The War of Independence through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy: Interview with Prof. Amatzia Baram
Dr. Amatzia Baram was a 10-year-old child at the time of Israel’s War of Independence, living on a kibbutz not far from the border with Egypt. Before he shared his experience of that time with me, I imagined it would be a story filled with dread, fear, and anxiety, finally followed by relief when Israel was victorious. That is far from the story he told.
Baram is Professor Emeritus at the Department of the History of the Middle East and Director of the Centre for Iraq Studies at the University of Haifa, Israel. Raised in Kibbutz Kfar Menahem in southern Israel from the age of one, he commanded tank units in the Armored Corps both during his regular army service and later in reserves. After completing his regular military service, and before embarking on his academic career, he returned to the kibbutz where he raised sheep and goats: “I loved the sheep and the little lambs. And after my military service, I was promoted: instead of commanding three Sherman tanks (14 men), I commanded 400 sheep and 50 goats.”
I interviewed Baram on Zoom from his home. He needed little prompting as he is a natural storyteller. First, he gave me the background of the kibbutz and the years leading up to 1947.
When I was born, my parents were members of a tiny gar’in [group intending to settle a particular kibbutz] that had not yet been given land – it was in Hadar Ramataim, then Hadar, just north of Tel Aviv. They worked in the orchards, preparing for the moment when the JNF will allocate a piece of land anywhere for them in Mandatory Palestine. One year later, the whole kibbutz of 50-60 adults and a few kids — I was number 10 of the kids — moved from Hadar to the south of Israel, about 60-70 km south of Tel Aviv. The kibbutz had about 6-7000 dunams of land.
About ten Arab villages surrounded the tiny kibbutz. They were agricultural peasants; the Bedouin were farther south. The kibbutz land that had been sold to the JNF by a local magnate was the worst land. It was fallow, the better lands were cultivated by Arab farmers. So, luckily, the kibbutz didn’t have to kick anyone off the land.
The kibbutz members had no military training whatsoever and there were only three or four rifles. Protection was provided by a wall built around the settlement that measured about 100 meters across. It was essentially a stockade and a tower.
Kfar Menahem was one of about ten stockades and towers built about the same time around Mandatory Palestine.
Relations with the Arab neighbors were reasonable. Not worse than between one Arab village and the other. Sometimes there was fighting among the Arab clans, but we never fought against them and they didn’t fight against us.The incidents that had the potential to lead to conflicts involved theft. What was being stolen were the grains that were collected in large sacks of 100 kg and brought into the stockade every day, but sometimes there wasn’t enough room and the Arab kids stole the extra bags from outside the stockade.
The Arab villagers had the same approach to theft as the Spartans. The Spartan kid was encouraged to steal from non-Spartan neighboring villages, the Helots. When he was caught, he was brought to Sparta and punished severely – not because he stole from the peasants but because he got caught.
The Arabs had the same moral approach. So we caught them, not me, the adults caught the kids and they were taken back to the village and they were punished by their parents for having been caught. That was the kind of relationship we had.
There was only one case in 1941 when a new kibbutz member who didn’t understand the rule – he was told but he didn’t get it – when you see a thief you don’t shoot the thief, you shoot in the air and you try to catch him and then he will be punished by his parents. So instead of shooting in the air, he shot the thief, a 16-YO boy who died on the spot. That was a tragedy.
What happened then?
Well, that is a very interesting story – sad, but fascinating. The family in the village knew that it was not intentional so they were open for sulha [reconciliation]. All the kibbutz men (the women stayed in the stockade) went to the village accompanied by a British officer and the head of the Jewish settlement committee, Abraham Hartzfeld, a very famous guy. One of the great Zionist leaders. He spoke fluent Arabic. He was Polish, but he spoke fluent Arabic. Naturally, his accent in Arabic sounded like Yiddish or German. The Arabs would chuckle, but they appreciated him speaking their language.
There was a big meeting in the Arab village. Everyone, Arabs and Jews, sat in a big circle; kibbutz members who could speak a bit of colloquial Arabic exchanged a few words of condolences with their Arab hosts. The father of the deceased boy was given the great honor of sitting at the head of the circle between Hartzfeld and the British officer. It was a very somber meeting.
Then they started to negotiate compensation. The main negotiator was Hartzfeld and he asked the father, “How much money do you think your child is worth?” And the father said – remember that in those days, one pound sterling is about 1000 pounds sterling today – so he said, “My son is worth no less than a million pounds sterling.” The whole country had nothing near that sum of money! So, Hartzfeld said, “Yes. For sure. He is even worth more. We are grateful that you only mention a million pounds sterling. We agree. However, for me, will you give up half of it?”
“For you, Sheikh Hartzfeld, okay.”
So now it is only half a million.
Then Hartzfeld says, “Alright. For David Karon, the kibbutz mukhtar [“Chosen Chief”], will you give up half of that?”
The father agreed; so now it is only a quarter of a million pounds.
And this goes on and on – he asked on behalf of this person and that person. And eventually, it came out to a few hundred pounds sterling, which was still a lot of money.
Hartzfeld and the father shook hands and then there was a ceremony: Karon, representing the kibbutz, had a lasso put around his neck and he was on all fours. The father of the deceased walked Karon all around the circle as if he was a dog and then he said: “Lie down!” When he was flat on the ground, the father released the lasso and said “Okay, we can now be friends.” Karon got up and he and the father shook hands.
When they set up the kibbutz among Arab villages did they know it could be dangerous?
They knew it could be, but in fact, it was not. It was surprising, yes.
In 1943, the kibbutz moved from the stockade to the top of a hill where it is located today. There was no stockade and not even barbed wire. After the tragic shooting, relations were again good. Even more than that, my parents had very strategic positions – my mother was the kibbutz nurse, the only nurse, and the only medical professional in a 25-km diameter around the kibbutz.
Every day, one or two Arab women would come to the kibbutz on the back of a donkey with a toddler. Usually, as I remember it, the toddlers had the same problem – trachoma, an eye disease caused by lack of hygiene, and if you don’t treat it you go blind. Many Arab peasants around the kibbutz, I remember, had one blind eye and I didn’t understand why back then.
So the women would come to see my mother to do something about the trachoma. The kibbutz dispensary was well stocked and the Arabs had nothing. So, free of charge, my mom applied this magic – sulpha, the ancient penicillin. She would put a wet sulpha bandage around the child’s head and say to the mother to keep it there for three days. The children were good as new after three days.
My father was the kibbutz blacksmith. He studied that in Poland and he was a very good blacksmith and mechanic. So Arabs would come to him with all sorts of metal parts that had broken. I especially remember the iron spearheads of their wooden plows. My father would weld the pieces together free of charge.
The kibbutz did this as a service. Sometimes the mothers would bring some vegetables or barley that could be made into a nice barley soup. No money changed hands ever. I would say relations never turned sour, except for one village, the largest village, called Tell es-Safi. About three km from the kibbutz, it was on the highest hill overlooking the kibbutz. This was ancient Gath, the place where Goliath was born. It was a large village of about 3000 people. Like with the other villages, relations with them, too, were good.
Until November 1947.
On the day right after the UN General Assembly decided on the partition of Mandatory Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, many local Arab villages started a war against the nearest Jewish village. Our area became tense. Nothing else, just tense.
There was a much closer village, about one km from the kibbutz – called At-tinneh, meaning ‘A Fig’. It only had about 500 people. With them, nothing changed at all. But with all the other villages, everything stopped. No more visits, no eye treatments. They were afraid and we were afraid.
They were told that something unpleasant was going to happen. So there was growing tension but not one shot was fired. Just everyone to themselves. The kibbutz continued to work the fields that were very close to the villages and nothing happened, until one day, when Tell es-Safi allowed in a small unit of Egyptian soldiers — nobody knows how many– the first ones that came even before the State of Israel was declared. They only had rifles, no heavy weapons. With a rifle, you cannot do anything at that distance. But the Egyptian soldiers started shooting at the kibbutz from that higher place and something reached the kibbutz somehow. Not dangerous. But very dangerous from another point of view: This could be the beginning of an Egyptian advancement. So the kibbutz decided this was a dangerous sign.
They asked the Hagana, the fledgling Jewish defense body, to send forces and they sent about 90-100 soldiers. Communication was via radio and there was a dirt road. When you went to Tel Aviv or Rehovot, the main road passed through the center of three villages, At-tinneh, Small Massmiya, and Big Massmiya. There was a bus once a day in the summer. In the winter, the road was impassable so we couldn’t leave the kibbutz in the winter.
As a 10-year-old, what were you aware of?
We were aware it was becoming dangerous but my parents and teachers never said one bad word about Arabs because the kibbutz was leftwing and looking for friendship and collaboration with Arab neighbors. They said there were gangs. I don’t remember one word against the Arabs, only about Arab gangs, not here, but in other parts of Mandatory Palestine, and there was danger. So that’s all I remember. Actually, we saw both them and us as Jewish and Arab “Palestinians.”
What happened next?
The Hagana came and conquered Tell es-Safi in April or May 1948. But when they did that, I was already not on the kibbutz. My parents told me. We were evacuated just before that.
In about April, while there was no trouble yet in our region, we were evacuated because of the general tension. It was considered very dangerous to just leave the kibbutz and travel to Tel Aviv, crossing through the Arab villages. Perhaps except for At-tinneh. With them, relations continued as if nothing happened.
There was one young man who came to the kibbutz once or twice a week – the son of the sheikh, not even for repairs; he came socially. He would come on a donkey – he was about 10 years older than me and was a very impressive guy. I admired him. He had a wonderful whip. He never used it on his donkey but he would crack it in the air. He spoke excellent Hebrew and English. He and his father would still come to the kibbutz. He was like an older brother type. They were quietly raiding the nearby British military base stealing weapons from the British and selling them to the kibbutz.
The roads had opened and the Hagana sent a few buses to which they had attached iron plates all around, cutting out tiny windows that, however, remained closed. It could protect you against rifle fire. So they packed all of us on the buses one evening and off we went through the three Arab villages to Tel Aviv and north of Tel Aviv to Hadar.
We went there only with our teacher and our house mother and the smaller kids were with us. My mother made me promise to keep my three-year-old sister on my lap, not on the bench, on my lap, “and you hug her all the way and protect her,” she said. I answered,”Sure, no problem.”
It was a long way and it was difficult to hold her because the bench inclined forward so I was always sliding toward the floor. It was torture and I hated my sister, but I had told my mom that would look after her, so I did.
While passing through the villages, not a shot was fired at us.
The kibbutz members had built a camp of tents in Hadar. My father was also a plumber so we had taps and cold showers. There was a kitchen in a little shack. When we arrived, the tents were standing and there was water. We didn’t know that we would be there for about a year.
Soon after we left, the war started. The Egyptians were expected to invade – and they did, in May 1948. They conquered Yad Mordechai and attacked Kibbutz Negba; if Negba fell, our kibbutz would be next. So the kibbutz became a fortress. They dug everywhere.
The Arab villagers fled. Nobody kicked them out, except for Tell es-Safi. Because they hosted the Egyptian soldiers who shot at the kibbutz, they were forced out to Hebron, where they are to this day. Nobody touched the other villages. Things were very quiet. My dad told me that when At-tinneh people began to leave, he and two other kibbutz members went there and tried to talk their friend the sheikh out of it. He replied that his people decided to leave. As their leader, he must go with them.
In Hadar, we kids were refugees, but we didn’t feel like refugees. The adults did not make a big deal of it. They were not panicking, not depressed. They were not lost and we were not lost – we had tents and water and showers. So life as a child – I was actually quite happy there. But I really wanted to see my mother. She never came and I missed her terribly. My father came two or three times.
There were two reasons for her not coming: one, the official reason my mom told me and later my father told me the unofficial one. Both were correct but they were very different. My mom told me that, being the only medical staff on the kibbutz, she could not leave. This was true. But a few years later, my dad told me the other, deeper truth. My mom knew that if she saw my little sister and me, she would not have had the mental fortitude to leave us and go back and that would have been a betrayal of her friends and her duty. So, both stories are true.
My sister remembers our exile as good days. It was a bit strange, but we had our teacher and our housemother. The food was very poor, but we had water and that was important. It was like bringing the children’s houses from the building on the kibbutz to tents. Kids stayed with their own age groups. The system was retained and familiar.
We were treated very kindly by the people of Hadar, who were also from Poland. They knew our gar’in from before we got our land to settle in the south. Kibbutz Yad Mordechai and Negba sent their children away too, even before we left. And they were also around the same area. Mutual help and support and sympathy were abundant everywhere.
In the early summer of 1949, we went back to the kibbutz.
How much were you aware of about what was going on in the war?
We knew some but not everything. We didn’t know that Yad Mordechai fell to the Egyptians. We learned about that much later. We knew that Negba was fighting but we didn’t know how bad it was. They lost one-third of their members and it was touch and go and we didn’t know that. We knew that Negba was holding and as long as Negba was holding, our kibbutz was safe. We only knew what was happening around our kibbutz. We knew the Egyptians were coming, fighting, trying to conquer the south. We knew nothing about the Galilee, nothing about anywhere else, Jerusalem. I don’t remember one word about Jerusalem.
After the war, I saw Negba. It was completely flattened. In local popular culture, it received the name “Negba-Grad”, after Stalingrad.
How much were you worried, how much were you proud that you were fighting?
Not proud at all. It was obvious – we had to fight. No pride.
It was obvious that our parents were there to fight. I don’t remember one moment being worried that my parents would be killed. No way. Or that Kfar Menahem will fall? No way. There was trust in the kibbutz. They were heroes, nobody can beat them. It was not pride — it was confidence. It was obvious. Something you have to do. Just confidence. It’s going to be okay. No problem.
I had the same sense in 1967. I was an envoy for Hashomer Hatzair and the Jewish Agency in London when Cairo was full of celebrating mobs shouting, “Kill the Jews, kill the Jews.” I saw it on TV. I had Jewish British mothers coming to me saying Mr. Baram, I would like to adopt an Israeli orphan. And I asked, “Why would you like to adopt an Israeli orphan?” The answer: “Because Israel is going to be destroyed and there will be many orphans.” I told them to go home, don’t worry, Israel will be okay. And my feeling was there was no doubt Israel would win the war. Why? Because we shall win the war. Nobody is going to destroy us.
And then I flew back to Israel to join my army unit and make sure of that.
What was it like when Israel won the war in 1948?
It was obvious. Children are very perceptive and what we got was what our house mothers and teachers projected – they had the attitude that everything is going to be okay. They couldn’t trick us – they couldn’t project optimism if they were pessimistic. The sense that I got from the adults was that everything is going to go back to normal. The word victory was never mentioned. The war is over and we are going back to the kibbutz.
The kibbutz was crisscrossed by trenches. There was physical evidence of war, but everyone was very relaxed. It was very strange, but that is what I got from the adults.
What was the difference between the ride home and the ride up north before the war?
The ride back home was wonderful. The bus was not armored, it had big windows and we could see everything. I remember that very well. And this time it was comfortable, comfortable seats. The moment we drove into the kibbutz, we saw all the adults waiting for the children.
That was it!
No victory. No heroism. No nothing. Just meeting your parents again. It was wonderful.
We got home at about lunchtime. Everything was beautiful. We loved our parents but we also loved the kibbutz, the place, so that combination was overwhelming. Within a day or two, everything was back to normal.