MEMORIAL DAY 2015 PART I, YA’AKOV SPRINGER ז”ל 

I don’t really know why, but I liked Ya’akov Springer right from the start.  Maybe it was the way he carried himself.  It could have been his warm, firm handshake. He had a great smile.

You see, I was re-learning Hebrew, long forgotten. I was on an ulpan, a school where one could learn Hebrew for half the day, and work the other half, and this was on a kibbutz just north of the Gaza strip.

I had no idea how he found me, but I suspect that my mother, who lived in Toronto, Canada had told him. You see, Ya’akov was my mother’s first cousin, the son of Asher, her father’s brother, that is, her uncle. My mother must have told Ya’akov that I was involved in competitive swimming, because Ya’akov came to ask a favor.

Ya’akov Springer was heavily involved in sports, and the HaPoel club of Israel. An Australian swim coach was about to come to visit Israel, and it was thrust upon Ya’akov to host this coach, take him around the various swim clubs and show him a good time. A very powerful HaPoel club trained at Kibbutz Beit Kama, just north of Be’er Sheva.  Ya’akov wanted me to translate.

The visit went well. In fact we were all treated to a visit to a Bedouin tent and a ceremonial Bedouin feast, arranged by the “Sheriff” of Beit Kama, a member in charge of guarding the many fields owned by that kibbutz.

Some time went by. I was working in the dairy of my kibbutz. It was late August, 1972, and the Munich summer Olympics were taking place.  Someone organized a television set, and rigged it up so that after the morning milking was done, and after all the chores were behind us, we could sit around the television on small stools and watch some of the events.

It would be my first encounter with terrorism and loss. On the 5th of September, 1972 Palestinian terrorists belonging to the Black September faction of the PLO broke into the Olympic village and began the murder of Israelis, the members of Israel’s Olympic Delegation.

As we watched in horror, and as events unfolded, eleven Israeli athletes were murdered. Ya’akov Springer was among the eleven.

My grandfather Max flew to Israel from Toronto for the funeral and to sit Shiva with Ya’akov’s widow, Shoshana, his daughter Genia, and his son Alex along with other members of Ya’akov’s family.  Max was a very powerful and hard man, having survived more than ten years in Shanghai after escaping the Nazis.  Max wept like a child.  Ya’akov was his only nephew, the son of his brother Asher.

MEMORIAL DAY 2015 PART II, UZI DEGANI ז”ל

Do you know immediately when someone is the “life of the party”?  Uzi reminded me so very much of Paul Newman. Handsome, athletic, he had a constant smile and he was always up to some form of mischief or other.

As I told you, I was very much involved in competitive swimming while I lived in Ontario, Canada. I tried to stay in shape and I swam in the kibbutz swimming pool. Don’t get the wrong idea. This was a water reservoir that the members had turned into a pool. It was drained in the late summer, the water used for irrigation, and re-filled in the spring for the recreational use of the kibbutz population. Someone had painted lines along the bottom of the pool when it was empty. Another had built concrete starting blocks, and it was possible, with a great deal of imagination, to picture oneself swimming in a 25 meter long pool. There was a three meter high platform for diving, and the deep end was quite deep.

One summer day in 1972, as I was swimming laps, someone came up behind me and, grabbing my shoulders, submerged me in the deep part of the pool. Whoever it was, they were strong, and they held me under the water. They held me under for a very long time.

And then, whoever it was, gave up and rose to the surface, while I remained on the bottom of the pool, sitting cross legged, holding my breath for a while longer. You see, they had not counted on my having great lungs, and my ability to hold my breath for a very long time, due to my training.

Several minutes went by, and I decided to come up for air. Breaking the surface of the water in the pool, smiling a broad smile, I saw Uzi with a worried expression on his face. That expression was rare, and he shook his head, saying that he had never seen anyone hold their breath that long.

Uzi Degani was an officer in the IDF, 28 years old, when he fell in battle during the Yom Kippur War. His unit was fighting along the Suez Canal, and he died October 17, 1973. His father Ahron was among the defenders of Yad Mordechai who were killed fighting the Egyptian army during Israel’s War of Independence.

He left behind a wife and two sons.

I think about Uzi from time to time, about his smile and his sense of humor. I think about how much he resembled Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and I think, maybe that’s why it’s my favorite movie.