As I write this, I can only guess how all the various media outlets will mark Israel’s birthday. As much as I love nostalgia, the compulsive reading of the weekend papers and obsessive watching of old people singing on television — I have no intention of taking part in the celebrations this time. Because I know the naked truth about the circumstances under which the Zionist miracle came to pass: My father divulged it to me a long time ago.
If he were alive today, he’d be 90, but both he and my mother died just two months before Israel marked its 50th year.
I thought then and still think that perhaps they died from disappointment, especially my father who not only made the move from the Holocaust to heroism, but almost single-handedly conquered most of the land with a cannon.
Now the story can be told: It wasn’t the Israel Defense Forces but actually my father — who was known in the Jewish Brigade as “Weiss the Long” and later in the artillery corps as “Livneh the Tall” — who conquered Deganya, the western Galilee, the Negev and even Jerusalem.
The photographic history of my father shows him as a young man, wearing the uniform of the Jewish Brigade in the British Army, or in an IDF uniform. Mostly, he is pictured with another soldier who barely comes up to his shoulder, or as the tallest figure at the end of a row of soldiers standing at attention for inspection. My father did not become a soldier until age 22. All the pictures of him from before that remained behind at his mother’s house in Czechoslovakia, and vanished from the world when his family perished in the Holocaust.
My father loved to reminisce about his military past. That was a good period in his life. He was young and very handsome. Women fell all over him and my mother, whom he thought of as the very epitome of the salt of the earth, fell in love with him.
He was a yeshiva student with rabbinical ordination who became a heroic and secular (at the time they used the term “free”) soldier. His secularization process was very painful for his family. Like his father before him and his three older brothers and three brothers-in-law, he was raised to become a rabbi.
But my father decided to trade-in advanced yeshiva studies for hachshara (preparation, for life in Palestine/Israel) and for organizing a ship for illegal immigrants.
The last time he saw his mother and siblings, he was being thrown out of the house in shame.
He arrived in Israel and immediately enlisted in the British Army. The family he left behind ended up in the concentration camps and in mass graves.
While still on the ship, my father taught himself to fire a canon. This was the start of what would develop into the love of his life.
“Look, look!” he’d roar in his baritone voice as our Lark car zipped along at a speed of 40 kilometers per hour. “Over there, where that tree… that mound of rubble… that field… that villa is! There was once a village, and I myself — I remember as if it were yesterday — vanquished it with my cannon.”
This introduction would be followed by a detailed description of the course of the battle, the number of casualties and the type of wound my father incurred on that occasion.
But as avid a Zionist and as dedicated a soldier as he was in his youth, in his old age my father became the first post-Zionist in the family — unwittingly, of course.
The first and last time I heard post-Zionist ideas from him, he was lying in the geriatric ward in a hospital in Nahariya.
Even though the hospital was, in his estimation, “not as good a place as hell,” my father developed a warm bond with the older male nurse who devotedly tended to him, and “may be an Arab but is really a good Jew.”
His name was Sa’id.
“Where are you from?” I asked Sa’id one time when I came to visit my father. Sa’id mentioned the name of an Arab village in the western Galilee where he lives now, and the name of the village from which he was expelled as a child with his family in 1948.
My father — who by that point was already gaunt and disoriented from all the medication, was in the early stages of dementia, and suffered paralysis on his right side and painful ulcers which made even lying down difficult — suddenly straightened up and for a moment was transformed once again into Livneh the Tall.
“What does it mean that you’re from this village?” my father asked rhetorically. “I clearly remember how I conquered it with the cannon. We went in and there on the right was the post office. We fired on the post office. The Arab who worked there was killed in a second.”
“That was my uncle,” said Sa’id.
“That’s a shame. I bet he was a good guy,” continued my father, who seemed to be in some kind of trance now. “I clearly remember how we went into the village and fired at the house of the sheikh. All the people were killed on the spot. After that we went from house to house and we told the Arabs to leave or we would shoot, and all the Arabs started to come out of the houses, screaming and running. They left food on the table and all the clothes in the house, and just ran and cried, and we stayed there until everyone left.”
“Pardon him, he’s an old man, he doesn’t know what he’s saying,” I said to Sa’id, gesturing in circles near my forehead to signify that my father was a little cuckoo.
But my father suddenly had a frightening flash of lucidity.
“What are you talking about old? Of course I remember. May I die right now if I’m lying. It really is a shame,” he said to Sa’id. “Your uncle was probably a good Jew, too.”
Reprinted from Ha’aretz.