Jewish Journal

Israel Today

by Steve Lipman

Posted on Jun. 20, 2002 at 8:00 pm

The Terror of '48: Alexander Zvielli

Monday, Feb. 2, 1948. The front-page headline in The Palestine Post was about the newspaper itself: "PALESTINE POST PRESS AND OFFICES DESTROYED." A stolen British police truck loaded with a half-ton of explosives blew up on Hasolel Street, later renamed Havatzalet Street, killing six people and injuring scores inside the Jerusalem building of the English-language newspaper, later renamed The Jerusalem Post.

Alexander Zvielli was there. He was a linotype operator working on the first floor about 30 yards from the blast at 11 p.m.

Monday, Feb. 23, 1948. Another front-page headline in the Post: "STREET BOMBED BY UNIFORMED MEN IN ARMY CONVOY; 44 KNOWN DEAD, MORE THAN 130 HURT." A group of men in British police and army uniforms had driven to Ben Yehuda Street in the heart of Jerusalem, lighting a fuse and driving off.

Zvielli was nearby. He and his new bride -- they decided to get married immediately after the Palestine Post explosion -- were sleeping in their apartment a few hundred yards away.

Zvielli, a native of Warsaw who lost his entire family in the Holocaust, spent two years in the Soviet gulag before immigrating to Palestine in 1942, joined the British Army's Jewish Brigade and served in the Haganah as a guard, escaped both terror attacks with minor injuries -- some dust in his eyes at the Post, some bruises from falling plaster at his apartment.

Another day Zvielli missed his bus to work by minutes -- it blew up. A colleague was injured. "It was a pretty close call," Zvielli said.

In those months that determined the future of the Jewish state, between the U.N. partition vote in 1947 and the armistice in 1949, Arab terrorism -- with the cooperation of British troops -- was a part of normal life. "There was every day something, every second day," Zvielli, 81, says in a telephone interview from his Jerusalem home.

There were shootings, ambushes, raids and bombings throughout the inchoate country. "It never ended," he says.

Then, like today, some Jerusalemites left, usually for Tel Aviv. Then, like today, some changed their living patterns, avoiding buses or crowded places.

Zvielli didn't.

"I didn't change anything. You had to eat, you had to work, you had to meet people," he says. "I was young, I wasn't afraid. I never thought seriously about leaving Jerusalem.

"We carried on as usual," Zvielli says. "There was no choice. People resigned themselves to it. It's not heroism. It's a simple acceptance of the situation."

The attacks were a "passing phase" on the road to Israel's creation. "People stopped complaining. In those days, nobody expressed fear," he says. And today? Zvielli is probably shaking his head. "This is a different kind of war. People express fear, which upsets me."

In a spiritual sense, Israel's dangerous first years were good preparation for the years of the current intifada. "For me and my wife" -- the couple recently celebrated their 54th anniversary -- "it makes it easier." They know how to live with constant threats. "You have to pray. You have to hope. We have no [other] choice."

Zvielli is the Post's "retired archivist" -- "but I haven't stopped working," he says. He still puts in a full morning's work at the Post building in Jerusalem's northern Romema neighborhood, rebuilt after the 1948 bombing.

He shares his experiences, his philosophy of coping, "only when they ask me." He tells them the Palestinian attacks are "nothing new. It's part of the struggle" for a Jewish homeland.

A few weeks ago, two days after a fatal terrorist bombing at the open-air Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, Zvielli took his usual route from the Post -- through Mahane Yehuda. "I go. I walk home," he says. "I am prepared to carry on as usual."

From Soldier to Scholar: Yekutiel Gershoni

The PLO turned Yekutiel Gershoni into a scholar.

A sabra, a "typical Israeli youth of the early '60s," he was going to be a career soldier. He was a major, a member of a unit patrolling the Jordanian front during the War of Attrition, when he stepped out of his jeep to investigate a few small holes in the ground one morning in November 1969.

It was a mine, operated by remote control. Gershoni's hands were blown off, his face was seared. When he finished four months of physical therapy, he was "practically blind," deaf in one ear and had metal hooks in place of hands.

His army days were over. Now what? He still had a family to support. Married the previous year, he had attended the brit milah of his son two days before being injured. Two more sons were born later to Gershoni and his wife, Ruti, a nurse.

His academic days were starting. Gershoni enrolled that year at Tel Aviv University, an hour's bus ride from his home in Ramat Hasharon, majoring in Middle Eastern and African studies. Then came a master's at Tel Aviv University and a doctorate at Hebrew University, both in the same field.

"I became fascinated [with African history], which reminded me very much of the Jewish experience," says Gershoni, 59, now the chairman of the department of African history at Tel Aviv University. He was in New York recently on the way back from a conference in Philadelphia of the Liberian Studies Association, of which he is president, the first Israeli elected to the position.

"The part above your shoulders," he says, pointing with his hook to his head, "is the most important part of your body."

That wasn't injured.

A career as a scholar, Gershoni decided while undergoing rehabilitation, would allow him to be judged for his abilities, not his disability.

His resume, in brief -- two books and a third on the way, several academic articles, travels through Africa, Europe and the United States, visiting professorships at Stanford University and Boston University, two marathons, four medals in the Paralympics for the disabled. He also is a pistol shooter, bike rider and horse rider.

No moments of depression after his injury?

"I can say without any hesitation -- never, never, never!" Gershoni says. "I knew I was going to go on."

He gets around by himself -- no cane or guide dog -- by memorizing the routes in his neighborhood, on campus. As a student, he taped his professor's lectures; as a professor, he delivers his lectures from memory. Hired readers read books and student papers to him, and he dictates his writings.

The only physical problem: "From time to time I have some problem with pain in the amputated part of my arms.

"I'm a person itching for challenges," Gershoni says.

A lifelong athlete, he has stayed active at the Tel Aviv branch of Beit Halochem, a network of rehabilitation and educational centers for the country's 50,000 disabled soldiers and their families.

"It gave me again opportunities to be active in sports," he says. "My children learned to swim at Beit Halochem." (The organization's U.S. affiliate is Friends of Israel Disabled Veterans, (212) 689-3220; www.fidv-bh.com.)

"The Israeli approach to the disabled is very good," Gershoni says. People in crutches or wheelchairs, from war injuries or terrorism or accidents, have advanced throughout Israeli society. "It's out of necessity. It's part of our life.

"I'm very typical," he says, professing admiration for quadriplegics, who have no use of their arms or legs. "They have problems.

"Everyone," Gershoni says, "has their own pechele [bag of troubles]."

He says he likes what he's doing, the research and publishing. Even if he had a military career, like most Israelis he would have found a civilian job by his 40s.

"I started my second career earlier," Gershoni says.

Tending to Wounds: Shimon Navon

Shimon Navon has a place in Israeli history -- a place he'd gladly relinquish.

"I was the first soldier wounded in the first intifada," he says.

By "wounded," Navon means a serious, life-threatening, career-jeopardizing injury. He was a university student, a discharged soldier, a lieutenant who volunteered for reserve duty in 1988, the year after the first nationwide Palestinian Arab uprising began. He was on patrol in the West Bank. Three firebombs scalded his body, seared his face and wrecked his hands.

After dozens of painful surgeries, his reconstructed face looks artificial, ghoulish. His hands, what remain of them, are scarred webs with a few truncated fingers on each. But his spirit is intact.

"I have a beautiful life," Navon, 38, says in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "I have a family." Miri, his girlfriend in 1988, married him the next year. "I have two beautiful children."

And he has a purpose.

For a few years with the late Simcha Holzberg, a humanitarian known as "the father of the soldiers," and for the last seven years with a fellow wounded-in-service soldier, Navon has made weekly visits to soldiers, and to civilian casualties of what he calls "the second intifada," in Hadassah Hospital in Ein Kerem, where his own recuperation took place.

"I wanted to continue with that tradition" of tending to those on the mend after Holzberg died, Navon says. "I wanted to encourage them."

Navon admits he was a little nervous the first time he volunteered after his mentor's death, he says, but some snacks and some jokes helped. When the patients see his scarred face, when they hear his inspirational story, when they listen to his uncompromising words, "they get courage."

"I talk about opportunities, I talk about life," Navon says. "I say, 'You have to continue. It's difficult. Look at me. You can get married, you can learn at the university.'"

In the hospital, Navon tells how he was trapped in a flaming Jeep in '88, how he almost died during that first week in the hospital, how he spent a year in rehabilitation ... and how he never gave up.

His philosophy: "I am an optimist. I am always an optimist. It's part of me.

"Now I don't have pain," Navon says. His artificial skin is sensitive to light (he doesn't spend excessive time outdoors) and lacks normal sweat glands ("It's hot all the time -- air conditioning is a constant.")

He doesn't dwell on his problems. "Why think about the bad things?" he says.

So he owns a gas station in northern Jerusalem, acknowledging it is "strange" for someone with his background to work around flammables -- "I am an unusual person" -- and goes at least once a week to Hadassah Hospital for his chesed work.

"I can drive. I can do almost everything," he says.

Navon always is accompanied by Danny Leoni, who lost his eyesight two decades ago to an injury in the war in Lebanon, and he tells the patients, "I go with Danny because he can't see" -- he can't see what Navon looks like.

The visits help. "I know it," Navon says, "because they tell me. Their parents tell me. Their wives tell me."

He and Leoni visit people who are blind, who are missing limbs, who, like Navon, have suffered disfiguring burns, and who have cancer. "That's different," he says. "That is the worst situation." Cancer's prognosis is usually less certain than standard army injuries. "I don't know if they will survive."

Navon says one soldier with cancer stands out. He met her three years ago. "I tried to make her laugh. I tried to make her smile." She laughed, she smiled. She recovered. She's back home, and keeps in touch with Navon. "She's OK now," he says.

His first interest is injured soldiers, but a few years ago, before the official start of Intifada II, he decided to make civilian casualties in terrorism attacks -- no less in need of moral support -- part of his itinerary.

One day the fighting will end, Navon tells the patients. One day there will be peace, he tells them. Until then, he says, you don't lose hope. "This is part of the mission of the Jewish people."

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