Celebrating 50 years since they volunteered to help during the ‘67 Six Day War
By Chandrea Serebro
“When word got out that Israel, surrounded on three fronts, was under attack, we headed directly to the SA Zionist Federation to volunteer in whatever way we could,” says Larry Osrin. At 19 years old, Larry was on one of the first planes of South Africans arriving in Israel as volunteers to help out during the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and her neighbours Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. “We arrived on day three of the war, and we were very surprised when the war was over in just three more days. It was an exciting time; there was an incredible unity among the people. The ruach was considerable, and there was a pervasive feeling that we were all doing this together.”
Team work it was, with 5 000 volunteers coming from over 38 countries the world over to volunteer in Israel, 1 200 of those being young South African men and women, answering the call that resonated with their Zionistic and religious ideals. “The Six Day War was a critical juncture in the history of modern day Israel,” says Ben Swartz, National Chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, “What could have been a devastating defeat turned into a glorious victory.” This miraculous victory ended with Israel almost doubling in size in the six days of fighting, taking back her borders by capturing the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, and the Sinai Peninsula.
When the war was looming, Gina Bergman, no stranger to Israel – her family were seven and tenth generation Israelis/Palestinians and she had served in the Israeli army in ‘61 and ’62 – was asked to help at the SAZF selection committee to decide on volunteers to go to Israel. “We went through thousands of applications. We only allowed those who could help Israel – not those who Israel could help.”
The South Africans who were chosen all felt a deep-seated urge to do what they could for the sake of Israel. The experience was fulfilling, a mixture of real, hard work and a satisfying knowledge that you were doing something greater than yourself. “Just before leaving for Israel, I chopped my hair short, knowing what was ahead of me. The other South African girls arrived not with sleeping bags, but with hair rollers, makeup, and false eyelashes, which they never used! They had no idea what they were in for.”
Marcus Orelowitz saw what was going to happen in Israel, realising that “things were heating up there”, and that war was looming. And after completing his army service in South Africa, having spent a year in the army gymnasium and two stints on the Botswana border, he felt prepared to do what it took. “When we landed in Israel, the SAZF were there to meet us, and there was a plane from South America and one from France arriving at the same time – all there as volunteers to help.” Most of the people in the country were in the army and on the border, so help was needed to take the place of the soldiers who were on the front on the various Kibbutzim and even in the hospitals and in town.
The South African volunteers were soon to find themselves mainly on kibbutzim and moshavs around Israel, serving their country by doing whatever was needed there, whether it was working in the fields, driving trucks, or even tanks, or working in the kitchens. “Whether you worked with the chickens, in the kitchens, or picked avocados – I don’t think there was anyone who felt that it wasn’t a worthwhile experience,” says Larry. “Once I got to Israel, we were put to work in the fields. I remember having to get up at 4am – and we simply used to go to bed with our work clothes on, so that the minute we heard the beep beep wake up call, we could jump up, grab our boots, and get into the van – only to fall asleep in the back of the van once again,” he recalls. “I was tasked to do the ploughing. This was possibly the most fulfilling experience I ever had in my life. By the end of the day the landscape had changed from light grey to dark brown. And the taskmaster arrived at the end of the day and said, ‘You’ve done good work,’ and I knew that I had.”
Many of the girls who volunteered were sent to the kitchens, explains Gina. Indignant, Gina would have none of that, having previously served in the army. “So the madrich asked me if I could drive a big truck, and I said, ‘Of course I can!’ I had never even been inside a truck before in my life. I asked one of the boys to show me how to do it, and now I hold an Israeli army license for trucks.” Gina’s job entailed getting up at one in the morning, due to the heat, and travelling in one truck to the next camp further down where there were volunteers who had collected all the Arab “booty” that they could find – hand grenades, firearms, trucks, machine guns, and mines – and from there they would return in two trucks to deliver the goods. “We had to be very careful as there were mines where we were driving. It was very dangerous, but I loved every minute of it. I love Israel. As hard as it is, it is vibrant. I love the food there. When the South Africans arrived there, they used to feel like they were dying of hunger. They wanted their burgers and their steaks, but all they got was humus and falafel, which they didn’t think was food.”
And, if they thought the food was bad, the living conditions were, for the most part, even worse. “The doors didn’t close, the windows were falling out – but that is what we lived in. Some got nice accommodations, some accommodations were less nice. But, that is how we lived. And till today, I thank G-d I went. And, I thank G-d that I came back in one piece,” says Ronnie Kaplan. “I was in the youth movements in those days, and I told my father I wanted to go to Israel as there was a war coming. My father said no, that he would go in my place – but eventually I won the ‘war’, and he agreed.” Ronnie was stationed in Tel Aviv, digging sand to fill up bags for the army. “The hotel windows were blacked out, but you could get a ride just by sticking your thumb out – people were prepared to do anything for anyone. But we were scared. You couldn’t plough during the day because you would get shot at, as we were directly on the Jordanian border. They were digging up the cemeteries for the thousand they expected to die – but G-d saved us, He gave us back what He promised us.”
Jack Riback, a spirited South African ‘boykie’ who found himself wearing his heart on his sleeve in Israel, pledging his love for his country, remembers his antics during that time fondly. “We did a lot of travelling in the Sinai which was very interesting. We got as far as the Suez Canal. In fact, I jumped into the Suez Canal to go for a swim, which didn’t go down too well with the Israeli army. Coming back one day, I saw an abandoned tank. ‘What the heck?’ I thought. So I drove the tank to the camp, right up to the Major’s door, knocked on it, and I said to him, ‘A present from Drom Africa’.” But one of the enduring memories that everyone has of their time spent in Israel is the connections they formed, both with their fellow South African volunteers as well as with the Israelis who looked after them and mentored them while they were there. “I remember the wonderful people that I met, who were so kind to us. People who took strangers into their homes. And fed them. And fed them. And fed them. It was a bad situation that necessitated us to be there. But, if only every Jewish kid could have that same experience. They would have seen the Israelis at their best,” says Jack.
“Two days after I got to Kibbutz Shamir, only a few days after the Western Wall – the Kotel – was taken back, I was determined to get to The Wall,” says Marcus. He and his cousin got a lift to Jerusalem with an army jeep and went through the Dung Gate to the Kotel. “There, we found that the bulldozers had just finished bulldozing all the houses that had been built right up to The Wall itself.” Almost at midnight that night, they were allowed to get right up close to The Wall and touch it. “And then the people started pouring in. All kinds of people – religious, non-religious, soldiers, foreigners. And everyone started davening and singing. It was an amazing moment. Today, we had managed to get to The Wall which for thousands of years so many people had struggled, and there we were – we got to it.”
“My experience changed me for the better,” muses Marcus. “My son asked me, ‘Dad why did you go to Israel in 1967?’ I told him that Israel was fighting for its life, but it had to succeed, even if just so that Jewish people around the world, wherever there are problems, would have a place to go, a place to go to escape persecution.”
“We built up a very good friendship with the people that were there. And the group of South Africans became good friends. Ten years ago, we celebrated the fortieth anniversary, and now we just celebrated the fiftieth anniversary together,” says Ronnie. At the end of last year, the SAZF hosted an event honouring the 1 200 South African volunteers who went to Israel during and after the 1967 Six Day War, during those desperate times, and the reunification of Jerusalem. “To acknowledge and pay tribute to their contribution to the establishment of a Jewish homeland, and the part they played in securing Israel’s future,” says Ben.
“The experience changed me,” says Hilton Sawitsky, another volunteer. “I learned to stand on my own two feet very quickly.” And the marvel that is Israel today is not lost on them, or the part they played in achieving this. “Today you see how a country can grow so quickly. It is unbelievable what they have done,” says Hilton.
“I am sure I would have been a different person if I had never experienced the army and the Six Day War in Israel,” says Gina. “It was a life-changing experience,” echoes Larry. Not only for the volunteers, but indeed, for the rest of the world, especially the Jews, who are proud every day to have Jerusalem as their undivided capital, and to have Israel on our side, just like these South Africans were on hers fifty years ago.