Some 40 years after the Yom Kippur War, a series of heartrending letters has been discovered between a woman whose husband died in battle and the late musician and songwriter Naomi Shemer, hailed as the “first lady of Israeli song and poetry.”
The letters were unearthed by the National Library, located among archives from Shemer’s estate that were turned over to the library by her family two years ago. Buried in the music notes, newspaper clippings, tribute letters and draft texts was Shemer’s correspondence with one Bracha Vardi of Kibbutz Maoz Haim.
The first of the letters is dated November 27, 1973, one month after the Yom Kippur War battles on the Egyptian front had ended, and a month and a half after Vardi’s husband Menachem was killed in the Golan Heights. Vardi, then 28, was left to raise three children, the oldest of whom, Amichai, was 6 years old at the time.
“The children in my son Amichai’s kindergarten learned your song ‘Lu Yehi’ [May It Be] this morning,” Vardi wrote. “Afterward the older children, including Amichai, were asked to add words to the song, each according to his desire and thoughts.”
And so, Vardi explained, Amichai rewrote the song in memory of his fallen father: “If I could walk in the distant spaces, if I could come home and see my father and not only my mother, may it be, may it be, please, may it be, all that we want may it be.”
“I was sitting at work and he called me with his kindergarten teacher and they read me the poem over the phone, and my tears flowed,” Vardi wrote to Shemer, whose song ‘Lu Yehi’ had become something of an anthem for the Yom Kippur War.
“I don’t know why I’m writing this to you, but I felt a fierce need to do so,” wrote Vardi. Less than two weeks later she received a reply.
“Dear Bracha, thank you for your moving letter. Apparently one must be made of a special metal to live here − and I think the people of Maoz Haim are built that way. You certainly are. ... Some songs bring in their wake a white trail of letters − yours is one, yet unique among them. ... If I helped your Amichai to pray − then I have done my part,” Shemer wrote.
She signed off “with warm greetings to you, your three children and Amichai’s kindergarten teacher.”
Vardi replied: “Naomi, thanks to your wonderful letter and because now, after my eldest son Amichai has sung your wondrous song many times (although sometimes a little off key), it has acquired a twofold meaning and has given me the feeling that I know you a little.”
“When I looked over my letter to my husband, before I knew he had fallen, I found I had written down the words of your song in it,” she continued. “The letter was returned to me, with my other letters, except one he had received, and our prayer was lost in space.”
Vardi bid farewell on a note of optimism: “Even happiness and joy can be found, it seems, in the abyss of loss − my brother has had a son, exactly two months after my husband’s falling, and they called him ... Menachem.”
The boy Amichai is now 46 years old and lives in the United States with his family. His mother is twice a widow; her second husband, Professor Israel Ashkenazi, died last year. This week, in her apartment in Ganei Tikva, Bracha Vardi places on the shelf family pictures of Menachem, herself and their three children on the kibbutz, next to photos of Ashkenazi and his children and several grandchildren.
“Through my correspondences with various people, I gave my sorrow wings,” Vardi says of her decision to write to Naomi Shemer. “After I sent her the thank-you letter, the correspondence ended. Naomi kept the letters in her archive and I of course kept hers.”
Bracha and Menachem Vardi met in Ramat Gan when she was in 10th grade and a member of Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed youth movement. He was sent there by the kibbutz to head the movement’s branch.
“I fell in love with him, what can I say,” Vardi says. Five years later, in 1965, when she was 20 and Menachem was 26, they married. “He was gorgeous, a heroic figure. A man who listened to everyone and gave advice to people around him, a good friend and great father,” she says.
Menachem wrote her many letters from the front during the Six-Day War. One letter concludes: “I thought about the name you suggested and I think it will be the most suitable. If we have a son, we’ll call him Amichai. Love, Menachem.”
During the Yom Kippur War he wrote: “I received your letter today with a drawing from Amichai. Very exciting but no time to go into details. The hardest stage is probably behind us, but the end is not near enough yet. Regards to everyone at home. To all the boys. Love you, Menachem.”
That young, heroic figure is the man Vardi says she still sees today when she thinks of Menachem. “I don’t think of what a 74-year-old man would look like today. When I think of him I see the 34-year-old man I walked to the car when the war broke out. I see the resemblance between him and our grandchildren. When my boys stand beside each other I see Menachem in them − each one is like him in some way. But I don’t pine the way I did then. I don’t dwell on how he was killed but think of him on another, more spiritual, abstract level.”
On Thursday, the National Library launched an online exhibit in honor of Israel’s Memorial Day featuring the correspondence between Shemer and Vardi, as well as other documents from Shemer’s archive.
“Naomi Shemer’s archive includes a considerable number of letters, many of them from members of bereaved families whose loved ones fell in the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War,” says Dr. Gila Flam, director of the library’s music archive. “The families share their pain with Shemer, write to her about the son or husband who was killed in the war, tell her they want her to know their names. They see her as Israel’s national songwriter.”
Letters, songs and personal diaries of soldiers killed in the war can also be viewed on the library’s website at www.web.nli.org.il.