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A Fateful Moment: Fourth Place

Barbara Abraham

Those clear blue eyes with their film of unshed tears are as fresh in my mind as if this happened just yesterday and not seventy years ago. Even the odors of our wooden cow shed, the mooing of the cows and the affection I felt for them remain unmarked by the passing of the years.

We lived in Binyamina, we were part of the outcome of the 'Third Aliya'. Papa was just ten years old when he arrived in Palestine with his young and idealistic parents who could no longer stand a life thwarted by the pales of the Polish shtetl. It was 1921 when they came with a dream of freedom planted in their minds together with a promise of land to cultivate and of crops they could grow. And they did, rejoicing to see vines and fruit trees laden with the abundant outcome of their toil. Even though some of their dreams had flowered, life was never easy for them under the rule of the British Mandate and the Arab threat.

Our lives were shadowed even more when, during the years of the Second World War that spread its blood stained shadow across the world, any remaining hopes and dreams in our pastoral little corner were grounded. And why? Because Papa left us - brave Papa, the idealist, the once secretly trained fighter with the Haganah, was conscripted into the Palestine Regiment in 1942. He was posted to Greece where the Allies were called in to try and stop the advance of the German forces that came down from Albania to help the weakened Italian forces. There he was captured and imprisoned by the Germans and here we were striving to manage without him. Mama did her best to support my brother and me, and we tried our best to help her. But then we were never made aware that Papa might never come home, she never shared her fears with us. She worked our little farm the best she could to put food on the table and money in her purse.

This was a time I try to forget but cannot; it remains there, printed indelibly into my memory. Mama always made an effort to be patient and understanding – not just with us but with all that was happening around us.

Nearby there was a British Army Camp. How we resented them – and why? They thought they were our masters and we were there only to supply them. Supply them what? Yes of course – what else but our produce. They would come to the farms and demand that we give them what they needed. They never paid for what they took and we had no choice, we had to give.

What would Papa have done had he been there? I still ask myself, but perhaps they were permitted to take what they demanded so that there would be no cruelty, no bad things for us children to witness. However, at night as much of the produce as possible was hidden so that in the village we would not be short of the food that we required for ourselves. This situation meant that we often had little left over to market and so we struggled for an income and a quality of life.

Now that I have painted the background to that fateful moment I will work on defining the details of our daily life that led up to this. Each morning Mama would awaken us at five o'clock to tend to the cows and milk them before going to school whilst she prepared breakfast and sandwiches to take with us to school. It was cold that morning and I was glad to snuggle up to Zelda who had mooed her usual greeting to me and nuzzled my hand looking for the tit-bit I kept hidden in my shirt for her.

I loved Zelda, she was the same age as me – eight years old – but she had already been a mother. Mama had allowed me to watch the birth. Mostly I could not bear to watch, I did not want to see her in pain. Then the calf began to come into the world and I uncovered my eyes to observe this for now there was relief, then excitement and pleasure. I would tell Zelda all my fears and she would listen to me, her head close to mine, mooing from time to time. I always thought that her milk was special and I would always fill a bottle of it for myself. David, my brother, would laugh at me – he never shared my feelings, caring for the cows was just a chore for him.

But now I must concentrate on that moment!

I had almost finished milking her when I heard voices and approaching footsteps crunching along the pebbled path. David's voice rose nervously above the mooing of the cows. "Who is that? What do you want?" Of course he spoke Hebrew and the very masculine voice that answered him spoke curtly in English. "If you want to speak to me use the King's language." The footsteps came to a halt beside the entrance to the shed. They were there to take, we both knew it. I moved the bucket to one side and got up to hide my bottle of milk.

"If there is anyone else in there with you tell them to come out, and bring the milk with you. You do understand me, don't you?"

I heard David clear his throat and then answer in English, which we were made to learn in school, "Yes, but only my little sister is here."

"Then you both come out here and bring the milk with you like I said. Don't waste time or try to be clever with it. You know what I mean!"

The early morning sun had not yet succeeded to break through the clouds and the chill of the breeze added to my fear of the soldiers and what they might take. I was shivering and clenching my teeth to stop them chattering. Where was Mama? Had she not heard them? I lifted my bucket as best I could and went outside. There were two of them standing there – their faces are still printed in my memory. The one who gave us orders was older. His face was weathered; it was not a kind face. He frowned at us and gestured to put the buckets down beside the large, lidded milk can that was beside the second younger soldier. He stood there never lifting his head to look at us as he took the lid off the can. David stepped forward first with his bucket and held it out towards him. The Sergeant ordered, "Well Private McClure take the bloody bucket from him and start to fill up the can. I don't trust them to do that themselves."

Private McClure saluted, stepped forward, took the bucket carefully from David and stood to attention before he turned back and carefully poured the milk into the can. Now I understand that the second soldier giving the orders was his Sergeant. He then turned towards me and ordered, "You, girl, bring the bucket to McClure, we will need that too. I want some porridge for my breakfast. Don't suppose you know what porridge is, do you?" I understood him and also I did know what porridge was – 'disa', we called it. But often Mama had to make it with water and only a little milk – just what was left over for us. My hands shook as I tried to lift up the bucket and give it to the Private. He stepped forward and took it from me, gently, I do remember his touch. He began to pour, then stopped and began to tell the Sergeant, "I think we have enough here sir."

"Told you to fill the whole bloody can up didn't I? Why are you trying to be soft with these bloody Jews after what they are doing here in this country to prove themselves?" His words remain engraved in my memory.

McClure tilted the bucket once more and continued to pour the milk. It began to dribble over the top of the can. Once again the Sergeant shouted at him, "Watch what you are doing man. Enough - get the can closed and let's get back to those damned barracks."

The Sergeant turned and began to march away. McClure stepped forward towards me. That is when I saw that film of unshed tears that were clouding his blue eyes. He put his hand in his pocket, retrieved something and pushed it into my hand.

"Take this quickly, girl, and put it away before that bastard sees."

He brushed the back of one of his hands across the moisture that was spilling down his cheeks as he bent down to lift the can. It must have been heavy for him. Already away down the path the Sergeant had stopped, about turned and came back towards us shouting, "Can you not manage this alone? You are very much out of training, boy. I suppose I will have to help you. Come on."

I remember how they lifted the can together and marched away towards the road. I looked down and saw that it was a small crumpled up envelope that he had pushed into my hand. David came over and took it from me.

"What have you got there?"

"McClure gave it to me."

David tore open the envelope and a gust of wind blew the contents out; David bent to gather them up and exclaimed,

"It's money, British money, that must be his pay packet - and he gave it to you!"

And that for me was a fateful moment. One in which I learnt that there can be good things with the bad, that one should not rush to judge some people too quickly and the importance of understanding others. This lesson and the memory of it has stayed with me and I will keep it alive now for others within these written words. 



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Friday, 21 June 2024

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