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Being a Teenager During the Yom Kippur War

When I was 17, I was graduating high school. My biggest concerns included finding a college roommate and deciding on a major. When my father was 17, he was pulled into the Israeli Defense Forces to fight in the Yom Kippur War (sometimes referred to in English as the October War (1973)). On the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest holiday in Judaism, Syria and Egypt launched a joint surprise attack on the two fronts gained by Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War (Sinai Desert to the south and Golan Heights to the north).

The goal was to gain the territories lost, driven by the embarrassing defeat during the Six-Day War. Egypt wanted to be seen as a powerful neighbor ready to play on the world stage, cutting ties with the Soviet Union and beginning talks with Washington, D.C. Syria, not so much. Hafez al-Assad had little to no interest in potential negotiations and wanted to make Syria the dominant military power of the Arab States. Knowing they only had a chance at succeeding if working together, Egypt and Syria launched their attacks on October 6, 1973.

The attack was truly a surprise. My mother was 14 at the time.

I had no clue that a war is looming…The only unusual thing was a heavy traffic on the main highway nearby the night before; it was Yom Kippur eve; which is extremely quiet with almost no traffic on the roads, so there was some feeling among the adults that something is not quite right. So, for me, the war started with a loud siren in the middle of Kippur day. Everybody was shocked but we all knew very well what a siren means. It was very strange to watch my dad having a meal on Yom Kippur and then driving his car to his base.  He insisted on eating something before driving to the Army (he knew that he might be without food and working hard for some time). We were not scared for him since we knew that he was based nearby (and not on the border), but I remember feeling so proud of him, thinking that he was very handsome in his uniform and I knew that he had an important job in the event of a war.”

My father had just finished high school. His IDF start date was October 16, ten days after the start of the war.

“On that day I was with my family at the synagogue and suddenly people were being called out very quietly leaving the services.  Soon the understanding was that war broke out, Israel was being attacked on two fronts at once and there is a general call up of all soldiers on leave and all of the reserves.  Within minutes there were only half the people in the synagogue. The fact the war broke out came as a surprise to all of us.  The IDF was not on alert during the holidays and in fact many of the troops were home for the holidays.  The sirens and the radio announcements (on Yom Kippur – which was unbelievable that radio would be working) brought this home right away.  Everything changed at that moment. ”

Map of Yom Kippur War, 1973Feeling guilty for being unable to help in the effort, he got a job moving injured soldiers from helicopters into the hospital triage center and operating theaters.

“Ten days later I enlisted in the IDF and instead of going to basic training like you normally would, I was put to work unloading trucks of guns and munitions and preparing them for being sent to the front.”

After the heaviest fighting initially passed, he attended a very accelerated basic training near Ramallah (north of Jerusalem). Supplies and instructors were scarce (everyone who could fight was sent to the front). Some of the instructors were injured soldiers.

“From there we were shipped to the Giddi Passage in the Sinai desert… We did a very abbreviated tank crew training (a couple of weeks instead of three months) and I was chosen based on my skills and performance to be a tank gunner.  I was very proud to have be awarded the outstanding crewman award (a ‘best in class’ designation) at the end of the course”

(Go dad!)

After crossing the Suez Canal, Israeli tanks advance into Egyptian territory. October 1973.

After crossing the Suez Canal, Israeli tanks advance into Egyptian territory. October 1973.

We were quickly sent up to through the Golan Heights to the Syrian Enclave (a part of Syria that they lost to the IDF when Israel launched the counter attacks based on the reserves joining the regular army, pushing the Syrians back and then some).  We became the newest members of the famous 7th Brigade, replacing tank crews that went through the hardest battles with the Syrian Army, including in the ‘’Valley of Tears’. 

Even as we were getting off the buses that first night, and before we saw our tanks for the first time, we were shelled by Katyusha rockets, a scary thing.  Of course I threw up – it was the first time I was shelled and the shelling was very close, but that was the last time I threw up in battle.  Life on the front was very dynamic – there were hours where nothing would happen (but you still had to do guard duty, maintain the tank, do kitchen duty, clean the house where we lived, and in general try to stay healthy). 

Staying healthy up there in the Syrian Enclave was important, as we were located in the ruins of a Syrian town, located in a swamp.  The concern was malaria and we had to take two pills every Tuesday and sign we did that.  These would help prevent getting sick and apparently it worked.  This was a big, ongoing concern.

Other days were much more busy, from an operations standpoint.  We would get shelled for a while and then Syrian commando would try to attack our line of tanks or their air force would try to cross the lines and bomb us.  Mostly, these planes would be intercepted and dropped out of the sky by IAF pilots.  Other times we would shoot at them, but that was never effective.  It did make us feel better – that’s for sure.  Once I got the chance to phone home and while talking with Savta Bev [his mother], an artillery shelling started.   She heard the booms and asked me what was going on.  I told her not to worry and all it was was a thunderstorm.”

Sinai, October 1973. Soviet built Katyusha rocket launchers (often called STALIN'S ORGANS), captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war, being tested by the Israeli army.

Sinai, October 1973. Soviet built Katyusha rocket launchers (often called STALIN’S ORGANS), captured by the Israelis in the 1967 war, being tested by the Israeli army.

As the war progressed, feelings of confidence turned into sadness, and then anger. As a 14-year-old girl, my mother said that no one really knew how bad things were at first, and they were more worried than scared (compared to the terror of the Gulf War my family also lived through in the early 90s).

“Moreover, we all felt the Israeli Army cannot be defeated and expected the war to be swift and over with a big victory. As time went on, bad news started to arrive and the mood turned very bad and depressing. Worse than that was the increasing news about people around us that died, injured, or want missing.  We had one guy living not too far from our home that was never found (and presumed dead). Some just finished high school and I knew them or they were brothers or fathers of kids that I knew from school or the neighborhood.”

My father’s high school graduating class suffered greatly.

“Meanwhile, names started coming in and I learned about a large number of friends from high school and from the Scouts that fell in battle both in the Sinai and on the Golan Heights.  All I hoped for was for my closest friends to pull through – but there is no question, my school year paid a heavy price. “

While the war ended in victory for Israel, the Israelis lost many young men, and the feelings of anger and insecurity never really left. The government was highly criticized for its lack of preparedness. U.S. assistance may have been what allowed Israel to win the war. Syria suffered a terrible defeat, with Israel seizing even more land. In 1979, Syria was part of the successful vote to expel Egypt from the Arab League. The initial military successes of Egypt gave Anwar Sadat some prestige and allowed him to begin peace talks from a new position of global power. He was able to gain the Sinai Peninsula back from Israel (though these talks led to his assassination in 1981). This really highlights the fragmentation of this region, making it difficult for there to be an umbrella of the “Middle Eastern interests”. You can’t simultaneously have Israel as an enemy and in a peace treaty. It seems you are either isolated from the Arab World, or from the national stage. The Yom Kippur war is clearly not the first or last war of this region, but it is a great example of the complexity of both middle-eastern and international politics.

Here is a great collection of photos from the Yom Kippur War:

https://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K7O3R9PCPCP

References:

http://www.history.com/topics/yom-kippur-war

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16 Comments

  1. ashumway3 says:

    Wow! Your post does an astounding job of giving us personal experiences from both the battlefield and the cities. It was truly enlightening to get this perspective that adds on to what we have been learning in class. It really makes the issue real, rather than just some events that you read about in a history book. The timing of your blog post came at just the right time to match what we are studying in class! Thank you and your parents so much for sharing your family’s personal experiences with us!

  2. lalaninatl says:

    Agreed with the previous comment. Great change to have a primary perspective on the war. I think a great sadness like this occurs anytime there is a war. It is also nice to see strong nationalism with your dad and him wanting to help his country out. Going through the pictures you linked at the end, the conditions seem terrible for both sides (especially the POW) Hopefully the conflict gets a feasible permanent solution in future.

  3. wcarter31 says:

    Another agreement here. Though I, as a male, had to sign up for selective service as we all do, it never really crossed my mind that as a 18 year old, I might ACTUALLY be pulled away from my family to go fight. Thanks for sharing this story, it was very interesting.

    • nsumi3 says:

      I had similar thoughts while reading this. It seems that it would be pretty difficult to go through something like this at age 18 and harbor no lasting anger. It’s also easy to forget that many of those that experienced the invasion are still around today, and, since they’re now older, probably constitute a significant portion of Israel’s conservative voting population. This definitely sheds some light on Israel’s recent political trends.

  4. jackjenkins2015 says:

    Wow. Incredible story, thanks for sharing. It is very easy for us to examine war through statistics and numbers and history books, but I know I often don’t think about the real effect of it on the lives of young people and soldiers. Too many young people have died over political fights between nations, and unfortunately it’s far from over. Thanks very much for sharing your parents’ story, I think this is very related to what we discuss in class and very important for us to remember that these are the lives of real people affected by these conflicts.

  5. Travis says:

    Wow, that was alot to think about. I can’t even imagine having a relative who was that involved in an actual war. First I want to say that I’m glad your dad wasn’t harmed. Viewing things from your parents’ perspectives brought things to life and gave a deeper understanding of the things that went on at that time. Thank you for sharing the story, and I look forward to when you speak about your post in class.

  6. khospedales3 says:

    The quotes from your father tell a fantastic narrative and very nicely captures a personal perspective that you don’t see in the history books. It was definitely great to step into his shoes for just a moment and attempt to see through his eyes the outbreak of war.

    I find it very interesting that war was so sudden. But when you think about it, most smaller conflicts probably start just the same way. It must be stressful for those in the service to have to expect attacks at any moment, especially in the politically volatile Middle East.

  7. vlobo3 says:

    That was so interesting! It was such an unique point of view. It was really nice because instead of just saying a bit on what happened, it gave a story. What I thought was the best part of this article is that it gives this war a personable view. I like that you quoted things based on how they were actually feeling and what this war made them feel like.
    In general, this was obviously something much different than what we’re used to seeing on here. Thanks for sharing!

  8. kimpgt says:

    Great blog! I love that there are multiple perspectives and time periods so that the story is stronger and provides a better understanding of the war and its aftermath. Egypt and Syria were very strategic by attacking during the biggest Jewish holiday, however, it was very inappropriate. There is a limit to everything, and even during warfare, there are some guidelines of humanity people should follow.

    Your father is a brave man and I am proud of his loyalty towards his nation. He didn’t run away- he stayed and fought and was awarded for being the best of his class!

    Though Israel was attacked on two fronts and without notice, they emerged the victors and that’s great they were able to defend their land and people. Hopefully, tensions can ease because, like you said, that wasn’t the last war.

    Thank you for sharing your personal story!

  9. austinsoper says:

    The ambush on Yom Kippur was one of the most despicable acts in the history of human conflict. People are astounded that Israel is so violently defensive of its tiny homeland, and yet they forget that most of its neighbors tried to wipe it off the map on one of its holiest holidays. Everything that is going on with the Iran nuclear talks and the tug-of-war in the west bank and Gaza are a result of Israel being backed into a corner by its extremely hostile neighbors.

  10. jjacob7 says:

    Fantastic personal perspective, it’s great that you have access to primary accounts for this class. Israel has faced existential threats and attacks since its very nascence and it’s important to take this into account when criticizing Israeli aggression. Though Israel’s preemptive actions in the Six Day War were questionable by international legal standards, the Yom Kippur War was wholly unjustified and Egypt and Syria’s atrocities during the short war amounted to war crimes. The Camp David Accords just five years later proved that land for peace was a much more effective solution to territorial disputes than war.

  11. missypittard says:

    Thank you for such a personal, yet informative post. In our daily lives it’s easy to take our relatively calm day-to-day activities for granted. With memories such as these, I wonder if your father, and people like him on both sides of the war, will ever leave to see successful progress in the region. Wars seem to scar the mind from rectifying differing views on events and perspectives on what should happen. This is evident in the United States, where we are still working to eradicate the oppression of minorities that once was.

  12. zhu64 says:

    very vivid descriptions! This articles really highlights the troubles that the Israeli people goes through. This makes it clear why the government is so defensive and even came to Washington to dissuade the US of the Iranian nuclear talk. However, I believe Israel should give more efforts to reconcile with its neighbors. Usually harsh words will not help to reconciled any differences that they have. Also they should try to avoid expanding their borders because it will only cause them more trouble in the end, especially when they are bordered by Arab nations on all sides.

  13. assafalon1 says:

    Hey little cousin,
    Great post. I had no idea this was posted by you, and as I was reading, I saw you mentioned Savta Bev. Only then did I make the conncetion, and realize the post is about uncle!
    I heard peices and bits of this story while I was growing up, but reading the war memories of Aunt and Uncle told in such a vivid and intruiguing way made me look at thier stories in a new way.

    Many people don’t fully comprehend the feeling of desperation that our parents felt during those months. At the beginning of the war many feared that the Arab nations are finally going to conquer Israel.The threat of losing the war was substantial. So you can imagine what a terrible feeling my parents and your Aunt must have felt seeing all the men going to a war we were bound to lose. Luckly we had soldiers like your dad to protect us.

    I think that you can learn about the war (and any othe war in history) more from these personal stories, than from school or wikipedia.

    Of course, uncle’s memory of the war isnt the only one you can read about, and anyone who is interseted to learn more, should look up more personal stories like this.

    Miss you, and congrats on the story telling 😉

  14. jenglish7 says:

    Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. The personal experiences you detail really shed light on the whole situation, and provide a gripping and captivating narrative. I find it despicable that a nation would plan to attack on the eve of a holiday such as Yom Kippur, and the situation almost draws parallels to similar conflicts such as the Tet Offensive. I feel such an act truly underscores the rocky relationship between Israel and its neighbors, though I still maintain hope that truly peaceful relations can eventually ensue.

  15. nrassam3 says:

    That is one thing I admire about the Jewish community, they always unite and stick together when faced with obstacle. I am happy for the Israel victory and happy that your dad went back to his house safe and later shared his stories with his daughter and wife. Peace in Israel is the only option. My aunt is married to an amazing man from Israel. A story from my uncle from my dad’s side: back when he was in high school(Baghdad College,FYI establish by Boston College) early on in the century, his best friend was Jewish; my uncle was the only one that knew that and kept it a secret. I am glad that Israel is independent, a country in which the Jewish community in it can prosper and unit, also for the Jewish community worldwide to call home.

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