- Lydia Aisenberg
Lydia Aisenberg in 1967
I wonder how many folks out there are getting nostalgic of late, or is it just me pulling out the fading photos of 1967?
Forty years have passed since I took my backpack and Helen Shapiro backcombed ten-inch high mop on board an El Al plane, having volunteered to do whatever to help Israel during a time of need. Of course I took my favorite Teddy Bear with me for support. The fact that I landed in Israel on the seventh day of the Six-Day-War did not lessen my fear of coming to some physical harm – in fact I remember being so scared that I was cracking jokes all the time to hide it.
When I made the decision to volunteer I was living in London and enjoying every minute of the Swinging Sixties – when I wasn’t hungry and had the landlord breathing down my neck for this rent, that is.
In l965 I had spent about nine months in Israel on a youth scheme but became very disenchanted with the way my group of young Brits had been treated in the particular kibbutz where we were. So why, just 18 months after I returned from my stint of slavery in the banana plantation, did I feel the urge to get up and volunteer to help out?
Watching television news broadcasts of masses of Egyptians burning Israeli flags in Cairo and similar scenes from across the Arab world, and seeing snippets of Israeli school-children and elderly people working side-by-side filling sandbags, digging trenches or boarding up windows.
I phoned the Israeli Embassy to ask if I could do something to help – thinking of sticking stamps on envelopes or answering phones. I was told to go to Rex House in Lower Regent Street, where I had difficulty getting through the front doors. There were literally hundreds of people milling around outside, trying to get into what had become the nerve center for organizing volunteers as well as a collection of blankets and socks.
When I finally got to speak to someone, I was given a form to fill in and when I handed it back was told to “stay close to the phone” and would be called if needed. “The phone” at the time was a public one on the wall of a landing shared with four other tenants’ rooms.
Heck, did I think they would really need me? Heck, they did.
Just a few days later the call came: Be ready at noon the next day for collection. Noon the next day – are they mad? What about the landlord, my bits and pieces and job? It didn’t take long to hand the family fortunes – two cardboard boxes actually – to a neighbor for safe-keeping, and inform my boss that I wasn’t coming to work again.
Noon time arrived. A taxi with a very cheerful middle-aged Jewish driver pulls up. Three other young folks are already in the black cab, backpacks across their knees. We are taken to Rex House, given tickets and another equally cheerful taxi drive drives us to the airport. There we hear that Lod (now Ben-Gurion) has been closed, and there was also talk of Tel Aviv being bombed. No flights until further notice. Now what?
Hundreds of mostly young people were clamoring around the El Al desk, which I remember was just across from United Arab Airlines, or something like that. A few days later somebody wrote on a white bed sheet “No Man’s Land” and hung it across the space between the two counters.
The first two nights and days I spent at the airport, wrapped in blankets brought by kindly taxi drivers volunteering their services to Rex House, and ate food served by an impromptu WIZO meals-on-wheels service. The atmosphere was just unbelievable – the togetherness of it, undiluted camaraderie.
The third and consecutive nights I spent in the home of a very kindly family who had volunteered, like many London families, to give shelter to stranded volunteers from out of town, or out of digs. Again, we were told to stay close to the phone – I spent the whole time watching television and discussing with the other two billeted girls whether we would get killed or not. Eventually the flights began to take off again and I was on the second flight out. Thousands of young people were already in the country – some had come relatively short distances, like the Americans I met who had been ‘hanging out’ on the nudist beaches of Crete. There were also others from afar – Australians and Costa Ricans were among the first I met.
The country was in chaos and the poor Jewish Agency officials did not know what to do with all these volunteers – most of us ended up being put up in the empty hotels of Tel Aviv and Herzliya at the very beginning. I was in a really snazzy one in Herzliya, but so bursting with youngsters that I slept on a mattress in a corridor!
Slowly, the young folk were divided into groups. Some were sent to help out in the IDF where they sorted and cleaned equipment in bases, and others on the Golan Heights in the field. The main bulk, including yours truly, were bundled into buses and trucks and taken to kibbutzim desperately in need of help, mostly in agriculture.
I arrived in Kibbutz Mishmar HaEmek after a bumpy ride on a wooden bench
inside the back of a grossly smelling truck, much of it emanating from the
feet of the other volunteers and their gear packed in there with me. The
majority of us were British, but there were also four Italians. The Brits
were all Jewish. The Italians – two engineers and two students –
were not. Of the Brits, four eventually settled in Israel, myself and one
other in Mishmar HaEmek, another became a moshavnik and the fourth lives
Working in the fields alongside the main road cutting through the Menashe Hills side of the Jezreel Valley, we witnessed the daily army convoys pass by. Semi-trailer trucks were piled high with ‘war-bootey’ the likes of jeeps, tanks and artillery pieces left behind by the Jordanian army. They were being brought from the battlefields around Jenin, a ten-minute drive away, and the Dotan Valley area to a large IDF base at the other end of the valley in the direction of Haifa.
Planes continued to screech overhead from the nearby air base of Ramat David on the other side of the kibbutz fields. It was quite some time before things calmed down and the men of the kibbutz began to return home, exchanging their weapons of war for farming implements.
Most of my closest friends today, both in Israel and abroad, are from
among those I spent time with in Israel during the sixties. All of us today
are parents and most grandparents. Those of us in the country have practically
raised the 13th Tribe of Israel between us.
The majority of my l960s kibbutz contemporaries who returned and settled abroad after ’67 have remained involved with Israel in some shape or form, either through volunteering their time to raise funds for one of the multitude of Jewish/Israel-connected charities overseas, or through synagogue activities.
However, of their children, although having been to Israel on family holidays,
few have spent any decent period of time either studying or volunteering
here, and are not in the main connected to the organizations their parents
Those of us who chose to either remain or make aliya to Israel since 1967, did not have the ‘luxury’ of such choices for our children, the majority of whom are already after compulsory IDF service and struggling with annual reserve duty and the daily realities of life in Israel.
But then again, that is part and parcel of that which is stamped “Zionism”
and tied together firmly with a thick blue-and-white ribbon.
Please do not return to sender.
- Lydia Aisenberg - first published in the Jerusalem Post 20 April 2007