- Erica Chernofsky, Jerusalem Post
May 10th 2007
In the days before the outbreak of the Six Day War, Yoske "Balagan" Schwartz was practicing jumping out of a plane with his elite paratrooper reserves unit near Rishon Lezion. There, the sand dunes resembled those in Sinai, where Egypt had amassed thousands of its troops and where Schwartz and his fellow soldiers were expected to be parachuting in the coming days.
"We were practicing for a real war," says the now 75-year-old Schwartz from his home in Rishon, where he's lived since immigrating to Israel with his parents from Budapest in 1932.
As he and the rest of his unit began boarding the planes that would take them to Sinai, they received news that the mission they had prepared for day and night for over a week had been canceled. Other IDF units had advanced quickly and the paratroopers' services were no longer needed.
"I remember we were sitting there, and we were thinking, here we are, the best soldiers in the world, and instead of fighting we're listening to the war on the radio," says Schwartz, a veteran fighter who joined Etzel at age 13 and fought in the War of Independence just a few years later. "Don't get me wrong - we didn't want to die, but we wanted to do our part, and instead we were sitting in camp, eating ices and telling stories."
Little did he know that within hours, he and his friends would be fighting a heroic battle for the holiest site in the world. Little did he know that many of his friends would be killed.
Moments later, his commander broke the news - Jordan had entered the war, and there were 120 people trapped on Mount Scopus in Jerusalem. Armon Hanatziv had already been conquered, they were told, and there was a danger Jerusalem would fall.
"We weren't scared or excited or anything," he recalls in his deep, gruff voice. "We thought that just like our parachuting mission had been canceled, this would also be canceled. We had no idea we'd be actually fighting in a war."
But when their buses arrived in Jerusalem, it became clear that there really
was a war to fight.
"It was the night of June 5, and it was very, very dark," says Schwartz. "I remember the ambulances were blazing and bringing people to Hadassah-University Hospital in Ein Kerem. We drove in total darkness, and I could only see my friends when something would explode outside. We had no idea where we were. Some of us had never even been to Jerusalem before."
The bus stopped in Beit Hakerem, where the commanders met to deliberate their course of action. The soldiers waited in the homes of nearby residents, who fed them and let them call home. A few minutes later, they got back on the buses and continued to drive in total darkness.
"Suddenly the buses stopped, and our commander said to us 'Put your helmets on, put your magazines in your guns and get yourselves ready, because in a few minutes you'll be fighting,'" recalls Schwartz. "We started to laugh, and he didn't understand why, and we said, 'Commander, we learned how to fight in the Sinai desert, we don't even know where we are right now.' He said to us, 'You're in Jerusalem, on a street called Shmuel Hanavi, and as soon as we get to the corner of Shimon Hatzadik you're going to get off the buses very quietly and start fighting.'"
The three paratrooper battalions were each given quick instructions on the buses. The first regiment was sent to Ammunition Hill, and the second to Mount Scopus. Schwartz's was the third and the most experienced.
"'You, the veterans, will get a special prize,' our commander said to us. 'What's the prize?' we asked him. He said, 'You will get to free the Western Wall.'" But before they could even get off the buses, the shooting began.