Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts excerpted from journal entries kept by Fried, an American volunteer in Israel just before and during the Six-Day War, culminating with the reunification of Jerusalem.
As I write these words, jet fighters are battling above us, bombs are exploding around us, and the nation of Israel is at war.
I arrived in Israel late last night as part of a group of American volunteers. Our objective: to show solidarity with Israel and to offer whatever help we were capable of, at this terribly frightening time. We left our jobs, schools, families and friends, and our mothers crying at the airport. Everyone understood, war was imminent.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, ruler of Egypt, had just closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping. He ordered the United Nations peacekeeping force to leave the Sinai immediately. He replaced them with 10 highly mechanized Egyptian military divisions, approximately 120,000 men, with tanks, trucks, artillery, and all stationed adjacent to Israel’s southern border. His 500-plane Soviet supplied air force was there to support his army. He proudly proclaimed for all to hear that his soldiers were ready to throw every last Jew into the sea.
Egypt then formed a military alliance with Syria, while Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon all expressed their readiness to support his attack on Israel. They too publicly proclaimed their intention to destroy Israel and kill every Jew there. Some 20 plus years after the Holocaust, just 19 years in the life of Israel, the world again stood quietly by as Jews were threatened, and watched.
Our flight from New York went without incident, however we shared fully half the cabin with large boxes containing gas masks and marked Ft. Bennings Georgia. We later learned that the Egyptians has stored massive quantities of poison gas in the Sinai ready for use against Israel.
As we approached Israeli airspace and could almost make out the Tel Aviv shoreline in the distance, somebody called out “look at the wings.” We could barely believe our eyes, two Mirage fighter jets, one on each wing tip, were there to escort us in. Our spirits now soared and as the plane touched down, a spontaneous chorus of Hevenu Shalom Aleichem broke out, emotions were high, we felt as if we had finally come home.
To our amazement, Lod airport was effectively closed. It was dark, almost nobody there, and not a single plane on the tarmac. We were greeted by a representative of the Jewish Agency, then by a representative of Americans and Canadians for a Safe Israel, given some useful gifts, and thanked for our dedication to Israel. We were then dispatched immediately to our assigned destinations. Our group of 8 volunteers arrived at Kibbutz Lavi at 11:30 pm Israel time.
We were met by a member of the kibbutz assigned to us, given rooms and bedding. He apologized for no official welcome, as he said the situation did not allow it. We were told that morning prayers begin at 5:30 a.m. and breakfast at 6:00, so that in order to get a good start we should be there … on time.
At 7:00 a.m. our orientation began, which consisted of a thank you on the part of the state [of] Israel and of the Kibbutz, a statement of what is expected of us, and a short tour of the Kibbutz.
Kibbutz Lavi is an Orthodox farming settlement, founded by a group from England in 1949. Located in the hills of the southern Galilee at an elevation of 600 feet above sea level, the views are magnificent. The holy city of Safed and Mt. Meron are to the north, Lake Kinneret and the mountains of Syria to the east, and Mt. Tabor to the south.
While the kibbutz is primarily agricultural, it contains several thousand chickens, about 200 cows, a shop that produces furniture for synagogues, and a guest house, this being its largest source of income. The dining hall is the fulcrum of the community and is surrounded by beautiful lawns, gardens, living quarters, and one of the most beautiful synagogues in Israel.
As our rather hurried tour concluded we were again reminded to be [sic] that time was short and there is much work to be done. Our first job was to dig ditches to be used as shrapnel shelters around the dining hall, schools, and the various buildings that children occupied.
Just shortly after we began, a Kibbutz member came running over to our instructor and informed him that “the Egyptians had started, they invaded in the Negev.” Within a few minutes the Kibbutz was in an uproar. We were at war and I was in disbelief.
Here I was, not even a day in Israel and all hell was breaking loose. We were instructed to start digging immediately. “Dig fast and deep, you might be needing these ditches yourself.”
Immediately after lunch an emergency meeting was called during which we were instructed by the Military Commander of the Kibbutz of the necessary precautions. Dinner was to be served before dark and there was to be a total blackout. No one, for any reason was to leave the residential area, and excessive walking about was prohibited. An army truck had brought a supply of rifles and sub-machine guns, and the night patrol was to be tripled. The telephones were to be attended at all times.
At the conclusion of the instructions, the military commander informed us that he had received word from the central Military Command that Israel was in the process of repelling the Egyptian attack, and that over 130 planes at the Cairo airport had been completely destroyed. That news certainly brought a momentary sigh of relief, but we were now at war.
Things started happening at a fantastic pace. Fighter jets and bombers were flying directly above us towards Syria, and bombs were heard exploding on every side. The number of downed Egyptian planes had risen to 149, but had not yet been officially confirmed. Every radio on the Kibbutz was at full volume and at every new broadcast work stopped as groups gathered to listen.
In the interim, Radio Cairo broadcasted that the Egyptian army had split Israeli forces in the Negev into two, thereby dividing them completely. They reported that Tel Aviv and Natanya were heavily bombed.
As the day progressed several other Kibbutz members joined the ditch digging crew. By now it was mutually agreed that there would be no room for any of us because the woman [sic] and children would be the first ones in.
All sorts of rumors were floating around, most positive but some negative. The radio reported progress in Syria but said nothing about the war in the Negev against Egypt. That led to a fear that the Radio Cairo’s boasts might be true.
At about 2:20 in the afternoon we were all startled by a tremendous noise in the sky. Above us, slightly to the North, there were 3 planes which seemed to be in an air battle. They were flying, turning and diving in all sorts of ways.Then suddenly we saw a parachute open carrying a man earthward, while his plane burst into a ball of fire, and crashed into a mountain. A helicopter then approached and picked up the man. The plane continued to smoke for 4 hours afterward.
At first we heard the downed plane was an Israeli Mirage. That was followed up by a report that the downed plane was a Russian Illusion of the Syrian air force. As night approached, there was an official confirmation of 130 Egyptian and 12 Syrian jets destroyed. This brought a certain feeling of relief to us.
By now It was completely dark, except for the fires in the distance. All of us expected to be hit at any minute as we were only 5 miles from the Syrian border. Nevertheless, many people had gathered in the dining hall to hear the news together. At about 10:30 p.m., due to extreme fatigue from 10 hours of work, I went to bed. I thought of my mother and how she must be worrying, if only some way I could get a message to her.
Tuesday, June 6: We awoke this morning after a night of very little sleep. Bombs continued to be exploding around us, and the steady drone of air raid sirens from Tiberias were clearly audible. The war was now in full swing. At about 3:00 a.m. a huge convoy of tanks and trucks passed on the road below, and during the two and a half hours it took to pass, no one got any sleep. Between the rumble of the tanks, and the deadly explosions in the distance, a sort-of extra closeness began developing between our group and the Kibbutz members.
During the news broadcast at breakfast we learned that Tiberias, the Hula valley, and the Kibbutzim on the Syrian border were being heavily shelled.Those were the massive fires that we had seen in the distance. We also were informed that Israel had now taken the battle to Jordan.
The morning was again spent digging ditches, and the afternoon in the vineyards pruning grape vines.The work hours were from 7:00 a.m. to noon, and then from 12:30 until 4:30 p.m. A total of 9 hours. However with breaks every hour for news, and with more brakes [sic] every time jets fly or fight overhead, not too much gets accomplished. The news for the most part, was very positive.
As evening approached the war was reported as being one sided. Israel had downed no less that 400 Arab planes, a truly unbelievable amount. Not only that, but Israel had lost only 16 planes and 7 pilots upon doing so. Israel was bombing Syria but still no word from the Negev. All sorts of theories were put forth explaining why no news. The prevailing opinion was that we did not want the world to know how far we had advanced, for fear it would stop us in mid-battle.
That evening there was a gathering of all the volunteer workers, the regular work-study groups, and some of the Kibbutz members. It turned out to be a beautiful little party during which Hebrew songs were sung and Israeli dancing took place. All by the light of 2 little candles.
As soon as darkness came, the roads and fields were again filled with troop and artillery movements. It soon became apparent that this night time movement was a main tactic of the Israeli army. Imagine the surprise of an Arab attack force when it expects a position thought to have a certain number of soldiers, and suddenly finds itself attacked by ten times that many. Aside from the night movements, troops moved by day through the fields and not by roads, so that their positions and concentrations were kept secret. It’s plain to see that in order to do this, an excellent knowledge of the terrain is required. And I think no one knows their country better than Israelis.
And so, off to sleep. The bombing continues and the fires burn across the country side. Our Kibbutz is still blacked out, and again we prayed we would not be hit.
By Sigmund Fried
Sigmund Fried is a contributor to Jewish publications in Israel, the United States and Canada, and author of TheIsraelNarrative.com, a commentary on current Israeli and Jewish affairs, and lives in Teaneck.