Sunday, September 22, 2013

Israel's Yom Kippur War--40 Years after 1973: A Memoir by Eliyho Matz


                                                               By:  Eliyho Matz

              “Ithaka gave you the beautiful voyage;
                        Without her you would never have started your journey.
                         She has nothing else to give you.”
                                                From “Ithaka” by CP Kavafy

         The Yom Kippur War started on October 6, 1973, and its repercussions continue until today, Yom Kippur 2013.  For me personally, the war started in 1965 when I ran away as fast as I could from my high school in Rishon LeZion.  I fled to a kibbutz in the Upper Galilee called Ayelet HaShachar to recover from a very bad high school experience.  Rishon LeZion was an old Israeli village, today a large city, which did not particularly shine its light on me.  The studies at my high school, the Gymnasia, were complicated for me; my ability to focus was limited, the teachers were obnoxious, and I had very few good friends. In short, as we used to explain it many years ago, the dancer always complained that the floor he danced on was uneven, and therefore he could not dance skillfully.  I can say that I was bored and lazy in my studies, I can say that it was difficult for me, but it was very clear to me just then, and I was only sixteen, that the teachers were incompetent and the principal and his vice-principal were out of touch and ineffective, and so I picked myself up and ran away to the Upper Galilee.  How I arrived at this decision to go to the kibbutz I cannot explain exactly.  It is possible that in my subconscious the Israeli pioneering propaganda and the achievements of the kibbutz movement, and possibly other reasons that I do not know, swept me up and brought me to the office of the kibbutz movement in Tel Aviv, and there one of its      members picked me up and drove me to Ayelet HaShachar. 
         Upon my arrival at Ayelet HaSchachar, I started working.  My immediate supervisor, a lazy kibbutznik, a short and tough individual by the name of Dan Ziv (nicknamed Zift), explained and showed me how to crawl beneath chicken coops filled with manure, and how to remove that manure and load it into a wagon, which took it to a compost pile.  The chicken coops were used to raise chickens for a few months, after which they were sold and taken to slaughter.  The old manure had to be removed before each new crop of new chicks arrived.  I adapted quickly to the work, but a serious manure-remover I was not.  Dan Ziv left me at the coops with another Israeli kid and a toothless Australian tourist/worker, whom the kibbutz promised to provide with a new set of false teeth upon completion of his work.  I learned from him a very unique dialect of toothless Australian English!  We worked together in the coops for about three or four months, but the smell of the manure is still with me today.  While working with the manure and making sure to shower each day after work, I began to get to know the kibbutz members.  I started to hear opinions and all sorts of gossip about the place and its people.  I spent most of my free time reading history and literature books, so in one way or another I began to prepare myself on my own for the high school baccalaureate exam in those subjects.  Later on, I had an opportunity to work in other areas of the kibbutz, including the dining hall, apple orchards and bee hives, and I even became a guard for a short time.  Eli Ziv, Dan’s brother and a graduate of Sayeret Matkal, one of Israel’s most courageous military units, taught me how to drive a jeep and explained to me the basic uses of the submachine gun, the Uzzi.  In the course of my stay, I met many of the kibbutz members.  I tried to make friends with them, but in as close a society as the kibbutz was, doing so was difficult to achieve.  It is true that here and there I made some friends, but I could not really develop a deep relationship with anybody, including with the kibbutz women.  And if there was one woman whom I liked, she did not give a damn about me – her name was Rina.  The upside was that my lack of social progress gave me a greater opportunity to read, study, and ride a bicycle outside the area of the kibbutz.  I had an opportunity to wander in Tel Hazor, which is an ancient archeological site adjacent to the kibbutz.  I had an opportunity to ponder various issues of life, as well as to study history and read literature.  The sad thing about reading these subjects on my own was that I really did not understand much about them.  My integration into the kibbutz was difficult; the kibbutzniks were selfish, and the moment eventually came when I turned eighteen and had to join the Israeli military.  And since I wanted to be a big gibor, or hero, I decided to join the Tzanchanim, the Israeli paratrooper brigade.  Apropos, Dan Ziv must be today seventy-five or eighty; Colonel Dan Ziv was already a decorated hero of the Paratroopers in the battle of Mitle Pass in 1956, and in the 1973 Yom Kippur War he conducted an atrocious battle, as well as an idiotic one, in the Sarafaum on the west side of the Suez Canal.  With Dan Ziv, I did not have that much opportunity to express ideas; he did not say much, and besides he was not particularly well educated.  Whenever I met him, he used to say that we have to be strong – this was a very interesting idea.
         Company B, Platoon D, Regiment 202, February 1967, and here I was in the Paratroopers.  The company commander was Nachik Alon, the son of a famous Israeli historian.  Ever since my youth, I would say my early youth, I wanted to understand and comprehend history, philosophy, and literature.  I thought that by joining the Tzanchanim I would have the opportunity to do so.  Of course, I did not have any historical or philosophical tools to understand those issues.  Suddenly, from a normal human being, I was transformed into a paratrooper.  The process was not easy.  My platoon commander was Eli Strikovski, tough and rough, not well educated, and not too smart.  He tried to transform me, Eliyho, into a courageous soldier, but apparently failed to do so.  He apparently did not see in me what he expected from a “real” soldier.  I participated in the platoon’s military activities, I did what the other soldiers did, but a serious soldier I was not; nor could I be one even if I really wanted.  I could never take “soldiering” as a serious business.  And it did not matter who taught that business.  Strikovski must have sensed this, and one day when I asked him for a special leave for my cousin’s bar mitzvah, he refused, and he also, apropos, mentioned that he could not grant leave to a lousy soldier that he considered me to be.  My attempt to request this special pass from my company commander also failed.  It took me awhile to respond to my platoon commander, but approximately a year later the opportunity presented itself (to be described below).  Later that year Strikovski was severely wounded in an ambush, but he continued his military service.  During the Yom Kippur War, by which time he had changed his name to Sorek, he won a medal for heroism at the Suez Canal, which was the same region where I was located during that time.
         To anyone familiar with modern Israeli history, it is well known that in June 1967, Israel went to war against its neighbors because they all threatened her existence.  This war was named the Six Day War.  The Israeli Paratroopers were in full intensive exercises before the war; I know this because my unit was also involved in this training.  Mentally, it was a very difficult time because we were surrounded by many enemies.  My unit of new paratroopers had just been recruited in February 1967, so we did not have that much time to go through all the paratrooper exercises.  We did a quick and short parachuting exercise.  Our parachute instructor was Amiram Ziet, a cool person and a very social one, at least one light in the darkness.  The war process was coming to a crescendo, and Eliyho got on Strikovski’s nerves, and for one reason or another he inflicted a punishment on a small group of us: “You are not going to war, you are staying on the base, I do not take lousy soldiers to war.”  Immediately I became depressed even though I was not exactly the hero that the “General” (actually “Lieutenant”) Strikovski was.  For in any case, a soldier is tested by his ability to shoot, which I could do as well as anybody else; I also learned how to run, jump and parachute along with the others.  It is true that I had never participated in any battles, but don’t soldiers need to participate in order to be tested?  But Strikovski decided that my small group was not going anywhere, that we were going to stay on the base.  The evening before the war broke out, we were in a gloomy mood, wandering aimlessly and desperately.  Go and tell the wide world that we were left behind at the base because the lieutenant considered us to be lousy soldiers – not a pleasant thought.  But then, in the midst of our gloominess, no sooner had our unit left, a young officer whom we had never met arrived, gathered us politely around him, and explained to us that the reason we had been left on base was because we were needed to participate in a secret mission, for which we had to leave immediately, with all our equipment.  We were quickly driven to some location in the northern Negev (Israel’s southern region).  To our surprise, there were some helicopters waiting on the spot, already engaged in an exercise/mission, in which a special force was prepared to enter swiftly into Egyptian territory to do something that was not clear to us.  Our group was supposed to carry out the simple task of blocking the road that led to the location of the attack.  A very interesting mission, one requiring much courage, and in retrospect one from which probably none of us would have returned.  Suddenly, I was back to being a paratrooper.  We stayed at that place that evening, and in the middle of the night the commander of the mission announced that because of the swift advance of the Israeli forces into the Sinai, there was no more need for our mission.  We immediately were taken away by military trucks to an air force base, and in the early hours of midday we were regrouped with a paratrooper force near the tarmac for a different mission, to jump into battle at Sharm el Sheik at the southern tip of the Sinai Desert.  So our small group became part of a larger force led by Sergeant Shlomo Stein, a moshavnik from Kfar Achim.  We, those lousy soldiers whom Strikovski left at the training camp, were suddenly joining forces to parachute into battle, and as a result, if we were to survive this battle, we would receive “Red Wings” to indicate our successful jump into enemy territory in wartime.  We walked to the air planes, which were a type not familiar to us, a Boeing military plane used during WWII for cargo and parachuting.  We were around 250-people strong.  The group consisted of representatives from different paratrooper groups.  Some were older, and we were the youngest ones.  I don’t remember recognizing anyone outside our small group.  It was a very tense flight, and it took awhile.  We were protected by some air force planes in the air, and finally we arrived at Sharm el Sheik.  As the moment came close to jump from the airplanes, the commander suddenly announced that we were not going to do so.  The reason was not yet clear.  But as soon as we landed on the dusty tarmac of Sharm el Sheik, what had happened did become clear.  A small naval force of Israeli commandos had arrived an hour before we did and found that the entire Egyptian brigade had fled and disappeared.  All that was left were rows and rows of canned beans and tomato sauce!  The naval commando force we met there included among its group a fellow from Kibbutz Ayalet HaShachar named Oded Landsman, and another kibbutznik from Kibbutz Ma’agan by the name of Ami Ayalon.  Ayalon later became the Chief of Israeli Naval Operations as well as the Chief of Israeli Interior Security, and a member of the Israeli Knesset.  He also won a medal for bravery in a military operation in which he was severely wounded.  I had met Ami two years earlier while I was in National Service at his kibbutz.  He suggested to me not to swim or dive here in the Red Sea because the sea was filled with too many sharks.  I accepted his advice.  Since we had nothing to do at the place, we were subsequently sent back to Strikovski and our base in the north.
         During the Six Day War, our military unit 202 fought mostly in the Gaza region.  We suffered casualties, with some dead and a larger number wounded; I do not have the actual numbers.  Immediately after the unit returned to base from Gaza, we were redeployed to Gaza City.  There, some of our unit became entangled in activities and atrocities that until today it is hard to figure out.  Eventually, I did not see the unit anymore.  Fortunately for me, I guess Strikovski had enough of me.  Imagine how it would have looked in the history of the Israeli Paratroopers: a small group of Strikovski’s rejects parachuting into Sharm el Sheik, and Strikovski missing that military action altogether.  Within a few days, a young officer arrived with a pick-up truck, spoke to our company commander Nachik Alon, and, without saying much or even introducing himself, he instructed me to get into the back of the truck.  I was taken to the newly conquered West Bank.  The officer’s name was Amnon Lipkin, later changed to Shachaq, and he was one of the most arrogant and antipathetic people I have ever met.  He was the commander of a small paratrooper unit called “Duchifat,” nominated to the command after the previous commander, Ehud Shani, died in battle north of Jerusalem. Amnon later on in his career became Israeli Chief of Staff.  I had no clear military profession at that time; I had just jumped from airplanes a few times, and in military jargon I was “nobody.”  I joined the communications department of this new unit on the West Bank.  Each one of the soldiers had his own twisted ideas about life and the military, and our sergeant was Yossi Angel from the well known Angel Bakeries in Jerusalem.  Today Yossi Angel, aided by his father’s advice and money, has relocated to New York City where he has opened up a bakery and tried to reinvent the American muffin!  I meet him occasionally for a quick greeting, and to taste his muffins.  Anyway, the unit was in the midst of intensive training.  The original idea for this Duchifat unit was that it would be something between a tank unit and a paratrooper unit, but its end was tragic, and trying to combine these two forces was probably one of the biggest mistakes that he Israeli military made.  In a later battle which our unit participated in, we had too many casualties, and within a year the unit was dispersed.  I was one of the last ones left to take apart the communications equipment.  After that, I was sent to a new paratrooper command that had been especially established to train young paratroopers.  One of the first commanders in this unit was an older paratrooper named “Tarzan.”  He was there for a short time, and after him came Yaakov Chalabi.  Once, at the end of his service, Chalabi took me with him on a trip to Bethlehem.  It was Christmastime.  This trip to Bethlehem changed my entire life, not at the time that I was there, but a few years later (to be clarified below).  In Bethlehem I met a sergeant from the military police by the name of Yaakov Sharabani, later changed to Sharon.  Yaakov was not exactly the healthiest person, and probably needed some connection to be accepted in the military.  One of his best friends was an elderly famous paratrooper by the name of Yecheskiel Baum.  Anyway, this paratrooper unit that was organized to train young paratroopers had a few changes of commanders, and one day a new commander arrived, Colonel Amos Yaron.  Amos lived in those years in Rishon LeZion, a very short distance from my parents’ home.  I do not know how it started, but I began driving his military vehicle back-and-forth between the West Bank and Rishon.  Lo and behold, one day Strikovski arrived in our unit to fulfill a job as an instructor.  I had the opportunity to tell Amos about my past association and experiences with this “gentleman,’ and made sure, with Amos’ agreement, that when I was called upon to drive him to Tel Aviv he would be compelled to sit in the back of the truck, rather than on the front seat near me.  I did not speak to Strikovski, and he did not speak to me.  I served with Amos for about half-a-year, or perhaps a bit more, and I joined him on a few occasions at some very important military exercises in which he was a judge.  One of these involved crossing a canal, which replicated the Suez Canal.  This exercise took place toward the end of 1969; the exercise later became a reality in the 1973 war, which I will return to later.  I met at that time a young officer by the name of Eli Cohen; in 1973 Cohen was the first Israeli paratrooper to cross the Suez Canal.  He later became a member of the Israeli Knesset.  In the final year of my regular military service, I experienced one of the most exciting things that happened to me during my service, or maybe even during my entire life.  A young driver by the name of Shabtai Shevili arrived at our base donning big glasses — I guess he could not see well – and during his first day at the base he turned over in the vehicle that he was driving.  Fortunately he was not hurt, but he was definitely shaken, as was I.  We became friends, and I’ll always owe him a large debt of gratitude, for he introduced me to a relative of his who resided in Jerusalem by the name of Abram Jana Soramello.  One of the most interesting Israelis I ever met, Soramello was a joker, a smoker, a drinker and a storyteller who spoke Hebrew and Arabic. 
         Finally, my regular army service came to an end.  In the last few months of my military service I became the driver for another Israeli “hero,” Asaf Villin, who later changed his name to Chefetz and became a commander in the Paratroopers and then the commander of the Israeli National Police.  His failure in the military was due to the fact that he irritated the renowned Raful.  Asaf was known among Israeli paratroopers to be a very courageous soldier.  He was a kibbutznik from Kfar Menachem.  He met his wife Sarah at our unit; she was our clerk.  One day, Asaf asked me to join him to go to a place in the West Bank.  When we arrived, he pulled some dynamite and other equipment out of the jeep and tried to blow up an empty building.  The problem was, we did not distance ourselves far enough away from the building to avoid the fallout from the blast, but luckily we were not hurt.  I met him later at the Mitla Pass in 1971 when I was working in the Sinai Desert on fortifications, and he was the commander of Unit 890.  I felt that he looked at me disdainfully, perhaps wondering what I was doing there, and I never saw him again.  But at the end of my military service he wrote me a personal letter of recommendation in which he cited me as a responsible and dedicated soldier.  I still have his letter at home, and I look at it occasionally, and wonder.
         During the final year of my army service I began preparing myself, mostly in the evenings, for various exams that would lead me to entrance into a university.  Finally I returned to my parents’ home in Rishon LeZion. I found a few places to work, but I failed in all of them until eventually I found a job with a famous photographer, Nahum Gutman (not the painter).  With Gutman I worked for approximately six months as a photo journalist, publishing pictures in most Israeli newspapers.  One day while working in photography, I met a relative of mine, an engineer who was working on the fortifications at the Suez Canal, and he hired me for a job there.  I walked by foot and traveled by jeep all over the region of the Canal.  I also worked on the road that led from Tasa to the Suez Canal.  During the Yom Kippur War, that road, called “Akavish” (Spider) became the main road the Israelis used to invade Egypt. After half-a-year there, I decided that I wanted to begin serious studies, so I enrolled at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, where I registered for courses in Israeli Literature and the History of Jews.  In October 1972, I arrived for the first time as a student at the Hebrew University and settled in at the G’vat Ram campus.  I arrived with very little money, only some small savings from the various jobs I had done, not knowing exactly how I would survive.  On my first day I took a walk around the campus to look around, and suddenly I saw my old friend Yaakov Sharabani Sharon.   He was at that time an assistant to the security chief at the university, and within a few days he hired me to work for him at the security department of the university!  Now I had a chance to study and a salary to support me.  One day while I was on security duty standing near the Biology building, a short young American woman wearing glasses asked me how to get to the National Library.  A friendship developed between us, and we are now together for forty years! 
I did not have a chance to be at the university for two months before I was called for Reserve duty, which extended from the end of 1972 into the beginning of 1973.  This time I was placed in a different military unit as a driver for the deputy commander of the unit, and unfortunately I could not escape my duty.  In the meantime at the university, I was taking complicated courses with Professor Stern, Professor Shaked, Professor Yosef Dan and others – I was moving forward.  Little by little I began meeting people at the university and really progressing.  What I forgot to talk about and mention earlier was that my military exercise at the beginning of 1973 in reality was a general rehearsal for the Yom Kippur War.  In 1969, I had gone out with Amos Yaron to check a possible crossing of the Suez Canal; in 1973, we did a simulated exercise on a model of the Canal, but this time we employed a specially made bridge on wheels.  Our job was to protect the bridge as it was rolled into the Suez Canal.  The next time I met that bridge was not as an exercise, but in battle in October 1973.  As for myself thinking about all these military exercises we carried out over the years, I never thought seriously that we would come to a point where we would actually need to cross the Suez Canal; it seemed like too much of a fantasy to me – I guess I was wrong. 
Meanwhile, finally back at the university in the early months of 1973, I continued studying and working to complete the semester, and Barbara Fichman, my girlfriend, returned to America.  I planned to travel to America for my first time at the end of August to meet her parents and discuss plans for our marriage.  By then my exams to end my first year at the university would be completed.  Since I was a typical Israeli, I arrived in America without any proper clothing -- no jacket and no tie -- and soon the Fichman family was going to synagogue for Yom Kippur services.  Without the proper clothing, I did not attend services that morning, but fell asleep, only to be awakened by Barbara at noontime and told that there was a terrible war waging in the Middle East, later to be known as the Yom Kippur War.  I called up the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, and was instructed to go directly to JFK Airport in New York for a flight back to Israel.  I arrived in Israel within twenty-four hours and travelled immediately to the Sinai Desert, where I joined my unit stationed in Tasa around the parameters of the headquarters of General Erik Sharon, the “King of Israel.”  This was a place I knew very well from my work on the fortifications.  In the beginning, there was total chaos there, but little-by-little the Israeli military managed to rearrange and organize its forces.  And since we were very close to the Sharon headquarters, lo and behold I met all the characters I missed so much: Dan Ziv and Amnon Shachaq, commanders of paratrooper units, Strikovski, with a special jeep unit, and Eli Cohen, who was about to become the first Israeli paratrooper to cross the Suez Canal.  I was the driver of the deputy commander of the unit, Dubi Ravid, and occasionally I also drove another officer by the name of Amos Schoken.  (Years later he became the proprietor of the newspaper Ha’aretz.  Amos S. is a very intelligent and courageous person.  I have read his family’s newspaper since my youth, and I always appreciated the intellectual streak it carried.  For the first thirty years of my residence in America, I received the weekly edition of this newspaper mailed to my home.  However, in the last ten years I have discovered that its level of intellectualism has eroded.)  We were sitting in Tasa and waiting for an order to move.  In the meantime around us the Egyptians sent some commando forces into our area, and we caught them.  Egyptian attack airplanes were attacking us, and our unit shot one of them down.  The most disturbing incident while we were waiting to do something was the arrival of some young Israeli soldiers, the remnants of some units that were involved in defending the Suez Canal at the first attack on Yom Kippur. On the 14th or 15th of October, we began our move toward the Suez Canal.  Our unit surrounded the famous bridge-on-wheels.  On the second day of our movement, Egyptian airplanes discovered us and attacked us.  By sheer miracle I was not killed in that attack.  We also heard reports about the chaos that happened at the “Chinese Farm,” where one of the most terrible battles of this war occurred.  About fifty paratroopers were killed there, and I have no idea how many tank people lost their lives there.  While all this was happening, we were moving closer and closer to the Suez Canal.  Eventually, one of the paratrooper forces that entered into the west side of the Canal, led by Dan Ziv, at the Sarafaum, got into real trouble there.  Many many articles and stories have come out to relate the details of that battle.  The main conclusion was that Dan Ziv as a commander performed poorly, and it is not that he was not a courageous person, but that his judgment in battle did not fit the reality of this complicated event.  One of the victims of this battle, a very courageous Israeli soldier, was Asa Cadmoni.  We left the Suez Canal five months later.
When I returned to the University, I lacked the desire to study.  Classes had started in November, and now it was the end of March of the following year.  My roommate was dead, and I lost all interest in studying.  I decided to travel to America, and so I did.  About my adventures in America I will write a different story.  In the meantime, the Yom Kippur War of 1973 still provides mountains of speculation, and there remains a total misunderstanding among Israelis about the causes and conclusions of that war.  It is possible that these conversations about the war will not end, even at the end of days, unless maybe a little bit before that.  I hope we will one day find some way to figure out the key to all the unanswered questions.