Text size

"Path of Fire: The Fifth Battalion of the Palmach during the War of Independence, in Jerusalem, Along the Road to Jerusalem and in the Negev" by Yoav Harpaz, published by the author and Ma'arechet, Kibbutz Dalia, 197 pages

Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim is situated in the Jerusalem Corridor, not far from the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway. Among the small houses, in a region of lush vegetation, there is a narrow path that leads from the highway interchange to the kibbutz, twists and turns inside Kiryat Anavim and also extends beyond the kibbutz's parameters. There, in the very heart of the Judean Hills, in the kibbutz cemetery, alongside members and residents of the kibbutz who were the victims of various illnesses, plagues, floods and accidents, or who simply died of old age, are the graves of the fighters of the Palmach - the strike force of the Haganah - who fell in this region during the battles of Israel's War of Independence. On the very edge of the military section of the cemetery stands a tall, impressive tombstone created by a member of the Second Aliyah, sculptor Menachem Shemi, in memory of the many members of the Harel Company of the Palmach who are buried there.

Shemi's son, Aharon, was one of the company's fallen soldiers. He was killed in the waning weeks of the war, and was 22 at the time of his death. In addition to the stone monument to Harel soldiers who died, Shemi created another kind of memorial for his son: the book "Friends Talk about Jimmy," which became one of the prominent symbols of the culture of Israel's collective memory regarding that era, and which had an impact on an entire generation of Israelis who grew up during the early years of Israel's statehood.

Shemi's son, whom his friends nicknamed Jimmy, is perhaps the most famous fallen soldier among the dead fighters of the Harel Brigade. He was one of the commanders of the brigade's Fifth Battalion. In the book written in his memory, one encounters the blood-chilling anecdote I first heard a number of years ago during a tour of monuments that I participated in with a historian colleague of mine, who led me to this cemetery. For a certain period of time, the members of the Fifth Battalion took up a position in Kiryat Anavim. During the daytime hours, the battalion was shelled by the Royal Jordanian Legion and, at night, they set off to take part in the fighting. Because of the shelling, the kibbutznikim, who undertook the responsibility for burying the battalion's many dead soldiers, dug graves by night. Thus, a grotesque farewell scene was repeated night after night. Since the cemetery was located only a few hundred meters from the path the soldiers took as they set off to fight the enemy, every night they witnessed the same gruesome scene: the kibbutznikim digging graves in which some of the battalion's members would be buried the next morning.

Battalion logbook

Except for the book about Jimmy and the monument in Kiryat Anavim, the Palmach's Fifth Battalion has not been strongly etched in the nation's collective memory of the War of Independence. The most prominent thing that people remember about the battalion is that it was part of the celebrated Harel Brigade. This is one of the reasons that led Yoav Harpaz, a former member of the Fifth Battalion, to write a book about the battles that the battalion fought - in Jerusalem, along the road to Jerusalem, and in the Negev (as noted in the book's subtitle).

The result is an impressive, large book, whose pages have been printed on high-quality paper and which interweaves historical passages and descriptions of selected battles with photographs, maps and lists of operations, participants and fallen soldiers.

The book is divided into three sections and comprises 20 chapters. The first section, "Background and Operations," deals with the era's political and military background, the story of the battalion's creation, and the battles in which the battalion participated until the war's end. The section concludes with the Fifth Battalion's logbook of operations. The logbook provides the reader with a vivid image of the extensive theater of combat - from the securing of public transportation to and from Jerusalem (the "convoy escorts") and such operations as Nachshon, Harel, Yevussi and Maccabee, to the fighting in the Old City of Jerusalem and such operations as Yoram, Danny, "The Mountain" and Horev.

"Selected Battles," the book's second section, provides an extensive analysis of some of the battalion's most difficult battles, including the battle of the convoys on the road to Jerusalem, the battle of the Castel (along the road to Jerusalem), the battles fought in the capture of Jerusalem's Katamonim neighborhood, the battles fought on the hills adjacent to the Sha'ar Hagai area (in the Jerusalem Corridor, or, as it is called in Arabic, Bab el-Wad), the capture and liberation of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, the attack on Radar Hill, the capture of the Latrun fortifications, the capture of Beit Shemesh and Nitzana, and the battle of Rafah. This section integrates an historical depiction of the events with a few personal insights.

The last section in the book, "Personalities and Roles," focuses on the battalion's composition and describes the soldiers of the Gahal (the initials of Giyus Hutz La'aretz, meaning "Jewish soldiers from overseas") unit, who were recent immigrants to Israel. A large number of the members of the Gahal unit were friends of the author. This section also discusses the Fifth Battalion's unique role and the part it played in the War of Independence. The third section concludes with lists of those who fell in the battalion's various battles and of all the battalion's fighters - both men and women (more than 120 women served in the Fifth Battalion).

Where are the voices?

Three features are especially prominent in this book. The first is the author's declared goal: The production of a book that is aimed at the general public and which will not simply be the nostalgic heritage of the members of the Fifth Battalion and their families. Thus, Harpaz decided to present the story of this forgotten battalion in a format that is visually attractive and entices people to open the book and read it. The many black-and-white photographs add an effective visual component to the descriptions of the battles. Detailed maps vividly convey the topographical difficulties that faced the fighters, while passages from the operations log remind the readers of the large number of military events in 1948 and 1949.

Of particular interest are the short passages that accompany some of the chapters on the margins of the page. These passages, which are printed against gray backgrounds, present the events from a personal perspective - through poems, short stories and quotations from the fighters themselves.

These personalized components bring me to the second most prominent feature of the book: The conflict between how the fighter is presented and how the war is presented. Whereas the military operations are sometimes depicted in the minutest of details (to the point of relating how many soldiers went into battle each day and describing the battlefield in precise detail), most of the book's chapters give the reader scant opportunity to hear the voices of the fighters. It should not, however, be construed that "Path of Fire" presents "a war without soldiers"; nonetheless, the individualized passages, which are relegated almost exclusively to the margins of the page, are too few and far between, as far as I am concerned. The battles were definitely of immense importance, yet it is also important, in my view, to know more about those who fought - their backgrounds, their lives and their thoughts during this era, which was so critical for both themselves and the nation as a whole.

Most certainly, the letters they sent home, their pocket diaries and so forth have been preserved. These materials could have been used to reconstruct a richer, more personalized picture than the one presented in this book.

The fact that the author has chosen to present the overall picture rather than focusing on individual stories recalls the tendency toward collectivization that was rampant in all aspects of life in Israel for many years. This tendency is in marked contrast with the pattern of individualized memorialization of fallen soldiers that has become the accepted form of commemoration in recent years.

Three-dimensional impression

The book's third prominent feature is the dichotomy between its various components. "My intention in this book is not to survey the course of the fighting in Jerusalem or along the road leading to Jerusalem, nor to describe the operations of the Harel Brigade," writes Harpaz in his introduction. "My aim here is to present the operations carried out by the Fifth Battalion." However, only in the book's third section, "Personalities and Roles," which, in my opinion, is the most fascinating part of "Path of Fire," does the reader begin to obtain a three-dimensional impression of the nature of the Fifth Battalion and the problems it faced. The reader is presented here - sometimes in an explicit manner and sometimes merely through allusions - with the human dilemmas that the battalion's commanders had to deal with. In this section, you can read the story behind the story and can learn about the endless quarrels, rivalries and tensions that were part of the daily lives of the Fifth Battalion's soldiers and officers.

Originally, the Fifth Battalion consisted of Palmach reservists - soldiers who had been discharged and who were already either working or studying. At a later stage, the reservists were joined by participants in pioneering Zionist youth training programs held at various kibbutzim, such as Givat Hashlosha, Gezer, Kfar Menachem, Negba, Na'an, Kvutzat Shiller and Shefayim. The ranks of the battalion were subsequently reinforced by the members of other pioneering Zionist youth training programs: young new immigrants who were attending secondary schools in Magdiel and Kfar Glickson, and soldiers attached to the Gahal unit who had recently arrived in Israel. In the chapter dealing with the Gahal unit, readers encounter for the first time the personal dimension of the battalion's immigrant-soldiers: the problems they faced with the new language (Hebrew), the loneliness, the requests to be given a few hours' furlough to spend time with parents who had just arrived in Israel, etc.

In the military operation launched to capture Tzuba, for example, many of the soldiers taking part in the battle were new immigrants. According to one anecdote, prior to setting out for the battlefield, the commander, Zivi Tzafriri, a native of Kibbutz Givat Hashlosha, gathered his soldiers, pointed to the village, and said in broken Yiddish: "Das Tzuba - minamt" ("That's Tzuba - we're taking it"). The soldiers stormed the village, as they shouted in Russian, "Za rodinu, za Stalina, za Ben-Guriona!" ("For the homeland, for Stalin, for Ben-Gurion!"). This scene, which repeated itself in various places in the course of the War of Independence, is given an interesting military twist in Harpaz's book.

After the war, the book informs us, one of the commanders of the Royal Jordanian Legion related that, during the Fifth Battalion's assault on Latrun's strongholds, shouts in Russian were heard on the battlefield. These shouts generated great confusion and considerable panic among his soldiers who thought that the "Russian brigade had arrived to help the Jews."

How is it possible that such an idyllic situation of cooperation and solidarity among comrades in arms lasted for such a long time? In the book's penultimate chapter, which deals with the Fifth Battalion's uniqueness and its role in the fighting, the reader suddenly discovers the serpent lurking in the Garden of Eden. Actually, the serpent is to be found not in the Fifth Battalion itself, but rather in the larger framework in which it operated. Allusions are made and they can only be fully understood by those who were directly involved. Apparently, there was considerable rivalry within the Harel Brigade between the Palmach's Fifth - and relatively new - Battalion and its Fourth - and more established - Battalion, which consisted of members of the Palyam (the Palmach's "Sea Company," the forerunner of the Israel Navy), "cultured individuals," and new recruits who joined the Palmach after Israel declared its independence in May 1948. The Fourth Battalion's commanding officer, Yosefele Tabenkin, who was "talented and ambitious," and the Palmach's elite fighters who served in that battalion created, argues Harpaz, a sort of "clique" - a tight and loyal team, a closed shop as it were - with the Haganah's Jerusalem district headquarters.

Thus, Harpaz claims, the Fourth Battalion received preferential treatment over the Fifth and Sixth Battalions in terms of the "workload" of combat missions, as well as in terms of weapons and ammunition, supplies, relatively comfortable bases, logistical systems and public relations. The close working relationship between the Haganah's experienced and celebrated information officer, Benny Maharshak, and the Fourth Battalion's commanding officer added to the imbalance described in the book and was, in Harpaz's view, a central component in the downplaying - even after the War of Independence - of the Fifth Battalion's role in the battle for Jerusalem and for the road leading to Jerusalem.

Collective memory

This is the very nucleus of the book and, apparently, the main reason for its having been written: If it was impossible to arrive at a balance between the respective roles of the Fourth and Fifth Battalions during the fighting, at least the members of the Fifth Battalion can try to balance the historical picture concerning the history of the Harel Brigade, a history that was established by Tabenkin and Maharshak and which, for decades, has become a permanent fixture in Israel's collective memory. However, in many respects, the book has missed the boat.

How many Israelis today know anything about the Harel Brigade, beyond perhaps their knowledge of the existence of the brigade's large symbol that has been affixed below the bridge leading up to the Castel on the highway to Jerusalem? Who - besides the veterans of the kibbutz movements, former members of the Palmach and their families, and a handful of historians - remembers Tabenkin and Maharshak, or Jimmy, who will forever remain 22 years old?

Apparently, "Path of Fire" has joined the ranks of similar publications that have recently appeared and which are part of a rearguard battle for events and people long forgotten by the Israeli public.

Prof. Judith Tydor-Baumel's book "Exemplary Heroes: The Yishuv's Paratroopers in the Second World War and the Formation of Israel's Collective Memory" published by the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute in Sde Boker is scheduled to appear in the near future.