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May 19, 2017  RSS feed
Front Page

Text: T T T

50 years later, reliving Six Day War, reunification of ‘City of Gold’

By PATRICIA LEVINSON Special to the Jewish Press

Patricia Levinson, now a St. Petersburg resident, took this photo at the gate into the Old City of Jerusalem three weeks after Israel gained control during the historic 1967 war. Patricia Levinson, now a St. Petersburg resident, took this photo at the gate into the Old City of Jerusalem three weeks after Israel gained control during the historic 1967 war. It was May 1967. My husband Lionel and I were living in Israel.

Abdul Nassar had closed the Straits of Tiran, blocking all Israeli shipping through the Gulf of Aqaba, which included 90 percent of the oil that Israel needed. He also demanded the withdrawal of all UN Peacekeeping Troops from the Sinai Peninsula.

Pan Arab nationalism once again swept the Middle East, and Jordan, Syria, Iraq and several other Arab countries rushed to form an alliance with Egypt. The President of Iraq stated, “The existence of Israel is an error which must be rectified. This is an opportunity to wipe out the ignominy, which has been with us since 1948.”

For Israel, these actions were a declaration of war. The people of Israel knew that it was not a question of if there would be war, but when it would start. Israel knew it would be attacked on every front. The mood was reflected in the poignant new song flooding the airwaves. Written by songstress Naomi Shemer, Yerushalyim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, it spoke of a longing for the beauty of Jerusalem and included a verse that spoke with regret that you could no longer go down to the Dead Sea via Jericho.

Lionel and Patricia Levinson in an air raid shelter in Israel in 1967 and at their 50th wedding anniversary in 2014. Lionel and Patricia Levinson in an air raid shelter in Israel in 1967 and at their 50th wedding anniversary in 2014. We were living in the Charles Clore International House, the married graduate student housing serving the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, 15 miles south of Tel Aviv. Lionel was a PhD student in the department of Electronics, and I was working as a biochemist in the Biodynamics department.

Every day we watched our friends and colleagues don their military uniforms and catch the busses that stopped on the street below our window. Tanks rumbled down the main street of Rehovot, chewing up the asphalt as they headed south. Slowly Clore House emptied, leaving only wives of the Israeli students and foreign students. Most of our Israeli friends doing their doctorates had already been through their army service plus undergraduate degrees, and were in their late 20s or early 30s. Most were married. Most were also officers in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and they were going off to command their units.

It was also obvious that the Weizmann Institute, with its international reputation, would be a prime target in the upcoming war. I took first aid courses, learning that if the bomb struck directly, that was it. But if it landed nearby, I was to contact A or B.

I donated blood. We bought blue paint to paint our lightbulbs and flashlights, as well as candles, water, food and batteries. We made sure our curtains closed tightly to prevent any light seeping out, and took to sleeping in our clothes with comfortable shoes next to the bed. We took to sleeping in our clothes with comfortable shoes next to the bed.

Every day I went into work. Those of us remaining had the task of making sure that the research experiments of those who were being called up could be maintained. That way the students could pick up where they had left off when they returned after the fighting was over.

We removed all the radioactive chemicals used in our experiments from the labs and sent them off for safe storage underground. Suddenly someone realized we had not removed all the chemicals that contained cyanide. Frantically we collected them and sent them off as well.

We would read the newspapers and listen constantly to the news. My Hebrew improved by leaps and bounds, as I had to know what was happening, and the English newscasts once a day were totally inadequate.

Very early on the morning of June 5, we were woken up by the sound of airplanes flying overhead. A few moments later, the first air raid siren went off. This was it. We scrambled to grab our shoes, radio and flash lights, and headed down to the air raid shelter in Clore House.

Kol Yisrael, the Voice of Israel, was announcing that the Israeli air force had caught the entire Egyptian and Jordanian air forces unawares, and had destroyed them on the ground before any planes could take off. There were strong denials from the BBC, who were quoting the Egyptians.

That night, after eating a hasty dinner by the light of one candle, we sat huddled over the radio. A neighbor knocked on the door to say that we could see the fighting at Latrun, which Israel had not been able to hold onto in 1948, from the roof of Clore House. It was obvious that both Jerusalem and the Sinai would be the focus of the fighting for the next few days.

On the morning of June 7, the third day of the war, I was working in the lab when one of the doctoral students in the department walked in the door. He was a senior officer in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), fighting on the approaches to Jerusalem, and had been helicoptered into Tel Aviv for a meeting at military headquarters. On the way back to the front, he stopped in to check on his experiments. He explained to us that the IDF had taken the mountain heights on the West Bank of the Jordan, including the cities of Shechem and Ramallah, and were rapidly approaching Jerusalem. He told us that the Israeli forces would be in east Jerusalem by evening.

That night, Lionel and I sat in the blackout and wept as the radio played the sound of the shofar being blown at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. We quickly rounded up some juice and cookies, and gathered with all the other students at Clore House for an impromptu party. Many of them had no idea whether their loved ones were alive or dead, but the reunification of Jerusalem was a miracle to be celebrated. We said a Shehecheyanu, and sang “Jerusalem of Gold” with the new words that were being used that spoke of now going down to the Dead Sea via Jericho.

The war ended on June 10, after both the Sinai and the Golan Heights were captured by the Israeli forces.

‘Civilian’ tour of Jerusalem

Three weeks later, the Weizmann Institute organized a trip to Jerusalem for the “foreign scientists” who had stayed during the war. We traveled by bus on a rough road that took us through Latrun to Jerusalem.

The first stop was the Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus. We went up to Mount Scopus via a carefully marked road that was still being cleared of land mines. The entrance to the road was guarded by a soldier, and the old sign saying no admission in English and Arabic was crossed out, and a bright yellow sign had been added which read “Har Hatzofim” in Hebrew (Mount Scopus) with an arrow pointing straight ahead.

Lionel and I were horrified to see the bombed-out shell with enormous holes in the walls that had been the magnificent Hadassah Hospital. The only thing left intact was the Hadassah Medallion in the floor at the entrance with its laurel leaves and motto, “The healing of the daughter of my people.” The Hadassah flag once again flew proudly over the ruined hospital.

Earlier that week, an Arab man had proudly handed the keys to the hospital that his family had guarded for 19 years, to Charlotte Jacobsen, the national Hadassah president. Arab residents of Jerusalem started coming to Hadassah with their admission cards they had kept since Hadassah lost the Hospital on Mount Scopus in the war in 1948.

The Israeli government asked Hadassah to restore the buildings, and reopen the Hospital on Mount Scopus, even though Hadassah had opened a new hospital at Ein Kerem in 1963. Hadassah responded with a resounding “Yes.”

Our trip to Jerusalem would not have been complete without a trip to the Western Wall. We followed the route that the Israeli paratroopers had used, and went onto the Har Habayit, the Temple Mount, via the Lions gate, and down to the Western Wall, which was simply a narrow street with a high wall on one side. (It was only later that today’s large plaza was constructed). We left our messages and prayers in the cracks.

From there we went on to Bethlehem, where despite the barbed wire and army vehicles, we were warmly greeted as tourists and given a tour of the Church of the Nativity.

The final stop was Hebron and the Kever ha Machpelah (Tomb of the Patriarchs). Hebron was terrifying. The hatred was palpable, and the occasional firing of snipers could still be heard.

We will never forget that trip!

A native of South Africa, Patricia Levinson and her husband, Lionel, live in St. Petersburg. The Levinsons lived in Israel from 1966-1970 and then moved to Schenectady, NY. Levinson has long been involved with Hadassah, currently serving as Hadassah International Communications Chair. This story was adapted from a speech Levinson gave for Hadassah Shabbat in St. Petersburg.

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