Overseas volunteers in 1967 ‘certain’ where they needed to be
Following Lay of the Land’s article ‘SIX DAYS IN JUNE’ by its editor celebrating 55 years since the Six Day War of 1967 that secured the future of the State of Israel, a lively conversation began with calls and emails of seniors who recalled the days of their spirited youth when they suddenly put their young lives on hold and volunteered for Israel in its hour of need.
It was a momentous moment in Israel’s history; it was a momentous moment in the personal lives of many who volunteered from abroad. One such is Allan Wolman today from Israel but in 1967 was a young man in Johannesburg, South Africa.
This is his story.
(Editor David E. Kaplan)
RECOLLECTIONS OF A 1967 VOLUNTEER
By Allan Wolman
“On the 5th June 1967, the Six Day War broke out between Israel and her Arab neighbours. Tensions between Israel and Egypt began building up about 4 – 5 weeks prior to the outbreak of war and as these hostilities increased, it seemed that war was inevitable. I had heard that South African volunteers might be accepted to go to Israel and immediately signed up. The South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) occupied a building in downtown Johannesburg and was a hive of activity in those weeks leading up to the war. It was an exciting time with daily visits to the centre to see when we would be sent to Israel. After a selection process and obtaining army and police clearance and a host of other necessary documents, we were ready to leave.
When war did break out on the 5thJune, I felt a sense of disappointment as one group had already departed for Israel, and I was not part of it. With ears glued to the radio constantly, as well as almost camping at the Zionist Fed, the days ticked by until I received the call to be ready to leave that evening!
The excitement was overwhelming. I called my parents and next my Dad arranged $300 – money that he could ill afford at the time – and rushed around to pack and get ready to leave.
All the volunteers for that evening – the second flight out of South Africa – congregated at the office of the Zionist Fed and bussed together to the airport. Parents and friends made their own way to the airport which was bedlam with thousands of people coming to wish our group well. Our SAA plane was a Boeing 707 that took about 250 passengers – all full of volunteers! The excitement at the departure hall was so memorable with proud Dad, tearful Mom and all my ‘envious’ friends who clubbed together and gave me $100 – a fortune in those days!
As SAA in those days was prohibited from overflying African countries, to get to Israel we were forced to fly round West Africa with stops at Luanda, Lisbon and Rome where we were allowed off the aircraft and walked around Rome airport in wonderment – this was for most of the group their first trip out of South Africa. After Rome, we flew on to Athens where an EL AL aircraft was waiting to take us to Tel Aviv with a fighter jet meeting us en-route to escort us in as the war was not yet over.
My first impression disembarking at then Lod Airport was a bunch of bearded rowdy looking soldiers looking fearsome. After the necessary arrival requirements, our group was bussed to a senior citizen’s home in Herzliya – by that time it was already dark, enhanced by the enforced blackout. I remember those first few hours so vividly – the residents of the home were clapping and cheering us. After an almost 24-hour flight and the excitement of landing in Israel, some of our group walked down to experience a swim in the Mediterranean and then – even with the war and the “blackout”– hitch that evening a ride into Tel Aviv.
Sometime before midnight, we arrived at Dizengoff Street – the only place we had heard of – when the cease-fire came into effect and the lights were turned on and the euphoria was simply indescribable. After six days of anxiety, the nation breathed a sigh of relief.
The following morning all the volunteers were assigned to where they were needed, mostly on various Kibbutzim to assist with agricultural work as most of the men were still in the army. Arriving on kibbutz Kvutzat Schiller (Gan Shlomo) was like landing on another planet. Following orientation, I was billeted in a room with three other young guys from England, two of which have remained lifelong friends. There were also a few South African chaps in our group, Alan Heitner and one or two others. After some weeks, Peter Edel and Raymond (“Rafi”) Lowenberg joined ‘our’ Kibbutz. Peter, Raymond and I eventually shared a room for some months which were some of the most memorable times spent in Israel. Raymond remained in Israel, married, but was tragically killed on the first day of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. I have hardly ever missed a memorial day in honour of Raymond – a brilliant guy, had his matric before he had a driver’s license and a degree at age nineteen.
Such incredibly vivid memories of those times in Israel, touring around with those wonderful friends and discovering the country on our own was an adventure in itself. One time we decided to visit the Suez Canal (not too long after the war ended) and witnessed the endless lines of destroyed Egyptian army trucks and tanks. We hiked through Gaza, and Gaza City was a dingy backward town with no building higher than two stories. Also hiked to El Arish, again a pretty backward little town. We never made it to the Canal but pretty close as it was a military security zone. Hiking back to Israel proper, Peter, Raymond, Alan and I were given a ride by an Arab Taxi who en-route back, decided to turn off the road into an Arab refugee camp, which was a pretty hostile areas for Jews to venture in. Anxious and afraid of what lay ahead for us, we discussed in broken Afrikaans to knock the driver unconscious and take over his car to avoid the danger we feared lay ahead. Such bravado, came to nought as the taxi stopped outside a house where his wife and children came out to collect fruit and vegetables he was delivering to his family. We felt ashamed for suspecting the worst.
What struck me was the coming together of everyone in support of each other. There was such unity. This was so visibly evident when traveling around the country and seeing at every town or settlement, refreshment tables set out by the women of the area preparing sandwiches and refreshments for the soldiers who were either leaving or joining their units as the army remained on full alert.
My time in Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War was one of the most profound and memorable experiences of my life. Firstly, this was my very first trip overseas and in a country celebrating (with much relief) one of the most astounding military victories in modern warfare, the mood was one of exuberance and happiness after the anxiety leading up to the war. Most of the time was spent working various jobs on the Kibbutz from working in the chicken sheds shovelling chicken ‘sh..t’, to working in the various orchards and apple packing plant and weeding the cotton fields. You knew you had ‘made it’ – I am talking here serious ‘upward mobility’ – when you were trusted to drive a tractor. This was a status symbol; a far cry from the chicken coup!
Evenings were amazing, a living metaphor of the sixties. We sat around our rooms drinking coffee and socializing with the girls; Raymond would be playing his guitar and we would listen mesmerised to the music and lyrics of the latest Beetles classic – “Sergeant Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band”.
For sure, we were anything but ‘lonely’; we all felt part of something great happening, so much bigger than ourselves.
But all good things must come to an end and one morning I came to the realization that if I didn’t get off the Kibbutz, I would remain there for the rest of my life, so I packed and said my goodbyes and left to spend a few weeks with my cousin Cyril Swiel in Tel Aviv which proved a real learning experience seeing the other side of life in Israel. I met up with some friends from South Africa and decided to travel through Europe and “see the world”.
But “seeing the world” was unlike “being in Israel” in 1967
The impact of this experience sowed the seed for eventually, decades later, settling in Israel.
About the writer:
Allan Wolman in 1967 joined 1200 young South Africans to volunteer to work on agricultural settlements in Israel during the Six Day War. After spending a year in Israel, he returned to South Africa where he met and married Jocelyn Lipschitz and would run one of the oldest travel agencies in Johannesburg – Rosebank Travel. He would also literally ‘run’ three times in the “Comrades”, one of the most grueling marathons in the world as well as participate in the “Argus” (Cape Town’s famed international annual cycling race) an impressive eight times. Allan and Jocelyn immigrated to Israel three years ago.
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