'Tell Danny he had a mother'
Mira Ben Ari became a symbol of the fighting pioneer woman after she sent her young son away and died fighting the Egyptians in 1948, at age 22. Now, 63 years later, that son has allowed her letters to be published for the first time.
The attack on Nitzanim began less than a month after Israel's establishment. At midnight on June 7, 1948, the Egyptian army began shelling the isolated kibbutz along the nascent country's southern border. The communal settlement, which was surrounded by Arab communities, had no choice but to defend itself. Some 140 kibbutz members and Givati Brigade soldiers were ready to do so in Nitzanim when the attack began. They had nothing more than light weapons, no radio contact with the Southern Command (as it is nowadays called), and were in desperate need of reinforcements and ammunition. They were facing a large Egyptian force supported by tanks, artillery and aircraft.
After 15 hours of unrelenting combat, the Egyptian troops penetrated the kibbutz and conquered it. Thirty-three people were killed. The remaining 105 members and soldiers were taken prisoner. Shortly afterward, the members of the bleeding kibbutz took another hit when the Israel Defense Forces called their surrender a "disgrace."
Despite their subsequent complete exoneration by a commission of inquiry, the memory of the abandonment, defeat and humiliation still reverberates through the kibbutz.
Over the years, the heroine of that battle, Mira Ben Ari, turned into a myth, a symbol of the bravery of the fighting pioneer woman. It has been 63 years since she sent her toddler son Danny to a safe haven before joining the battle for Nitzanim, from which she did not return. Her husband, who did not fight, also left Nitzanim.
Today, Danny and his wife, Roni, who are now grandparents (one of their three daughters is named Mira ), agreed to Haaretz's request and pulled Ben Ari's letters from the front out of their attic. The letters of this woman, who was ready to give up her life "so that my son will grow up free in his land," as she put it, have never been published. They were written in German, Ben Ari's mother tongue.
"Dear Gagilein, dear Schnappi!" she addressed her parents, using their nicknames, in a letter sent to their home in Ramat Gan on March 25, 1948, two-and-a-half months before she was killed. "I was more concerned by your anxiousness for us than by our situation here. In short, it has been quite happy! First, I must tell you that only one person among us has fallen (and the pain of that is quite enough! )"
At that point, Ben Ari was 22, married to Elyakim and mother of 2-year-old Danny. Fifteen years earlier, her family immigrated to Israel from Berlin immediately after the Nazis rose to power. At first she attended the Ben-Yehuda School in Tel Aviv. She later joined the Betar Revisionist Zionist movement and the Lehi pre-state underground militia. As a teenager, she left the city to help found Kibbutz Nitzanim on the eighth day of Hanukkah, in December 1943. The new settlement was located between the Arab towns Isdud (now Ashdod ) and Majdal (now part of Ashkelon ). She married Palmach member Elyakim around that time and they settled on the kibbutz. He was a truck driver and she joined the Haganah strike force.
When the United Nations approved the partition plan on November 29, 1947, it left the kibbutz outside the boundaries of the Jewish state. During the War of Independence, which broke out immediately after the UN vote, the settlements in the south were attacked by the Egyptian army on its way north.
In one letter from late March, Ben Ari described a routine day in the life of a fighter: "Our convoy was moving as usual. Near the vegetable garden, the armored vehicle hit a mine, which exploded prematurely, so nothing happened. All of a sudden [the weather changed and] it began to hail! The vehicles decided to turn back, and the two armored cars got stuck. By the time the people could reach the trucks, we already had eight wounded and three dead. The fire was so heavy that we could not evacuate the wounded ... Hundreds of Arabs massed together from all of the villages in the area and from the camp, and fired at our farm relentlessly. The bullets rang!!
"All of us immediately took up our positions, and we had plenty to do. The reinforcements arrived at noon - 150 men in four large armored vehicles, and above us a blessed 'roof': our airplanes!!! And there was a pretty good mood among us all! Slowly but surely, the quiet was restored! ... The people from the convoy gathered our wounded. You can imagine these heroes! Eight wounded versus hundred of Arabs who fought from behind an armored vehicle, for seven hours. Our men returned fire whenever they were shot at, and wiped out every Arab who got too close to them."
The security situation and the battles being waged on kibbutz territory did not prevent the members from celebrating Purim, she notes: "There is to be a small Purim party today for the children in the children's house. Write to me soon and do not worry, the situation will improve!" she concluded her letter. As was her custom, she signed, using her nickname: "A million kisses, Yours, Pupi."
About two weeks later, Ben Ari sent another letter to her parents. "Friday evening, 10 P.M. I have half an hour and wonder of wonders, I am not tired, so I decided to write you," she wrote on April 9, 1948. "There isn't a lot of news (thank God ). They are shooting a little less, only the furrows in our fields are being systematically destroyed (when all is said and done, they are our cousins, so everything stays in the family )," she wrote sardonically, adding, "If you want to go out in the evening to visit someone, you have to take a lamp, compass and map - otherwise you can wander around for half an hour until you find your way, between the walls and the graves."
Ben Ari also told her parents about their grandson. "Danny is really enjoying himself because he can climb everywhere and run around as much as he wants. For him, everything is very simple: The Arabs are in the dunes, they are shooting, they are bad boys, they don't make peepee in toilet, they go in their pants! As far as I'm concerned, it's okay. I don't get involved," she wrote. "There are some children who whenever a door slams start yelling: 'They're shooting, they're shooting!' All of them are terribly afraid of the airplanes."
"Papi," she wrote her father in the same letter. "You are so hopeful there will be a cease-fire. I am not that hopeful. I fear it is not worthwhile to raise expectations. Better to fight as a free creature, even against so many animals, than to be locked in a cage! If they force a cease-fire on us, the situation will worsen! In the end, there is no limit to 'terrible,' you can always withstand even more of it. Time makes you stronger ...
"For two days, newspapers didn't arrive, and we haven't been to the cinema or theater for three months. All of that was a luxury from 'the good times'! Today, on the other hand, we are content if the 'situation doesn't get worse.' Now I have to finish, I hope that I will soon be able to get a little sleep. Thank God, I still sleep like a baby, although not very much! And before I forget, just so as to calm you down, I have not lost weight!!"
In a postscript at the end of the letter, Ben Ari expressed her thanks for the "beautiful pinafore" that they sent her.
The last seder
Before Passover, Ben Ari wrote about her desire to spend the holiday with her husband whose work as a truck driver often kept him away from the kibbutz, and returning was sometimes difficult and dangerous. "I very much hope this will happen," she wrote, adding another description of her daily routine. "They are shooting a little less. This afternoon, a competition was held between the soldiers and our group. All of us came with the children to watch the game, and all of a sudden, boom-boom from every direction, straight at the field. Those bastards see everything ...
"The children have become expert strategists. They know where the gunfire is coming from and who is shooting, they hear every gunshot before the adults do. They know exactly which weapon every member has, who has a Sten, who has a submachine gun and who has a pistol ...
"What else can I write you?" she added. "There's nothing new here. In my free time I read a lot during the day; late at night I always eat dinner with [my friend] Bracha's parents. It's very pleasant in their house and they are very nice people ... I am always happy to make a little something for them, to make them happy, and as they are Bracha's parents, they are simply parents, and so indirectly I think of the two of you, as well!"
Ben Ari did not forget to tell them about her son: "Elyakim brought home a beautiful new rug. Danny and I sit on the rug 'from Papa' and build houses, trucks and so forth with the new toy from Grandpa. Thank you very much! Danny is really a good boy! Every night when I put him to bed, I have to sing him all of the songs he knows and then he recites all of the lines that he remembers by heart. I have to tell him the story of Red Riding Hood; he nags me if I forget to mention that Red Riding Hood had cherries in her basket. He reminds me of 'Once upon a time'! Do you remember, Papa?
"I have to stop now," she wrote. "I wish you a nice seder, and that you shouldn't be sad. Next year, with God's help, all of us will be together. Lots of kisses to Grandpa, is he making raisin wine?"
Her good wishes notwithstanding, Ben Ari didn't survive until the next seder.
Two days later, on April 19, 1948, she wrote her parents again: "Although I wrote you only two days ago, since I have time I wanted to let you know that we have electricity. Everything is brighter, inside too, when the room is lit up! It is now 11 P.M. and I'm not tired at all because everything is so bright. The flies are totally confused; usually they are already asleep by this time, but now they are awake and active!"
And she added: "There is a repulsive stench here of kerosene and Lysol because today I cleaned thoroughly for Passover, and the whole time I was doing it I was thinking of the cleaning week before Passover at home. Mostly I hated to wash the doors and lampshades! It's a good thing I don't have any lampshades and there's only one door!"
The situation in terms of the fighting deteriorated the following day. "The attack has gone on for 13 hours so far. Explosions, the roar of cannons; it's true madness," Ben Ari wrote. She continued the next day: "I began the letter yesterday during the attack, but of course I didn't have time to continue. It was pretty exciting around here! The attack was much more severe than the one before it, but thank God nothing happened to anyone, thanks to the fortifications. The attack lasted from 6 A.M. until 2 P.M. without a letup ... The [enemy] had plenty of ammunition, because they fired thousands of rounds, smoke bombs and shells. The children stayed in the shelter all day and all night. It is equipped with boards on the floor, like in a boat. I got to see Danny only in the evening for five minutes. What with all his nervous energy, he chattered on and on, without stopping!
"I was in a good frame of mind the whole time," she added. "One of the commanders who I was with the entire time said he had never come across such level-headedness ... We were certain the attack would be renewed in the morning, but they withdrew after their neighboring village was shelled by the Haganah. Airplanes landed and delivered ammunition for us. That's it; it's quiet again, until the next time. If only every confrontation would end like this - they killed seven chickens, one donkey and one cow!" she reported. "Once again, I want to wish you a pleasant Passover eve. Don't worry about us."
Two days later, Ben Ari informed her parents that she would be celebrating the seder alone. "The convoy is not arriving today, so I will be alone. It isn't clear yet if I will have time to go to a seder. Because all of the soldiers are in the same situation as mine, I've decided to be in a good mood!" In an aside to her mother, she added, "Gagilein, don't work too much and I'll be mad at you if you even consider the possibility of crying!! I love you both very much."
As usual, she also offered a rundown on what was going on: "Nothing is new here. You have to accustom yourself to the situation. Sandbags are piled in front of every building, and the barbed-wire fences no longer cause any excitement, nor do all of the men (and some women ) who walk around armed day and night. The dining hall looks like a gangsters' den! I baked two cakes for Elyakim's birthday, I made some outstanding hot cocoa, and it was nice. If we had peace here, it would be nice to have an electric kettle, an iron and a radio receiver - all of the conveniences!"
Regarding her infant son, Ben Ari added, "Danny is getting bigger (around the waist, too ), and has turned into a slightly bad boy. He allows himself to be cheeky on occasion, but since it's obvious that he doesn't yet understand the words and is only imitating other children, I suffice with a single spank. Sometimes I tell him to leave the room, and then he goes outside and yells at the top of his lungs, 'Papa! Come to me!'"
Until the middle of May 1948, parents on the nearby kibbutzim maintained that the children should not be evacuated. This belief changed in the wake of attacks by foreign armies, particularly from Egypt, equipped with heavy weapons and tanks, coupled with aerial attacks on the civilian population. Once the children's houses of the kibbutzim were under fire, the members of all the nearby settlements, including Negba, Gezer, Kfar Menachem, Gat, Gal-On and Nitzanim, decided to launch an operation to rescue the children. The maneuver was known as "Operation Baby."
In the book "Nitzanim, the Twice-Built Kibbutz" (Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1990 ), Tzvika Dror described the events of May 16, 1948, when all of the children under age 4 were evacuated from Kibbutz Nitzanim. "In Nitzanim, mothers are preparing to part from their children. Some are stepping away from their jobs and heading toward the children's house. The little ones are surprised to see their parents at such an irregular hour. They are showering love on the children. The parents, whose movements are somewhat cumbersome due to the heavy load of emotions, hold onto their children. The soldiers (the reinforcements ) willingly agree to man the guarding positions to replace the fathers who want to be with their children before the separation.
"The toddlers are taken aback by the gifts of sweets, which seem out of place. Following some difficulties in reaching a decision, it is decided at the last moment which of the women will accompany the children. Nursing mothers, pregnant women, caregivers, a nursery-school teacher - seven women will be accompanying the 33 children."
Dror goes on to describe that night in detail: The kibbutz children were evacuated in the dark, through hostile and dangerous territory, to the nearby Jewish village of Be'er Tuvia, eight kilometers away. Prior to the journey, the parents put their children to bed. "The children are going to sleep," he wrote, "as if a crucial event is not taking place. The parents dissolved sleeping pills into the traditional cup of milk. The older ones wonder about the pills. 'But I'm not sick,' they protest. As the time to leave draws near, the entire crowd gathers next to the children's houses. Mothers wonder into what fate they are sending their children ... The soldiers fill the pockets of the little children with chocolates and gum, to entice them. The parents are caught in the middle ... One last glance. Then they set out on their way."
Among the parents separated from their children was Ben Ari, the wireless operator, the only mother who chose to remain behind and send her son to safety. "Tell Danny he had a mother," she said to one of her girlfriends who was evacuated from the kibbutz.
Then she wrote a letter to her husband, who had not been present during Operation Baby, and planted it inside Danny's coat pocket. This letter, which was subsequently published, helped to stoke her image as a mythical heroine.
"I'll only write a few words, and you for sure will understand that I can't write. It's simply a little difficult. More than a little. I've never felt like this before, but I'll overcome it. In our times, you have to overcome everything. Perhaps for the sake of our people's ability to suffer and not give in, due to our stubbornness to carry on in spite of the fact that we are small in numbers. After all, we will nevertheless attain that which we deserve after 2,000 years.
"There is no separation more difficult than that of a mother from her child, but I am separating from my child so that he will grow up in a safe place, and so that he will be free in his country. Give him all of my love when you see him. Give my father and mother a lot of kisses, and ask them, in my name, to forgive me."
A few hours later, the convoy reached Be'er Tuvia, safe and sound. Candles were lit in the village's homes. Each time a child entered a home, the candle inside was extinguished. When all of the candles were extinguished, the commanders could breathe a sigh of relief. This was the sign that all had arrived in peace.
No time to cry
A few days later, Ben Ari wrote her parents, asking about her 2-year-old son, whose father had managed to get him from Be'er Tuvia to his grandparents in Tel Aviv. "It was very hard for me when they evacuated the children ... I cried, it tore my heart out, but I could not spend too much time crying, since I had to be on the wireless until the last of the children had arrived safely.
"Tell me about Danny," she wrote her mother. "What is he doing, what is he saying, how is he? Is he concerned about his mama? I cannot forget his sweet voice, when he was in the arms of the fellow who evacuated him, in the midst of the crying and the shock. 'Mama, I have to peepee,' he said in a voice overcome with tears! I did not have the time to stay with him during these last minutes!
"There is nothing new," she added. "The cannons from Yad Mordechai are booming day and night, and the bombs coming down on Negba are rattling our buildings. The buildings here look terrific now, covered in cacti from every direction, and trees are growing on the roofs!"
She concluded: "Write to me often! How are you feeling in the 'State of Israel'? What is the mood in the city? Do you listen sometimes to the regards broadcast on Kol Hahaganah from 7:30 P.M.? Remember to listen to the program on June 10! How is it that you haven't sent me regards yet?"
Two days before the broadcast of that radio program, in which Ben Ari apparently sent her regards to her parents, her kibbutz fell to the Egyptian army. Ben Ari, the wireless operator of the last force that remained in Nitzanim, transmitted desperate distress signals to the distant battalion headquarters. "The Egyptians are at the fence and the ammunition is running out," she said in her message. "The Egyptian army is everywhere. We have lost. I am destroying the wireless set and going out to fight."
Shortly afterward, the commander of the force, Avraham Schwartzstein, decided to surrender. On his order, one of the fighters raised a white cloth on the tip of his rifle and emerged from his sheltered position. The Egyptians shot and killed him. Then Schwartzstein took off his own white undershirt, and raised it in his hand. He, too, was shot, but immediately stood up again. And then he and Ben Ari apparently walked toward the Egyptian soldiers. The Egyptians shot him again, and this time killed him. Ben Ari pulled out a pistol - and killed the Egyptian colonel who had shot Schwartzstein.
The Egyptians then shot and killed her. Mira Ben Ari was 22 at the time of her death. Fifty years later, a monument entitled "Memorial to the Fighting Woman" (also known as the "Women of Valor Center" ) was erected where she fell, in memory of her and of two other women who fell in battle.
Sanctified through blood
In 1942, when she was 16 years old, Mira wrote in her journal about a visit to the Western Wall: "The enemies of Israel tried to totally destroy the Temple. One wall remains, a remnant that saw the Jewish people through its dispersion and in its regathering. These stones, aren't they just a little similar to the fate of our people? The Jewish people was persecuted by other peoples that tried to destroy it. Other Jews always survived, all over the world. These remnants are now gathering from all of the Diaspora communities to build their national home here, the Hebrew state."
For her son Danny, these words constitute, "the essence of the character and aspirations" of his mother. "Mira was killed while sanctifying the state, so that I could grow up free in my homeland," he said a few weeks ago, at his home on Moshav Netaim, not far from Rishon Letzion. "She was killed as a Hebrew warrior, as a woman and a mother, who was fulfilling the inner dictate of 'Jewish blood is not cheap.'"
Ben Ari's husband Elyakim, who died a few years ago, set up a civil engineering firm after the war that his son still heads today. When Danny is asked if he harbors anger toward the mother who abandoned him when he was an infant, he declared: "No. I identify with her and am proud of her."
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