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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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 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.”
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.”