#Jerusalem50: A personal recollection of the Six Day War by an American student in Jerusalem

Sometimes it is easier to understand the timeline of a war through personal recollections, rather than by neutral press reports. The following article was written by a woman who was an American new immigrant living in Jerusalem when the Six Day War broke out. I am posting it with her permission though she wishes to remain anonymous. The writer had the privilege of renting a room from Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, who was the widow of Israeli Chief Rabbi Isaac Herzog and was an extraordinary personality in her own right.

A Partial Personal Recollection of the Six Day War –Jerusalem Day – Yom Yerushalayim

Written and sent with permission of MG 

A few weeks ago, in celebration of Jerusalem Day, I participated in a guided tour of the Sherover Promenade in South Jerusalem.  As we neared the end of the tour, we passed what is known as “Armon Hanatziv” – literally “the High Commissioner’s Palace” which houses the UN headquarters in Jerusalem till today.

The view from the Sherover Promenade

The tour guide explained that at the beginning of the Six Day War, this headquarters was stormed by the Jordanians who ousted the UN command, threatening the lives of all the employees.  Fortunately for them – and for us – the IDF was soon able to recapture this strategic point.  This battle was the first battle of the Six Day War in Jerusalem.

My thoughts flew back to the events of 1967. I had been a one-year student at the Hebrew University in Givat Ram in 1962 and now had come on Aliyah.  From  before Lag B’Omer in  May of 1967  the fear in Jerusalem was palpable. On Lag b’Omer   a red haze rose from the horizon from all the children’s bonfires.  It conjured up images of war, and Jerusalemites expected a repeat of the War of Independence and began to prepare for the fighting from house to house that they remembered.  The house next to where I was living looked like an armed fort, with sandbags stacked in front covering every inch of the face of the building.  Volunteers and students who had not yet left the country built retaining walls and fortifications.

Filling sandbags during the Six Day War

One day I entered the Supermarket on Rechov Agron.  To my dismay, the shelves were empty!  I stood for a moment staring at a few stray noodles that had leaked out of a package – the only sign that these shelves had been stacked with food packages.  Jerusalemites, remembering the War of Independence, had begun to hoard, in preparation for the siege they expected.  I observed then that the longer people had been here, the more they were in a panic, especially people who had experienced the siege and hunger during the War of Independence, 19 years earlier.  Nineteen years seemed to me then a very long time.  Now I understand that to these people it was only yesterday, just like the Six Day War, 50 years ago, is to me now “only yesterday. ” All this passed before my eyes like a surrealistic dream.  I had not yet experienced war in any way, and I could not attach myself to this reality.

Between Lag B’Omer and the outbreak of the war, almost all Americans left the country.  My dear friend Matti, who made aliyah with me, called me one day at work almost hysterical.  “You know, ” she said, “the last family just left Bayit VeGan. I’m not leaving, but I’m not sure we’re right.”  I was walking one day on King George Street, near the Jewish Agency, when a short, young Sephardi man approached me.  It must have been obvious that I was American – Israelis can always tell.  “You’re still here!” he said.  “Kol Hakavod.”  He almost bowed down in admiration.  I was quite discomfited.  I didn’t think it was anything special.  After all, both my friend and I were here to stay.

At work, tension mounted from day to day as the call-up continued.  In the era before SMS’s, each soldier’s unit had a “code word”, like “rattlesnake”, “nachash tzefa”.  One morning as we listened to the news on the radio and heard the long list of code-words, one of the young men who had not yet been drafted stood up and walked out.  “I was called”, he said.  It was during this tense period that a student walked in, obviously upset, and related that an Israeli Arab student shouted at him “Get your bathing suit ready.”  A staff member countered that he didn’t believe it.  “To throw Israel into the sea,” was an often repeated slogan blasted out of radio stations from the Arab countries.  That’s what they believed they would be doing!

Overseas students and tourists, the only able-bodied men around, helped fill sandbags for the outlying areas of the city like in Pagi, just past the Sanhedria cemetery, a small neighborhood populated by Holocaust survivors from Hungary.  Pagi was the last neighborhood in Jerusalem before No-Man’s Land, facing French Hill to the East and Nabi Samuel to the North, and the last outpost before Ammunition Hill. Just past the last house – now facing what is today Mishmar Hagvul Street, was a warning sign – “Stop, Border Ahead.”  – beyond that, in what is today Ramat Eshkol, was a mine field in Jordanian occupied territory.  Nobody went near there and nobody wanted to live there!

A border sign in Jerusalem, 1951; in the background: Tower of David

There were border signs like this too at what is today Kikar Tzahal, near the Municipality.  There was a large concrete wall there, entangled with barbed wire.  That was the end of the city.  Beyond was a different world – a world that we both feared and longed for.  People would look with telescopes from rooftops just to get a view of the streets and daily life of the people on the other side.  Jordanian soldiers were stationed on the walls of the Old City.  It was dangerous to look up at them – it was considered provocative.  There were shooting incidents all the time.  Matti, who was also here on a one-year program in 1962, had been renting a room on Rechov Heleni Hamalka. It was cheaper than in town.  At the end of this street was also a wall.  She would tell me about the times she and her friends would hide under the beds when the Jordanians started shooting.

On Monday morning, June 5th, 1967, I went to work as usual.  I was then renting an attic room in the home of Rabbanit Sarah Herzog, the wife of the late Chief Rabbi of Israel, in Rechavia.  I descended on a little winding stair case from my attic room, entered the main residence and came down the main staircase leading into a large anteroom.  Sandbags had been placed blocking the large windows along the staircase, and the windows were taped up criss-cross.  The Rabbanit had paid some youngsters to do this job.  As I was leaving the main entrance, I met the Rabbanit’s daughter-in-law with her two daughters and her infant baby, at that time about six months old.  They were entering with large suitcases.  I was so naïve I didn’t even take special notice.  I didn’t even suspect anything was unusual.  I was hurrying to work which began at 7:30.  I knew I would have to get a “tremp” – a ride, because for a few weeks now there had been no buses.  I remember how shocked I was when one morning I went out to the bus-stop on Rechov Ussishkin to take the bus to Givat Ram, and there were no buses.  All the drivers had been conscripted into the army.  In fact there were no men under fifty-five at all in the streets.  That’s when I understood that things were really serious.

I was working at that time in the Office for Overseas Students of the Hebrew University.  Our offices were housed in the Planetarium in Givat Ram.  At about 10:00 a.m. we started to hear gun-fire.  There had been no warning on the newscasts.  We were a small staff.  I don’t remember that there were particular instructions about what to do in such an eventuality of war.  There was no shelter in the building.  Fear gripped our hearts when someone started a rumor that the Jordanians had taken over the UN headquarters at Armon Hanatziv.  I think most of the staff made their way to the shelter in the National Library building, and I, not knowing what else to do, dashed out to see if I could get back to Rechavia.  A bus passed the station at the entrance to the campus.  It wasn’t a regular Egged bus, but people got on.  I got on, too.  It went as far as Rechov Metudela, at which point I got off and ran towards the Herzog residence.  It was a beautiful day in early summer.  Peripherally I took note of some beautiful flowering shrubbery characteristic of that neighborhood, and keenly felt the anomaly of the explosions heard all around me.  G-d protected me, and I arrived safely at the Herzog residence.

I don’t know what they thought – whether I was crazy to have come back or what – but I joined them in that inner room, below the staircase blocked by the sandbags, and sat on the floor together with the Rabbanit’s granddaughters.  They were young teenagers, Horev school girls, ages 12 and 14.   They were brave and disciplined.  It wasn’t long before we heard the voice of Chaim Herzog, the IDF military radio commentator (and their uncle), informing with a tense voice that hostilities had begun and our troops were engaged in battle with Egypt.  Quoting Tehillim (Psalms) he said “Ana Hashem Hatzlicha Na” –With G-d’s help, may we succeed.  In the days that followed, the entire country was riveted to Chaim Herzog’s running commentary on the course of the war.  He was at once down to earth and reassuring, and he enjoyed immense popularity for this role for months afterwards.

All through the perilous nights of Monday and Tuesday, Rabbanit Herzog said Tehillim, and sighed over and over – “Oy, oy, the mothers of the soldiers, the mothers, the mothers….”.  I was then young,  more a contemporary of those fighting soldiers, and it was hard for me to imagine being a mother of a soldier.  But the Rabbanit could understand what the mothers of Israel were feeling. We knew fighting was going on. We could hear it. But very little information was forthcoming.

The barrage continued throughout the night unabated.  According to the history books 6,000 shells were rained down on Jerusalem in those 48 hours.  900 buildings were damaged, and more than 1000 civilians were wounded.  150 died of their wounds.  (from Michael Oren’s book). It sounded as if the whole city was being destroyed.  The explosions came hard and fast, like thunderbolts and fourth of July fireworks all together.

At one point when the barrage was intense, Mrs. Herzog ventured a thought that maybe the girls should go to the “miklat.”  Apparently, in addition to the fortified vestibule, there was a proper shelter. No one moved.  I thought that she really wanted them to go, so after a few more minutes of intense shelling, I said “Come on, girls,”and I got up.  Together we made our way through the kitchen and down a flight of stairs I never knew existed to a small dimly lit room, with no windows – a proper miklat.  We sat on the floor leaning on the wall.  I noticed that there were huge tins of “biskvitim” (tea biscuits), provisions for a siege.  I didn’t notice anything else, and I don’t even remember what we ate during the three days of shelling.  We didn’t remain very long in the miklat, and we soon made our way back and rejoined the family in the vestibule.

Tuesday morning there was still no real news, except that we were at war (as if we didn’t know).  The shelling continued.  I was distressed at the thought of my parents, sensitive and anxious as they always were, worrying themselves to hysteria in the U.S.  There were no telephones, no emails, and the nearest place to send a telegram was the post office right near the Jordanian border, which of course was closed.  At one point Chayim Soloveitchik, a young friend of the family appeared, and said that it would be possible to send a telegram through the Foreign office.  I jumped at the opportunity to use this “protektzia” (nepotism).  I kept it short.  “Safe and well”, I wrote.  Those were without a doubt the three most important words they wanted to hear.

At some time on Tuesday, Chaim Herzog began to report the astounding events of the last 48 hours.  The Egyptian air force was wiped out on the ground. The IDF was advancing in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula, and had reached the Suez Canal.  But there was no news about Jerusalem, and the shelling continued.

There was a lull in the shelling, and young and foolhardy as I was, I ventured out.  I walked the block on Rechov Ussishkin to my uncle Hersh who lived on Rechov Narkis.  There were explosions from time to time.  People motioned me to get into a miklat.  I found my aunt and uncle sitting in the miklat, he engrossed in saying Tehillim.  He barely looked up, motioning to me with a gesture of his hand with an expressive “Nu”.  He and my aunt Rochel, of blessed memory, had made aliyah when they were already in their mid-seventies.  They were HaPoel Hamizrachi people, simple people from  Williamsburg, Brooklyn.  It made quite a stir in the family when we heard they were making aliyah.  Little did he think that he would have the merit of going to the “kotel hama’aravi” every day once the war was over.

Another un-sung hero of the Six Day War was Dina Webster.  Mrs. Webster was a perky old lady, maybe in her 80’s, with bright blue piercing eyes and full of enthusiasm.  She was from Paterson, N.J. and an acquaintance of my parents.  After retiring from a successful business, she, like my Uncle Hersh, surprised everyone by coming on aliyah.  In Jerusalem she extended her hospitality to American students  who were studying in Israel, and I was more than once a recipient of her hospitality and good cooking.  Her apartment was considered super modern for those days, with additional kitchen cabinets on top and a large refrigerator.  She adamantly refused her family’s remonstrations to “take the first plane home” during the pre-war build up.  How shocking it was after the war to see this kitchen reduced to rubble.  It had suffered a direct hit.  Mrs. Webster had just minutes before left the kitchen and gone down to the shelter.  Instead of taking the “first plane home”, she announced triumphantly to people who came to see her, “I’m taking the first Number 9 bus to Mount Scopus!”

By Wednesday morning the shelling had stopped.  After the intensive shelling of the night, I was amazed to see buildings still standing.  I walked towards King George Street.  There was broken glass all over and here and there gutted holes in the outer walls of buildings that had suffered direct hits.  There was a line of tanks.  A fatigued soldier with blackened face motioned in the direction of the Old City – “We were there”, he said.  I hastened back.

That afternoon I went with my dear friend Matti to Magen David to donate blood for wounded soldiers.  We sat in line, waiting.  Opposite us was a group of yeshiva bochurim also waiting to give blood.  Then came the newscast over the loudspeaker, Chaim Herzog’s voice:  “HaIr HaAtika B’yadenu.!”  “The Old City is in our hands!” I was crying, and so was Matti.  I looked across at the row of yeshiva bochurim and they were also crying.  I think there was not a dry eye in the entire country at that historic moment.

The days following were like a Yom Tov.  People congratulated each other in the streets.  Shmuel Shnitzer, in his weekly column in the Ma’ariv newspaper, quoted the Haggadah :  “Blessed be He who brought us from mourning to Yom Tov, from darkness to great light.”  A tearful woman in the street said to me, “We were like this”   making a cut-throat movement of the palm of her hand at her neck.  The local grocer enthused, “We gave it to them, ‘shoch al yerech’” (hip on thigh).  On Shabbat of that week I davened in “Beit Hillel,” the students’ minyan on Rechov Balfour. (Not far from the present day location of the Jerusalem Emunah office.)  We said Hallel with a bracha.

We began to hear the strains of Naomi Shemer’s beautiful song “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.”  It had already become popular before the outbreak of the war.  Reflecting the yearning for Jerusalem and the Old City, it seemed then like a prophecy come true.

A short time after the war, I had just come downstairs from my quaint little attic room that I rented up near the tree-tops, reached by a winding outdoor stair-case from a door on the second floor.  I saw at once that something unusual was going on.  The Rabbanit was in the elegant dining room, and the whole house was lit up, as if for a special occasion.  I saw that her son, Chaim Herzog, who had just recently held the country rapt as the military commentator during the dramatic days of the Six Day War, had come to visit.  But I perceived that this was not just an ordinary family visit to his mother.  Something dramatic was going on.  He came to tell his mother that he was just appointed the first military commander of the West Bank, the territory west of the Jordan river that had been occupied by Jordan before the Six Day War.  The Rabbanit at this point recalled a dream told to her by her late husband, Rav Yitzchak Herzog za’tzal, after the fall of the Old City of Jerusalem to the Jordanians in 1948.  He dreamed that he saw his son Chaim riding into the Old City on a white steed!  The Rabbanit would recount that the Rav mourned the fall of the Old City and the destruction of its magnificent synagogues and institutions all his life.

The first Shabbat at the Kotel after the Six Day War by David Harris

By Shavuot, merely a week after the war, the army had cleared a large area in front of the Kotel, and secured the passage for people to come and visit the holy remnant of the Beit HaMikdash, a visit which only a week before was only a distant dream.  I walked with my dear friend Matti, across the Gai Hinnom Valley, and up Mt. Zion.  There were throngs of people all around us.  Ahead a group of yeshiva bachurim, danced the whole way, arms joined shoulder to shoulder singing “והרינו בבניינו, ושמחינו בתיקונו” – Ve haraynu bevinyano, Vesamchaynu betikuno (Show [Jerusalem] to us in its rebuilding, and make us rejoice in its restoration).   An old Yemenite lady shouted “דוד מלך ישראל חי וקיים ” – David Melech Yisrael Chai Vekayam! (King David lives!).  We went from Mt. Zion, crossing over the old Jordanian border, and entering the Old City through Sha’ar Zion, the Zion gate.  We descended the steep road along the city wall, which is today flanked by Yeshivat Hakotel, and approached the site of the Kotel Hama’aravi.  Soldiers secured our passage and waved us along with a smile.  Israeli flags,  blue and white with the Magen David,  greeted us in the center of the Plaza.  No, the Jordanians would not prevent us from approaching the holy site.

Partially cleared plaza in front of the Kotel by Summer 1967

We stood speechless.  Who were we, after so many generations of people who dreamed of this, to merit this great moment?

This story, written in the simple clear words of a young eye-witness to world-changing events, make the miracle of the war seem more more real than any video or recording. What an honour and privilege the writer enjoyed in seeing Israel’s redemption in front of her eyes!

Here is another personal recollection, from the viewpoint of a soldier who fought and helped capture the Old City – and blew the Shofar for Rabbi Goren!

Happy Yom Yerushalayim!

!חג שמח ירושלים

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