When Grandma Took Up a Gun and Joined the Fight on Israel's Northern Frontier

In 1969, veterans of the Haganah, Irgun and WWII were asked to help defend the northern communities. The media described a giant success, but archives show they were mostly asked to help with the harvest.

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Volunteers in Ma'alot, the 1970s.
Volunteers in Ma'alot, the 1970s. Credit: Yehoshua Zamir / Bitmuna collection
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The IDF manpower branch had to work hard during the 1969-70 War of Attrition to find volunteers to help guard communities in the north. The relatively new “electronic computer” was put to work and it pulled out name after name of those who might have forgotten much of their military training: 140,000 candidates who had served in the Haganah, Jewish Brigade, Notrim and the underground Irgun and Lehi, along with former World War II partisans and veterans of the Russian, Polish, Australian and South African armies.

All of them received a questionnaire intended to check their willingness to put on their uniforms once more, after decades in civilian life.

The response was enthusiastic and received quite a lot of coverage in the press. “The grandmother from Ramat Gan has gone to help out on the frontier,” was just one headline. The grandmother in this case was Malka Katzenberg, a preschool teacher and former Irgun fighter, who had had experience on the Lebanese border 30 years earlier. “She will be a house-mother like the women who cook and run the home. She will carry a rifle as in the old days,” reported Haaretz.

Alongside her were veterans such as Yaakov Gutfreund, 66, from Tel Aviv, who began his military career in 1920 when he fought in the Polish army against the Red Army, and later fought from Stalingrad all the way to Berlin in WWII; Yehezkel Adar, 67, and retired from the Egged bus cooperative, who fought Rommel in the British army; Ben Zion Yarkoni, 70, who had retired from Tnuva and was a pioneer in the Gdud Ha’avoda and a policeman under the British; artist Israel Traub, 60, from Zichron Yaakov, who was an officer in the South African army, along with his wife Rhoda, a sculptor and former ambulance driver (or truck driver in a different version) during WWII.

Volunteer in Ma'alot, 1974.
Volunteer in Ma'alot, 1974. Credit: Yehoshua Zamir / Bitmuna collection

Their stories were rediscovered in archival research accompanying the “Forgotten Heroes” project conducted by Beit Avi Chai center, which documents historic stories of people who made a large contribution to the nation, but remained unknown.

The historical documents show how the veterans left everything behind, including their grandchildren, and, armed with motivation, they were sent to Metullah, Ramat Naftali and many other communities along the northern border to reinforce the feeling of security for local residents.

But their reception was surprisingly cool. When they arrived for shooting practice before receiving their weapons, the young regular soldiers cynically said they needed to make the targets bigger, and called for reinforcements. They made fun of the female veterans, and the bald and gray old men.

The person behind the recruitment of the “elderly” was Maj. Gen. (res.) Eliyahu Ben Hur, one of the founders of the Haganah’s mobile and field units. He is famous for being the only general in the IDF who chose to give up his rank and fight as a private during the War of Independence after a major dispute between Ben Hur and Ben-Gurion over the running of the war and the future of the IDF. He served out the rest of the war as a half-track driver in the Givati Brigade, though later Ben-Gurion realized his mistake and restored his rank.

Twenty-one years after the War of Independence ended, Ben Hur was called up again, this time to help the northern communities being shelled during the War of Attrition. He was almost 60, but managed to recruit a few thousand people ages 49 to 75 to the new unit he founded: Fighters for the Frontier. These are people with a great deal of security experience, who can contribute a lot to reducing the burden of guard duty, he said at the time. He promised: “They have smelled gunpowder and know what shelling is and what a bombardment is. A short session is enough for them to remember the entire doctrine of using arms.”

Volunteers in Ma'alot, 1974.
Volunteers in Ma'alot, 1974. Credit: Yehoshua Zamir / Bitmuna collection

Ben Hur said it was all voluntary, with no limitations and no medical examinations required. “People almost 70 have already gone and returned tanned and full of satisfaction,” he said. The volunteers were required to sign a loyalty oath, and promise to follow orders.

The oldest volunteer was Dr. Yaakov Weiner, who was born in 1894 and served in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Under “military experience” on his form, he wrote: “I was for a time the adjutant and acting staff officer of the brigade headquarters. I was an excellent sharpshooter with the Austrian rifle at a distance of 1,500 meters, but I certainly will need new training.”

One of the volunteers was Haaretz journalist Haviv Kanaan, who was 56 at the time. “It was very good to once again wear khaki and go north in a truck... High spirits prevailed in the crowded truck,” he wrote. The shooting practice went well and the paper targets became like sieves, “so the lemonade served at the end of the firing practice was a thousand times tastier.” He wrote in Haaretz that they were deployed right on the border.

The schedule included a strict routine: Rest from 1 P.M. to 5 P.M., sleep from 4 A.M. to 7:30 A.M., and orders: “Don’t reveal yourself by smoking,” “Don’t bundle up in coats.”

But not everything was so glamorous. Ben Hur complained to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan that the volunteers were not received properly and respectfully. He said the budget was not yet in order and money for food and transport was lacking, and there was no money to prepare for winter. He said the local residents complained it would be cheaper to hire guards themselves, and doubted the volunteers would last through the harsh winter.

A letter of complaint sent to Ben Hur said the volunteers felt as if they were barely tolerated, and the local residents had been told they were coming to help out with the harvest and packing fruit, not guard duty. “Because it is unpleasant to go around with nothing to do in a place that suffers from a lack of workers, we worked a number of hours a day in packing fruit,” wrote Uri Popinsky, who was sent to Adamit.

The Forgotten Heroes project will be open to the public for free and include podcasts.