Emotions are running high among members of the closed Facebook group at Kibbutz Yavneh. The reason is an obituary in Haaretz following the recent death of Abraham Grossman, a brave fighter who lived on the kibbutz for a short period during the 1948 War of Independence.
Under the (Hebrew) headline “I emptied a whole magazine – the fighter who downed an Egyptian plane in 1948,” the obit contained Grossman’s testimony of how, on May 24, 1948, he shot down an enemy aircraft as it circled over the kibbutz’s communal dining hall.
Ronit Gadish, a former kibbutz member who’s now the chief scientific secretary at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, posted a link to the story on Facebook, asking if anyone was familiar with it.
“There’s no evidence of that happening,” one kibbutz member responded. “I don’t remember,” wrote another. Yisca Kochba, who runs the kibbutz archive, wrote: “There is no confirmation for a plane being downed, as far as we can tell.”
Did it happen or not? This week, we traveled to Yavneh, crossing by the famed pickle factory to reach the key location mentioned in the story, situated between the animal corner, the archive, the cemetery, the water tower, an old-age home and a nearby yeshiva. We met people young and old, all of whom had heard of the story and almost all of whom had something to say about it.
The kibbutz archive contains the name Grossman as someone who lived there. His name is on a list of people assigned roles there during the war in 1948. “He did live here for a short while,” Kochba confirms. From this to the downing of an Egyptian plane, however, is quite a stretch.
A few years ago, when Grossman visited the archive, “he related the story, which was unknown to us,” she says. “There’s a lot of material from those days, including detailed descriptions of events that occurred during the war. The problem is not the lack of documentation. We didn’t find anything related to such an incident.”
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Yakir Sasson, 32, is responsible for the animal pen by day and is a double bass player by night. “I’ve heard the story about the plane. I heard it was fired on, but I don’t know who fired at it and I never heard that it was hit and crashed,” he says, surrounded by the drove of donkeys he’s raising. “We’ve always had asses around here,” he adds, in a joke perhaps more befitting that earlier age.
His younger brother, Meron, 26, who works as an editor for Army Radio, never heard that the plane was downed. It would be difficult for someone his age to remember the events of 1948, but he used his journalistic skills to call some kibbutz elders. “It never happened,” they told him.
However, as is the case with stories that are over 70 years old, before too long other versions started cropping up.
One kibbutz elder, Micha Beit Aryeh, remembers Grossman well. He says Grossman did indeed use a machine gun on that fateful day and remembers standing only 20 meters (65 feet) away as Grossman fired.
“A downed plane was found in the fields nearby that day,” he relays. Micha’s son, Yoav, says this information should be taken with a grain of salt. “Do I know whether it fell or not? Well, it didn’t come down in our fields, that’s for sure. Maybe it fell farther away, maybe not,” he says.
Fulfilling a dream
The testimony of Levana Messenberg (née Rosenberger) restacks the deck. Her grandson, journalist Roy Sharon, testifies that ever since he can remember, he’s heard from his grandmother about that plane. It turns out that, besides Grossman, at least one other person claims credit as the person who downed the Egyptian plane at Yavneh.
Messenberg doesn’t live on the kibbutz now, but the memory of that day lives on in her mind. “They saw a plane descending, I was told to shoot at planes circling overhead. I even held a rifle – a Czech one” she says, in filmed testimony she sent her family. “I held it really tight and, with all the strength of an 18-year-old, I fired.” She phoned the kibbutz secretariat and emotionally told them the plane had been downed.
When she returned from her post – which according to one version was by the water tower and, to another, by the nearby yeshiva – “everyone praised me and made me very happy, saying, ‘Here’s the heroine who downed a plane!’ They were very pleased and proud of the girl who had shot down a plane flying over the kibbutz.”
But with rare honesty, she qualified this by noting: “The plane fell near Kibbutz Hulda, 20 kilometers away. In my heart, I thought that perhaps a soldier in Hulda had shot it down.”
Her daughter has commemorated the story in a children’s book she wrote. “She is standing alone, on a high tower in the kibbutz. She has a Czech rifle in her hand and a radio nearby. She has to listen carefully to see if enemy planes are approaching. If she hears one overhead, she’ll shoot at it fearlessly. Suddenly, she hears a buzz. Clouds hide the planes flying overhead. The nice girl stands there alone, shooting straight at the target. She wipes away a tear, she’s excited, unsure what to do next, her braids tied with a red ribbon. She’s fulfilled a dream, shooting down an enemy plane. It really happened, it was you, our dear Mother.”
“I’m confused by all the contradictory versions,” a member of the closed Facebook group wrote recently, not realizing how right she was. Along with Grossman and Messenberg, walking through the kibbutz revealed that there is another story, according to which it was actually someone called Gedalia Ditour who shot down the plane. Ditour, who died five years ago at age 99, was operating some heavy machinery at the kibbutz at the time. His son, Ariel, neither confirms or denies the story. “It could be true,” is all he can say.
Returning to the testimony by Grossman that ignited the whole debate. When he arrived in Yavneh in 1948, he was already a seasoned warrior, having served in the Jewish Brigade, where he learned how to use a Bren light machine gun. This is why he was chosen, he wrote, to man the antiaircraft post at the kibbutz.
In the afternoon hours of May 24, an Egyptian plane circled over the dining hall, dropping bombs. “Two bombs missed their target but hit adjacent buildings, killing three people,” Grossman testified.
There’s no disputing this part of his testimony. The bombing that killed three kibbutzniks is considered a seminal moment in the kibbutz’s history. Esther Tidhar was 11 at the time. “I was playing the piano when suddenly I heard a plane, flying back and forth. I ran out to see what was going on and then I heard the explosions,” she recounts.
One of the three victims was 23-year-old Hadassah Wolf, who was pregnant with her second child. Eight years earlier, she and her family had survived the sinking of the SS Patria, a ship on which the British were intending to deport hundreds of illegal immigrants to Mauritius. Over 250 of them drowned after the ship was sabotaged by the Haganah underground organization, in an attempt to prevent it sailing.
The two other victims were Avraham (Kurtie) Meir, 25, and his daughter Ruthie, who was named after his sister who had perished in the Holocaust. “The night before he died, Kurtie managed to join a force that demolished a bridge north of Ashdod – later called the Ad Halom [“Up to Here”] bridge, at which the advance of the Egyptian column advancing on Tel Aviv was halted,” says the Yizkor memorial website about him. Later, Wolf’s widower and Meir’s widow got married and established a new family.
Grossman testified that after the fatal bombing, he had a feeling that the plane would return after reloading. Less than an hour passed before he was seemingly proven right. By then, he was ready at his post by the dining hall.
“I squeezed the trigger and emptied an entire magazine. I saw the evil smiling face of the pilot. The bullets hit the cockpit, the wings and the fuselage. The plane later fell in a nearby field.” Kibbutz members congratulated him afterward, he said.
Grossman stuck to his version to his dying day. “Three people who were there were interviewed. They’re in their nineties, but very clear-minded. They described in detail what happened, including the fact that they saw the plane being shot down, thereby confirming what I know,” he said. He repeated his testimony in conversation with historian Joel Rappel, who was born in Yavneh.
The depths of the archive contains a page from a book written by another person, Hagai Bruchi, who was sent to Yavneh at a young age to be schooled there. The page describes the incident: “Suddenly, flying low, four warplanes appeared from the direction of Gedera. They passed over us, flying south. Within minutes there were smoke columns in the sky and dull explosions were heard … the fourth plane was shot down,” he wrote.
“I’m not sure what plane that was,” Kochba says. One kibbutz member hypothesizes that these were Israeli planes on their way to attack Egyptian forces.
“Is it possible that this ‘hero’ actually shot one of our own planes?” Kochba speculates. It wasn’t difficult to convince her that it didn’t take much for those planes to crash. The planes were difficult to fly and were in questionable mechanical condition.
So, who shot that plane down, if indeed it was downed? We may never know.
This story reminds many people of the tale about the legendary Syrian tank now resting at the entrance to Kibbutz Deganya, a symbol of the courage of the brave man who single-handedly stopped it. The fact that at least five people claim to be that person doesn’t detract from the story.
Yavne’s Facebook group, by the way, is called “Rodges biscuits” – and there’s a story about that too. Meron Sasson explains: “Rodges biscuits are the name used in the kibbutz for Petit-Beurre. This is what they ate at Rodges, which was an agricultural training center near Petah Tikva, in which the kibbutz started out in 1930, before moving to its permanent location near Ashdod.”