Before he joined the navy, Yossi Farhi recorded 17 songs that he accompanied on guitar. The topics included a sailor saying goodbye to his girl and promising to return, and a sailor’s life on the stormy seas. He sent the tracks to a friend.
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Nobody expected that these songs would take on such a tragic meaning – he was one of 69 crewmen on the submarine Dakar that sank on January 25, 1968, 50 years ago.
A few years ago, his younger brother Yehuda gave the music eternal life by posting it on YouTube as part of a broader project to commemorate his brother.
“Yossi excelled in plucking the guitar strings, just as he knew how to pluck the heartstrings of his friends and loved ones,” Yehuda Farhi said this week. “That guitar, which made magic sounds, stands silent and timid today, its strings slack, waiting for a savior who can produce from it the glorious sounds that accompanied Yossi’s songs.”
The Farhi family originally came from Damascus. They later moved to Egypt, where Yossi was born in November 1947, shortly before the United Nations voted to establish the State of Israel. In 1949, the family moved to Israel and settled in Haifa. Yehuda was born in 1955.
“I admired him ever since I was little,” Yehuda Farhi said. “He was my teacher, I grew up under him.”
Many soldiers killed in the line of duty are later described as being “full of the joy of life,” and Yossi Farhi is no exception. His family described him as an accomplished mimic who took part in amateur theater as well.
In November 1965, he was drafted. He initially volunteered for the naval commandos, but his mother urged him to serve somewhere safer. Farhi agreed and became a submariner – a choice his mother later bitterly regretted.
“Our mother thought a submarine was a dry place that provided shelter to those who served in it,” Yehuda Farhi recalled. “Who knew then what a submarine was and what dangers submarine service entailed?”
The strange English
Yossi Farhi qualified as a submariner in January 1967. During the Six-Day War of June 1967, he served on a submarine that penetrated the Egyptian port of Alexandria, carrying naval commandos who mined the Egyptian fleet “as the submarine attacked with torpedoes and was attacked by destroyers,” Yehuda said.
Later, Farhi was sent to Portsmouth, England, as part of the crew assigned to bring back a new submarine, the Dakar, which Israel had bought. “I accompanied him proudly to the Bat Galim base with his suitcase,” Yehuda said. “We went by bus. At the entrance to the base I parted from my hero.”
He still has the lighthearted letters and pictures his brother sent his family each week while he was training and preparing to sail. Yossi told his family about going to nightclubs and shopping in London, about the restaurants and his longing for home.
“These English are very funny,” he wrote in one letter. “Someday I’ll tell you stories. We have a good time with the gang in the evenings .... Save all these postcards so we can hang them on the wall when I get back. Regards to everyone.”
In another, he wrote, “I’m starting to get sick of the food here. I think when I get back to Israel I’ll have a few tons of potatoes in my stomach. The reason is simple: From morning to night the English eat French fries, French fries and more French fries.”
Then he added, “We’re far from Israel, having a good time overseas and enjoying it, but we’re longing to return. Let’s hope it will be soon.”
In his letters, Farhi asked particularly about Yehuda, who was then preparing for his bar mitzvah. The highlight of the event was supposed to be the participation of Yossi and the rest of the Dakar’s crew in the ceremony.
On January 9, 1968, the Dakar set sail from Portsmouth with 69 crewmen aboard, heading for Haifa. On January 25, somewhere between Gibraltar and Haifa, all contact with the submarine was lost.
A brother’s sad bar mitzvah
Yehuda Farhi heard about this for the first time from one of the neighborhood kids, who yelled, “They’ve lost contact with the submarine.” When he went home he saw “two stunned parents” and began weeping in his father’s arms, as his father tried to stem his own tears.
The next day, the Farhis and the other families of the Dakar’s crew were invited to a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Dayan. “To this day, I remember the brokenhearted cries, the accusations and the hysteria – it was complete disintegration,” Yehuda said.
“Since then life has been very gray. Both my parents lost themselves in work to flee the bitterness, to be busy all day and at the end fall into bed exhausted. We remained in the house as three isolated people.”
Yehuda’s bar mitzvah was a sad affair. The synagogue pews, which were supposed to be filled with Yossi and his crewmates, were instead filled by grieving naval officers who came to honor the family. “Looking back, I realize my childhood had ended,” Yehuda said.
In letters to relatives overseas, Farhi’s mother poured out her anguish. “What did I do wrong?” she wrote. “I was so proud of this special child I had. I walked around like a peacock with this child. Evidently, God punished me for my pride.”
As Yehuda put it, “She never stopped wondering why this happened to her and kept searching for an explanation.”
Farhi’s father died of a heart attack about 10 years after the disaster. “He died of grief,” Yehuda said.
His mother died two years ago. “She was my partner in bereavement and pain,” he said. “When I was younger, she dragged me along. When she grew weaker, I dragged her. We buried her by the sea, as if she were waiting for the submarine to return.”
In 1999, after years of searching, the Dakar was finally found about 500 kilometers (311 miles) off Israel’s coast. Only then did the conspiracy theories about the submarine’s disappearance finally die down. In 2015, the navy gave the families a report concluding that the submarine sank due to either a technical problem or a naval accident.
“The years pass in a routine of bereavement, from memorial ceremony to ceremony,” Yehuda said. “Today I feel a loneliness I can’t fill. I have no one to lean on.”
To deal with this, he has spent the last few years trying to commemorate his brother and the Dakar by any means possible. For example, he created a Facebook page for his brother and a WhatsApp group for relatives and friends of the Dakar crewmen.
“Today these guys are already in their 70s or older,” he said. “That’s the age when they take their letters and photos out of their albums and send them to me.”