.C. where his parents worked at the Israeli embassy.  He was therefore not familiar with the Golan, which had been conquered by Israel only a short while earlier.

“The size of the map I clipped from the newspaper (which you were so wonderful in helping me find) was a few centimeters; it was totally schematic,” says Kafkafi. “It outlined and marked the Sea of Galilee and the border. It was almost worthless, but still it was the only map available. So, I cut it out and put it in my pocket.”

“Aside from the nostalgia – for 43 years I remembered that map we carried around with us – it is an indication of how unready and disorganized we were. Heading out with a tank that wasn’t intact, with ex-tank operators who took the liberty and initiative to go out to war, reached the frontline and took part in the most significant and critical battles of the Yom Kippur War in the Golan Heights. The fighting in the Golan Heights was literally a battle for the borders of the country. The Syrians reached almost as far as the Sea of ​​Galilee.”

***

“The Battlefields in the North” – The map torn from the newspaper

Kafkafi in an interview with Israel Hayom from September 12th, 2013, on reconnecting with Shmulik Zemel, who was with him in the tank during that same battle: “We had a very brief but intense experience together. We didn’t know each other before the war and spent only two days together, but we were there in the most difficult battles of the war. At the end of the last holding action in the Valley of Tears, our tank was hit. One of our tank-mates was killed and a fourth tank operator was killed shortly after, while on his way to a memorial ceremony in memory of his brother who was killed in action. Zemel and I were injured. At one point, I knew two of my squad mates were killed and I did not know what happened to the third; was he dead or alive? And if he was alive – what had happened to him since? And so it was important to me to find him and recall our experiences.”

***

The late Shalom Burstein, who served in Amnon Kafkafi’s tank. Burstein was killed in the battle in the Valley of Tears.

***

An email from Shmuel Zemel to Kafkafi:

“We were a small cog in the machine but as they say on Hanukkah: ‘Each one of us is a small light. But together we are a mighty light.’ 

Indeed, that morning in the Valley of Tears can be seen as a tiebreaker, in which the side that did not break won, because in the end it still had a bit of strength left, and we were (like each of the other fighters) that ‘extra little bit’ needed to prevail!

Send my warm regards to Mickey and take care of yourself.

I wish you good health and may you take great joy in your grandchildren.

Respectfully,

Your friend,

Shmulik”

***

“We went out [to war] scared for the fate of the State,” Kafkafi concludes, “and ‘Raful’ [division commander Brigadier General Rafael Eitan, later Chief of Staff] truly said of the fighters on the northern front: ‘You are the ones who saved the State.’ Today they call it ‘engaging in combat’ or ‘initiating contact’ – we were guys who understood the significance of the events and did what had to be done in order to help out. And in the end, we succeeded. And we did it without a real map.”

 

This article was originally published in Hebrew in 2017.

We thank Amnon Kafkafi for allowing us to publish the correspondence.

If you are looking for of historical information that has special meaning to you, we recommend browsing through the Historical Jewish Press website, JPress. You may very well be able to find it there.

We invite you to contact our Reference services via chat or WhatsApp.

The Children of ’73 Write About the Yom Kippur War

Letters written by Israeli children during the 1973 war reveal how they experienced one of the nation's most challenging periods.

Photo by Eli Landau, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Today, forty-seven years after the Yom Kippur War, they are well into their fifties and sixties. Back then, in the fall of 1973, they were only schoolchildren, young boys and girls. To find out what they remember from that time, we can simply ask them, most are still with us. To know what they felt and thought in real time, when the events actually happened, we must read their letters.

The war caught not only the Israeli army and government off guard, but also the nation’s press. This included a number of newspapers and magazines intended for children. Two days after the war’s outbreak, on October 8th, Davar Leyeladim (a weekly children’s supplement of the Davar daily) published its Sukkot holiday issue. The only mention of the war was a short item at the top of the first page. It began with the words: “With the closing of this issue, on the eve of Yom Kippur, a fourth war broke out between Israel and its neighbors: the Syrian army crossed the border in the Golan Heights and the Egyptian army crossed the Suez Canal. Fierce battles are being waged on land, at sea and in the air.”

Plainly, there was an attempt to reassure young readers and present Israel as in control of the situation—even before the fog of war had lifted: “The Israeli home front has been called up and everyone has gone out to do their duty. At the time of writing, the IDF, with supreme heroism, is blocking the enemy’s advance and the both the Syrian and Egyptian armies are suffering heavy losses. News from the front lines is still vague, [and here there appears a quote from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan who predicts that “there is no doubt that the war will end in our favor!”].

The cover of the October 8th issue of the children’s supplement, Davar Leyeladim, made no mention of war…

The October 8th issue of the Haaretz children’s edition managed to update its readers further, but even there the news filled only a single page. In it, readers learned of the “small and insignificant” achievements of the Arab armies, “considering the fact that the enemy struck the opening blow.”

“Considering the fact that the enemy struck the opening blow, their achievements were small and insignificant.” – One page was dedicated to the war in the October 8th issue of the Haaretz children’s edition

Subsequent issues presented a more complete picture of the war’s events, in greater detail—with emphasis on the soldiers and their stories. Nevertheless, most of the issues maintained their pre-war format and regular sections, including serial fiction, children’s songs and even jokes. The section relevant to our discussion is “Haaretz Shelanu Readers Write” published in Haaretz Shelanu (“Our Country”), a children’s weekly.  There we learn that despite the intention of keeping up a routine even during the country’s most difficult moments, the war clearly consumed the thoughts of the nation’s children.

The first time we hear these children’s voices is the third week of the war, in Haaretz Shelanu’s October 22nd issue. In the letters from readers we hear the paralyzing fear caused by the fighting. Anat Gavrieli from Tel Aviv wrote: “Dear editor, I know there is a war. The Egyptians surprised us and ambushed us. I feel uneasy. There are real sirens, [not just drills]. Instead of going down to the shelter, I stay at home, seized with fear. On radio and television—all the time its war . . .  I am glued to the radio like a snail to its shell. I hope and pray that there will be peace and that the war will end in peace.”

Alongside the striving for peace, we find quite a bit of anger over the surprise attack: “Dear editor, the Arabs are cowards! We are not! Our enemies thought to defeat us during the day of fasting and prayer, but they soon learned that despite the fast we were ready to fight for our very right to fast and pray in peace. Our victory is assured, because our fight is a fight for life,” wrote 10-year-old Liora Binyamin of Haifa.

“…immediately, a siren went off. I put my sister Maya in the carriage and went downstairs. I played with her in the bomb shelter…Many thoughts went through my head. When the all-clear was given, they asked me: ‘Why are you always daydreaming?’ I didn’t answer…Hagit Kanev, #55 Tchernichovsky Street, Haifa”

Fear, longing for peace and anger also appear in later issues, alongside the simple questions and thoughts of the children. When the sirens sounded, Hagit Nakav and her sister went down to a bomb shelter in their apartment building in Haifa. To pass the time the two played, and “suddenly I thought: there in the north they are fighting, and here am I sitting and playing.” In the midst of the chaos of war and anguished concern for brothers and fathers fighting for their lives, Meirav Bieber, 10, from Raanana, sent a question: “In wartime, like now, what happens to the animals at the zoo? Are they put in shelters, or left in cages? And if they are left, what happens if a bomb falls on them? It’s animal cruelty!”

Comparisons between Israel and its enemies in the war focused on the question of sanctity of life. The children writing to the newspaper wrote decisively, as Anat Kasavi from Nahariya put it: “They, the Arabs, do not care at all about their people! If one falls, ten replace him. This is not the case with us! 658 dead after a week of fighting, from our very best! I don’t want our people to die, and I don’t want our enemies to die!”

”I don’t want our people to die, and I don’t want our enemies to die!… Anat Kasavi, #45 Herzl Street, Nahariya”

Many of the young letter writers wrote about life on the home front in the shadow of the war. Ella Tamar from Tel Aviv wrote about the war’s silent, overlooked heroine—the bereaved mother. Twelve-year-old Ella chose to link the figure of the bereaved mother to stories from the Bible, and held the patriarch Abraham’s heroism on a par with the grieving mothers, adding, “When the farmer sows his fields he knows he will soon reap the harvest. Yet these mothers will not reap theirs; they will not see their sons grow up and witness the fruits of their labor. The war prevented that. “

“When the farmer sows his fields he knows he will soon reap the harvest. Yet these mothers will not reap theirs; they will not see their sons grow up and witness the fruits of their labor…Ella Tamar, 12 years old, #47 Frishman Street, Tel Aviv”

With the announcement of the ceasefire, the country’s children turned once again to expressing their longing for peace. Gadi Marcus from Tel Hashomer wrote, “I think in my heart how awful war is. Apart from the many casualties, there is a lack of a workforce on the home front. Everything must be done for peace.”

With the fighting ended, the young writers were able to think about their enemies’ motivations for going to war. Talia Nur, 12, from Bat Yam, thought the surprise attack by the Egyptians and Syrians stemmed from a sense of loss of confidence after Israel’s decisive victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, and claimed that the “arrogance and dismissiveness” that characterized the Israeli attitude ahead of the Yom Kippur war was “not the right way to estimate the Arabs.” Eleven-year-old Ronit Hagai from Ramat Gan wondered: “Maybe most of the Arabs did not want to fight, and it was only the leaders who incited them?”

“Arrogance and dismissiveness is not the right way to estimate the Arabs….Talia Nol, 12 years old, #22 Rabbi Kook Street, Bat Yam”

Some of the writers responded to other children’s letters, such as seventh grader Galil Ben-Dor from Gvat: “Even though the Arabs were forced to retreat, they were not broken. Do not think, Liora, that we are braver than the Arabs.”

“Even though the Arabs were forced to retreat, they were not broken. Do not think, Liora, that we are braver than the Arabs…Galil Ben-Dor, 7th grade, Gvat”

The contributions of the Israeli youths themselves to the war effort were also occasionally mentioned, such as in this letter published in the November 26th issue:

“We worked in the gardens, washed cars and more, and collected 1210 Israel liras. We hope such acts will help us win this difficult war…Shani Herzberg and Yonah Davidovitch, 8th grade, Brandeis School, Herzliya”

With the war’s end and the rise of public debate on what was immediately dubbed “The Fiasco,” the youth displayed an impressive engagement in current affairs. Was it Dayan’s fault? Should the entire government take responsibility? Should the ruling party receive the blame? The figure of Motti Ashkenazi soon came to the forefront. Ashkenazi was a reserve officer whose personal campaign against the Israeli leadership’s failures surrounding the war became a public protest movement. Who was in the right—Dayan or Ashkenazi? What were the limits of legitimate criticism? These questions riveted the attention of children who were only ten or twelve years old. Even if their words echo those of their parents and other adults around them, their preoccupation with and articulation of the issues appears very mature today. Here are some excerpts:

“Motti Ashkenazi is nothing but a chatty parrot, who shouts and screams as he marches around the Knesset. And it is shameful for the State of Israel that a man who speaks so much nonsense is not stopped!… Ilana Zohar, Beer Sheva”

“It is possible that Moshe Dayan is culpable for what happened, but in fact we are all flesh and blood, every person can make a mistake, but he certainly didn’t do it on purpose. Therefore we must understand him and logically consider his actions in the correct way…Melli Herbst, #30 Uziel Street, Ramat Gan”

“Ruthi, you yourself wrote that Israel is a democracy, and that includes freedom of expression. So why shouldn’t Motti Ashkenazi express himself publicly?…Varda Harif, #22 Tirza Street, Ramat Gan”

“The people elected Moshe Dayan 6 years ago, and now, because of the war’s fiascos, support for Moshe Dayan has waned. Motti Ashkenazi demands that Dayan resign, and rightfully so. Moshe Dayan, as the minister responsible for state security, must bear the consequences…Noam Ben-Ozer, 10 years old, Kibbutz Gan-Shmuel”

 

 

This article is based on a previous article by Ioram Melcer.