It was the start of a human disaster

Norman Lebrecht gives a personal account of life during the Six Day War


A hand is shaking me roughly awake.

“What’s the time?”

“Ten past eight,” says my roommate. “It’s begun.”

No need to ask what. We had been waiting for this moment for three nail-bitten weeks. In five minutes I am washed, dressed and running through the orange groves, on my way to the hospital.

The first we knew anything was wrong came in an evening news bulletin on Independence Day, 1967, crackling out of a car radio as we drove home from a picnic in the Galilee.

The Egyptians had closed the straits of Tiran, said the newsreader, blocking Israel’s route to oil supplies. The next bulletin was preceded by a recitation of code words — “iron kettle”, and the like. When I got back to the university campus, my friends were packing up to go to the army.

Bulletin by bulletin, the news got worse. Moshe Hovav, a radio announcer with a particularly grave voice, seemed to be on all the time. The United Nations pulled its buffer force out of Sinai. The United States urged restraint. Jordan signed a defence pact with Egypt. There was going to be a war.

Lectures were cancelled. Our campus was deserted but for a few elderly academics and a gaggle of foreign students, left at a loose end.

A dozen of us tramped up the road to volunteer our services at Tel Hashomer hospital. We were taken in to a teaching room and given a basic life-saving course. The Hebrew handbook was dated 1948. I learned how to perform a tracheotomy — cutting a hole in the windpipe to help a person breathe — using whatever was in my pocket. A door key would do. These skills would be called upon, I was assured, only if all doctors and nurses were otherwise occupied.

Tel Hashomer was Israel’s largest hospital, geared to take casualties from the southern front. Assigned as an assistant to the anaesthetists, I was taught the names of different drugs, how to break open a phial and how to watch a breathing monitor if the anaesthetist was called away mid-operation. I was 18 -years-old and had never held another life in my hands.

The training completed, we waited. Hours after hour, day after day. The political skies darkened. The radio played songs of 1948. I memorised the drugs cabinet in Hebrew and Latin, left to right.

The night before the war I went for a walk with an on-off girlfriend. We both knew the relationship was going nowhere but neither wanted to be alone on the eve of war. The landscape felt eerily deserted. I got to bed just before dawn.

When I was shaken awake, the relief was instantaneous.

The lane to Tel Hashomer ran through an orange grove. It was blocked by two cars that had smashed into each other, so eager were their drivers to get to war. I took a lift to the hospital in an ambulance with my first casualty, a young driver with multiple fractures. “We’re going to put you in traction until the war is over,” said an A&E doctor. “We need all the theatres for frontline wounded.”

On the first night, some of our students got rowdy and were sent home by the sister in charge of the operating suite, a woman of vast age and implacable authority. She must have been all of 35, with a husband at the front. For her, there was no messing about. This was an existential conflict, a point of no return. Others felt the same.

A friend was summoned by her parents, both Holocaust survivors, on the first morning of war. They gathered round the piano. Her father ceremonially opened the lid. On each of the middle keys lay a blue pill. “Cyanide,” her father said, “to be taken the moment the enemy enters Tel Aviv.”

That night, not one casualty arrived. Likewise, on my second shift. We drank coffee after coffee and ran out of things to say. The surgeons stayed in their common room and the head sister came out occasionally with bandages for us to fold. Michael Elkins on the BBC reported that the Egyptian air force had been destroyed. Arab stations continued to declare victory.

On the third night of war, helicopters whirred in wounded from the central front and I was finally able to put my minimal skills into practice. Most of the casualties had chest and abdominal injuries. I don’t remember head wounds; maybe they hadn’t survived. There were Arabs among them. The intensive care room was soon packed and post-op patients were left in the corridor with me and other students to watch them coming round.

At two in the morning, everything stopped. Chief of staff Itzhak Rabin was on the radio announcing the conquest of Bethlehem, Hebron and the eastern half of Jerusalem. We looked about us, unable to express emotion. The first to speak was the sister in charge. “If we give back one inch of this land,” she said, “I am leaving the country.”

I was dumbstruck. Young as I was, I knew enough history to be aware of the consequences of occupation, whether imperial or European. I could not imagine the Israel I knew as an occupying power, but I was too cowed by the sister to utter a word.

The next night, we were sent home. The war was won and casualties from the Syrian front were being treated in the north.

Students trickled back onto campus the following Monday, some gung-ho, others muted by horrors they had seen. Some of our year did not return. A demobbed soldier offered me a lift to Jerusalem in a jeep he had “forgotten” to return to his unit. It was the day before Shavuot, so I put on a white shirt. We drove through newly-cleared minefields at Latrun and approached Jerusalem on dirt tracks. My shirt turned a darker shade of khaki.

At the Wailing Wall, Judaism’s holiest relic, building rubble was being carted away in skips.

“What was here before?” I asked a soldier.


“And the people who lived in them?”

“They left.”

The Jewish rule on seeing the Wall for the first time, or after a long absence, is to rend one’s shirt in mourning. I was unable to perform that rite, thinking of the people who had been driven from their homes, not in the heat of battle but to make space for thousands of worshippers. Many religious Israelis, inspired by Yeshayahu Leibowitz, would soon recoil from the iconisation of the Wailing Wall.

My own reservations stem from having been there at the start of a human disaster.

Half a century on, I look back on my first war as one does on a first love, with the glare of passion tinted by the passage of time. I am unfailingly shocked when the liberal Left depicts the Six- Day War as an act of Israeli aggression, and equally horrified when the settler Right claims it as a divine right for land grabs. I think back to the fear before the conflict began, and the slow dawning of relief as it rushed to conclusion. Maimonides defines two categories of war, permissible (reshut) and compulsory (hovah). The Six-Day War was obligatory. It was fight, or be wiped out.

With the benefit of documentary evidence — much of it gathered by my friends Gidon Remez and Isabella Ginor in their new book The Soviet-Israeli War, 1967-1973 — we now know the war was a Russian chess move that went wrong. With America bogged down in Vietnam, the Kremlin tried to win brownie points among the Arabs by telling Egypt that Israel planned an attack. The reactions went wildly out of control. Hebrew did not yet have a word for “escalation” (or, come to think of it, for “occupation”.)

We who lived in Israel through May and June 1967 knew nothing of any geopolitical dimension. The threat to our lives was not hypothetical. The stress we felt can be heard on a Kol Israel archive album assembled by Haim Herzog for CBS Records, and in Siach Lochamim, a colloquium of soldiers recorded 10 days after the war. By then, I was sitting my end-of-year exams.

The past is another country that does not need revisiting too often. But at this jubilee moment, when two contrary narratives are struggling for control of history, all who were there have a duty to tell it as it was. History is not only written by victors. History is the sum of human experience in many shades, unheroic and auxiliary like mine, filtered through a distorting mirror of fading memory. You want to know what happened? We survived.

Read all our coverage of the fiftieth anniversary of the Six Day War' here

Norman Lebrecht is an author 
and broadcaster


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