"Here is the bathroom you were afraid to go into, remember?" a member of Kibbutz Shaar Hagolan asks her friend as they walk into 16 Tishbi Street in Haifa.
Fifty-eight years ago they lived in this building, which served as a kindergarten, for more than a year. Last Saturday, they went back, together with dozens of others from Shaar Hagolan, to the stone building they used to call "the green house," to reminisce on their "Haifa exile." It was forced on them- children then, 58 years ago, who were evacuated only a few days before the kibbutz was conquered by the Syrian army in the War of Independence. The abandonment of the kibbutz is still looked upon as a stain.
Recently, as the kibbutz prepared to mark its 70th anniversary, members decided to reappraise the events of that year and consider their consequences. "Over the years, a kibbutz, like a human being, develops a personality," explains kibbutz member Oded Parker. "In that war, our personality was fractured."
Just like Massada
On May 18, 1948, after four days in which they were subjected to attacks by the Syrian army, the members of Shaar Hagolan and of the nearby kibbutz Massada abandoned their settlements. They spent five days in the neighboring kibbutzim Afikim and Beit Zera. In the course of the brief Syrian occupation, their kibbutzim were looted and and burned down. On May 24, the members returned to their destroyed settlements and began rebuilding.
Six years ago, Asaf Agin, a historian and researcher of the battles of 1948 in the Jordan Valley, completed a study entitled "Abandonment - The Story of the Stand and Fall of Shaar Hagolan and Massada in the War of Independence." "The abandonment of Shaar Hagolan and Massada took place four days after the fall of Gush Etzion," stated the study. "However, it did not happen during a battle, and not even under threat of immediate attack."
The sentence was handed down even before facts had been clarified. Less than two weeks after the event, the Palmach newsletter accused members of the two kibbutzim of abandoning the national assets that had been given to them: "...those in whose hands Shaar Hagolan was placed should have manned the gate; those who bore the name Massada were unfaithful to the symbol of freedom on their flag." The Palmach newsletter was like an indictment and a sentence, writes Agin, who says that for months "the accusation was repeated on stage" [at Habimah in a play by Yigal Mossensohn). "None of the accusers went to the trouble of checking the facts."
Ziva Dror, the archivist of Shaar Hagolan, who helped organize the return this year, says: "This year is one in which we will remove the mark of Cain." In the War of Independence, she was a young girl studying at the school in Beit Alfa. She remembers the degradation of kibbutz members. She pulls out document after document to lend justification to the decision to abandon the kibbutz.
The testimony describes the life-and-death danger faced by the members and their children, the evacuation of the children in the dead of night as shells fell, without any farewell from their parents, the sense of isolation and the feeling that they had been abandoned as the battles raged.
"For years, we have engaged in a rehabilitation effort," she says. "Essentially, the higher-ups didn't want to let this happen. We only received the War of Independence medal after a long, 35-year struggle." Even a "top-secret" report of the person who was head of the supervisory division, major-general David Shaltiel, which was drafted six months after the kibbutzim were abandoned, was only authorized for publication in 1988, after Nahum Boneh, a member of Shaar Hagolan, applied to the Ministry of Defense.
"In the books of the Israel Defense Forces, we are described as those who abandoned, and Degania has become the stuff of mythology. But they got reinforcements, and we were abandoned. And ever since then, society has been cruel to us. They called us cowards. They say we ran away. That is the image that has stuck to us. Our parents went to their graves with a terrible and horrible pain. They did not forgive themselves."
Chana Boneh, who was a young girl during the war and is the daughter of Itka Boneh, who was the regional commander of the kibbutz, describes the evacuation of the kibbutz as "an open wound, even now." The conversation with her takes place on the roof of the former Saltzman Hotel, on the Carmel, one of the buildings in which the evacuated children lived in during and after the war, until the kibbutz was rebuilt.
Boneh remembers the difficult times before the children were evacuated. "I remember every minute. How we were thrown into a bomb shelter. How we sat there all crowded together, and how they brought in the wounded constantly. We saw how they treated wounded people who were parents of the children. All the time we heard the cows mooing. There was a huge tumult, and we were sitting in the dark. During the lulls, the caregiver would run to bring us games to calm us down. I had a little teddy bear. When the order came to evacuate the children, we ran barefoot, in the middle of the night, to the buses. We barely had a chance to say good-bye to our parents, and I thought, 'Why do my parents have to die? That good-bye still remains, as a difficult trauma."
Boneh: "We waited many years until we began to bring it up. You have to bear in mind that even within the kibbutz a lot of people had the feeling that they were apologizing. And a conflict developed between Shaar Hagolan and Massada around the question of who evacuated first. Instead of there being a shared fate, we were in conflict with one another. But the worst part was the mark of Cain that we bore. This is a criticism that was hurled at the members of Shaar Hagolan for years on end."
On the way to Haifa, the group of 60 stopped for a break at Alonim. In the parking lot, a passer-by asked them, "From where are you? Shaar Hagolan? So who ran away first, Massada or Shaar Hagolan?" Practically every resident of Shaar Hagolan remembers such an experience. One kibbutznik says: "Even now, when they organize the Independence Day run in the valley, there are those who say that we should be the last stop, because we ran away."
Oded Parker recalls how, when he was in officer training school, someone viciously joked, "We already have someone to act as commander for the retreat exercise."
Yehuda Peleg, born 30 years after the war, remembers the other kids at school putting him down: "You abandoned, you cowards."
"Ever since then, for years we did not know how to celebrate Independence Day," recalls Roni Reuveni-Etzion. "It is a day that reminds us of the evacuation. We couldn't be happy." Shahar Ivri, a third-generation kibbutznik, feels that "the advantage of all traumas is that you don't talk about them. For years, we would go to summer camps in Haifa, two meters away from the places where our parents lived for a year, and not a word was said about it. Nobody talked."
A kibbutz member whose father was among the fighters who abandoned the settlement relates that he once tried to argue with his father: "My mother asked me to stop. You are liable to give your father a heart attack, she told me."
Nima Ivri, who married a member of the kibbutz, says that she asked herself, "Why didn't they talk about it? It was a heroic period, both for those who were in Haifa and those who were rebuilding the kibbutz. But the people were suffering from a trauma. They closed up inside themselves. For years, they were presented as the antithesis to Negba. It is a scar that they bore, in an absolutely unjustified manner."
Nurit Katziri, who also married a member of the kibbutz: "We waited many years. Now it is okay to slaughter sacred cows and it is clear that sacrifice at any cost and the binding of Isaac are not holy things. Life is holier than anything else. What crime did we commit? We wanted to live, even if the ideal was that everyone would be slaughtered."
"It still lives and simmers to this day," says Parker, but his voice is different from the others. "There were a lot of extenuating circumstances for what happened," he says. "You don't have to look for excuses or for guilty parties. There was no crime here, nor was it any great act of honor. Anyone who judges the events in today's hedonistic and crybaby atmosphere has to understand that back then, nobody went backward. Otherwise we would not have won the war."
Parker leaves the archive and Dror hastens to again cite the study by Agin, to which members of Sha'ar Hagolan cling as a seal of approval for their parents' actions. "The decision to abandon the kibbutz was made on the evening of May 18," it states. "At the time no battle was raging, and the people were not demonstrating any fear of aerial bombings and artillery shells, which they had withstood for four days. The decision was made at a time when the neighbors were engaged in saving their property, the army was preparing to defend the rear lines, the two settlements at the front were forgotten, and no one found the time to tell the people of Sha'ar Hagolan and Massada what was the objective for which they should remain at the front-line settlements. The decision to abandon was made when the confidence in the shared fate of the front and the rear lines was broken."
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