If it took the Almighty six days to create the world; 55 years ago it took the almighty IDF six days to perform another miracle
By David E. Kaplan
When Egypt closed the Straits of Tiran in May 1967 to Israeli shipping, it also opened the minds and hearts of Jews around the world who knew that war was coming. In the weeks that followed – before, during and immediately following the cessation of hostilities – over 5,000 – mostly young people from Jewish communities across the globe, put their lives on hold to volunteer in Israel.
Unlike the earlier wars of 1948 and 1956, this time it was not to hold a rifle but the metaphoric rake, not to grab a grenade but the teat of a cow as they mostly served on kibbutzim taking the place of those who were in uniform. It kept the wheels of Israel’s still a very much agrarian economy turning.
Leading the pack of countries from where volunteers came was England with 1,295.One of those volunteers was 23-year-old Barry Kester, who was articled in a West End accountancy practice and due to take his finals in December of that year. That was all to change Barry writes on his blog:
“On the 20th May 1967 I was at Wembley Stadium cheering on my beloved Spurs as they defeated Chelsea in the F.A. Cup Final. Had anyone told me on that day, that just a couple of weeks later I would be in Israel working on a kibbutz close to the Golan Heights, I would have thought them crazy.”
Following England in the largest number of volunteers was Southern Africa with 861. For a region with a small Jewish community – never more than 120,000 Jews in South Africa and 5000 in then Rhodesia (today Zimbabwe) at its peak – the figure of 861 Southern Africans represented an extraordinarily high percentage. It also repeatedly matched with the over 800 volunteers who came from this same region in 1948 to fight in Israel’s War of Independence.
Capturing the atmosphere at the time – from the anguish in the build-up to the war to the jubilation following the overwhelming victory – are the contemporaneous accounts and later recollections of people that lived through it. Apart from people I have interviewed over the years, we are fortunate to have letters written by many of these young people that were collated by the late Muriel Chesler in her book, ‘A Shield About Me’. In it, she writes:
“I was in Cape Town during the Six Day War and thought the end of the world had come.”
She was hardly alone experiencing those apocalyptic thoughts!
RESPONDING TO THE CALL
“I was petrified of having to inform my accountancy firm of my decision to go,” recalls Solly Sacks of Jerusalem then living in Johannesburg. As head of Bnei Akiva, he would serve on the screening committee of his group. “People were shocked and tried to dissuade me,” but Solly would have none of that and by the time “I arrived at the third floor of the Fed [South African Zionist Federation] building, it was crowded with hundreds of people. I was unable to get out of the elevator.”
Having ensured that most of his youth movement group were booked or had already left for Israel, “I managed to ensure that the remaining few of us got on that last flight.”
One in his group is the founder of Carmit Candy Industries Ltd., Lenny Sackstein. Back in June 1967, Lennie was a 21-year-old law student at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits).
“Studying was a serious business. You attended classes wearing a tie, submitted papers on time, and passed your exams or you were history.”
However, history was precisely what Lenny and his fellow volunteers were about to make!
On Thursday, the 11th June, Sackstein presented himself to Professor Ellison Kahn, the dean of the Faculty to advise him he was off to Israel as a volunteer.
“He looked at me straight in the eye and said, “Sackstein, if you do not present yourself at class on Monday, you will be removed from the course for the year.”
Having discharged his duty as dean, Kahn then went on to say, “Well done Sackstein! Can I assist you in any way?”
The Jewish community was united.
Lenny arrived with his group to Kibbutz Shluchot in the Beit She’an Valley in northern Israel .in 40-degree heat – a far cry from Johannesburg’s crisp winter. Welcoming them, the kibbutz representative said:
“Freirim; vot you come for? Ve have already von ze var.”
Hearing this, the 40-degree temperature “was nothing in comparison to my blood pressure.”
The upbeat in Cape Town was no different. In May 1967, Sidney Shapiro – who would later become Director of TELFED, the South African Zionist Federation in Israel – was then a student at the University of Cape Town (UCT). Being National Vice-Chairman of the South African Union of Jewish Students (SAUJS) and Chairman of the Student Jewish Association (SJA), he felt it was only natural that it fell on him to make the appeal on campus for volunteers. “We called a meeting during the day at the SJA centre in Mowbray hardly expecting too many students to pitch during lecture time.”
How wrong he was!
“The SJA hall was bursting at the seams with students piling into the garden and into the street. There I was, standing in front of these hundreds of students ready to read from a prepared speech, when I was suddenly caught up in the excitement and set aside my notes and spoke from the heart.”
Sidney had reservations about volunteering as “I was in my final year. However, I got caught up in my own words and volunteered.”
The excitement peaked when “some of the students grabbed the podium, turned it on its head and the next thing, students began throwing money in it.”
Sidney, like many Jewish students throughout South Africa, would have good reason to be apprehensive – not only because of the impending danger in Israel, but “we had to break the news to our parents. I knew I would be flying out on the first plane available, which meant not completing my degree that year. As difficult as this was, I knew there was no way that I could not have volunteered. My parents understood.”
In 2007, on the 40th anniversary of the Six Day War, Michael Cohen, Vice-Principal of Bialik College, Melbourne, recounted the atmosphere in Cape Town in the period leading up to the war when he was undertaking postgraduate studies in History at the University of Cape Town. “The local Zionist offices were flooded with applications from would-be volunteers; meetings were held in synagogues and at other venues to raise money for Israel, whose very survival was under grave threat; and potential volunteers, of whom I was one, were taken to outlying Jewish-owned farms to learn to drive tractors in preparation for work on Kibbutzim. The aim was to replace young Israelis who were being called to arms.”
On arrival in Israel, “we were sorted into groups after interviews. A select number of us, mainly those who had youth movement leadership experience or spoke Hebrew, were dispatched to Jerusalem to work as non-combat members of the Israeli army. We were accommodated in East Jerusalem, at the Jordanian Police School next to Ammunition Hill in tents while the girls were located in nearby hotels. Our task was to collect the ‘booty’ left in retreat by the Jordan army. We joined with Israeli soldiers, and each day we were transported to locations in the West Bank where we loaded equipment – barbed wire, army boots, large bombs in canisters and other items – into trucks.”
Later relocated to Shech Jerach in the Sinai Desert, “our duty was to collect the hundreds of abandoned Egyptian armed vehicles. I recall, on one occasion, being given a gun and being asked to accompany a group of Egyptian prisoners on the back of a truck to a nearby army base. My anxiety levels were exacerbated by the fact that I did not know how to use the weapon! I chatted briefly with one of the prisoners whose English was passable and who told me about his family back in Egypt. Those Egyptian prisoners who had earlier escaped, making their way to the Suez Canal in an effort to return home, and who had survived on water from the radiators of abandoned Egyptian armoured vehicles, quickly gave themselves up to our forces when they discovered that Egyptian soldiers returning to Egypt were being shot to prevent news of Egypt’s defeat spreading.”
Not a volunteer but a conscript in the Israeli army was 31-year-old Ian Rogow, a former South African, fighting fiercely on the outskirts of Jerusalem. He recounts the battle in this letter to his family in Cape Town:
“On Monday, 5th June, my company was moved after dark to the front where kibbutz Ramat Rachel, east of Jerusalem, forks the border with Jerusalem. That night we took a terrible hammering, and the shells of heavy 120mm mortars and long-distance artillery beat down on us like hail storms.
It was a long night and the machine gun and rifle fire found only brief moments of respite during the dark hours.
I shall carry with me to the end of my days, the memory of the long, drawn-out, sibilant whistle that so ominously precedes the explosion of a mortar shell. At first, you’re frightened as hell, and you strain to push your whole body into your steel helmet like a snail retreating into its protective shell as you dig into mother-earth tighter, and wish your trench was deeper, and you think of God and pray. But you have to fight back, and soon you condition yourself against hitting the dirt with every bone-chilling shriek of an incoming shell.
By the time dawn broke, Ramat Rachel was safe and by nightfall, we were in Bethlehem; white flags flying from the rooftops and the Royal Jordanian army not in sight. The next day we were in Hebron, and here too, the white flags fluttered prominently from every roof-top.”
The remaining danger, Ian writes were:
“unseen snipers. We lost many a life to the bullet of a rifle fitted with a telescopic sight and triggered by a well concealed finger.”
Ian concludes this long letter of further wartime encounters through Gush Etzion with:
“Let our political successes match our military victory as some small compensation for the heavy price we paid – so as not to let down those who gave their lives for the gain we have made by the sword.”
One of the many South Africans who fought in the Six Day War was the late David “Migdal” Teperson. No surprise here – he held the exclusive honour in the IDF of having participated in every war from 1948 to Protective Edge – most in combat. It was only from the Second Lebanon War, he was no longer allowed in the frontline but could bring supplies by truck “to my boys.”
On the 5th of June 1967:
“we were lined up under our camouflage nets, amongst the trees at the side of the road in company formation. We had orders not to move around too much so that we would not be spotted by the Egyptian air force. At daybreak, we saw our airplanes fly over us, flip their wings in salute, and continue towards the Sinai. Suddenly a dispatch rider on a motorbike came charging down between our columns shouting, “switch on your radios.” As soon as we did, we heard the password “red sheet” and the orders “move, move, move”! We launched our attack against the Egyptian forces in Sinai.”
Migdal’s division was ordered to break through a fortified stronghold at Rafiah, situated between the Gaza strip, Sinai and Israel. For Migdal, it felt like déjà vu. Following the War of Independence, the 1956 war and “now again in 1967 – this was the third time I was fighting in the same area.”
His division’s objective was to cut off El Arish. “We captured close to 800 Egyptian prisoners of war, who we kept in a temporary stockade. I had taken prisoners of war around the same position in 1948 as a corporal; in 1956 as a platoon commander, and now again, in 1967 as number 2 company commander.”
While waiting to move on and listening to the Israeli news, “we heard that east Jerusalem, and the Western Wall had been captured by our paratroopers. On hearing the news, the boys cried, especially the old soldiers who had fought in the 1948 war.”
Migdal would fight all the way to the Suez Canal and remained there after the ceasefire.
Capturing the atmosphere at home are revealed in these letters to family in South Africa that appear in Muriel Chesler’s book.
A week before the war, Raie Gurland writes on the 28th May 1967, to her family in Cape Town:
“Blankets, sheets, towels and hot water bottles were collected. No-one refuses. We all give and more. It’s like caring for a child in danger – Israel is our child and we want to protect her. How extraordinary to be in a country expecting war. The stillness and partially empty streets – its ominously frightening, and I often feel butterflies in my tummy, but then it passes.
Journalists, like vultures are flocking in from the four corners of the earth with the prospect of disaster. The panic at the airport is over and most of the tourists have left….
No job is too menial or too small. Rabbis – with a special dispensation concerning the Sabbath – were digging trenches at the school yesterday, driving delivery trucks and writing out instructions – all on Shabbat!
….I would not be anywhere else – as a Jewess, this is where I belong.”
Capturing what a young wife must be feeling not knowing of the whereabouts or fate of her soldier husband are these two letters by Avril Shulman to her parents in Cape Town.
On the 9th June, she wrote:
“I am so proud to be the wife of a sabra. In the last three weeks, I have lived a lifetime. Even as I write, I do not know where Amnon is or how he is. I hope and pray and wait.”
Avril had to wait until the 20th June when she again wrote to her parents:
“It was two o’clock in the morning and there was a knock at the front door. I jumped out of bed, daring to hope, and on opening the door, there stood a hunk of man dressed in an Israeli uniform with Egyptian boots, a Russian gun, and a South African tog bag, covered from head to foot in Sinai dust, but looking very familiar. The reunion is something I cannot describe.”
On the 9th June, Muriel receives a letter from her sister Pat Slevin, a resident of Eilat.
“It seems it’s all over bar the jubilation and the heartache of the families who have lost loved ones, and the pain and suffering of the wounded.
Who could have thought on Monday morning when the Egyptian tanks crossed the border, that on Friday morning I would be writing to you like this! Last night at 10 o’clock, we received the news of Egypt’s consent to a cease-fire; this morning at 7 o’clock Syria’s, and at 8 o’clock, the telegram from our Southern commander that our men were on the banks of the Suez Canal. I’m privileged to have been here and to have lived through this moment in Israel’s destiny.”
Fifty-five years on from the Six Day War and the reunification of Jerusalem, the nation is strong. Israel is a vibrant democracy in a neighbourhood of autocracies. Its economy is booming and its universities are churning out graduates that will spearhead our small country into a big future.
While the history of this land may read like a chronicle of ‘War Stories”, the Israel of 2022 is a resounding ‘Success Story’.
List of countries from which volunteers came and their number as at the 5th July, 1967.
Southern Africa 861
Spain, Germany, Switzerland & Austria 262
Other Latin countries 164
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