Israel

Faith Under Fire

September 10, 2013
Courtesy of the Israel Defence Force and Defence Establishment Archive
Courtesy of the Israel Defence Force and Defence Establishment Archive

For many Israelis, the shofar blast that concludes Yom Kippur still evokes the sirens, tears, and prayers of the war that broke out forty years ago on that fateful day. Three veterans’ stories and how the Yom Kippur War affected their faith

By Adam Tsachi

The first was in the armored corps. His tank took a direct hit, and he alone survived, burnt from head to toe. In the long months he lay wounded, confined to a hospital bed, he came to a new understanding of suffering and faith. The second was from the Nahal pioneer infantry unit. Atop reconquered Mount Hermon, he discovered his best friend had been killed. The resulting religious and political questions haunted him to his dying day. The third was a paratrooper. Crawling under fire to evacuate the wounded, he emerged somehow with his belief in his fellow man not just intact, but strengthened.

On Yom Kippur, October 6, 1973, a Syrian and Egyptian attack on Israel’s northern and southern borders caught the country unawares. As reserves were pulled out of synagogues and bused straight to the front lines, Israel struggled to block the advancing enemy. For the first time since the end of the War of Independence in 1949, Israeli-held positions were conquered and held – the Syrians recovered the strategic outposts on Mount Hermon, and the Egyptians crossed the Suez Canal and moved across the Sinai Desert. Heavy Israeli casualties in the first days of fighting caused widespread demoralization, as did the evacuation of communities on the Golan Heights.

It took four days in the north, and over a week of bloody combat in the south, before Israeli forces managed to turn the tables and launch an offensive. Eighteen days after the war began, a cease-fire was declared. Israel had recovered all the positions it had lost, had advanced on the Egyptian front to within a hundred kilometers of Cairo, and was in firing range of Damascus in the north.

Despite Israel’s victory and its Arab aggressors’ humiliation, the Yom Kippur War is remembered as the Jewish state’s first defeat, the first crack in the myth of its invincibility. For the three soldiers we are about to meet, the war raised questions that shaped the rest of their lives.

“God Lies in Broken Hearts”

Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg (Shagar) was an outstanding educator with a unique outlook. He died of cancer six years ago, leaving behind a philosophical legacy that boldly confronts the tensions of a postmodern world. But during the Yom Kippur War, Rabbi Shagar drove a tank in the battle of Nafakh, in which a vastly outnumbered Israeli battalion held back the Syrian advance at a crucial crossroads in the Golan Heights. He had married only six months earlier. “He was called up as Yom Kippur ended and was sent up to the Golan Heights the very next day. His forces were ambushed very early in the war,” his widow, Miriam, told me in her Alon Shvut home. “He rarely spoke of it. His tank took a direct hit. He lost consciousness and awoke to find the tank filled with smoke. He was badly burned but managed to extricate himself only seconds before the tank went up in flames reaching several stories into the sky. There was no way of evacuating the wounded. Two of his former classmates, Shmuel Orlan and Yeshayahu Holtz, were left behind. The thought that he might have saved them always haunted him.”

Rabbi Shagar’s contemporary Rabbi Yaakov Medan, co-head of Har Etzion Yeshiva, also fought in that battle. In a documentary about Shagar, Medan recalls those horrifying moments: “Syrian tanks had ambushed them at the turn in the road. We could only pray. All I had was my gun. Moving on, we came across the wounded from the first tanks. The Syrians took aim at us but missed. Suddenly, I recognized Rabbi Shagar. He was in terrible shape. His face was completely scorched; he was shell-shocked and badly wounded. You could see death in his eyes.”

Medan pulled Shagar into his tank and took him to the battalion’s medical station. From there he was transferred to Rambam Hospital in Haifa, where he remained for several months. “Subconsciously, he remained convinced that other members of his tank crew had somehow survived,” recalls Mrs. Rosenberg. “But after he’d been in the hospital two weeks, someone from the military rabbinate arrived with items found in what was left of the burnt tank. He asked [Shagar] to identify them. He attended their memorial services every year, even after their parents had passed away. when they fell. 11 Tishrei, the day of the memorial services, was a particularly difficult day for Rabbi Shagar’s family. “He was always very agitated that day,” she adds.

In a eulogy for one of his students who was killed in the First Lebanon War (1982–5), Rabbi Shagar remarked:

Life is beautiful, and never more so than when death confronts us – the love people share, friendship, children, even just a deep breath of fresh air under blue skies. The grass next to the burning tank is green, ever so green. And there, right beside these fearsome sights, the Divine life and breath is right there. And the man who has survived the fire ponders how. And then he is gripped by a burning desire to kneel before the Divine right there in that awful place and cry out to the heavens: For what? And why? And saddest of all – why do we think to ask only when war overpowers us? Why does man find the way to his Creator only through suffering? (Rabbi Shimon Gershon Rosenberg – Shagar, I Seek Your Face [5768], p. 214 [Hebrew])

Courtesy of the Israel Defence Force and Defence Establishment Archive
Courtesy of the Israel Defence Force and Defence Establishment Archive

At sixty-nine, Brigadier General (res.) Yehuda Duvdevani looks younger than his years. His eyes are a clear blue, his words clipped and organized with military precision. After the Yom Kippur War, he was decorated for his bravery in the controversial battle of the Chinese Farm, a strategic crossroads near the Suez Canal, where he braved heavy enemy fire to bring wounded soldiers to safety. Military opinion is divided as to whether the battle was a grave blunder. The offensive aimed to make way for a bridgehead enabling troops to cross the Suez Canal near the Great Bitter Lake. Yet superior Egyptian forces occupied the area, and Israeli tank battalions had already crossed the canal elsewhere and were advancing along its west bank. The battle raged for four days, from 15-18th October, and although the target was captured, Israel lost close to two hundred men.

Relaxing in shorts on his living room couch, Duvdevani didn’t look traumatized by war. Quite the contrary, as I soon learned. As far as he was concerned, some people came out of the conflict stronger than they went in. I asked what faith meant for him. He smiled slightly and launched into a monologue.

“My story starts a while before the Yom Kippur War. My father came to Palestine from Poland in 1928. He was a platoon leader in the Seventh Division in the War of Independence. Ben-Gurion was determined to save Jerusalem, and my father’s unit was designated to attack the heavily fortified hill of Latrun. They encountered heavy artillery fire, many were killed or injured, and they beat a confused retreat. My father was hit while evacuating the wounded, and a young man named Mondak carried him on his back four kilometers to Kibbutz Harel, where they were surrounded by the Jordanian Arab Legion. There was no water, no ammunition, and it was hot as hell. Mondak was exhausted, and my father told him to gather all the wounded and then save himself. Mondak refused, until my father put a gun to the fellow’s head. Then he left them behind.

My father’s actions were an unwritten will: commanders go first and don’t leave their wounded behind on the battlefield.

Searching for Something

“In the Yom Kippur War, I was sent to the Chinese Farm straight from advanced officers’ training, as a major in the 890th Paratrooper Regiment. We began moving down the Tartur road to clear it of enemy antitank squads, but we soon encountered much heavier fire than expected. Company commanders were killed, and I ran to replace one of them. Massive artillery fire was all around me; I kept ducking to the ground, getting up and going on.

“I reached the company and ordered the soldiers to evacuate the wounded lying between us and the Egyptians. No one moved. They weren’t prepared to step out into such danger. I went out; that was my father’s doing. I crawled toward the shouts of the wounded. I found them about sixty meters from enemy lines and crawled another hundred meters with three wounded soldiers on a stretcher. The Egyptian soldiers saw a dark stain moving on the white sand and opened fire. I have no idea how I did it – normally I couldn’t even drag one soldier by his belt. Strength just came from somewhere. I got back to our lines and said, ‘Now start taking orders! The Egyptians have attacked and they’ve been blocked, and I have lots of wounded!’

“We spent the whole night evacuating casualties, under continuous artillery fire. We received orders to retreat, and I provided cover fire for the company going into the canal. I was running all over the place on my own, pulling out injured men, constantly exposed to missiles and short-range barrages.

“I reached the canal and saw men in shock, their eyes bloodshot after a night of terror. The battalion regrouped, and we were told to go back to attack the Chinese Farm. My company of a hundred men was down to about thirty; we had no idea who was alive or dead – and we had to ready the 890th Paratrooper Regiment for battle! There was no time for thinking or arguments. It took everything we had.

“After the battle of the Chinese Farm, we found ourselves in Egypt, opposite Ismailia, surrounding the Third Egyptian Army. People began talking. As I tried to reconstruct what had happened, I saw people around me – even those who weren’t religious – searching for something to hold on to, something beyond themselves. Some talked to God, some spoke of faith. Everyone – secular kibbutzniks, left-wing activists – was groping for something greater, something that would shelter and sustain them, someone to pray to, a source of the strength needed to go on.

“But I felt a bit different. It was as if I had finally lived up to my father’s standard. Left alone, I had rescued the wounded. I felt complete, felt he was looking down at me and giving me confidence that I was doing things right; that he was taking care of me. I had many chats with my father – he gave me the strength to keep going. In that sense, you might say the war actually strengthened my faith, my convictions. I felt that now I could continue where he had left off, that I was the natural continuation of the immigrants who’d gone straight to war.”

Excerpt from Segula Jewish History magazine. For the rest of the article and more pieces on Jewish history, please vist our website at segulamag.com