50 years ago, the Yom Kippur War didn’t spare the National Library of Israel, and employees were called to the front, serving many long months in reserve duty afterwards as well. During this period, they kept their Library colleagues up to speed on events, how they were doing, and how they hoped to get back to the finer things in life: “It’s good to see that there are still people dealing with catalogs and archives.”
“Darkness, gloom all around, winds blowing, and a burning cold. No matter, you get over it. I imagine it’s not quite like that for all of you in the various corners of Jerusalem…”
Workers in the National Library of Israel’s Archives and Manuscripts departments may deal with historical documents and riveting personal accounts from the distant past for a living – but they are not occupants of an ivory tower, indifferent to the events of the day and the outside world. These are human beings, and like all other people, they are affected by what goes on outside – political and diplomatic developments, as well as other current events.
This is true today and it was also true in October 1973, as well as the long months that followed. Workers in the Manuscripts and Archives Department (today they are two separate departments) were called to the front during the Yom Kippur War, serving many long months of reserve duty afterwards to protect Israel’s borders. At the time, the IDF provided soldiers with postcards, encouraging them to write home – under the limitations of military censorship – and a number of our manuscript experts took advantage of this opportunity. They chose to write not only to their families, but also wrote to their colleagues at the Library. They asked to be kept up to date on how work was progressing with the parchments and yellowing pages containing the story of the Jewish People, and the State of Israel.
Some of these historic postcards have been preserved, and we found a number of them in a file kept in the National Library archives. The postcards reveal the messages which the army sought to deliver to the public, offering a glimpse of the situation after the fighting had ceased and the very human experiences of those who remained on the front lines: the unpleasant conditions, the hope of returning home or at least receiving some leave time, and also the burning desire to know what was going on in the wider world.
“Everything’s fine with me,” one of the workers informed Rafi Weiser, the legendary director of the Archives and Manuscript Department. “Am at ‘the end of the world’ and hope to be released before 1980.” The optimistic design of the artwork on the postcard was produced by the office of the IDF’s Chief Education Officer. It quotes a famous song by Israeli songwriter Ehud Manor, Bashanah HaBa’ah or “Next Year” – “We will see, we will see, just how good it will be (refrain: in the next year, in the next year, in the next year)”. Another employee asked to thank a worker named Hannah for sending him specific newspaper clippings. “Maybe I’ll go on leave soon,” he hoped.
In another postcard from November 1973, just three weeks after the war ended, a soldier named Amos rejoiced at the letters sent to him by department employees. “It’s good to see that there are people who still deal in catalogs and archives and not nonsense like what we’re dealing with,” Amos wrote. He didn’t forget to send congratulations to a colleague named Rachel who “fell for the trap and got married,” adding an update: “They say we’ll stay here for a long time, but hopefully we’ll return soon.” The artwork on the postcard is adorned with the words “I feel five out of five [i.e., 100%]”, which we can only hope actually represented the feeling of the soldiers at the time.
In December 1973, a soldier named Motti delivered the postcard which features the quote appearing at the top of this article. The soldiers were cold, the atmosphere gloomy, but Motti hoped that everything was functioning a usual at work. In the postcard he also tells of how he managed to visit Rafi Weiser, the department director, during his brief vacation, and how he hoped his next period of leave would allow him to also visit the rest of the department.
In another postcard, sent two months later, Motti tells of how he returned to the “same ‘dunam’ [acre] of land I’ve known for so long.” What else did Motti have to say? “With me there is certainly nothing new aside from the increasing boredom.” But Motti had a solution: “It seems to me that paper hasn’t run out in the department and all the cutbacks and downsizing befalling the university […] need not disrupt any letters from being sent to me from your direction.”
Cough, cough. Help out your friend on the front and send me word.
Another postcard from Motti contains a simple optimistic message. On one side Motti wrote: “May it be so… See ya,” adding an arrow directing readers to flip to the other side. Here, we see a drawing – perhaps by Motti himself. A flower blooming in the desert, and a shining sun in the background. Underneath is a large, prominent caption: “Homeward.”
The file also contains a number of postcards with nothing written on them. One contains a caricature by “Dosh” (Kariel Gardosh) drawn specifically for the war. Another contains a drawing hoping for peace. Many postcards have illustrations of happy soldiers writing home. One contains a caricature with an educational message telling of the situation in those days: four children can be seen energetically doing house chores – one peels potatoes, one washes the dishes, two work to scrub the floors. At the bottom is a caption: “Children, help mom.”
The Yom Kippur War touched almost every Israeli home in those years. The thin file containing these postcards shows us how the war affected the work of the National Library as well – while also showing how this organization works to preserve the memory of that time, to this very day.