Reminiscences of the period of the Six Day War

Chaim Simons

Kiryat Arba - June 2007

© Copyright. Chaim Simons. 2007

Anyone who was in Israel at the time of the Six Day War in the summer of 1967, will never forget that period. For a few weeks, a potential holocaust seemed to be looming on the horizon, but, with the help of the Almighty, within the subsequent few days, the enemy was utterly defeated, and Jerusalem, Hebron, Shechem and indeed Eretz Yisrael west of the Jordan river was liberated.

The prayers, fasting, supplications and tears before the Almighty, by world Jewry, ranging from the greatest Rabbis to the Jews in the street, enabled the Israeli armed forces to completely overcome all the Arab armies within just a matter of days. Israel’s success was so swift that even University Professors in War Studies could not explain it academically.

Forty years have now passed since those days, and many people are now relating their reminiscences of those historic and miraculous days.

Here is my story….

I first arrived in Israel on 30 August 1966, the day that the new building of the Knesset was officially opened. I was met at the airport by relatives who had lived in Petach Tiqva since the mid-1920s and taken to their home. About a week later I registered in Bet Brodetsky, a hostel for new immigrants, which was situated in Ramat Aviv. I already had a job as a lecturer in Chemistry at Bar-Ilan University and a few weeks later started work there.

As soon as I arrived in Israel, I wanted to visit Jerusalem but was advised that since the border with Jordan went through the city, I should make my first visit with a tour group. I found such a group and booked a tour. The first place we went to was Mount Zion and the guide warned us that the border was adjacent to it and he had strict instructions from his company that we should not cross the border. Soon after, he showed us a low wall and said that wall was the border and he deliberately went a few metres beyond it! Later I learned that the border was in fact about one hundred metres beyond this wall. He also showed us the Mandelbaum Gate which was then a famous tourist attraction, since it was Israel’s only crossing point to a neighbouring country.

On Chol Hamoed Pesach of 1967, I went to Mount Zion, climbed up the tower there and looked over to see what I could of the Old City. Little did we then dream that by Shavuot it would be in our hands.

Since the restaurant at Bet Brodetsky was closed throughout Pesach, I made arrangements with some friends of mine who lived very nearby, and whose parents had come over from Britain for an extended holiday, to eat with them throughout Pesach. It was just a couple of weeks after Pesach that Egypt began to move her army into the Sinai Peninsula and the preparations by the neighbouring Arab States for what they hoped to be the destruction of Israel intensified. My friends immediately realizing the potential danger, sent their parents straight back to Britain.

I had at about that period been invited to stay for a Shabbat with the Director of Public Relations of Bar-Ilan University. That Shabbat another guest who was present suggested I go and visit Yeshivat Hagev in Netivot. I took up this suggestion of his.

About ten days before the start of the Six Day War I took a bus to Netivot. I recollect reading a sign during the course of this journey, which said that the border was just ahead. It was the border with the Gaza strip. In those days buses did not go into Netivot, but stopped at the entrance to the city. I got off and went to the house of the Rosh Yeshiva, Rabbi Yissachar Mayer, who spoke perfect English.

I remember the exact date – Friday 16 Iyar (26 May). The reason I can be sure of this was that although Ashkenazim can shave on that day since Lag B’Omer was on the following Sunday, I had not done so, and Rabbi Mayer asked me if I was a Sepharadi. When I arrived in Netivot that day, the Yeshiva students were busy digging trenches to run to in case of air-raid attacks. Although the Yeshiva had recently built a dormitory block, it did not have a shelter. These trenches were in the shape of a zigzag.

After Shabbat I returned to Bet Brodetsky and in a letter to my parents told them I had gone to Netivot and mentioned in passing that the bus going there had gone near the border. I didn’t realise at the time that the Jews in the Diaspora were in a terrible panic on account of the situation in Israel and my mother write back that I should not go near any borders. I later learned that parents who had children in Israel, were during those weeks crying during the Shabbat services in the Shuls. My parents had a booking to come to visit Israel – it would be their first visit – on the day the war started (or possibly the day before). However because of the war, the flights were cancelled and instead they came after the war.

In the weeks before the war, parents were desperately trying to send telegrams to their children to return to the Diaspora. However since the telephone lines were clogged full, they generally did not succeed, and this included my parents. I had a cousin in Israel at the time. Her father worked for a big firm in London and it had a direct communications line to Israel. He utilized this to send her a telegram to come home. She was furious when she received it and told them “I would have expected it from anybody but you.”

Just before the war began – I don’t remember exactly when – there was a meeting between some of the residents and the Manageress of Bet Brodetsky at which some residents offered their services for various civilians tasks in Bet Brodetsky should a war break out. However, when it actually came to the war, I myself didn’t notice many of these “volunteers” doing anything. I did not attend simply because I did not know about this meeting in advance.

The Manageress told me that some of the residents had told her that they would leave Israel should a war break out but they would return to Bet Brodetsky after the war! She replied to them that she didn’t know whether there would still be a Bet Brodetsky after the war (from this answer one can see how seriously those in Israel regarded the Arab threats of annihilation of Israel) and even if there was, whether Bet Brodetsky would be prepared to take them back. I told her that I had no intention of leaving Israel and she answered hat she had been sure that that was the case.

At that period (I don’t remember whether it was before, during, or soon after the war) some English speaking journalists from abroad came to Bet Brodetsky and had a meeting with some of the residents, which included myself. I spoke at this meeting and knowing how journalists are likely to write down something quite different from what one says to them, I asked one of them to read back what he had written. What he read out, not only was not what I said, it didn’t even make any sense!

During this pre-war period, I put up notices in my room concerning the trust we must have in the Almighty. These were the days when the noose was tightening around Israel. The Egyptians had moved their forces into the Sinai Peninsula. Nasser had ordered the United Nations to remove their peace keeping forces from Sinai, resulting in the immediate compliance by the United Nations. The Straits of Tiran were closed to Israeli shipping thus cutting off Israel’s trade to the Far East. King Hussein of Jordan signed a defence treaty with Egypt. Syria and Jordan amassed their armed forces around Israel’s eastern border.

On the Thursday before the Six Day War, the Israeli Chief Rabbinate declared a fast and the Synagogues were filled with worshippers. I myself fasted and went to the Minchah service held at the Synagogue at Bar-Ilan University which was full with both men and women worshippers.

The war began on Monday 5 June. In fact that morning I overslept and was awoken by the wail of a siren at about eight o’clock. Only when I got to the University did I learn that the war had started. The staff from the Chemistry department were busy moving expensive equipment and inflammable chemicals into a safer location. One of the staff was still busy with taking a final research reading on one of these machines!

During the course of that day we were running in and out of the air-raid shelters at the bidding of the sirens. A story was being passed around that the Administrative Director of the University had heard that Israel had destroyed 400 Arab aircraft and that he was jumping for joy. However at the time we dismissed this as wishful thinking. My immediate reaction was that someone had added a few noughts! As I recollect, the Staff were told to return home early.

I had heard that day that shortages could occur with food and so I immediately on returning to Bet Brodetsky went to the supermarket which was situated nearby and bought a large number of tinned goods. Due to the fact that in the end there were no food shortages, I didn’t use any of these tins. After the war I offered to give them to my relatives in Petach Tiqva, but they told me they didn’t use such tins. I don’t recollect what finally happened to them.

Because of the danger of aerial bombardment, a blackout was imposed and during the course of that day instructions to its implementation were given over the radio. (There was not yet television in Israel.) Vehicle drivers were given instructions how to blackout their headlights and because of this, in order to avoid accidents, a strict speed restriction was imposed for nighttime.

The lights in the corridors of Bet Brodetsky were the type that when one pressed a switch to turn them on, they remained on for a short period and then went off automatically. One could not turn them off manually. This was of course a problem when there is a blackout, since when these corridor lights are on, one can see the light outside through the windows. The residents would out of habit press these light switches during the war. The solution would have been to disconnect these lights at the main switch but as the Manageress pointed out this would also turn off the enormous refrigerator which had a compartment for every two residents and which was operated from the same main switch. I don’t know if and how this problem was solved. I do recollect that on one occasion when a light was seen from outside, one of the civil defense people on duty outside, called out “Bet Brodetsky. Turn off the light.”

That Monday night, as soon as it got dark, the sirens again sounded. I even remember the exact time 19.20 hours, since I was just about to daven Ma’ariv. All those in Bet Brodetsky ran to the shelter where we remained until the all clear signal which was about an hour and a half later. The room used as a shelter had some small windows near to the ceiling and either on that Monday or the following day, the residents put sand bags by these windows. The public had been informed that they could take sand from where it was to be found but they should not leave a hole for passers by to fall into.

In order to break the tension of just sitting in a shelter, some residents turned on their transistor radios to play some music, but someone called out hysterically, “Turn it off, people are at the moment being killed.” Whilst in the shelter, I could hear bangs in the distance and I assumed that Tel Aviv was being bombed. When I finally came out, I could see a fire in the distance and assumed Tel Aviv was burning.

I went to bed full of apprehension, fully clothed, since I thought there might well be further air-raids that night. At about four o’clock in the morning, I was woken up to another siren, and wondered whether I had slept through any air-raids – but I hadn’t. It was back to the shelter and I saw that almost no-one had changed into pajamas that night.

Opposite Bet Brodetsky was the local Shul and about six o’clock or six thirty that Tuesday morning I went there to daven Shacharit. We had reached about the Shema, when the siren sounded. The Shliach Tzibur continued as if nothing was happening, although he did recite the shortened repetition of the Amidah. However after the service he added some Tehillim. Someone, I think he may have been the gabbai, opened the big windows of the Shul when the siren sounded, presumably to minimize the effect of any possible blast. Meanwhile some civil defense people had arrived and immediately after these Tehillim, told the people to go straight to the shelter, and should there be an air raid in the future, they should continue davening in the shelter.

That day – Tuesday - I stayed in Bet Brodetsky. The previous night, when not in the shelters, some of the residents sat in the lounge. Having big windows, they of course had to sit in the dark. I felt that this should not have to be repeated and that black blankets should be nailed over these windows. The management supplied me with the materials and tools to do this job. The news that day was far better and the destruction of 400 enemy aircraft appeared in that day’s newspapers, and I had my transistor radio by my side to hear updates of the news. It was not easy to nail up these heavy blankets single-handed but I struggled to do so. There was one other person at the time in the lounge. Instead of offering to help, he turned on my transistor and demanded I make less noise banging in the nails for these blankets since it disturbed him listening to the transistor. Afterwards I checked the efficiency of these blankets from the outside of the building, but apart from one very tiny spot of light shining through a flaw in the weave of the blanket when viewed from a certain angle, no light penetrated to the outside. I asked the civil defence person on duty whether this tiny spot mattered and he said it was of no significance.

As that day progressed, the news became more exciting, especially in the case of Jerusalem. I would go round to people, especially those I thought would be in the know, asking how the war around Jerusalem was progressing. One person even drew me a sketch showing which areas we had already captured and which areas were at the time giving more trouble in capturing.

The first thing the following morning – Wednesday 7 June - I listened to the BBC World News which said that the Old City of Jerusalem had been virtually captured by the Israelis. I went to Shul full of excitement and said to some worshippers that the Old City was in our hands. One of the worshippers asked how I knew this and told him in English what I had heard on the BBC. He told me he didn’t understand English and I translated it into Hebrew. That day, the Likud daily newspaper “Hayom” had a cartoon of the Kotel with arms coming out of it embracing an Israeli soldier and saying “I have waited for you for 19 years.”

On that Wednesday I went to the University. I felt sure that there would be no more air-raids. On the way I decided to go into my bank which was in Ramat Gan. Whilst I was on the bus, the siren sounded. The bus immediately stopped and everyone ran off looking for the nearest shelter. After the all-clear sounded I went on to the bank and then the University. Throughout the day I tried to get further information on what was happening in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria. It wasn’t until the mid-afternoon that I officially heard of the liberation of the Old City of Jerusalem.

I learned that day that Shechem and Nablus were the same place! Whenever I heard that a place in Judea and Samaria had been liberated, such as Bethlehem or Gush Etzion, I looked to see where it was on the map. I heard that Shechem had been liberated but wondered what had happened with Nablus!

That night whilst sitting in the lounge of Bet Brodetsky I would listen hour after hour to the news, which included the service at the Kotel immediately after it had been liberated. Even though I heard it numerous times, it was just as exciting each time. I afterwards heard from someone living abroad that not only could they hear the service, they could also see it on the television.

On the following day – Thursday 8 June – it was announced that there would be a ceasefire between Israel and Jordan and I was worried whether it would come into effect before the complete liberation of Judea and Samaria. Would Hebron be liberated? It took me a little time to discover that Israel had in fact managed to liberate all these areas.

That day, Bar-Ilan University made an impromptu celebration in their restaurant in which both academic and administrative staff participated. One of the Chemistry lecturers was full of excitement that he climbed on a table in the department and either drew or pointed to a map of the places Israel had liberated. Sadly, he received news in the subsequent days that two of his sons had been killed in this war. He heard this news regarding each son separately. When it was known that a second son had been killed, his friends were debating how to break the news to him.

By that Friday 9 June, the war with Egypt and Jordan was over and the battle continued for another two days with Syria on the Golan Heights. I decided to spend that Shabbat with my relatives in Petach Tiqva. The blackout restrictions were still in effect and I saw notices from Rabbi Lande of Bnei Brak that one should not have any lights in a place where it might be found necessary to extinguish them on Shabbat. In fact just minutes before Shabbat it was announced that the blackout was canceled.

Shavuot was on the following Wednesday and it was announced that the Kotel would be open to Jews from that day onwards. I was sure that it would be very crowded and that it would thus be near impossible to approach it and so I decided to wait a few days. On the Thursday I asked someone who had been there on Shavuot whether it was possible to get near the Kotel and he said it was possible. It was too late to go that day and I decided to go on the following Sunday.

The only road then open to the Kotel was via Mount Zion. I don’t remember whether one entered the Old City via Zion Gate or the Dung Gate. The Jerusalem railway station was opposite Mount Zion and I therefore went by train from Tel Aviv – the train was crowded - to Jerusalem. I walked up Mount Zion, over the old border and excitedly approached and went through the gate in the Old City wall. I then walked along a path, with barriers at each side warning people that there might be mines across these barriers.

After a few minutes I reached the Kotel. The area in front of the Kotel which had been originally been full of dwellings had already been demolished by the Israelis, thus giving a much larger praying area. Whilst there that day, I recited the entire book of Tehillim. I afterwards wrote to my parents that this had been the best day of my life,

A few weeks later, the city of Jerusalem was unified and was brought under Israeli sovereignty. Jews could then go freely all over Jerusalem. A day or so later was Shabbat and I was in Jerusalem for that Shabbat, although I cannot remember where I stayed. It was probably in some Yeshiva. Incidentally, I had planned being in Jerusalem that Shabbat before I knew that the whole city would be open to Jews.

Already on the Friday. I walked to the Old City. I was not the only one with this idea, since its narrow streets were packed out. Again on the Shabbat I went for a walk in the Old City and again the streets were crowded.

A week or so later, Bar-Ilan University arranged a tour of Judea and Samaria. This took place on the Sunday of Rosh Chodesh Tammuz. I particularly remember the date since one of the participants said he was going to daven Mussaf at the Kotel during the course of this tour.

Since the tour was going to start early on the Sunday morning, I spent Shabbat at Bar-Ilan. One of the academic staff of Bar-Ilan acted as the tour guide giving explanations at every place that we visited. However, I can only recollect a few of the details of this tour. We first went, I think, to some archaeological site in Samaria. The Old City of Jerusalem was of course on the itinerary and at the Kotel we met up with the Chancellor of Bar-Ilan University who addressed us. We also went, amongst other places. to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron. Although towards the end of the tour it was already getting towards night, some of the participants wanted to visit Jericho, and we quickly went there and back. During the course of the traveling, one of the men who had a pleasant voice sang a number of songs via the loudspeaker system of the coach. One of the songs was “Ata chonein leadam daat.” During the final part of the return journey, when it was already dark and many of the participants were already sleeping, one of the boys on the coach suddenly starting singing through this loudspeaker system, not to the satisfaction of some of those on the coach!

Forty years have now past since those days, when with the help of the Almighty we succeeded in the course of a few days in getting Eretz Yisrael west of the Jordan River in our possession. Sadly, instead of massive settlement of Jews in all these liberated areas – and had we had the desire, there could be millions of Jews in Judea and Samaria today – groups of Jews have had to fight with the Israeli government to build almost every apartment. Let us now change our ways and instead of expelling Jews, build, build and more build, and thus have a massive settlement of Jews in all the liberated areas of Eretz Yisrael.

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