A few months ago, Zvika Horowitz of Kfar Sava received a telephone call accompanied by a jarring WhatsApp message. Around 48 years after his older brother Yehiel was killed in the Yom Kippur War, his ID number appeared on Zvika’s screen along with personal details and a photo of the soldier. Zvika had mixed feelings.
“It was very exciting for me to see it, but I was also stressed out that such a document should turn up after such a long time,” Horowitz says.
Horowitz, 70, was 22 when his only brother’s tank was hit in a battle with the Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula. Yehiel was declared missing in action and later killed in action. Only several months later was his unburied body found and then interred in Kfar Sava, northeast of Tel Aviv.
The person who phoned Zvika Horowitz a few months ago was Yoni Dinur, a 44-year-old tour guide. Dinur, stung by the coronavirus’ paralysis of the tourism industry, had time for his unusual avocation: He burrows through Egyptian social media and participates in private WhatsApp and Facebook groups, where he gets to know some of the key members.
Dinur has no interest in contemporary Egyptian politics, nor in the Egyptians’ take on present-day Israel. He focuses on one aspect: locating objects and documents related to the October War, as the Egyptians call the 1973 war.
“My searches focus on places where I know there’s a chance of items being found. A lot of Arab war veterans are eager to talk about what they went through,” Dinur says.
“These people aren’t getting any younger, and they’re passing on memories and also objects to their children. I find them using all kinds of methods that I’ve adopted and improved on.”
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One item was Yehiel Horowitz’s ID card. How did Dinur get a copy of it? This is where Yasri Amareh, a retired Egyptian brigadier general who took part in the battle where Horowitz was killed, enters the picture.
“Anyone who visits Egyptian websites in Arabic can’t help but come across Amareh,” Dinur says. “He’s maybe the most famous Egyptian field officer who took part in the war.”
While navigating the maze of the Egyptian web, Dinur came across an interview with Amareh; in a photo, he was holding a document that included a photo of an Israeli soldier. Dinur enlarged the image and was finally able to make out the name Yehiel Horowitz and his address, 13 Hatikva Street, Kfar Sava.
Dinur was stunned. “That’s five minutes from the place I grew up and where my parents live to this day,” he says.
Hatikva Street no longer exists. After David Ben-Gurion died in 1973, the street was renamed after him. “I would pass the Horowitz family home every day on my way to school,” Dinur adds excitedly.
From there it was a short path to Yehiel’s brother. “He found me and contacted me and said, ‘Listen, I’ve found this document, maybe it’s your brother?’” Zvika Horowitz recalls. “Then he sent it to me on WhatsApp and I immediately said, ‘This is my brother, for sure. How did it get to you?’”
The two brothers were born a year and a half apart to two Holocaust survivors from Hungary. “I have no grandfather or grandmother, I have nothing. The entire family was wiped out. I had one brother and that’s it,” Horowitz says.
“Unlike me, Yehiel loved to learn. I loved to have a good time. He studied economics and statistics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and worked at the State Comptroller’s Office. I would have a good time going to parties. He was killed when he was 24; I was 22 at the time.”
The death of their eldest son came as a terrible blow to the parents, Tzipora and Mordechai, who had lost their families in the death camps. “My parents were broken,” Horowitz says. “I was about to get married, and we held the wedding without any music.”
His parents died, one after the other, when they were still in their 50s. “I brought them four grandchildren that they never got to meet, and that’s it. Today, I have a wonderful family,” he says.
Yehiel was drafted in August 1967, two months after the Six-Day War. He was assigned to the Armored Corps, where he trained as a tank gunner, and in 1968 took part in the Battle of Karameh, in which the Israeli army invaded Yasser Arafat’s headquarters in Jordan just across the Jordan River.
For Zvika, the unexpected souvenir from Yehiel’s death in the Yom Kippur War opened an old wound regarding the circumstances of his brother’s death. Yehiel had been in the tank crew of Lt. Col. Assaf Yaguri, the commander of Battalion 113.
On October 8, 1973, the battalion took part in the failed counterattack near the El-Ferdan Railway Bridge on the banks of the Suez Canal. The Egyptians directed heavy fire at the battalion, killing 32 Israeli soldiers and destroying 18 tanks.
Battalion commander Yaguri found shelter in a bomb crater and was taken captive. The Egyptians later bragged that he was the most senior Israeli ground forces officer to fall into their hands. Yaguri was released a month and a half later and in 1977 became a Knesset member.
But Yehiel Horowitz was killed. Dinur shared with Zvika some of the details from Egyptian sources on his brother’s final moments. “These are details about the battle that aren’t easy to read, details that Zvika apparently hadn’t heard from other members of the tank crew after they returned to Israel,” Dinur says.
Horowitz is now trying to figure out the precise circumstances in which his brother was killed, including how that document with his brother’s photo reached the Egyptian officer. “I want to know who killed him and why the Egyptians didn’t bury him,” he says. “I have questions about what exactly happened there.”
Regards from the past
Aside from Yehiel Horowitz’s ID card, Dinur recently came up with a personal journal and a professional notebook of another Israeli soldier who fought in the Yom Kippur War. Yoram Eisenschluss, a combat medic in the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Airborne Battalion, was deployed on September 11, 1973 to the Mezah (“Pier”) fortification, the southernmost stronghold on the Bar-Lev Line, along the Suez Canal. In the course of the war, the fortified position was attacked by the Egyptian army and was under siege for a full week until its defenders eventually surrendered and were taken captive. Eisenschluss, who was wounded, was filmed as part of a documentary that depicted the soldiers’ surrender, which was aired in Egypt.
Thanks to Dinur’s online contacts, he located Eisenschluss’ notebook and journal, and then sent photographs of them to his family. Meirav Kupferstien, Eisenschluss’ daughter, who is now 49, was surprised to see the handwriting of her father, who died in 2007. “It is extremely moving to know that we have another such memento; it was so unexpected to receive these ‘regards’ from the past,” she says. “He was no more than a boy, only 23… Today, now that I have children of my own, it is very emotional for me to read the words that my father wrote at this age.”
Eisenschluss was born in 1949 in Buenos Aires, the youngest son of a Zionist family that had seven children. At age 18, he volunteered to fight in the Six-Day War in Israel, but missed it by a few days. Instead, he spent his time in the country studying Hebrew, and when he returned to his homeland he enlisted in the Argentinian army, serving in the intelligence corps. In 1971, Eisenschluss immigrated to Israel with his wife Dolly and settled in Kibbutz Or Haner in the Negev, where he worked in agriculture.
“He was a Zionist of the ‘worst’ kind, completely infused with Zionism and love for the [Jewish] homeland,” relates his daughter Meirav, who was born in 1972. When she was about a year old, her father volunteered to replace soldiers who wanted to be home on leave over the Yom Kippur holiday. “He was secular and did not fast, and that is where it all started,” she says. “He left behind a young mother who barely spoke Hebrew, and a baby who wasn’t even a year old, and came back to us a different husband and father. He was shell-shocked, and didn’t speak much.”
The mementos that he left behind in Egypt, prior to becoming a POW, were written in Hebrew with the spelling mistakes of a new immigrant, and in Spanish, his mother tongue. One of them is a professional notebook. In it, he writes about the cycles of seeding field crops and tasks associated with growing carrots in the field,” explains his son Nimrod, who was born five years after the war. “Dad was a tractor driver, and he went off to war with the work assignment sheets for the field crops. It is awfully characteristic of my father to engage in such a thing even during such dire moments of pressure.”
In another notebook, he wrote down impressions of a different sort. “The stirrings of his heart,” as his daughter Meirav describes them. “He understood that something very serious was about to happen. He describes how difficult it was to breathe, due to the dust entering his lungs, and how the Egyptians were beefing up their forces at the canal across from the stronghold.”
On the same pages, romantic descriptions of desert and sunset alternate with frightening descriptions of the Egyptian troops surrounding the stronghold. “You can see the worry, the skies that are darkening,” says his daughter, who then adds: “It is astonishing that the Egyptian soldiers preserved this souvenir and remain in possession of it. That means that there is nevertheless some common denominator between us and them. It was human beings who took part in this war.”
After the war, the family moved to Kibbutz Sde Yoav and then to Kibbutz Yakum, between Tel Aviv and Netanya, where they have lived for the last 40 years. Yoram Eisenschluss suffered a heart attack and died in 2007. “I don’t think that he was especially disturbed by the fact that the notebooks were taken from him. He spoke more about his missing pipe, which is why I asked Yoni if they hadn’t found it, too,” says his son Nimrod, smiling.
Every success in locating these sorts of mementos only reinforces Dinur’s feeling that there are still many pieces of this puzzle that can be completed, and that additional chapters are yet to be told about the war. “I am succeeding in getting to the Egyptian version of events from [the Yom Kippur War]. I cast my net and fire in every direction. You can never know where it might fall. I search and I search, and in the end I find,” he says.
Some of his Egyptian correspondents still hate Israel. Others are men of peace who are interested in history and excited to help him in his research, in part due to its human aspect. “There are also some who are not willing to be in contact with me, who are afraid and think that I am a Mossad representative, as if we’re in a James Bond film,” says Dinur.
Among the items he’s recovered is a photo of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the Lubavitcher rebbe. Dinur’s sources claim it was taken from the personal belongings of an imprisoned Israeli pilot who was murdered in Egypt. Dinur investigated and discovered the names of two fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown. It’s possible that the photo was in the possession of one of them. He informed their families of his findings.
Another item that he came across was a Histadrut labor federation membership card belonging to an Israeli soldier. “I located him, and he is alive and well. He was very happy to receive the memento from nearly 50 years ago,” says Dinur. But the photograph of Yeshayahu (Shai) Mor, a paratrooper who was taken captive at the Orkal fortification along the canal, could not be shown to its owner after Dinur located it. Mor, who was seriously injured in the war, passed away in 2006. He was recognized as an Israeli war casualty. “He underwent a lengthy rehabilitation process and following years of torment, he passed away, as a result of his injury,” his brother wrote.
Dinur locates the families, at least in part, with the help of an active Hebrew-language Facebook group called Yom Kippur War - memories, scars, pain and all the rest, which has about 10,000 members.
He doesn’t rest for a moment. His coronavirus-era “habit” has become a demanding avocation that brings him new challenges on a daily basis. “One of my greatest challenges was to find details about the circumstances in which several soldiers were killed in a battle that took place in Suez City on October 24. One of them was a member of Israel’s all-star basketball team, Yitzchak Hoffman,” says Dinur. In the course of his inquiries, he came upon an Egyptian book about Suez, which tells a story that Dinur says is unknown in Israel: “There is information there concerning five soldiers who barricaded themselves in a cinema before they were killed. I’m continuing to search for information and I believe that I will eventually find it.”
Dinur now wishes to issue an appeal to Israelis who are in the possession of “souvenirs” they took from Egyptian soldiers in the Yom Kippur War. He would like to post photos of them on Egyptian social networks, in the hopes of finding their owners and thereby enhancing both his research and his contacts, which might in turn provide veterans and casualties of that war with forgotten mementos that are now nearly half a century old.
That’s how Dinur received word of a helmet belonging to a Syrian pilot named Othman Asfar, who fell into Israeli captivity in the Yom Kippur War. The gunner of an Israeli tank from the 188th Brigade contacted Dinur and told him that his tank crew captured Asfar when his plane was shot down on the third day of the war, and before transferring him to the POW camp, “kept his helmet, as a souvenir.”
The gunner wants to return the helmet to the family of Asfar, who died of the coronavirus earlier this year in Syria. His family has already been informed of its existence. Perhaps in the future, if there will be peace in the region, it would be possible to arrange for a three-way operation: Israel would return Asfar’s helmet to Syria, in exchange for which it would receive the helmet of battalion commander Asaf Yaguri, which according to Egyptian reports – backed by photographic evidence – is somewhere in Egypt.