One day in 1947, a letter appeared in The Palestine Post by a 12-year-old boy from New Zealand, Alistair Hamilton, who was seeking to correspond with a boy his own age in Palestine. One of the paper's readers, an Austrian-born engineer who lived in Haifa, showed the letter to his son, Arye Meir, who sent a reply to the boy in New Zealand. Alistair and Arye are still corresponding 63 years later. Theirs is a heartwarming story, which also led to the discovery of a historic diary.
"Pen pals" were an early incarnation of Facebook friends - only keeping in touch took longer and was probably more exciting: People, usually adolescents, would send letters off to peers in faraway places, and then wait for a response. Sometimes they would have to wait for weeks, and when the reply arrived - it was an event.
Alistair grew up on a sheep ranch, not far from the university town of Dunedin, in New Zealand's South Island. Arye had not mastered English at the time, but would copy the experiences of a boy his own age from his textbook, presenting them as though they were his own. In time, he learned the language. When he was about 14, he wrote his pen pal that he, too, was planning to spend at least two years on a large farm called a "kibbutz." He told Alistair that his stamp collection contained only 52 stamps from New Zealand, and requested more. Meanwhile, he drew a map of Palestine for him. Alistair kept that letter, but lost the rest of the correspondence from his Israeli friend over the years; nor did Arye save the letters from Alistair, which is certainly a pity.
They lost touch after a few years. Alistair became a wealthy rancher, and Arye Meir became a reporter for the Itim news agency. Twenty years after they corresponded for the last time, Meir met someone from New Zealand and told him about his childhood buddy. There was no Internet yet, but a resourceful clerk at a New Zealand post office was able to track down Alistair Hamilton, and he and Meir renewed their correspondence. In the meantime they also met: Hamilton came to Israel and among other things visited the British military cemetery on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem, at which point it emerged that his childhood interest in the country had not been accidental: His father had served in the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps that conquered Palestine in the winter of 1917.
General Edmund Allenby's forces, including ANZAC troops, boasted some 75,000 infantry soldiers, 17,000 cavalrymen and 475 cannons. They started out from Egypt, moved northward through the Sinai Desert, and advanced as fast as they could lay railway tracks; some 56,000 laborers and 35,000 camels were employed in this enterprise. Gaza was destroyed almost completely. After conquering Be'er Sheva, the troops advanced toward Jerusalem. The residents of the country welcomed them enthusiastically, as an army of liberators.
"All are kind and have nice faces," the author Mordechai Ben Hillel Hacohen wrote. "Their faces are good like the faces of big children." One of those with the pleasant visages was George Alexander Hamilton, Alistair's father, an ambulance driver.
Alistair worshiped his father as a war hero; the youngster knew his father had been wounded, like some 18,000 other British soldiers along the way from Be'er Sheva to Jerusalem. Australia and New Zealand even instituted an annual memorial event in their name: ANZAC Day. But George Alexander Hamilton did not tell his son much about his wartime experiences. His silence only augmented his son's admiration for him - not an unusual phenomenon in father-son relationships.
Hamilton Sr. died, leaving behind various mementos from the war, but his son did not look at them, and the years passed. A few months ago, when the two pen pals were 75, Arye finally paid Alistair a visit. On this occasion, the New Zealand rancher decided for the first time to open his father's box of mementos and found a war journal that his father had kept on the pages of a small pocket calendar, jotted down under dates printed in Arabic.
Evidently Hamilton had not been a person with a poetic soul. He detailed the army's progress dryly - names, dates, times. Only rarely did he mention events that stood out from the desert routine: a sandstorm or a festive formation reviewed by Allenby himself. He did not betray emotions, but the historic significance of conquering Jerusalem did not elude him: He even purchased a ring in Jerusalem and engraved the date on it, which his son found among the mementos. Hamilton was not a religious man either, but when he reached the Garden of Gethsemane, he nevertheless picked a few olive branches and placed them for safekeeping between the pages of his diary, where they remain to this very day - 93 years later.
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