By Robert Makofsky
He Who blessed our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—may He bless the fighters of the Israel Defense Forces, who stand guard over our land and our cities of our God, from the border of Lebanon to the desert of Egypt, and from the Great Sea unto the approach of the Arava, on the land, in the air, and on the sea.
—Prayer for Israeli Soldiers
Avi was intent on making it home. Friends in the unit would be taken back for proper military burial, which was so much a part of life in Israel. However, Avi would make it home in one piece as he promised his mother he would. Unfortunately, Yosef, his younger brother, did not.
The Merkava tanks rolled over the hot desert sand on a trail once used by ancient merchants making their way north to trade for spices, silk, and dry goods. Avi marched alongside an armored Humvee on the Israeli side of the border. His mission was to rescue soldiers captured by Hezbollah militants and taken into Lebanon. He leaned forward into the dry wind, which was spitting sand in his face and eyes. His teeth and mouth were grimy with dirt. He trudged forward on a trail that three generations of Steins had marched on before him. The blood of twenty-five hundred years of fighting in the same desert shifted in the sand beneath his boots. Again the nagging questions he could not shake ran through his mind. Is it worth it? He heard a voice ask. Is there no other way? Will your son, a little boy now, fight the same enemy twenty years from now? Will the son of your enemy do the same? Is it your destiny to kill and to be killed? Is that your future? Is that what your son will do? Hasn’t there been enough suffering, enough blood spilled, and enough death?
“This is our land and I have been called upon to defend it,” he murmured. “It is a duty much greater than the needs or wants I might have. I am just a link in a chain, a chain that cannot be broken,” he answered the voice in his head.
Explosions erupted in the background. Billows of gray smoke and ash rose up in the distance. A unit to the north of him was engaged in enemy fire. He was familiar with the sounds of artillery shells and Katyusha rockets. He knew first hand of the human suffering and carnage they could inflict in an instant.
Another voice sounded inside his head as he marched ahead with his reconnaissance unit. It was a voice of authority he had heard since he was a child. They will destroy us if we give them a chance. They want nothing less than to wipe us off the face of the earth. They cannot be trusted. They will say one thing to your face and do another when you turn your back. There will be no peace with the Arabs until we are pushed into the sea, regardless of what face they put on for the rest of the world.
The blasts of rocket fire sounded again, closer this time. The voice inside his head continued. The Arabs will never recognize the State of Israel. They will kill you first and then mutilate you. Did they have mercy on your brother when his jeep was blown out from under him and they dragged him away? Where is Yosef now? the voice taunted.
“Stop,” Avi shouted into the air. “It’s enough!”
“Avi, what is it?” the first lieutenant, Shlomo ben David, shouted through the barrage of fire and mortar. “Avi, concentrate, damn it. Those shells are right up our asses. Where the fuck is air support - on a goddamn coffee break?” There was another loud blast, forcing waves of heat and sand over the unit.
“Shit, we’re sitting ducks out here,” shouted the first lieutenant above the rounds of rocket fire. “Shmuel, get some artillery up there, two o'clock, three hundred meters. Pound those fuckers good. Give the bastards something to think about. Avi, damn it, keep your head down if you want to keep it on your shoulders. Move out, men, now! Shmuel, blast those pieces of drek again.”
Avi grew up in the village of Katzrin in the Golan Heights. His father grew olives and sold them in the village market. In the booth next to his father's stall was Saladin, an Arab fishmonger. Across from him was Mohammed, who sold dates and figs. Jews and Arabs worked together in the shuk. They drank coffee together, smoked together, and played backgammon together when the booths closed down during the heat of the afternoon. Making a living brought them together and kept them together. Each of the vendors came to Avi’s home when his family sat shiva for his brother three years ago. Avi knew these men and their families. He knew they had worked hard for their land, just as his father and grandfather had toiled for theirs. He also knew they would not recognize a Jewish state. It was better just to leave things as they were than to make claims on the land that three major religions commemorate as sacred. The ubiquitous hatred that pervaded the land was not easy for Avi to accept, yet like his friends and family he desperately wanted peace in the land. Still, Avi understood his place in a link that went back some three thousand years. Now he was part of the generation that was back in the land that God promised to Abraham and he would not break that link, no matter the cost.
With his helmet down against the wind, Avi marched forward. The sounds of rocket fire and mortar shells erupted all around him. He remembered the words of his grandfather at the Passover table when Avi was a child. The stern voice sounded once again.
“On November 20, 1947, the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish State in Palestine. ‘It is the natural right of the Jewish people to lead, as do all other nations, an independent existence in its sovereign state,’ it declared to the world and to all of us in the land. It was a remarkable day for Jews around the world. We were given back our homeland. But rather than live in peace with us and gain from what the Jews had built out of a swamp, the Arab nations gathered together to destroy us. Not a moment of peace did we have with them in 1947. And from the moment Israel was declared a Jewish state on May 14, 1948, the Arabs rose up against us from the surrounding lands, intending to kill every Jew in the city and take what was left for themselves.”
He paused for a moment gazing into the distance. The voice of his grandfather continued, “The Arab leaders lied to their own people. They told them to leave Israel and seek shelter in neighboring countries for the short while it would take to vanquish the Jews, after which time they could come back and share in the spoils of Israel’s demise. They encouraged the Arabs of Jerusalem to leave their homes and left them in the squalor of the camps. After we fought and died defending our homeland just hours after its birth, now they want us to give it back. Do you hear this nonsense, this rubbish? Let them give me this back first.”He pointed to his right trouser leg hanging loosely from his chair. He had lost his leg to a sniper’s bullet during the ten days of battle in the Jewish Quarter. The infection was too great and the leg could not be saved.
“I fared better than most, he said as he looked down at his chair. We fought for ten days without rest, moving from house to house, cut off from the rest of the city. Never a minute of peace with them, only killing, from the moment the United Nations declared us a nation. This is our homeland, a home for all Jews. We shed our blood and our children’s blood for it.” He paused to catch his breath. “Never give them back an inch of land, not so much as an inch!”
A mortar shell exploded twenty short meters from the Humvee. There was a blaring white light, a crashing sound in his ears, and then the thud and jarring of his body hitting the ground. The ringing and pulsing sounds were replaced by a thick numbness throughout his body and a deep burning sensation in his right shoulder. He drifted off into darkness.
”Avi,” shouted the first lieutenant. “Shit. Shmuel, cover me.” He crawled out from the burning jeep to the clearing where Avi lay motionless. Machine gun fire sprayed up on all sides of him. Avi was an arm’s length away when the first lieutenant felt a sharp sting in his leg. He reached down to the back of his thigh and felt the thick oozing of blood seeping through a rip in his pant leg. He grunted, hit the ground, and kept low. With his belly close to the earth and his elbows dug in, he crawled toward Avi's motionless body. He reached Avi, grabbed Avi’s boot, and pulled. The weight was too much. He needed to lift Avi up on his shoulder. He pulled himself up onto his knees and then stood in a crouched position, lifting the wounded soldier up and over his shoulder. Blasts of machine gun fire scattered the sand around them.
“I've got him! I’m good!” a loud voice sounded from behind him. Staff Sergeant Uri Katz had sprinted out in the open toward the two soldiers, firing continuously to his side while keeping his eyes focused on Avi and the young first lieutenant. “Get down, Commander. I have Avi. Now! We’ve got cover! We have to move out quickly. Move out now!” Not leaving his men, the first lieutenant helped lift Avi, blasted rounds of munitions into the dunes where the attackers were ensconced, and scampered back to cover.
Minutes later, all three soldiers were behind the smoldering Humvee, out of the range of fire. Avi opened his eyes and saw his fellow soldiers over him. The medic, Efraim Feldman, was tending to Avi's wounds. The shoulder was cut deeply, but the wound looked clean. If they could stop the bleeding, Avi had a chance. Another few minutes out there and he would have been dragged away and taken captive, if he’d lived at all.
“Commander,” Avi said weakly.
“You’re okay, Avi. Our soccer champion here brought your sad tuchis back to us,” the first lieutenant said, nodding over at Uri.
“In another minute, my friend, it would have been your ass I was schlepping back,” Uri said, smiling. “His mother will kill me if I don’t bring him home in one piece. You have a promise to keep, remember. Now get some rest. Air support is on the way.”
Avi held onto Uri’s arm. He pulled himself up enough to look into Uri's face, squeezed his arm, and smiled. They had been friends since childhood. Then it was black again.
Out from the blanket of darkness and gloom, a soldier walked slowly toward Avi. His sandy hair was blackened with smoke and ash. His face and hands were soaked with blood. What was left of a tank commander’s uniform was torn away and burned. Through the wounds and torn flesh, Avi heard the steady, confident voice of his father. “Avi, my son, my blessing in life, it’s your father.”
“Papa, is it possible?” Avi tried to lift his head to open his eyes and speak. He could not. Nothing would move. As hard as he tried to reach forward and touch his father’s face, he could not lift so much as a finger.
“Avi, rest and listen. I can’t stay long. I must get back to my men. We have been outflanked on all sides. The Heights have been taken in the north. They have armored divisions rolling T-62 tanks all over us. There must have been eighty tanks to our six. We fought all day and night only to see our men lying dead on the sand at the break of dawn. Our boys are strewn among husks of burning tanks like sacks of flour in a field. There are only four of us left from our unit, and we have to get to camp at Nafekh to regroup.” Machine gun fire raked the ground around them. “Masses of Syrian tanks and infantry tore us open at several points on the line. If we stand any chance at all of holding them before they ravage Tiberias, I’ve got to get back.”
“David,” a voice yelled in the distance. “Where are you? Are you all right? David!”
“Here, Ehud. I’m here. I’m good. One minute.”
“We don’t have a minute. Look over that hill.”
Master Sergeant David Sosensky looked up through the haze of smoke and fire, and saw a massive armored division of T-62 Soviet tanks churning toward his men. “Avi, I must go and you must get yourself home. We have done our share of fighting and suffered our share of loss. Get home to your family, to our family. That’s an order, son.” The sergeant kissed his son on the forehead, turned around, and moved into the darkness of battle. There was a barrage of machine gun fire from an advancing tank. Four more men were gone.
“Papa, Papa!” Avi yelled out. “Papa, no, wait, come back.”
“Avi, Avi, it’s okay. I’m here. It’s Uri. You're okay. You have a fever. You’re dreaming. I’m here. You’re okay, Avi,” Uri said, holding Avi’s head in his lap. “I've got you.”
“Uri, is that you?” Avi asked, his throat sore and dry, and his eyes burning. “I saw my father. I saw my father in the Valley of Tears in the Golan in ’73. He came to me before his tank was destroyed by the Syrians. He was young and strong. He was a valiant soldier, Uri. He told me to get home. We have to take this position and get home.” Too weak to keep his head up or his eyes open, Avi sank back into the darkness of a morphine-induced sleep.
It was light again. A florescent fixture glowed from above his bed. A pale green wall came into view, then a clean white tile floor and a window partially open, with a simple white curtain fluttering in the light breeze. Next to him was a small table. On the table was a glass of water and a vase with flowers. He closed his eyes again, but before he drifted off, he heard a voice:
“Avi, Avi dear, my God, you are up! Avi, it's me, Mom. I am here, Avi. You are home. You are okay.”
“Mom,” he murmured. “Mom, is that you? Is that really you?”
She took his right hand in hers and held it to her face. “Avi, my son, I am here next to you. You are safe, my dear.”
He managed through the discomfort to turn to the right, and saw the soft brown eyes, the long glossy dark hair, and the gentle round face of his mother. Even with her tears and lack of sleep, she was beautiful to him.
“Mom, I made it home just like I promised, just like I said I would.”
“Yes, Avi, you did. I waited and prayed and you came back home, thank God.”
“My unit, Mom? Uri, Sam, Sol, the others, are they home, too?”
“Soon, Avi, soon. A few more days. The radio says it's almost over. A ceasefire has begun. Soon they'll be home too.” She could not bear to tell him the truth. He would soon find out. There was time.
“No ‘but moms’ from you. Here, drink this”— she put the water glass to his lips —“and close your eyes. I'll get the doctor. Rest, don't move. I'll be right back.” She darted into the hall to find the young doctor.
Avi closed his eyes. There came the crackling of a transistor radio from behind the green curtain that separated his bed from the wounded soldier lying in the bed next to his. “Another rocket has been launched by the Lebanese Hezbollah, killing three Israeli soldiers and wounding two others. A small village in the north was struck just a few short blocks from an elementary school. No injuries have been reported as yet.”
It will never be over, he thought. And if it is, what have we won? What have we gained—a break, a slight pause, in the attacks until it starts again? He looked toward the dim light on the ceiling above his bed. What have You given us? A homeland without a home? A land we must defend forever? An ancient compact we cannot live up to? What is it that You want? With a quick jerky motion, he tried to pull himself up in the bed and uncover his legs.
“Avi, Avi, what on earth are you doing?” his mother entering the room shouted at him. “Please lie back down. You will pull out the stitches.”
“I'm going back, Mom. I must go back.”
“No, Avi. You are not going back. You are staying here in the hospital until you recover, and then you are going home with me, your mother. Enough of this! Your father, your brother, you —it's enough. I'll not lose you, not as long as I breathe. I'll not let you go back. You are my son, my only son.”
Avi looked into his mother's face and saw her sorrow and fear. “Okay, Mom,” he said. “Okay, I won’t go back. I'll go home with you.”
Copyright © Robert Makofsky 2012
Robert Makofsky teaches a short fiction workshop for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at Stony Brook University on Long Island, New York. He was awarded honorable mention for his short story, Harvest, in Newsday’s Historical Short Story contest. His essays are featured on www.portjefferson.patch.com and in OLLI’s newsletter, The Chronicles. Robert has received awards for his poetry from The Lake Ronkonkoma Historical Society and Newsday. Recently retired from teaching high school English and creative writing, Robert focuses his time on family, Jewish studies, writing, travel, golf, and gardening. Robert lives with his lovely wife, Nola, in Port Jefferson, New York.