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Life at Youth Village in Six-Day War

An agriculture lesson taking place at a youth village in 1966 Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Prelude: my father and I came to live in Israel in May of 1965; on a visit in November of 1964, we quite simply fell in love with the country. Not being Jewish, Christian, Moslem, Zionist, or any recognizable 'ism' (unless you count 'mishugene'), we had a tough time staying, even after my father fell in love and married a Sabra in Cyprus in 1966.

In 1967, I was 14 years old and living on Aloney Yitzhak, a Youth Village near Binyamina nestled in a nature reserve between Givat Ada and Kibbutz Kfar Glickson.

A youth village is a cross between a boarding school and a kibbutz: residents perform all necessary housekeeping chores overseen and supported by a cadre of supervisors, cooks, teachers, house-mother, and counselors. Ours was founded in 1948 by Youth Aliyah with 10 teachers and 40 students to house refugee children from the Holocaust. Times were hard, so the village set up its own egg-producing chicken runs and vegetable garden, trading labor and produce with neighboring farming communities.

By 1966 the village included a full grammar and high school, 1st to 12th grades, with some 250 resident students and another 70-odd busing or walk/in students from surrounding communities. Residence was from 6th grade up. The village also raised poultry which, with surplus eggs and produce from our vegetable garden, was traded with Tnuva for dairy, meat, and other staples. Our washing was sent out to an industrial laundry – but we did the sorting, ironing, folding, and distribution. We all worked at something, from one hour a day for the youngest to four hours for the eldest.

We came from all parts of the country, all backgrounds, all income brackets and even from abroad: new immigrants, orphans, 'problematic' or 'disadvantaged' children and everything in-between. Out of curiosity we once toted up how many countries of origin we came from: in our 20-bed dorm we came up with 'only' 15 countries of origin because five girls were part of a wave of Soviet immigration that year. In the entire village there were 45 confirmed countries of origin... but we had to stop for lack of information about some of the older students. All students went to regular lessons, but during Hebrew and Literature new immigrants attended Ulpan instead. To the credit of the staff, we were a very well integrated community for such a motley crew!

As tensions mounted in the spring of 1967, we, like the rest of the country, experienced an exodus. Foreign students, sent to spend a year or two in Israel, were withdrawn; Israeli students also reluctantly went home so families could face the crisis together. Some families left the country, never to return.

Today it's easy to forget the terrible anxiety that hung over us like a blanket in the waning days of May. We were such a small and tightly-knit country that fairly reliable information traveled by osmosis. We were always surrounded, but now Arab radio stations played songs with the refrain "Butcher, butcher, butcher: leave no one alive!" With memories of the Holocaust, children were sent abroad to distant relatives. Israelis of military age – and quite a few who weren't--who were abroad, were desperately trying to get home. Others were as desperately trying to leave. And quietly, without fanfare, Chevroth Kadisha (Jewish burial societies) were consecrating local football pitches to serve as temporary cemeteries for an estimated 100,000 – 200,000 civilian casualties.

There was also the kibbutz volunteer who, when cabled by family demanding her return flight details, used the pre-paid reply form to telegraph back: "Since when has our family raised chickens."

As our numbers shrank by nearly a third, students were moved closer to the dining room, the geographic and social center of the community as well as the topographical high-point. Outlying dorms and buildings were shut down. My age group had dwindled from 16 girls to 12, so we were moved into the west-half of what had been a boys-only dorm; twin bathroom facilities at the midway point served as demarcation line between "boys'" and "girls" territory with the Common Room shared equally.

Teachers and counselors were being called up for military service. Aharon was live-in counselor for our age group (7th and 8th grades). A 'hunk' by any standard and a body builder, he had been exempted from military service due to a bum knee and had undergone several operations for it. Nonetheless when the village borrowed Kfar Glickson's jackhammer, he operated it as long as there was daylight, digging trenches in the chalky ground near occupied dorms, with student work-details helping. One evening a group of us who had finished work were lounging on the dorm stoop, watching the diggers. Lilly, a new immigrant, walked over and said something, then turned around and said "idi syuda" ('come here' in Russian). We all jumped down to help them finish early.

The village was dotted with low concrete-slab benches supported by cinder blocks, and I had always wondered why some of the slabs had neat round holes in them. As trenches were dug the slabs were collected by the village tractor and placed over the trenches; iron ventilation pipes with rusting chimneys appeared from somewhere and were fitted into the holes, spaced roughly mid-way along each trench. These were shaped like boomerangs, with one end facing the dorms, a 40-degree bend in the middle and the other end trailing off into the undergrowth. Loose earth was piled on top and the ends reinforced with sandbags. These were our air raid shelters.

All the windows were covered with black 'Bristol' craft paper, and for safety's sake the light-bulbs in our rooms were removed in case someone inadvertently hit the switch. Only the Dining Room, dim bathrooms and Common Rooms – where we prepared homework – remained lit. One evening, Aharon took us all to sit on the lawn and taught us a song in Arabic "so you know something in case you're taken..."

We had no siren and couldn't rely on hearing those of our neighbors, so to augment our 'dinner bell'--a hollow iron lamppost near the kitchen struck with a lead pipe--bits of ironmongery were found and hung in strategic locations. 11th and 12th-graders sat hunched-over beside them day and night, with a length of metal pipe and a transistor radio glued to their ears.

Late one Sunday night my father Frank and stepmother Daphna showed up, driven by David; they had been staying with Daphna's parents, my step-grandparents Edith and David, in Tel Aviv. I'd had no idea they weren't back home in Eilat and was overjoyed to see them. The easy one hour-drive from Tel Aviv had taken them nearly three hours in the semi-blackout conditions... Aharon, the counselor, appeared shortly before our 9:30pm 'lights out' curfew— even though we didn't have any lights – to make sure all were well and accounted for. I introduced my family and asked permission to stay up a little later; he smiled warmly and told us to sit in the Common Room.

My father had often expressed the opinion that the more sophisticated modern weaponry became, the less likelihood of a conventional war. Once we were seated we looked at each other. "So: no likelihood of a war, is there?" I asked ironically, and the four of us burst out laughing.

As we talked, I made it clear that I did not want to leave school or the country, for that matter; my mother lived in the US and might try to get me out. "If anyone tries to remove me I'll climb on top of the gym and jump," I told them. A ridiculous threat as the gym was only two stories high, but it was the tallest building available. Having seen so many residents leave, including my first best friend, I was in no mood to join their ranks. It wasn't that they were cowards, since they had no choice in the matter, or that we were brave. It was rather a sense, a feeling, a perception that they, rather than we, were somehow diminished by their going.

We said our goodbyes a little before 10pm and my family headed back to Tel Aviv--to experience a hair-raising bus ride next night, as desperate Eilatis tried to get home through what had become a closed military area. I went to my room and to bed. For some reason that was the only night I slept in my clothes.

A little before 6am the sounds of frantic clanging roused us and sent us scuttling for the trenches. I was impressed when one boy, a notorious class rascal, ran from one end of the building to the other to make sure everyone was up and moving. Shortly, our counselor and house-mother, Eilana, joined us; the one sprinting from nearby quarters and the other on her way to turn on the radio and start our morning wake-up. The trench still smelled of fresh-dug earth and one girl had an encounter with a centipede, quickly dealt with. Ten minutes later the 'all clear' was passed by word-of-mouth and we went back to our daily schedule.

It was Monday, June 5th.

We had breakfast as usual followed by classes, twice interrupted by air raid alarms. The classrooms also had their air raid trenches. Word got around that the country had been divided into regions and the alarms were not for our part of it, so the day ended much more peacefully than it had begun, except for those learning Hebrew who expanded their vocabulary at break-neck speed to cope with the news reports. The word of the day was "hamatzav"—the situation. We had no idea how the war was going or what was happening. Flashlights, transistor radios and batteries, always prized, were now at a premium.

The following day there were no alarms, but around mid-morning we heard distant booming that died down after a time. Later we learned it was the sound of artillery fire, either from Tulkarem or Qalkiliya. We knew there was heavy fighting going on in Gaza and the Sinai, but no details.

Afterwards, the story was told of a visiting clergyman who stumbled into an Israeli artillery emplacement. He explained that he was color-blind but could recognize synthetic materials by their shimmer. The CO handed him a pair of binoculars and soon the Jordanian guns were silenced, betrayed by their synthetic camouflage netting.

The next day, June 7th, was much the same: the routine of our lives kept tension at bay as the hours were punctuated by news broadcasts. The really good news was that there would be a double screening of Tiko and the Shark that night: an early one for the 6th and 7th graders--who ate dinner and went to bed earlier than the rest of us--would take place in the heavily-curtained chemistry lab. The rest of us could watch it in the darkened gymnasium after dinner.

The gym was on the far side of the village from the dorms, so we made our way through the dark aided by flashlights and the fact that all walkways not made of brick or asphalt were paved with off-white chalk. This made them easy to see at night, though they became extremely slippery, gooey boot-traps in winter. A nearby chalk quarry also supplied all the country's blackboards--and us with a constant stream of rejects.

The gym was two stories high with a stage at one end and wooden benches for screenings and performances at the other end, and a projection room on the second floor. There were no lights because the windows on high could not be covered. Before the film started and in the breaks when reels were changed radios were turned on. During one such break we heard the unforgettable news: Jerusalem's Old City had been taken--the Western Wall was ours!

The hall erupted. In the flickering of flashlights we saw one boy waving an Israeli flag. The student next to him lifted him onto his shoulders and the flag whirled down the main aisle amid dancing and singing silhouettes. Just a few weeks earlier in Ulpan, we had read about the Western Wall in our Hebrew language textbook, and how Jews had been denied access to it for the past 18 years.

When the excitement died down, Rabbi Benny Issacson, the village's Chief Counselor, stood facing us. "We have waited for nearly two thousand years to return to the Temple Mount. On this night, recite with me now the Shehecheyanu!" In a school that was secular in a way that is not understood today, every single student stood up and recited shehechyanu with one voice: "Blessed are you Lord, our God, King of the Universe, who has given us life and sustained us and enabled us to reach this time!"

It was heartrendingly beautiful.
It still moves me to tears.A few weeks later our mailing address was changed from D(oar) N(a) [Mobile Post] Shomron to D.N.Menashe.

Afterword: My father and I were granted Israeli citizenship in 1968. 



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Wednesday, 19 June 2024

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