Ordinary Heroes: Fear, Unity, Victory


It’s hard to believe that 50 years have gone by since the emotion-laden days of June, 1967. Anyone old enough to recall the Six Day War will remember the unbearable tension in the weeks before the outbreak of fighting. President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and other Arab leaders held no politically-correct inhibitions preventing them from announcing what they planned to do. As one typical Radio Cairo announcement declared, “All Egypt is now prepared to plunge into total war which will put an end to Israel.” With his blockade of the Straits of Tiran, at the entrance to the Red Sea, and the massing of Egyptian troops on the Sinai border, there was no reason not to believe Nasser’s intentions. In Israel, there was a real fear that Israel’s Arab neighbors would join together to fulfill the old threat to “drive the Jews into the sea.”

Would this be the end of the Jewish State? Another Holocaust? Today, of course, we know the end of the story, when sudden and glorious victory gave rise to a euphoria akin to that of the Jewish people upon the shores of the Yam Suf millenia before. But before that happened, Israelis as well as Jews around the world davened and worried and followed the news closely.

What was it like for the Israelis? What kind of memories do they have? And what about Jews who lived in Israel’s “neighborhood”? Here, some Baltimoreans who were there tell their stories:

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Orit Gnatt was a very young child when the war broke out. Her family lived in the Beit Yisrael section of Jerusalem, which at that time was very close to the border. It was an old apartment building without a miklat (bomb shelter), so the five families in the two-story building camped out in a first-floor neighbor’s apartment, whose son was serving in the army.

The adults were constantly huddled around the radio, listening for any scrap of news. “We could hear explosions in the background,” says Orit, who does not remember being scared but acknowledges that she was probably too young to understand the danger they were in. Although she doesn’t have a memory of the border before the war, Orit does remember that, afterwards, “everyone would walk to the Kotel on Shabbat or to the tomb of Shimon HaTzadik,” also formerly off-limits in Jordanian-held Jerusalem.

Orit’s father was in the army, serving at least part of the time in Jerusalem, disassembling bombs. Some time after the fighting was over, he took the family in an army vehicle to Har Habayit and to Kever Rachel for the first time. Years later, she went with her father to a memorial dedication ceremony near the old border for the soldiers who had fallen, many of whom were from her father’s unit. Coincidentally, when Orit was living in California as an adult, she encountered a man from the Sochnut (Jewish Agency) whose last name sounded familiar. It was the soldier son of the neighbor in whose apartment they had taken shelter!

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Adi Brito is from Netanya.  One thing which made quite an impression on the four-year-old Adi was that the army brought many of the conquered enemy tanks and cannons to the downtown area after the war. For the children who climbed all over them, it was like a big amusement park.

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Tania Shichtman is from Lebanon, the country that lies just north of Israel. Her family lived in Beirut, though outside the Jewish quarter. “It was a beautiful city and a beautiful life,” she says, “until the war.” The Jews knew that if Israel won, they would be saved, and if not, they were in great danger. Tania was a teenager at the time and remembers sitting by the radio day and night worrying. It was not only their Moslem neighbors whom they had to worry about. “The Lebanese Christian neighbors hated us almost as much as the Moslems. We understood that our lives depended on the success of Israel, and we were petrified. If Israel lost, angry mobs would come to our house. It was pretty frightening. The first three days, before the true facts came out, it was very scary. That was the first time I realized the importance of having Israel.” Tania describes the tremendous relief when the war ended with Israel victorious: “It was like going back to life. I can remember those days like they were yesterday.”

After the Six Day War, Tania’s family realized that they could no longer stay in Lebanon. Until the war, they had lived together and were friends, but after the war, attitudes changed. “It wasn’t our country. We were not wanted.” There was a lot of resentment that Israel had won. “We didn’t have a very hard time but it was emotionally wrenching,” explains Tania. She had grown up thinking she was part of the country, and “all of the sudden you are a stranger.” They left Lebanon in 1970 and went to Panama, where her brothers had already settled. There she met her American husband who was working for the Defense Department. The new couple were not particularly religious and moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, where her husband Mel got a job. “My husband, my son, and I began to return to Judaism together, but then our son took off, and we had to play catch-up,” says Tania.

Their son Max felt drawn to Judaism even as a very young boy. The Shichtmans realized that they had to move to a Jewish area for his sake. But it was not enough for Max. By the time he was bar mitzva, he decided to wear a kippa and expressed a desire to attend Beth Tfiloh school. Tania and Mel were happy with this and encouraged him, because they wanted to get closer to their roots as well. Eventually Max became a rabbi and now lives in New York.

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Jonathan Attar was a teenager living in Iran. He recalls the first days of the war when the only news they heard was the Arab propaganda declaring their victories. All the Jews were crying, and fast days were proclaimed. The Moslem population, meanwhile, was rejoicing in the streets, shouting “Death to Israel! Death to America” and giving out candies.

Even for a few weeks after the war, the synagogues were closed because the Jews were afraid the Moslems would come and try to kill them. Fortunately, no one was hurt. A few weeks later, everything was back to normal, and they resumed the relationship they had with their Moslem neighbors as it was before the war.
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Dina Felsman was nearing the end of her army service when the war broke out. Originally from Bat Yam, she was assigned to teach adult education in Netivot in the Negev, whose population comprised mostly new immigrants from Tunisia and Morocco. Shortly after Yom HaAtzmaut of 1967, Dina heard a lot of rumbling at night on the usually quiet road leading south toward the Sinai. It was trucks heading to the front. “War was in the air for about three weeks,” she recalls. As tensions mounted, she and her roommate Tzippi volunteered to do something extra for the war effort. They were assigned to a small moshav called Nevatim, which was further south, between Beersheva and Dimona. The residents of the moshav were Jews from Cochin, India.

“We two girls in uniform were ‘the army’ there,” says Dina. The two young women were in charge of security and military communications for the moshav. Most of the men were mobilized into the army, and the remaining residents were women, children, and a few senior citizens. They made sure that ditches for shelter were prepared, the sirens went off in time, and everyone ran to shelter.

The teenage boys and older men who were not in the army dug trenches in front of every house and the school. Coverings were made of asbestos covered with sacks of sand, which the eighth grade boys had filled.

Dina and Tzippi were in constant direct contact with their army base near Beersheva. During the day, they taught school, keeping a radio in the classroom, and at night they were in a dedicated room in city hall where they were in charge of guard duty. “We took turns sleeping and listening to the radio since one of us had to be in constant touch with headquarters.” The older men did army patrols at night.

There was more work to do during the day as well. Nevatim’s parnassa depended on its apricot orchards, but there were no workers around to pick the fruit. So Dina and Tzippi took the children to the orchard after school, and they all worked picking and crating the fruit.

On Wednesday, June 7th, they were listening to the radio and were overcome with emotion as they heard Rabbi Goren blow the shofar and proclaim, “Har Habayit beyadeinu – The Temple Mount is in our hands!” On Sunday, June 11th, the girls gave their classes over to some parents and hitched a ride to Jerusalem. After some pleading, they were allowed to get a ride in an army jeep to the Kotel. At that time, there was no plaza in front of the Kotel. Soldiers were still clearing the area of collapsed houses, many of them formerly used by Jordanian snipers. “This was the highlight of the war for us – being at the Kotel (before the gates of Jerusalem were opened to the public). It was very emotional,” says Dina.

“Then we started walking around the Old City, and it was amazing. The only people we saw there were other soldiers. All the Arab shops in the Old City shuk were shuttered.” The shopkeepers were in hiding, fearing that what they would have done to the Jews had the Arab nations won the Jews would now do to them. But of course, that was not the case. A year later, Dina was back at the Kotel for Yom Yerushalayim. “What happened to my Kotel? It looked so different,” she thought. There was now a large plaza in front of it.

Dina talks about the euphoric days after the war, “Everybody just wanted to help everybody else. Everyone was so nice to each other. Everyone was united.” Dina went with a friend to Tel Aviv where the movie theater posted a big sign saying, “Soldiers in uniform come in free.”

She remembers hitchhiking back to Nevatim, to which there was very little bus transportation. In the past she might stand at a hitchhiking post for a long time, but immediately following the war, everyone stopped. Everyone wanted to give to the soldiers. Even a taxi driver stopped and gave her a free lift.

Dina also recalls a different side to the postwar days. The twin brother of one of her roommates from Netivot had been killed, and she and all the roommates went to a ceremony at a temporary cemetery in the Negev for soldiers who fell in the war. “It was so sad. There were so many graves, and so many of them were marked ‘unknown’ or had signs reading ‘tank number such-and-such.’ It was the saddest experience. We saw generals crying for their boys. You know, we were so happy after the war was won, but then you go to the cemetery and you start thinking of the terrible price that was paid.”

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Noa Goldman was raised in the religious kibbutz, Chafetz Chaim. She remembers those days in ’67 well. “Just thinking back on it, I can hardly speak about it, even now.” Noa was 22 and studying in a school of social work in Tel Aviv. With war imminent, she returned to the kibbutz, where she was assigned to work with a woman who took care of sick people. She recalls the night the fighting actually broke out; she was so emotional that she actually developed a fever.

Early in the morning, after Israel attacked and destroyed the Egyptian air force, they all knew about it, although she does not remember the source of the news. “We knew that the war on the Egyptian front would be much easier from then on, because if you control the air, you control the ground.”

A wartime blackout was imposed. Windows were taped over or covered, and automobile headlights were painted black. On the kibbutz, “we still went outside, even at night time, but we were careful. I guess I was too young to be really fearful, but knew enough to be cautious.” Every day during the war, it became easier, because every day they heard of more Israeli successes. Chaim Herzog was the military commentator for Kol Yisrael, and his voice had a very calming effect on the citizens.

When the war ended, people began to come home from the army, including her brother Dovid. It was a very emotional reunion. From a distance their mother’s friend spotted him walking up the long path to the kibbutz. She shouted, “Dukseleh is here! Dukseleh is here!” Mother and son ran to each other. One of Dovid’s jobs had been working with the mines. “Baruch Hashem, all the soldiers from the kibbutz survived the war, although one soldier was slightly wounded by shrapnel.”

Noa recalls Naomi Shemer’s “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” (Jerusalem of Gold), an extremely popular song then. “It was originally released two weeks before the war, but once Jerusalem was liberated, two more stanzas were added.

“People said, as time went by, that 1948 was the War of Independence, and in 1967 Hashem gave us the entire land of Israel as a gift. He allowed the missing parts to again become part of total Israel. We saw open miracles all over the place during this war.

“During the war, after we got the Kotel, we were all tuned to the radio and heard Rabbi Goren make a ‘Shehechiyanu’ and blow the shofar. We were all listening and crying. Even now, I can barely speak about it, because it is so emotional just thinking back on those days. We knew it was an historic time.”

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Mota Gur (not the famous general but the other Mota Gur who had been a famous soccer player) was 20 years old and serving as a tank commander in the army when the war broke out. His unit was among those that sealed off Israel’s border all the way down to the Negev. Early in the morning the fighting began they noticed there were jets flying above them—which, unbeknownst to them, were Israeli jets on the way to decimate the Egyptian air force. Soon after, Mota’s unit started moving in and took over Gaza.

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Margalit Tiede was only nine years old and living with her family in Moshav Yish’i, a small agricultural village comprised of Yemenite immigrants. While growing up, Margalit lived a very sheltered and somewhat secluded life. There was no real transportation, and they rarely left the yishuv to go further than nearby Beit Shemesh by horse and wagon.

Before the war, moshav members made a trip to Beit Shemesh to stock up on dried goods and necessities for the “shelters” (actually, just trenches they had dug themselves). Families were instructed to prepare food and water ahead of time. Twice a day, Margalit’s father, who was a paramedic in the reserves, and her brother would leave the shelter and milk the cows while “hoping that nothing would happen.” The chickens also had to be cared for. “Life doesn’t stop on the farm, so we had to keep doing these things during the war,” says Margalit.

The moshavniks usually went to Beit Shemesh every Tuesday and Thursday to sell their produce. During the war, however, they had to wait for a cease-fire in order to travel. Whenever they heard a siren, day or night, they all had to run to the trenches. When it seemed quiet, her mother would quickly run home and cook them food. On some of the days, they heard the sirens constantly and saw the airplanes flying overhead, never knowing whether they were friend or foe. Most of the men were in the army or in the reserves. The remaining men patrolled the moshav.

“We could hear explosions and knew when something was happening, but no one told us what was going on for many days.” She doesn’t think people were afraid. As children, they used to run out and play when there were no sirens. Also, they did receive news of the Israeli successes, although not every day.

“I remember that after Jerusalem was liberated someone came to our village with a loudspeaker and announced, ‘Yerushalayim beyadeinu.’” Everyone ran out of their trenches onto the streets of the moshav, shouting to each other, “Yerushalayaim beyadeinu” and dancing in the street.

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Gila Davis was 12 years old and living in Cairo with her well-to-do family. The Six Day War was when she realized that it was a big deal to be a Jew living in a Moslem land. Before the war, they had friendly Arab neighbors, and “everything was fine.” As the war drums began beating, the Jews felt something ominous in the air. Those wealthy enough, sent money out of the country for safekeeping.

The day the war started, a fast day was proclaimed in the community. As soon as the fighting began, Gila’s father and all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested. They were taken to a type of concentration camp three hours away, in the desert, where conditions were terrible. In the beginning, while the war was going on, the men suffered terrible torture, and for nine months there was no communication at all. No one knew the men’s fate. Gila’s family feared their father was dead.

The day before the police took Gila’s father away, her mother had gone into the hospital for emergency surgery. When they came to arrest him the next afternoon, her father gave Gila the keys to his business. ”Take care of your siblings and don’t let anyone in,” he told her.

“I was in a trance. I didn’t know what was going on.” Gila says. There was no parent in the house as her mother was still in the hospital. Gila heard a commotion and went to the balcony overlooking the building’s courtyard. She saw masses of Arabs rallying against the Jews and promising to kill them. A young man, the son of their Italian Jewish neighbor, was being dragged away by the police. His young wife, with a new baby in one arm, was holding on to him with her other, pleading, “Please don’t take him away!” The policeman threw the woman to the ground. Gila started crying, believing they would never see their father again. Then all her siblings joined in with her tears.

The Italian neighbors, an elderly couple, came into the apartment and arranged for the children to go to their grandparents’ apartment in a different neighborhood, not in the Jewish area. (At the end of the war, when Nasser resigned and the truth came out, the Moslem neighbors there wanted to kill them all. Only their grandparents’ Christian landlord managed save them.)

Before the war, Gila had lived a very sheltered life, and her father was quite overprotective. The children didn’t go anywhere other than the expensive French school they attended and straight home. Her mother never left the house, and when her father was gone it was especially hard for her. “My mother didn’t even know how to go to the store and buy a loaf of bread. My father did all the outside things,” she recalls.

As previously sheltered as she was, when the war ended and they were still at her grandparents’ house, Gila decided to run away to find her mother. She wanted to go home. Conditions in the grandparents’ apartment were difficult, and they were always hungry. She had never been allowed out alone but figured out that her mother must be in the only hospital in Cairo that allowed Jews; it was run by nuns. She managed to find her mother, who asked upon seeing her, “They took him away, didn’t they?” Her mother immediately left the hospital, against medical advice, so that she could bring all of the children back home with her.

When the war broke out, all the Jewish businesses were forced to close. Her father was accused of being a spy. “Later on,” says Gila, “My mother was forced to sell my father’s business for next to nothing. We had no source of income. No one was allowed to work, and money became very scarce. We had to sell all the furniture in order to buy food.” Their relationship with their neighbors also changed. Things were never the same, and Jews felt the great animosity and resentment of their non-Jewish neighbors, especially the Moslems.

After a year of writing letters pleading for help, they were able to get some aid from the Red Cross, which met them quietly in the shul. But Gila remembers that “we were always hungry.” For two years, until they were able to leave Egypt, her mother fasted every Monday and Thursday.

Nine months after the men had been arrested, the families learned the fate of their loved ones and were allowed to visit the men in the camps. Each month they had to register the names of those who would be visiting, and only two family members were officially allowed to go for a monthly visit. Somehow, her mother managed to scrape together enough money for the crowded, hot, three-hour taxi trip through the desert. Usually the guards allowed the children to visit, too, although it was against the law.

It was two years before her father was allowed out of the camp. HIAS whisked him away straight to France. About six months later, HIAS aided the rest of the family to reach France as well. After a seven-day boat ride to Marseille and a train ride to Paris, the family was finally reunited. “The first words my mother said to my father when she saw him were, ‘Is there food? Is there food? The kids are starving.’”

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Cantor Avraham Albrecht was 15 and a student in a prestigious yeshiva high school, Yeshivat HaRav Amiel, in north Tel Aviv, when the war broke out.  A few weeks earlier, the students were to dig holes in an area called Kikar HaMedina, north of Tel Aviv, which today is the most exclusive area of the city. “I did not know the actual purpose of the digging,” says Cantor Albrecht. “I thought perhaps it was for training purposes or some other army-related reason.” Later they learned that the government anticipated the worst and was preparing for mass fatalities. The “holes” they were digging were actually graves.

“In Tel Aviv we were very cautious. At night we slept without lights and I remember the car headlights were painted over.” The only people going outside at night were from the army or police. Cantor Albrecht remembers hearing about the destruction of the Egyptian air force very soon after it happened, either by radio or word of mouth. “When we heard the news reports, everyone knew these were nissim geluyim (open miracles) and it was min haShamayim (from heaven). No one hesitated to agree. Everyone was very united at that time. People wanted to do everything for others,” says Cantor Albrecht, echoing the sentiments of Dina Felsman.

During the war itself, he was with his family. Everyone sheltered in the basement of the apartment building, and “although it was very crowded, no one complained. People were very united and caring to each other.”

“I remember the first day of yeshiva when we came back. We were dancing, and the rosh yeshiva was talking about the nissim (miracles)” Cantor Albrecht’s memory was jogged to remember something else interesting. He had begun serving as a chazan since his bar mitzva. At 15, he was the chazan in a big German congregation that had two synagogues in Tel Aviv. He served in the second, smaller, synagogue, located in a place called Beit Hamoreh. He remembers very well that, immediately after the war, the congregation decided to make a special service on Shabbos to thank Hashem for the miraculous victory. Cantor Albrecht was asked to organize it. He put together a choir with some students from the yeshiva.

For a short time, even after the war ended, people were still davening in basements. The service he organized was held in the basement of a school across from the shul. The shul itself usually held about 100 people on Shabbos. During this special service, there were 500 to 600 packed inside the basement. “I remember that service like it was yesterday,” says the Cantor. During those days, “You could feel the joy in the air and the gratitude to Hashem. Many, many more people, both secular and religious, came for this special service to thank Hashem for the victory.” This was such a big thing and “for a 15-year-old boy, this was a big deal.” We said Hallel with a bracha with no one questioning it.

Later on, after the war, adds Cantor Albrecht, was another special Thanksgiving service; he believes it was in the big shul in Tel Aviv. “The chazan said Hallel with a blessing. At that time there was no issue of “should we do it with the ble

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