A Knock at the Door in the Darkness of Night

June 11, 1967--2:00 A.M. At the door stood an army representative, the visitor every Israeli soldier's family dreads. 

During my latest trip to Israel, in July 2010, I participated in the Gilad Shalit march from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Like other Israelis, I wanted to protest his abduction, and demand that the International Red Cross be allowed to see him. For readers unfamiliar with his name: Gilad Shalit is the Israeli soldier abducted by Hamas in June 2006 in a crossborder raid. At the time of his kidnapping he was not yet 20.

Since Shalit’s capture, the Israeli public has been consumed by his ordeal and the enduring torments of his family. As a consequence, events were organized by private Israeli citizens to observe the fourth year of his captivity. The events were intended to pressure the Israeli government to do more than it has been doing to get him home, and to direct the world’s attention to Shalit’s inhumane imprisonment, which defies accepted international standards. The highlight was an Israeli Philharmonic “Outcry to the World” concert that took place near the Gaza border, conducted by Zubin Mehta with Israel’s foremost singer, Shlomo Artzi, who appealed for Shalit’s return in a song titled “That’s All We Want.”

The Shalit events occurred two months after the late-May flotilla incident, when Israeli commandos boarded the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was part of a flotilla intended to breach Israel’s controversial naval blockade of Gaza. After being attacked by “peace activists” on board the ship, the Israeli commandos opened fire and killed nine Turks.

Because of the biased way in which international public opinion has attempted to delegitimize the Jewish state following the flotilla event — not unlike the imbalanced way the world has been treating Israel’s right to defend itself in relation to Gaza — Israelis felt especially isolated this past summer, viewing recent international responses as nothing less than the continuation of centuries-old anti-Semitism.

I have always understood Israel’s sense of isolation, but I felt it even more so this past summer, as I arrived in Israel from Poland, where I stopped on my way to the country of my birth to trace my paternal family’s roots, and to see, as a Jew, Birkenau and Auschwitz.

Nothing I have studied, read, seen, not Yad Vashem, not even my previous visit to Terezienstadt, prepared me for Birkenau and Auschwitz — for their enormity and for the efficiency with which the Nazis ran their death-oiled industry.

What shocked me the most was that not even the minutest detail was left to chance: not the place where the trains would first stop, where victims would initially be “selected,” where they first undressed, where they were first disinfected and shaved, their hair used by the Nazis to manufacture fabric; not where they were disinfected for the second time, where their clothing was first fumigated, where their clothing was fumigated for the second time, where their clothing and belongings were collected, sorted and stored, where they would die by Zyclon B poisoning gas, where their corpses would be burned.

It took merely 25 minutes from the time the human cargo arrived at Birkenau for those “selected” to become ash. And Birkenau was only one death camp where Jews were slaughtered while the world kept silent. It is little wonder, I thought, that Israelis call themselves “Am Levadad Yishkon” — The People that Dwell Alone.

Because of my own experience with a knock at my door in the darkness of night, the image that most captured my attention during the Gilad Shalit events was that of his mother, Aviva. Though she has not been as visible in the Israeli media as Gilad’s father Noam, who has become a well-known advocate for his son’s cause, her poise conveyed unforgettable strength.

I too had known strength. I had believed myself to be a shy woman. But a year after tragedy struck me at age 23, I surprised myself by becoming an activist, resisting my government’s plan to terminate monthly pensions to childless war widows. Believing the policy to be discriminatory and arbitrary, I campaigned against it, writing to ministers, meeting with parliament members, conducting interviews and threatening to take the case to the Israeli High Courts of Justice if necessary. My activism was completely new to me, but not to my sense of justice.

To my disappointment, my attempts to mobilize my peers — the 128 childless widows of the Six Day War — were futile. Some of us moved back to our parents’ homes, others were reluctant to campaign against a government still glorying in an extraordinary military victory.

Twenty-seven years later, as part of a postdoctorate project, I met and interviewed other brave women: mothers, wives, widows, daughters and sisters who told me their stories of coping with unbearable loss or caring for maimed loved ones. Their narratives drained me: the grief of the mother who could not come to terms with the loss of her child; the two-fold agony of the mother of a severely injured soldier, herself having been sexually abused by her army case-worker; the war widow whose teenage daughter committed suicide to be with her father. I interviewed the mother of a soldier missing in action for 15 years and presumed (but not declared) dead by the Israeli authorities. She worried that if her son somehow read that she’d revealed to me he had asthma, he’d become angry with her.

These heroines spoke about females experiencing war differently from men — in part because most of us do not participate in the executive planning of wars or in combat, in part because of gendered social conditioning. Male soldiers, they believed, have little time, natural inclination, or need to worry about life back home, whereas most females are back home, split between assuming new civilian responsibilities and worrying about the unknown and unthinkable. And although females and males share the burdens of war, society allots the glory to male warriors, while women are left in the rear.

In November 1993, six weeks after the Oslo Accord was signed between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (P.L.O.), I attended a conference on Women and Change in the Middle East; I was to deliver a paper on the Oslo Accord. Over the course of two days, Palestinian women spoke repeatedly of their suffering as Palestinians and as women under more than a quarter-century of Israeli occupation, and their words fell on sensitive ears, including my own. But the suffering of Israeli women was not mentioned even once. So I began my talk, but then on impulse shoved my paper aside.

With intimacy and pain, I told them about the knock at my door in the middle of the night, and the grim tale that followed. I told them about my shock, my despair, and even of my own near-death in a hospital where I stayed for a month in a desperate attempt to save my pregnancy during an illness. An illness, I believed, related to my shock and grief, and my near-death related to the fact that my physical complaints fell on deaf ears — the doctors could only see a crazed woman reeling from a tragedy.

At one point I broke down, not when I spoke of Yigal, but when I disclosed to the audience my despairing feelings of guilt for losing his child and his parents’ grandchild, for he could never father another. I heard gasps and saw the faces in the audience; many looked sincerely moved.

When the presentation ended, I was surrounded by women, most of them Arab. They shared their surprise at finding me sensitive and harmless. All wanted to hear more about my ordeal.

One woman, an Iraqi psychiatrist, brushed my hand accidentally and then deliberately touched it again.

“Your skin in so soft,” she said, dismayed.

“You seem startled,” I said. “What did you expect?”

“Rough skin, like the image we Arabs have of all Israelis.”

For a brief moment we were all united by our shared fate. There were no distinctions between powerful and powerless, occupier and occupied. We were equally human.

As for my own narrative [below], though uniquely mine, it cannot be very different from other stories of women who have suffered loss and grief as a result of war, whenever or wherever war takes place. In this way, my account is timeless and universal, revealing that the true face of war is very intimate.

I was rather calm in the spring of 1967, though like everyone else in Israel, my mood was strained by a rapidly deteriorating political situation. The tension began on April 7, 1967, when Israel, responding to intensive Syrian shelling, downed six Soviet-made, Syrian Mig-21 fighter jets rumored to be flown in Israel’s direction by Russian pilots who trained the Syrian air force.

On May 18, caught in the fury, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser ordered the United Nations Emergency Force to leave Sinai. Alarmed, Yitzhak Rabin, then Israel’s Chief of Staff, declared a partial mobilization. But my husband Yigal was not called.

Five days later, Nasser moved six army divisions into Sinai, and closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli navigation, a move that Israel considered an act of war. In response, Rabin declared a general mobilization.

To his apprehension and my relief, Yigal was still not recruited. Perhaps he won’t be called at all, I thought, since he was recovering from a severe case of adult chicken-pox. But by May 30, Jordan joined a defense pact with Egypt and Syria, while Nasser continued to explicitly threaten to destroy the Jewish State. On June 4, Iraq joined the military pact too, sending its own division to Jordan. On June 5, seeing a joint offensive imminent, Israel launched a preemptive strike; thus began the Six Day War.

The victory was stunning, the country jubilant, especially after the trying month immediately preceding the war when, as a nation, we Israelis felt isolated and abandoned, bringing many of us in touch with the fear of total of annihilation, a trepidation that went back to our experiences of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. But not all of us were celebrating.

I was still relaxed on the day Yigal left for war. Our farewell was neither more nor less poignant than any other loving couple’s. But a few hours after we had parted, my phone rang. It was Yigal, alerting me that he had forgotten his automatic rifle at home, instructing me to deliver it to a nearby intersection, where his unit was passing through on its way south.

He looked composed as he jumped out of the military truck wearing his field-uniform. Once again we said our goodbyes, this time more intensely. I stood motionless for a long time after the truck became smaller and smaller, disappearing in the distance. I still wonder if what I felt was premonition or ordinary fear under extraordinary circumstances.

As the atmosphere in the region became increasingly tense, I moved my parents to my apartment in Ramat-Gan, because there was no adequate bomb shelter in the old Tel Aviv neighborhood where they lived.

We were instructed to tape and cover our windows and color our car-lights in dark-blue paint. Only a few days earlier Egyptian aircraft were detected flying toward our borders. A blackout was necessary to prevent the enemy from navigating to their targets by the aid of city lights. Driving in my neighborhood to buy supplies, I absentmindedly hit another moving car. The other driver and I, two civilians in the rear, exchanged information in a comradely way.

“I’ll call you in a few days, when I have my estimate,” the driver said. Good, I thought. Things are still pretty normal. Perhaps there won’t be a war after all. I was wrong.

By the end of June 5, the war’s first day, Egyptian and Syrian air forces were practically destroyed. On June 7, Jerusalem was in Israeli hands after a fierce, costly battle. On the radio, the quivering voice of Moshe Hovav, a seasoned announcer, was shouting, “The Temple Mount is in our hands,” while in the background a shofar was blowing. It was the first time I saw my father, a truly secular man, cry.

The country was euphoric when on Friday, the ninth of June, I received a call from my aunt Esther. Her husband Yaakov, my father’s youngest brother, had bumped into Yigal a day earlier in Sinai. It is not unusual in Israel for two generations to be serving at the same time, especially in times of war.

“They promised each other to call home if they could, and send their regards. Yigal wants you to know that he is doing well and that you need not worry about him. Just take care of yourself. He thinks of you and the baby.” She transmitted his message.

“I received three postcards from him so far,” I said, “but I do not know where his brigade is. Any indication of that was blacked out, censored by the military.” The call lifted my mood, for since we had said our second goodbye I had a nagging feeling that I would not see him again.

“Yaki” — that was the nickname my aunt used for her husband — ”said he looked well,” she continued. But by the time I received that call, unbeknownst to my aunt, this was no longer true. The war was practically over when my doorbell rang at two in the morning on Sunday, the eleventh of June, waking up my parents and me. It was the ring every family dreads. At the door stood an Army representative; ironically, the same City-Major I regularly saw during my own military service, which I had completed three years earlier.

Needing no time to grasp the meaning of the visit, I was relieved to hear that Yigal was only injured. But I became alarmed when the officer asked me to get dressed quickly.

“There is no time to waste,” the City-Major said sympathetically. I dressed speedily, holding my sandals in my hands as I ran down the stairs. The City-Major rushed me into a waiting taxi that was to take me to Rambam hospital in Haifa, where the Golan-Heights wounded had been taken. As luck would have it, I knew the taxi-driver too from my days in the Prime Minister’s office in Tel-Aviv. He somberly nodded in recognition. On her terrace on the floor below mine, my neighbor Ora stood crying. She should not be crying, not yet, I thought, irritated.

My mother joined me on my trip to the hospital, leaving my father behind. The ride, less than two hours long, seemed endless, the silence unbearable. When I arrived at the hospital, the doctor greeting me tried to prevent me from seeing Yigal, who had suffered burns over 92 percent of his body — the result of a direct Syrian hit on his armored vehicle.

Apparently, upon arriving there some 36 hours earlier, he had asked the doctors not to inform me about his injury because I was three months pregnant. Perhaps he felt that he would quickly recover.

“It would be better for the baby and you,” the doctor suggested, “if you do not enter his room.” Not comprehending what that meant, I demanded to see Yigal at once.

Having little choice, the doctor directed me, and then followed me. On my way I passed a darkened room where I could hear what sounded like loud, short hiccups. Not imagining that Yigal might be in the dark, I kept walking ahead, but then I no longer heard the doctor’s footsteps and turned around. He was standing outside that room. When I approached, he asked if I was still adamant about seeing Yigal. Wasting no time, I walked inside.

There, in a darkened room, underneath a tube-like device placed on a bed, lay an unrecognizable, naked, hairless, charred, listless patient, desperately gasping for air. Screaming, I insisted that a terrible mistake must have been made. That burnt man could not be the tall, strong, handsome, 28-year-old redhead I was married to, the man who had so many plans for his own future and the future of his growing family. I fainted into my mother’s arms as I managed to utter, “Don’t let his mother see him like this.”

A day earlier, it turned out, he had volunteered to be among the force that was brought from Sinai to breach into Syria from Givat Ha’em (Mother Hill) near Kefar Sold, in northern Israel. Facing fierce fire, his vehicle was hit at the bottom of the hill. Only the driver survived, with minor injuries to his hands. Yigal managed to jump out, engulfed in flames; the four others burnt instantly.

Outside Yigal’s room on a nearby bench a woman was sobbing uncontrollably. I could not determine whether she was weeping because she heard my screams or because she too was unable to recognize her loved one. I would never forget the glimpse of that anonymous woman, nor would I forget the sight of Yigal’s scorched body or the choking sound of his last breaths.

I was taken to a nearby room, where the doctor tended to me. When I regained some of my composure, alone with my mother, I cried to her: “We’ll sell our apartment and everything else we own, to have the best plastic surgeons to give Yigal a face.”

“Mamale, no one could live like that,” my mother replied, addressing me with the affectionate Yiddish epithet. The taxi took us back, together with Yigal’s mother. She did see him briefly. His father remained with him till the end, which did not take much longer. In the taxi the silence was roaring.

Ora was still on her terrace when my mother and I arrived home; my sister already there with her father-in-law. Her husband, who fought with the Central Command near Jerusalem, was still on reserve-duty. My father had called her, and my aunts and uncles, after I had left with my mother for the hospital.

“He is in critical condition,” I cried to my sister, whose eyes were covered with dark sunglasses. Her father-in-law was quietly sobbing. Moments later the phone rang.

“What funeral arrangement do you want? Is the Army taking care of it?” Gila, my sister-in-law asked.

“What funeral are you talking about? He is alive!” I claimed impatiently.

“I am sorry, I did not know that,” Gila replied, and hung up the phone. Seconds later it rang again.

Gila said softly, “He is not.”

I am alone, I thought in panic. Not he is gone, but I am alone. About him being gone, that did not register. Not for a long time. And the baby — what about the baby?

In the other room my sister conferred with my obstetrician over the phone, telling him the horrible news. From my opened front door I caught a glimpse of my neighbor and her husband silently climbing the stairs, their baby daughter in her father’s arms. She had stayed with her mother during the war; he had just returned. They looked morbid. They saw my sister on my terrace with her dark sunglasses. They figured it out.

Soon my apartment was filled with aunts and uncles. A few hours later, Yigal’s brother appeared, having been called from the front. In the room there was no dry eye. And in the corner grocery store, my neighbors were whispering that the silence emanating from our home was worse than a thousand screams.

Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft is a writer and a lecturer in Political Science at Queens College/CUNY. This essay is adapted from War Widow, the memoir she is completing.