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Chapter 21

This was the final three month course for me. Many of the others in our group would serve as tank commanders for about a year and then go to the officers' school. The training in Ramle was a relaxed affair in comparison to the previous three months. I even enjoyed it quite often, especially when I had good instructors. We now learned a lot about tactics and strategies and even though it was 1953 and the Holocaust was still very fresh in our minds, it did not deter us from drawing upon the experience of the German tank battles during World War II, as well as upon the experiences of the Allied forces. It was also during this period that I gained a good friend. Raphael Yeshaya was a member of an old Jerusalem family. They had a nice house in Beit Hakerem, a prestigious suburb. We performed many activities together, including guard duty at night, which enabled us to have long conversations about our past, as well as our hopes for the future. I told him much about my ten years behind the Iron Curtain, while he told me many stories about life in Jerusalem under siege during the War of Liberation. Raphi and I remained friends even after our discharge, because we happened to become neighbours in Jerusalem. Even after I left for Canada we continued to correspond for several years.

In the fall of 1992 I received a phone call from Raphi in Montreal. It took me a while to realize who the caller was, since I did not see him or speak to him for thirty six years. He was in Montreal with his wife as an Israeli tourist on a tight group schedule, so I invited him for supper and we spent a couple of hours together. After all these years, there was a lot to reminisce. He graduated from the Law faculty at the Hebrew University and eventually opened his office in Ashdod. He was telling me what happened to various people who were our mutual acquaintances. Most of the names he mentioned I simply did not remember. He listed those who were killed in the many wars in Israel, those who were maimed for life, those who became important and famous. I felt uncomfortable, like a stranger in my own house and maybe guilty for not having done my share in Israel. He noticed a picture of the soldiers of our tank battalion (the two of us included), and claimed that he did not have this picture any more. I offered to make a copy and mail it to him. Several days later I mailed a copy of the picture to his law firm in Ashdod, and had no reply since then. A Romanian proverb says: Eyes which are not seen are forgotten.

In the tank school we did a lot of target practice with the canon. Since the shells were very expensive (we were repeatedly told that the cost was thirty five US dollars, probably four hundred in today's money value), a small caliber rifle was attached to the canon, so that the cost was reduced to pennies instead of hundreds of dollars. However, the real thing had to be used from time to time. With the progress of time, I had to do so more often, eventually using heavier canons. Nobody even discussed the possibility of damaging one's hearing. I do not know how many of us were affected, but I was, and with aging, it becomes more acute. That is my permanent souvenir from those days. Today they are wiser and they take precautions.

I should mention another important event which happened during one of the three courses I took, I do not remember exactly which one. The sergeant major ordered our group to cease our activities, dress up in parade clothes, take spare clothes, sleeping bags and our personal weapons and be ready to move out of camp. Nobody knew what happened. Rumours started to spread about some dignitaries coming to the country for a visit and that we would serve as honour guard. We were trucked into the town of Rehovot and deposited in a school which became our temporary quarters. About half an hour later we were told to line up for inspection. Our garments had to be well ironed and our boots polished like a mirror. Following the inspection the officer on duty made a brief announcement: "Our President, Dr. Chaim Weizmann passed away and we have the great privilege to serve as an honour guard. There will be thousands of people flowing by day and night for three days to pay their last respects. Not only Israelis, but many visitors from abroad, many foreign V.I.Ps. and it is your duty to follow my orders strictly. You will put to shame the entire country if something goes wrong."

All of us felt sad, because Weizmann was not just the first President of Israel, he was a legend. He was the leader of the Zionist movement on the same pedestal as Herzl, he was the voice of the Jewish people for many years. We knew that he had been sick for the last few years, but just the same, his death came as a shock. Our orders were to stand at ease on both sides of the road leading up from the gates of Weizmann's estate to his beautiful home, where he was lying in a coffin surrounded by four soldiers standing at attention. They were from the infantry, air force, navy and armored corps. These soldiers were replaced every hour in a special ceremonious march. Since we were standing at ease and had to move to attention only to salute a passing officer, we were replaced after two hours of duty. In the afternoon, when we started our guard duty, there was indeed a continuous flow of people, but as night fell, the numbers diminished. Between midnight and five in the morning, very few visitors arrived and our Sabras became very restless.

On either side of the road on which we stood guard there were beautiful orange groves. The oranges were ripe, so we broke rank and picked some oranges and ate them. They were really delicious and juicy. We made sure to throw away the peels, as far away as possible. Then someone had the bright idea of playing ball with the oranges. We must have been quite absorbed in our game, because by the time we noticed someone coming up the road it was too late. That someone saw what happened. That someone was the officer on duty. The punishment that followed was well deserved. Some of us felt terribly ashamed, others were sorry to have been caught. When our shift was finished, the officer gave us two hours of non-stop exercises, mostly push ups, fast running and fast crawl. By the end of the two hours our clothes were soaking wet, the backs of our shirts were white with a crust of salt from our bodies. We were then ordered to wash up, put on our parade uniform and go back for double duty (continuous four hours). When I arrived back to the school, and to our quarters, my knees were shaking with fatigue. The following day I had the honour of standing guard near the coffin. I strove to erase the memory of the previous night, by performing my duty to the very best of my ability.

The final phase of the tank commander's course involved some substantial field exercises in co-operation with the infantry, and some artillery. These field maneuvers, with precise objectives, co-ordinated movements and attacks, using live ammunition, were also a practical way of testing our achievements. I don't remember anyone failing the test.

At the end of one year of hard training I was a professional tank commander. I received my traditional four days' vacation and spent one day in Givatayim visiting my good friend Hana, the rest of the time I enjoyed being home in Natanya. When I returned to the regiment eighty two, I was assigned my own tank with my own crew. There was a great shortage of tank crews at the time and the training was speeded up by allocating a section of the regiment's camp as a tank school. I was ordered to be an instructor in the school and I was promoted to the rank of sergeant (I now had three strips on my sleeves). As a sergeant, my whole life changed drastically. I shared a real room with another sergeant, much more comfortable than living in a tent or in the open-faced hangar. I was served my food in the officers' dining room, instead of standing in line with the mess tins and getting all the food mixed in one dish. My laundry was done for me. I had more freedom of movement, and more frequent furloughs. The soldiers had to salute me and obey my orders. However, t resolved in my heart that I would not apply the indiscriminate system of punishment so freely meted out during my training time. I punished only for a good reason and for serious infractions, especially those done intentionally or by disregarding a clear warning.

The new group of soldiers, who came to our regiment had arrived in the country very recently, spoke Hebrew poorly, and were from a variety of backgrounds. Some had almost no formal education and they were certainly not inspired by Zionist ideals. They just completed their basic training, probably with great difficulty and problems. Many members of the group had serious social problems. Some were married with a wife and child left behind in some miserable immigrant camp. There were also some with criminal tendencies, even some drug problems. How does one mold such a mixture of human beings into professional tank crews, well disciplined, ready to fight for Israel? My determination to be just in punishment, to avoid punishments as much as possible, sounded kind of hollow in the face of such terrific obstacles, but not for long.

It was about a month later that we were blessed with a new commanding officer. He was young, charismatic, smart, calm under pressure and his name was Hertzel. He organized very intensive Hebrew classes for our soldiers, he brought in social workers who worked hard to alleviate the social problems with which we were afflicted. He organized special entertainment, by inviting various army groups. He taught the instructors how best to handle such people, and above all, he served as a personal example. He was very fair and firm and the soldiers felt that they mattered and that he cared. One could feel the improvement almost on a daily basis. There were no miraculous results. It still took a very long time to teach them the intricacies of the machinery and weaponry of a tank, much more by doing than by lecturing. There were many frustrating hours of work that seemed to have had no positive results, but in the end most of them became reasonably well integrated into the army milieu.

This was not an isolated case. The country was full of newcomers. The army had to be much more than a military organization, it had to be an absorption center for a newly created Israeli society. The instructors, myself included, had many stories related to the struggle of absorbing and integrating such a variety of people. I remember teaching them about the communications in the tank, the radio receiver and transmitter, the codes used in communicating internally and externally. Because of the noise in the tank it was impossible for the driver to be heard by the tank commander even if one shouted the words. During an important exercise, our radio failed. My driver, who was a simple man, and had a hard time learning his new profession, was also a very practical person. He tied a cord to each of his shoulders, handed the other ends to me and told me to handle the cords like the reins of a team of horses. It worked. He eventually mastered his task so well that whenever there was a malfunction he could just listen carefully to the noises emanating from the moving tank and establish unerringly where the defect was.

Unfortunately, he had his bad moments as well. During a joint maneuver involving the infantry, artillery, air force and the tanks, the radio communications of the entire force were on the same channel. We could use the radio internally, but not externally so as not to interfere with the communications of the various commanding officers. According to a prearranged plan, my battalion was to start the "attack" and my tank happened to be the first to move out. We maintained absolute silence on the radio, waiting for the signal to move out. When the signal came, our tank remained standing, after a tense moment of delay, I heard my driver curse and report to me: "Commander, I can't shove it in". He meant that he could not shift into first gear. In his frustration he forgot to switch the radio to the intercom, and the entire force heard his comments to me. He became famous throughout Zahal, and the words: "I can't shove it in" were related by many people in different forms with an endless array of interpretations.

The unrest along the borders of Egypt and Jordan continued to flare up time and again and very often we were placed in a state of alert. That meant that we had to be ready to move out in a matter of minutes. Sometimes, it was the highest degree of alert, that meant that we actually moved out of the camp to an assigned position along the border. During my service, however, I never had the opportunity to be involved in a battle using our tanks, but from time to time the sergeants and corporals in our regiment were ordered to participate in retaliatory actions. The officers wanted the better trained and the most motivated soldiers in order to insure success. Before an action we were well instructed by performing the entire operation many times under identical conditions to those in the field, so that each of us knew exactly what to do. It seems to me now that I could have done it blindfolded. Very soon someone in high command put a stop to these activities; instead Zahal formed a specially trained commando unit whose job was to take care of border infiltrations.

In my final half a year of service, I was again involved in training and upgrading our equipment and our skills. There was almost no opportunity for a four day vacation every three months. Actually I accumulated almost a full month of vacation days which I was not able to enjoy during my service. I developed a very good relationship with my commanding officer and he assured me that I will get my discharge four weeks earlier. That suited me just fine since my intention was to continue my studies and I hoped that by starting in December of 1954 I would be

able to salvage the complete semester which started two months earlier. Unfortunately, my application to the Technion in Haifa to the faculty of Engineering was rejected, due to lack of space. I was told that there were seven applicants for each place. I immediately applied for next year, but I also looked around to do something else till then.

After some diligent searching, I decided to spend the coming faculty year in Jerusalem at the Teachers' Seminary. There was a shortage of teachers, because of the large inflow of new immigrants, so that it was fairly easy to be accepted, even with a two month delay. In order to graduate as an elementary school teacher I needed to study only two years. My intention was to spend only one year at the Seminary, but what if I would be rejected again?

The Seminary had an excellent reputation in the field of education. About half of our courses were taught at the Hebrew University by top professors. Many of our students continued their studies at the Hebrew University to obtain higher degrees in education. So I made my decision and registered at the Teachers' Seminary in Beit Hakerem, a suburb of Jerusalem, located right next door to the beautiful home of my friend Raphael Yeshaya, which was an advantage. Meanwhile, back in my regiment, my superior began to apply various tactics of pressure to convince me to sign on for another year or more. One attraction was to promote me to first sergeant and a few months later to sergeant major, with better living conditions, much better pay and more vacation time. The other offer was to send me to the Officers' School. I was tempted to accept the latter, and agreed to undergo a two-day psychological and physical evaluation of ability and aptitude. The center for such an examination was located near Tel-Aviv and I spent a pleasant couple of days undergoing a multitude of tests and a lot of thinking about my future. I finally made up my mind to be discharged when I complete my service and to study in Jerusalem.

Following my father's advice, I eventually began considering another option: the possibility of studying abroad.... I returned to my base and told my commanding officer that my decision to study is firm and final.

During my last year in the army, my parents made a big move. They managed to save up enough money to buy their own apartment in Natanya, Gordon Street, No. 16. Since I could only manage to come home for one day at a time and even that was done seldom, I really did not have much of a chance to enjoy the apartment. The apartment consisted of a master bedroom, a fairly large living room (Salon - in Israel), a large entrance room, a well arranged kitchen. There were two large balconies, one off the bedroom and living room, facing the street, and the other off the kitchen. The later was used to do the laundry and even to cook in the hot summer days, while the one facing the street had some easy chairs and was the place to spend a cool evening. My father made sure to buy a corner apartment on the West North side, on the third floor. It had plenty of cross currents and was always pleasantly cool. Since my father's arrest in 1940 by the Russians, I really had no chance to live a normal family life, except for the two years between 1950-1952 during which I completed my high school studies. There would be another brief period of over one year, in 1958-59, when I lived with my parents. That means that from the age of nine on, I had to be on my own, most the time earning my own livelihood. Even though during some of those years I lived with my mother only, I was really the man of the house in the true sense of the word.

And now I was off to Jerusalem in a hurry, since the school year already started. I made arrangements to use the accommodations provided by the school. Most students lived two or three to a room, but since I was the oldest and the only student who already completed his army service I was given a room to myself. The student dormitory also provided the meals in its dining hall. My parents insisted on this arrangement so that I should be worry free, concentrate on my studies and make up the missing two months. The atmosphere was pleasant, cheerful in the school and in the dormitory, but socially I felt out of place. I was twenty four in 1955, while all the others were eighteen or nineteen years old. Because of the need for teachers, practically all students had their army service deferred, an attractive advantage for many bright young people.

I brought my bicycle to Jerusalem and it served me well, since I had to travel daily to "Terra Sancta" the main building of the Hebrew University, where half of my lectures took place. There were only three or four boys among the students, the rest were all girls, a fact which caused some envy among my acquaintances and friends. I became very friendly with another student named Adir Cohen, with Lea, from Kfar Yehezkel, and of course, I had my good friend Raphi next door, who also attended Hebrew University.

During the first two months I managed to catch up with my work, to adjust to my new life, to acquaint myself with the various parts of Jerusalem, that is of West Jerusalem only. There were dangerous sections that were best avoided. One could see the Jordanian soldiers on the old city walls. Sometimes they would snipe at people in the Western section, it was best not to go too close to the border line. I also learned the hard way to avoid the old quarter of Mea Shearim, inhabited by Ultra Orthodox Jews. Boys and girls wearing short pants and short sleeved shirts were not welcome on the streets of Mea Shearim. I found that out when Lea decided to take me on a tour of the city, riding our bicycles. We happened to pass by just when the children in their traditional dress were pouring out of their Hadarim (schools). As soon as they saw us, they picked up pebbles and threw them at us, spitting in our direction and shouting "shame, shame." Well, we got out of there in a hurry.

About two months after I started my studies, I received a call for reserve duty for forty five days. I certainly did not expect such a surprise and I wondered what effect it would have on my first year at the Seminary.

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