Casualties were high in Jerusalem, partly because Israel had decided to use little artillery in the Old City, in order not to damage the ancient churches and mosques. Jordan had no such qualms. Even the hospital was shelled.
Arab mortars and artillery opened fire on us while I taped over glass panes in the stone bay of a window looking through a meter-thick stone wall. I stopped pasting for a moment to watch a pair of nurses run across the courtyard seeking cover at the rear of our building. A blast accompanied by a puff of smoke raised my eyes to the roof of a neighboring building. An artillery shell had hit it.
I turned around to some old women in the ward whose windows I was covering – most of its, patients had already gone home, and I advised them to stay away from my window, in case a shell came through it. They moved back as I continued to work. The administrator who was in charge of us volunteers ran down the hall outside this room. He shouted at the old ladies to go to the basement hallway that had become a shelter for the hospital’s neighbors, and at me to get away from the window and downstairs, where I was needed. We were at war.
We volunteers had been preparing for this moment for two weeks – “we” being about a dozen students at Jerusalem’s high schools, yeshivas, and the university. Somebody’s relative worked at Shaarei Zedek hospital, and he spread the word that the hospital needed volunteers. Shaarei Zedek was still in its 1902 building on Jaffa Street, where the Israel Broadcasting Authority has its offices today. We helped by pasting paper strips on the windows to prevent their shattering if a bomb or a shell burst nearby. We filled sandbags, transformed a basement storage room into an operating theater, and did whatever we were asked to do.
While the past seems inevitable when remembered from what was once the future, none of us knew that I would soon watch a shell burst on a nearby roof. We had speculated about the possibility of war, whether or not the US and the UN might talk everybody out of it, and the form war might take if it came. It could be fought only in the South, with Israel fighting Egypt in Sinai and the Negev, or it might be in Jerusalem as well, because King Hussein had placed his army under Egyptian command.
One night I walked around a Jerusalem neighborhood with a young woman with whom I was keeping company wondering if these homes would be standing a week hence, and how many of the people we passed would survive, if Ahmad Shukairi, Yassir Arafat’s predecessor, had his wish that few Israelis would survive the coming war. I thought Israel might lose, or be heavily damaged while winning. The international newspapers were not optimistic, and the frantic letters and telegrams my parents sent me to get me out of the war-zone neither cheered me up nor got me home.
One morning a few days after our nocturnal walk, a siren woke me up in the university dormitory where I lived. I knew that the siren meant something serious had happened, but I did not know that at that moment the Israel Air Force was taking out most of Egypt’s air force, and that Israel’s ground forces were attacking the Egyptian army in Sinai. I dressed and ran outdoors. The army had mobilized most of Jerusalem’s buses to transport soldiers. I put my finger out, in the Israeli manner of hitch-hiking, and several people picked me up, each bringing me closer to the hospital. Between rides policemen tried to get me and others from the streets into shelters.
“It’s war!” “It’s war!” People looked up to see if Arab bombers flew above us.
When I reached the hospital, the man in charge of the volunteers told me that there was no battle in Jerusalem, and that there would hopefully be none, but that I must paste windows in an upstairs ward we were preparing for wounded from the Egyptian front. He directed me to the window from which I saw Jordanian shelling begin, and from which I returned downstairs when he told me to, just after we came under fire.
The loudness of the unceasing bombardment surprised me. Israel had informed the Jordanians that we would not react if they bombarded us, but Israel would counter-attack should the Arabs attempt to move soldiers across the armistice line in an invasion of Israel.
We now know that Egypt told Jordan that the Egyptian air force had destroyed Israel’s air force and that Egyptian forces were moving into the Negev. Jordan believed this lie and joined the war for what looked like an easy kill, even as Italy bravely invaded France after Germany had defeated the French army in 1940.
“They’re fighting at the Mandelbaum Gate!”, somebody exclaimed. That once-famous crossing-point between Jordanian-occupied and Israeli Jerusalem was within easy walking distance of our hospital. I wondered if Jordanian units might fight their way house to house through the Hassidic neighborhoods, shooting all the civilians in their path, arrive at Shaarei Zedek Hospital in a few hours, and kill all of us.
We young volunteers stood around waiting for orders. We knew casualties would be brought into the hospital soon. We did what Tolstoy describes in War and Peace, where he depicts a group of young soldiers coming under fire for the first time: a certain tightening of the corners of our mouths, and people glancing around surreptitiously to see how the others were reacting.
Casualties had not yet begun to arrive. I walked outdoors through the hospital’s courtyard to Jaffa Street. The din of the constant shelling was hellaciously loud. I looked up at the sky to see if it were true that one could watch artillery shells sailing through the air, and I really did see what looked like little black spots moving down on Jerusalem. Stop-lights directed non-existent traffic in a futile yellow, green, and red rhythm. Wide-eyed cats stared at me accusingly, probably thinking that I was making the noise. Few people were about, but some standing in doorways or watching me from basement windows waved at me, pantomiming “Get inside!” or “Duck!”
Like every first-timer, I catalogued my own reactions to being under fire, asking myself if I were afraid, and wondering if something were wrong with me for feeling more than a wee bit of elation. To emphasize how defiantly cool I was, I pulled out my ever-present Virgil and read a passage from the Eclogues. I began to wonder if I might imitate Pierre Bezukov and Fabrice del Dongo by finding the battlefield downtown and toddling around it.
I noticed a couple of buses about a block or so ahead of me, in a little side street. Soldiers were in them. While walking over there to investigate, I just barely heard women’s voices over the constant shooting. These soldiers were from the Jerusalem Brigade, a reserve unit consisting only of Jerusalemites who could be called up to protect the city should it ever be cut off and besieged, as had happened during Israel’s War for Independence. I had seen them camping in city parks for the last couple of weeks. Many of their units were already at the front downtown, and now that we had been attacked, the buses were bringing more soldiers to reinforce those already fighting.
The women I heard were the wives, sisters, mothers, and girlfriends of these soldiers, and some children were among them as well. Because the soldiers were all from Jerusalem, their families visited them in their camps, and now they had accompanied their men in the buses taking them away to fight. The men were exuberant, as soldiers are when going into combat, and the women and children were hugging them goodbye with enthusiastic encouragement. The women gave them home-cooking, water-bottles, blessings, and kisses. This was the point at which the women and children had to leave the buses and watch their husbands, boyfriends, and sons go forward to combat in a battlefield that was about a twenty-minute walk from where we stood.
The women waved goodbye as the buses drove away. They, too, had been in a defiantly exuberant mood and showed no fear, although they too were at risk from the bombardment.
After the buses disappeared down Jaffa Street to the battlefield, the women stopped waving, turned around in my direction, and started walking home. A little knot of them suddenly fell into a group hug, dropped their smiles, and exploded into wailing and tears at the departure of men they might never see again. This primordial, Homeric war scene of women and children braving a bombardment to see their men off to a battle that was literally to save their nearby homes and families snapped me out of my literary reverie and sent me quickly back to my job at the hospital.
The battle was joined. Wounded began to arrive. The first stretcher I carried supported a civilian, a hassid who had been hit by flying glass and shell fragments outside his home. Jerusalem is after all a city, and people live there; the artillery and mortar shells coming down all around us might hit anybody. A pickup truck drove into our courtyard with a wounded soldier’s legs protruding from its rear.
We became used to extracting wounded soldiers on their stretchers from the rear of those little trucks. Our job was to carry the injured from that entrance, usually by stretcher, to the emergency room. Those who were bleeding heavily sometimes left drops, not to say puddles, of blood along the hallway. Somebody ran right behind us to wipe up this blood. A few times soldiers asked us to walk rather than run, because we hurt their wounds. We took helmets, rifles, bayonets, and other battle-gear into a room used to store those items. We tried to keep each soldier’s equipment in a separate little pile.
A volunteer in the emergency room, a man who was older than we other volunteers, sliced the casualty’s combat boots off with shears, and then cut off his pants and shirt with smaller scissors, so that the doctors could see the soldier’s wounds. The doctors examined them, did what was to be done in the emergency room, and ordered us to carry the wounded to the wards or to other doctors. It was awkward for four of us to carry somebody in a stretcher up a stairway, with a fifth holding the bag of what I think is called a drip – especially at a landing where the stairs doubled back on themselves. We had to keep our soldier level, so that he would not slide off the stretcher. We lifted him high over the bannister when we turned at that landing.
If somebody died in the emergency room, or had been dead when carried in, the procedure was for us to break his dogtag in half, leaving half around his neck, and putting the other half into a little bag, into which we emptied his pockets as well. I stared in shock when I found pictures of wives and children in the dead soldier’s pocket, but I soon trained myself to look away and put the family pictures into their bag as fast as I could. I felt like an intruder. I wondered if this soldier were one of those I saw on the buses going up to the front, and if these pictures were of the family for whom he had given his life.
We often carried wounded soldiers to the X-ray room next to the emergency room. We brought in one soldier whose eyes were wide open and who made jerking, rhythmic movements with all four limbs, we waited outside the X-ray room a few moments while he was X-rayed, and then we brought him back to the emergency room. The X-ray showed the perfect form of a human skull in profile, its geometry marred by the equally clear shape of a bullet in the middle of the soldier’s head. The doctor glanced at the X-ray, lifted the soldier’s head from the little wagon, and felt around it. He spread the man’s hair as he did so, until we saw a round hole in the back of the soldier’s head. The expressionless doctor settled the wounded man’s head gently back on the table and said, “Hadassah.” All our head injuries went to that hospital. I do not know if this man survived.
Soon after the shooting began, we carried an unconscious and perfectly still soldier downstairs to the operating room we had made during the run-up to the war. We hove him onto the operating table for the doctors to work on him, and we returned upstairs. A few minutes later somebody told us that he had died, and that we must bring him from that operating room to the hospital’s mortuary.
The man lay dead on the table. Some of us volunteers were still in high school, and they were aghast to see his wounds wide-open. A doctor hurried to throw a sheet over the soldier when he saw the shock on the high school kids’ faces. We slowly and delicately pulled needles out of the dead man’s hands, and tucked his hands together on his belly to lift him onto a stretcher waiting on the floor.
While we carefully and silently proceeded, the head of the volunteers ran into the room, yelling that another wounded soldier was coming, a man who had been very badly hurt, and who needed immediate surgery. Behind our boss another quartet of volunteers carried the new soldier’s stretcher. When the boss saw we had not yet removed the soldier who had just died, he yelled at us to hurry up, and then he shoved the dead one off the table and onto a stretcher on the floor. His concern was to save the one who still lived.
As we carried the dead soldier through the hallway beneath the hospital, one of the women who had sought refuge with her children inside the building’s thick stone walls delicately put her hand over her child’s eyes to shield her from seeing the corpse we carried.
We brought him outdoors to a separate building the hospital used as a mortuary. The mortuary filled up as the battle continued. Casualties were high in Jerusalem, partly because Israel had decided to use little artillery in the Old City, in order not to damage the ancient churches and mosques. Apart from the contrast that decision poses to the enthusiasm with which the Jordanians blasted the Hell out of Israel’s half of the town, it did not permit infantry the relative safety of advancing after artillery had softened up the enemy.
Civilians lay in the mortuary among soldiers. A neat little package wrapped in white sheets was a dead child. Children were more likely than adults to be hit by the Arab bombardment, because it was hard for their parents to restrain their running outside basement shelters. I had occasion to lift one of the dead children, feeling the little shoulders and neck through the white sheet in which he had been wrapped. Somebody came running into the hospital carrying a badly wounded and unconscious little boy, but this child, having a head wound, was sent to Hadassah.
Children lay dead in Shaarei Zedek Hospital, but others were born in the same building at the height of the battle. The mortuary filled up, but so did the new baby room.
Most of the dead lay on stretchers, and we therefore began to experience a shortage of stretchers as the battle progressed. Somebody asked us to go to the mortuary and bring those stretchers back. We picked up the dead, one of us at his shoulders and another lifting his knees, while a third volunteer slid the stretcher out from under him. I later asked one of the high school volunteers if it were good for somebody his age to do that kind of thing He said, “Tzarich”, which is Hebrew for “must”, and shrugged his shoulders. This attitude seems the common Israeli approach to unpleasant or hazardous duty. He pointed out that I was only a couple of years his senior, and that many of those we carried were my age or less.
The Battle of Jerusalem lasted rather more than two days. None of us in the hospital slept during the period. We grabbed food from the hospital’s commissary, and a couple of times I lay down to rest, but the general tension and constant shooting did not permit me to sleep, especially when I realized I was lying on one of our stretchers.
Wounded came to us in waves as paratroopers advancing across Jordanian Jerusalem got into specific firefights. Less seriously wounded soldiers gave us a partial picture of how the battle was going, and where the front line was. It was hard for me to picture where things were, because I had little idea of the geography of that part of town, although it was within walking distance of our hospital. Some of the soldiers told us about the fights in which they had been injured. We heard of face-to-face combat with bayonets. A soldier lying on the floor of our mortuary had been killed with a shovel.
A lightly wounded paratrooper told us to expect many wounded and dead soon, because the fight in which he had been hit was at a place called Ammunition Hill, where the Jordanians were putting up heavy resistance. And indeed, truck after truck pulled up in our courtyard, some with two sets of legs sticking out the back. After we heard of the advance up Augusta Victoria, the hill between Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives, it became clear that Israel’s forces had taken the whole of Jordanian Jerusalem, apart from the walled Old City itself. We were winning. The Arabs would not come charging along Jaffa Street and into our hospital.
We heard a loud, low rumble. A nurse looked terrified and said, “Matosim!”, which is the Hebrew word for “airplanes”; she interpreted that rumble to mean we were about to be bombed. I looked outside, though, to see two or three of Israel’s Sherman tanks driving down Jaffa Road at top speed toward the battle. They had made the rumbling noise, rather than airplanes. Their commanders stood up through the hatches in the turrets. These tanks were to break open the Lion’s Gate at the rear of the Old City so that the paratroopers could charge in. While one of them advanced up the road to that gate, an Arab Legionnaire standing on the wall of the Walled City fired a bazooka at it, killing the four soldiers inside. Pickup trucks brought them to us.
As the battle progressed, I seemed to hear the shelling less than I had at the beginning. It became a kind of constant drone. Amidst this drone, a sudden and tremendous blast shook the whole building, solid stone though it was. Electric lights hanging from the ceiling danced back and forth. A big howitzer shell had hit the hospital. Smaller artillery and mortar fire had already struck us many times, but this blast was of a different magnitude.
A nurse from the new baby room ran up to us and said that the shell had hit upstairs, and that we were wanted to clean up. I gasped, as did we all, and went upstairs, trembling in anticipation of the horror that awaited us. I do not know what I expected to see, but I remember repeating the phrase “ground meat!”, “ground meat!” in my mind.
When we got to the new baby room, the first sight to greet us was of nurses carrying lively and healthy-looking babies, many sleeping soundly through the battle into which they had been born, out of that room and downstairs. The nurse who sent us upstairs had phrased her statement in such a way that we thought the new baby room had taken a direct hit, but the shell had landed in the room next to the new baby room. I went into that one to look at the huge hole it made in the hospital’s wall. The hole was visible from outside the building. Nurses carried the new babies to other quarters. One of the volunteers cried. I had to lean on a wall for a few minutes.
An injured soldier told me that he and his comrades were going from building to building in the Old City to make sure that all the Jordanian soldiers had surrendered their weapons and were being processed as prisoners of war. There was no more fighting. This man had fallen off a roof that had no guardrail, as I understood it. He had seen the Western Wall, the remains of the platform on which the Temple had stood in ancient times. The soldier was among the first Jews to see it after the Jordanians, who had not allowed Jews into the Old City, had been chased out.
I was excited to hear his story, and I resolved to go there as soon as possible, before the United Nations or some other group forced Israel to give back the Old City. I now understood that Israel had won the Battle of Jerusalem, but I rather thought we might be asked to leave the Old City in a week or two.
Some time later, I realized that the shooting had stopped. It had become so familiar that I did not notice we were no longer being bombarded. Fresh casualties stopped coming in, but other wounded from the Sinai battles began to arrive. I went out to Jaffa Street to find civilians walking around and going about their business. A few shops were opening.
I found a post office and sent a telegram, as we did in those primitive, pre-Email days, to my parents informing them that I was still alive. My mother told me some years later that I should have seen the look on my father’s face when the television announced that Shaarei Zedek Hospital, where their son was volunteering, had taken the direct hit I just described. I was never the easiest bundle of joy to a woman born. When the war was over, I went back to my dormitory and slept for a day or so. I think I picked up some kind of stomach virus in the hospital.
I made my first trip to the Old City the following week, which was the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, and the first day on which Jews had been allowed to pray at the Western Wall since 1948. I watched the municipal workers tear down the anti-sniper walls separating Jordanian from Israeli Jerusalem. That the Arabs had been so close to us surprised me; I had seen those walls many times, but I had assumed they concealed an Arab city some distance away.
The devastation in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City appalled me. Jordan had systematically dynamited the area’s historic homes and synagogues in 1948. I wondered if Jews would ever study in those cold, bare ruined choirs again. The Israel Philharmonic played a concert in the amphitheatre on Mount Scopus; the program included Mozart’s Fortieth and Beethoven’s Ninth, preceded by the Israel National Anthem. Many in the audience wept.
I became a tourist in a town from which I had been shot at days earlier. I went around the Old City, seeking the burned-out hulk of that big Sherman tank the remains of whose crew we had carried, and walking around, though not yet into, Ammunition Hill, which is today a park dedicated to those who fought and died there. A wounded Israeli had told us about taking the Rockefeller Museum from Jordanian soldiers, and how he had fired at a Legionnaire who had sought cover behind one of the pillars in the museum’s courtyard while shooting at our advancing troops. In that courtyard I found a glassless window with bullet marks all around it, just as the soldier had described it to me.
Most of the Arabs I met in the Old City seemed open and friendly, and nothing like an enemy population whose soldiers had just been prevented from committing genocide on me and everybody like me. A few Arabs seemed terrified of me as I walked around smiling and trying to be friendly. I went up to the Temple Mount and into the Mosques of Omar and al Aqsa, taking off my shoes, but leaving on my yamulka; the Arabs smiled in greeting. If I did that today, I would be lucky to come back alive.
I bought water from somebody who is a major figure in Arabic folklore: the water seller, who carried a big brass water-container on his back. He bent forward to pour water directly into my mouth. Water-men no longer exist, now that every shop sells Coca-Cola. We began to see Old City Arabs walking around Israeli Jerusalem to go shopping, and just to look at our half of the city, even as we were curious about them. It had been uncommon to see Arabs in Israel’s part of town before the war. I imagine all these folks had spent the war hiding in basements, as had most of us. Jerusalem’s “general mood”, if one can speak of such a thing, was much more relaxed, just after a shooting war downtown, than it is today.
I have lived most of my Israeli years in Jerusalem. I sometimes pass the former Shaarei Tzedek hospital building while on an ordinary errand, like shopping in the Machaneh Yehuda Market; once I walked out of a computer shop holding a microphone I had just bought and realized I stood exactly where I had watched the soldiers part from their women. While pushing a shopping cart in a supermarket, a man greeted me and told me that I had once pushed his wheelchair. He introduced me to his family. I recognized neither him nor the other two who greeted me in the street over the years and told me I had once carried them, partly because of my poor memory for faces, but also because a civilian walking down the street does not look as he did when he was a wounded, bloody soldier to be carried.
My memories of the war’s events integrated themselves into my daily life in Jerusalem. The first to come to mind whenever I think of the war is of that mother shielding her child’s eyes from looking at the dead soldier I mentioned earlier. My memory mercifully does not dwell on some of the ugly sights I saw in the mortuary and elsewhere, although I have a nightmare every two or three years featuring one of those scenes.
That dream returned to me while I worked on this article, no doubt brought to the surface by my churning up all these old memories. What matters though is that it was my privilege to do my little bit to help genuine war heroes when they were hurt – men who had been willing to give everything for Israel, and many of whom died in that task.
The writer made aliyah from Wheeling, West Virginia, and has degrees from Columbia and NYU. He now lives in Sderot.