Today I read the masterpiece O Jerusalem!, written by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre. O Jerusalem! shocked me out of my complacency regarding the state of Israel. I believe that the idea of the state and the profound meaning behind Yom Ha'Atzmaut was not taught to me appropriately. In the schools I have attended, Yom Ha'Atzmaut was always regarded as a cultural celebration in which we were served blue-and-white donuts, got to ride on camels, made sand-art and ate falafel. The terrible price that was paid for the land, the men and women who fought for the country and held on to it with the skin of their teeth...this was never presented to me as vividly as it was today. There is one excerpt of the book that to me, symbolizes the entire idea behind the Jewish people and Jewish nationalism. I reproduce it below.
Two Haganah veterans of the British Army, Harry Jaffe and Bronislav Bar-Shemer, were assigned the job of organizing the convoys that would carry Joseph's supplies to Jerusalem. The Canadian told them they would need a minimum of three hundred trucks. After two days of scouring Tel Aviv's trucking firms, Bar-Shemer had managed to assemble barely sixty vehicles. To get the rest, he chose a simple expedient. He decided to hijack them.
"I took the Haganah boys from their training camps and sent them to the busy intersections," he later recalled. "They started stopping every truck that came along. I don't know who was more scared, the drivers or the soldiers pointing their guns at them, telling them to drive to a big empty field at Kiryat Meir."
Every time a score of trucks had collected in his playing field, Bar-Shemer formed their loudly protesting drivers into a convoy and, under the command of his teenage soldiers and their Sten guns, packed them off to the assembly point for the Nachshon convoys, an abandoned British Army camp called Kfar Bilu. The drivers were the most disgruntled group of human beings Bar-Shemer had ever seen. "They hated our guts," he remembered. "None of them had any idea of what was happening." Some of them, Bar-Shemer knew, "had wives who were giving birth and here we'd kidnapped them at high noon or in the middle of the night." Fortunately for Bar-Shemer, most of those drivers owned their trucks, and the vehicles represented their livelihood. They were not inclined to abandon them to Bar-Shemer, not even for a wife in childbirth.
Feeding his group of captive drivers soon became a serious problem. A firm believer in direct action, Bar-Shemer walked into one of the Tel Aviv's most popular restaurants, Chaskal's. "The Jewish nation needs you," he told its owner, Yecheskel Weinstein. In about three minutes' time Bar-Shemer explained what he required and placed a truck and a squad of soldiers at Weinstein's disposition. It was eleven o'clock in the morning. At five o'clock in the afternoon Weinstein was ladling out a hot meal to four hundred men at Kfar Bilu.
The former British Army camp of Kfar Bilu swarmed with Bronislav Bar-Shemer's kidnapped truck drivers, mechanics, Haganah men, all milling around the stocks of goods commandeered on Dov Joseph's orders from Tel Aviv's warehouses. To load them onto the waiting trucks, the Haganah had rounded up a team of Salonikan stevedores from the port of Tel Aviv. Squat, heavily muscled men whose leaders had ordered them a special diet of sardines, rice, apples and cheese, they set to work by the flickering glare of torches.
"It was like an automatic chain belt," the wondering Tel Aviv restaurateur Yecheskel Weinstein recalled. "Every five minutes they loaded a truck. Two young boys stood beside them playing a guitar while they worked. Greek music filled the night and those stevedores kept heaving crates and sacks of food to one another without a break in their rhythm."
Standing by the side of the road in the darkness, Bar-Shemer watched the trucks set off. There was an incredible variety of vehicles in that line passing before his eyes. There were vans from the Tnuvah dairy, Bedfords, Fords, factory trucks, delivery vans, heavy Mack dump trucks, open kibbutz farm trucks, White semitrailers, Rio hay wagons. They came in every size, shape and color imaginable, many of them splashed with posters advertising soap, baby food, a kosher butcher in Haifa, a brick kiln in Ramat Gan or a shoe factory in Tel Aviv. The light ones came first. The heavier, slower vehicles brought up the rear, each rigged out with a steel cable to take in tow the trucks that faltered along the way.
None of them had its lights on. Bar-Shemer had seen to that. His men had meticulously removed the bulbs from every headlight in the convoy so that no panicky flick of a light switch would illuminate the column for Arab snipers. Their escorts swung on board as they rolled past the kibbutz of Hulda. Iska Shadmi landed in a load of potatoes and quickly dug himself a foxhole.
Looking up at the sullen, fearful faces of those drivers his men had kidnapped a few days before, Bar-Shemer thought, "If looks could kill, I'd be dead." From his vantage point he followed their progress, a long column stretching out in the moonlight like an immense caterpillar. "The delicious odor of orange blossoms," he noted, "filled the night." Ahead, the road ran straight and flat for six miles up to a gentle hilltop rising on the left. There the steeple and the ochre facade of the Trappist Monastery of Latrun towered above a stand of olive trees. Then an easy arc to the right past the monastery's vineyards brought the column to the foothills marking the entry to Bab el Wad. Waiting for the last truck to leave Hulda so that he could fall in at the end of the convoy, Bar-Shemer noted far off in the distance the echo of sporadic rifle fire. "They're moving into Bab el Wad," he thought.
Riding at the head of the column, Harry Jaffe, the convoy commander, heard three of those rounds clang into the panel of his new blue 1947 Ford. He prayed that they were only the work of an isolated sniper. The trucks strung out behind him had none of the protective armor of the vehicles that had been used previously on the Jerusalem road. Huddled in his pile of potatoes, Iska Shadmi angrily scanned the dark forests above him for some sign of a foe. All the way up to Jerusalem, he would see only one human being in those pines, an old Arab with a white beard.
As Jaffe had hoped, apart from a few snipers there were no Arab forces in the hills. Shaking the night with the steady drone of their engines, the trucks ground slowly up the pass toward Jerusalem. Some lurched along with two or three fires flattened by sniper fire. From others, overheated by the long, slow trip, Jaffe saw jets of steam squirting into the air. All along the column, like huntsmen spurring on a pack of hounds, his men shouted, "Kadima, Kadima! Forward! Forward!" to the harried truckers.
In Jerusalem, the news that the convoy was coming rippled through the city. Hundreds of people ran down Jaffa Road to watch it come in: women in bathrobes and slippers and pincurlers, schoolchildren, religious Jews coming from morning service in the synagogues, their prayer shawls still draped over their shoulders. They hung out of windows, clambered onto rooftops and balconies, to watch in awe and gratitude. They sang and cheered and clapped as the convoy hove into sight. They were a desperate, hungry people existing that week on a ration of two ounces of margarine, a quarter of a pound of potatoes and a quarter of a pound of dried meat. For two weeks not a single vehicle had reached the city, and now they were rumbling forward in a steady stream as far back as the eye could see- dozens of trucks bumper to bumper, their swaying vans crammed with supplies.
Mature men watching them from the curb wept openly. Children scrambled up onto the trucks with flowers. Women sprang onto dashboards to kiss the drivers. In front of the Sephardic Home for the Aged an elderly woman embraced Yehuda Lash, and the young veteran of so many Jerusalem convoys sighed, "If only it could have been her daughter." Riding on his pile of potatoes, Iska Shadmi remembered all his lessons in the Palmach and the youth movement about "how, if we were strong, we would become a nation." Suddenly, seeing those grateful Jerusalemites, that theory became reality for Shadmi. Even the sullen truck drivers Bar-Shemer had forced to make this journey were transformed. Rolling down the corridor of ecstatic human beings, they understood they had saved a city.
Above all else, one memory would remain engraved upon the minds of those Jerusalemites watching the convoy stream down the streets of their city that happy April morning. It was the first glimpse many of them had of the convoy- the front bumper of the blue Ford of Harry Jaffe.
On it, Jaffe had painted six words: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem..."
~252-259 in the hardcover version of O Jerusalem!
This image, so brilliantly presented and seared into my mind, represents to me the tenacity, strength, kindness and resourcefulness of the nation that made Israel theirs, reclaiming the land given to them by God.