“We realized our world would not go back to the way it had been.” With everyone fit to serve urgently called up, these young teenagers were left behind. They ran farms, treated the wounded, and even carried the dead out of hospitals. Here, the youngsters of the Yom Kippur War share stories they will remember forever. The satisfaction, the experiences, even the love that bloomed—as well as the sights they will never forget
The Yom Kippur War broke out unexpectedly; within hours, the streets were deserted. Naturally, the war greatly affected those who fought in it, but it also impacted those who were left behind to worry about their loved ones on the frontlines.
The teenage boys and girls found themselves in between: too young to serve in the army yet old enough to understand the enormity of the events. Israel’s economy had to face the sudden disappearance of many workers who were called to the front. In response, the teenagers stepped up. Some came to the aid of businesses, industries, or agriculture. Others volunteered wherever working hands were needed, even where young people ought not to be, such as hospital mortuaries. Many experienced things they would never be able to forget and were forced to mature instantly. Some carry the scars to these days; for others, the war brought love into their lives.
The farms: saving the flowers
During the war, young people helped their parents as much as they could in every area of the economy. The need was especially felt in agriculture: the crops and animals could not be left unattended. Yossi Rozhani was sixteen when the war broke out and his father was called up. The family farm near Jerusalem, where Yossi was at school, kept dairy cows and chickens, among other animals. Yossi had been helping since childhood but was now left more or less alone in charge of the entire farm, his daily routine including two rounds of milking, three feedings, and more. Non-stop. Smiling, Yossi remembers how he worried that his friends in the city, who were volunteering packing military rations, would think he was shirking responsibility. He says that the experience awarded him a sense of achievement and confidence in his abilities. Even though he has long since pursued a different career, he still keeps the farm going to this day.
The situation in the agricultural school at Pardes Hanna was similar. Ilana Eisenstadt recalls that her brother, aged only seventeen, spent three months managing a dairy farm with 300 heads of cattle on his own, including birthing, veterinary care, and of course, daily milking and feeding.
Not too far away, at the Noam School in Pardes Hanna, Avi Deskel was in 10th grade. His B’nei Akiva (religious youth movement) group was approached by the sister of a soldier who asked for help: the soldier (later discovered to have been taken prisoner) had kept a flower farm at a nearby moshav. Avi remembers that the farm grew roses which needed urgent harvesting before all the work invested in them would be wasted. The B’nei Akiva members walked to the moshav every morning to help pick the flowers, pack them, and do whatever else was needed. This gave them a sense of purpose. Avi’s experiences as a teenager affected him profoundly—to this day, he is still preoccupied with the war and gives lectures about it. Likely, it also contributed to his becoming a lecturer in political science, including teaching courses on the war.
The kibbutzim: “Alone on the tractors, we could cry”
The young people of the kibbutzim undertook an important role in preserving the harvest. Amotz Zertal from Kibbutz Ein Shemer was only thirteen then. That year, he was assigned to work on the avocado plantation. The war got him to show courage and conviction he did not know he possessed.
“That Sunday morning several volunteers stood helpless by the kibbutz dining hall,” he recalls. “I wasted no time in going to the board on which hung the keys to the kibbutz’s vehicles, grabbing the keys to the truck, driving to the dining hall, collecting the workers, and heading for the avocado plantation. Same thing the next day, but as soon as I got to the road, a patrol car appeared. The policeman motioned for me to pull over, and I was already imagining myself behind bars in prison. I was a thirteen-year-old with a truck full of workers! To my amazement, the policeman said, ‘Kiddo, when you turn left, you need to signal left, not right. Now, off you go to work.’ And so, I kept driving the laborers to the plantation every day.”
Zohar Rozen from Kibbutz Sarid was fifteen then. He wrote down his memories of the war. These were his impressions from a community suddenly deprived of its men:
“Throughout the night, buses and jeeps came to fetch the men. The next morning saw the village orphaned, uprooted, silent as though empty. All of a sudden, it was us, a few old men, and the women left to manage the kibbutz. As if by magic, the youths suddenly matured, the elders rejuvenated, their muscles stretching, the women went out busily taking up jobs, and as quickly as everything had emptied, it was refilled. We older teens headed to the fields to take over the cotton-picking, plowing, and harvesting shifts. It felt as though we had been given a temporary, magical toy—the tractor—which would surely soon be taken away. There, in the fields, the peaceful routine reigned. There were no sirens and no fear.
“On Sunday morning, an acquaintance of mine from the kibbutz was called up. Passing by the secretariat office, he saw me turning on the siren and said, smiling, ‘Oh, Zohar, well done. Keep the kibbutz safe, you know how it is, we’ll be back in two weeks.’ He never returned. In those days, we came to the heavy realization of what the war was really like. Our kibbutz is right next to an air force base. We saw a Phantom struggling to land and crashing in the field next to the orchard, we saw that out of each plane formation that left, only one or two would return—and we understood much, much more than we were prepared to say. In our alternative kingdom in the fields, we sat on the tractors, and there, on our own, we could cry sometimes, as it sank in that our world would not return to the way it had been. We never went back to school; we stayed to work and help. They registered it in the archive: the entire Snunit group stayed in 10th grade.” (Snunit – a swallow in Hebrew, the name of their age group on the kibbutz).
Love and war: a gift that ended in marriage
Volunteering during wartime brought about encounters which sometimes sparked romance and even true love. Noni Ziva Levy was a 10th-grader in Nahariya when she and her classmates were asked to prepare gifts for the soldiers. She wrote her name and address on the package, with a heartfelt note. To her surprise, several weeks later the recipient of the gift knocked on her door, saying he had been so touched by the note he wanted to come see the person who had written it. Their correspondence continued and the relationship became closer, until they became a couple and dated for a year and a half.
As for Ora Levy, then sixteen, from Ashkelon, volunteering took her a few steps further—all the way to starting a family. She says:
“As a section leader in the Youth Battalions [Gadna – a program that prepares Israeli youths for army service], I received a large pile of ‘sweet letters to soldiers’ [letter templates containing candy] and was asked to give them out to students at the Arye Tagar School in Ashkelon so they could write a few words to the soldiers on the frontlines. Approximately forty letters came back empty… What could I do? A mission is a mission! I sat down and wrote in them all! A few days later, replies started arriving from the soldiers, ten or so in total. At first, I gladly answered them all, but was left some weeks later writing only to one soldier who sent me long letters without spelling mistakes. I even made him a particularly invested package, attaching a note to each item inside with a blessing, joke, or drawing. On his first leave, the soldier, whose name was Yossi Tzchori, called and asked to meet. He arrived at the central bus station in Ashkelon, this handsome, bearded soldier, and we fell in love immediately. Yossi served in an auxiliary unit to the Golani Brigade, and as it turned out, he was given the leave right after the battle on Mount Hermon. Meeting me gave him the strength to rejoin the fray, and continue his army service in general. We kept writing to each other and seeing each other when we could, and two years later got married and had a wonderful daughter.”
In the hospitals: “Years later, the flashbacks began”
All over the country, young people offered help in a variety of jobs: distributing mail, painting car headlights to darken them, maintaining the blackouts, knitting hats, and much more. Many volunteered where they were most needed: in hospitals. Their experiences there were complex and affected who they grew up to be.
When the war broke out, seventeen-year-old Eli Dror immediately wondered how he could help. Learning of the war bonds, he sold his expensive bicycle and donated the funds to the great loan collected to finance the war effort. Yet he did not stop there. When he and his friends from the Leyada High School in Jerusalem discovered that the Hadassa Ein Karem Hospital needed volunteers, they headed there right away. The girls were employed in wards, and the boys helped transport patients who were flown in by helicopters. Eli recalls:
“We would approach the helicopter as a group of four and carry the wounded out onto a gurney. Then we would rush to the emergency room with everything they had—IV drips, detached limbs, anything. Many patients from the armored forces arrived with heavy burns, and it was crucial for us to be as careful as possible, as even the smallest jolt, a little rock or unevenness on the path would hurt them terribly.
“Sometimes we would accompany them to tests, x-rays, anywhere we could help. Often, they would ask us to let their families know where they were, which we would hasten to do using the telephone installed there. This volunteering experience was extremely significant to me personally, as I felt that I was making a meaningful contribution. I believe that this is why I kept on volunteering for many years as an adult.”
Nearer the front, Sara Ameti Ben Moshe, seventeen, from Tiberias, realized that this work was the only way she could deal with the shocking situation. She recalls her time as a volunteer at Poriya Medical Center:
“We saw the entire Golan Heights aflame, planes crashing. The fear was real; we could not simply sit at home, so a few friends and I looked for something to do. We had no idea what we were getting into. There was nobody to speak to. The personnel were freaking out. I was asked to go round the wards, see who needed water, and wet their lips. That was what I did.
“There was a nurse who had fainted in the burn ward. I came in and did what was asked of me, I do not know how, but I managed to disconnect. One reservist, I remember, was a high school history teacher, and he had had his leg amputated. He was the only one who noticed we were so young, so he tried to make us laugh, lighten the mood a little.
“It was a total breaking point for me to see people rushing about and cars driving on Yom Kippur. Never again did I keep the fast, after the war, but I light a memorial candle every year because of the war. Only years later, the flashbacks began. The smell of burnt meat would throw me back there. I always used to think—who are we in comparison to the wounded soldiers? But really, all of us, the entire generation, carry this with us forever. Some more, some less.”
Dorit Ganon Zinger, a Safed native, was only in ninth grade when the students gathered in the schoolyard with the remaining teachers, and the home front protection forces assigned jobs to the students. “I felt I was being conscripted,” she shares. “The older ones were sent to help in the primary school. We helped distribute mail or cleaned and organized equipment at Ziv, the new hospital they had just finished building.”
“Some of the girls, including me, became radio operators, while the boys carried stretchers. We were positioned at the Magen David Adom station in town. Ziv Hospital did not have a helipad yet. The helicopters would land in an open area nearby, and the wounded would be taken to the hospital by ambulance. My job included some things which today seem unthinkable for a fourteen-year-old: I was ordering blood transfusions, sending boys with stretchers to the landing area, and liaising with the pilots.
“Once the new helipad was opened, we were sent to help in the wards. I was assigned to orthopedics. My job was to change sheets, empty bedpans, and do anything else I was asked to do. I especially remember one man whose arms had been amputated, who dictated letters for his girlfriend and family to me. His optimism was infectious, despite his injuries. That entire period was terrible. Looking back, it was like living in a film. I remember, when we went back to normalcy after the war ended, everything was different. We had grown up. I am sure we matured in the blink of an eye.”
Fifteen-year-olds at Soroka Hospital: “The first patient’s name is stuck in my mind”
Ronen Tuchfeld and Hanoch Ron were fifteen-year-old 10th-graders at Mekif Daled High School in Beer Sheva. Hanoch says that in order to volunteer for some of the tasks, they lied about their age, claiming they were in the 11th grade. This brought them to the Soroka Hospital for a volunteering experience that changed their lives.
Most young people volunteering at Soroka were charged with emergency response to helicopters arriving from the Sinai Peninsula. These were long, twelve-hour shifts. The moment a helicopter landed, they would rush to it, helping transfer the wounded onto a gurney in a quick and organized fashion, then run with them as fast as possible to the improvised emergency room that had popped up at the entrance to the hospital. To this day, Hanoch is unable to forget the first man he accompanied from the helicopter: “His name is stuck in my mind: Zvi Svitovsky. Like many, he was burned all over. To this day, I have no idea what became of him. However much I searched, I did not manage to find him.”
Ronen’s job at Soroka was even more complicated. He worked in the improvised emergency room along with another boy, replacing the orderlies who had for the most part been called to war. “The mess would begin in the afternoon,” he says. “Helicopters and buses were rehauled to carry sitting or lying patients, and each of these buses brought 50–100 wounded men to us. These were difficult sights and lots and lots of work. Everyone needed aid. Hundreds if not thousands of injured soldiers passed through there in those weeks. We would help in small ways: fetch one a glass of water, have a chat with another, keep an eye on their things, cover them well with the blanket so they would not feel exposed. The most important part was letting them feel noticed. The staff were running around like mad. Sometimes we would become attached to one of them and stay close by, creating a special connection.”
Ronen and his friend discovered that beyond the exhausting labor and rushing from one patient to another, their job included a much more difficult task which left an indelible mark on their souls. Ronen explains:
“First thing in the morning, we had to take those who had died overnight to Pathology. There, if there was room, we would put the bodies in the refrigerators. When there was no room, the bodies of soldiers who had not made it through the night would be placed on the countless stretchers at the ward entrance. They would be covered with sheets, their feet out, and small tags would be tied to their big toes with their names and ID numbers. Sometimes, the dog tags of dead soldiers who had been brought to the hospital from Sinai at night would be tied to their feet, their boots placed between their legs. And we would stand there staring, unable to understand how death suddenly seemed so near.”
The weeks Ronen spent aiding the wounded and carrying the dead impacted his life: “At the time, I understood none of what was happening to me, and I definitely did not discuss it with anyone. That was not something you did; everyone gave what they could. And so, I went on with my life. I served in the army, started a family, got a job. Only looking back, decades after the war, could I connect the dots and realize the effect that period had on me. I cannot stand the sight of needles: I still look away during vaccinations or blood tests. I was not present at my children’s births, visiting very briefly and leaving, unable to spend a long time at a hospital. That’s trauma.”
Among the many burdens they experienced while volunteering at the hospital, the boys had some beautiful moments as well. Hanoch’s mother was hospitalized at Soroka then. One day he took time to visit her during a break. From the next room, wonderful sounds wafted over: “In one room, where eight beds held wounded soldiers, the band Kaveret were delivering a heartfelt performance. I stood there listening. This is also a moment I have not forgotten.”
Yossi, Amotz, Sara, Dorit, Ronen, and many others were teenagers during the Yom Kippur War. They may not have served on the frontlines, but the war affected them profoundly, much like everyone who stayed on the home front and had to deal with the emergency that had befallen the country. Their story is also part of our shared memory of the war that was.