We sat around talking about the monstrous hunk of metal behind us. “You know, in the Soviet Union they’ll just line you up, and then anyone taller than 1.6 meters won’t get into this thing.” We were talking about our T-55, our chariot, our tank. The night sky above us was so clear that the light of millions of stars allowed us to see each other as we sat on the cold sand. The four of us were far from home, called up yet again for maneuvers.
I. was amazing. He had been among the first to become a “test driver” for the newly acquired T-55 tank. We had captured many from the Egyptian and Syrian armies in 1967. After 1973, after losing so many of our soldiers who served in tank units during the Yom Kippur War, many Israeli soldiers were re-trained and became members of tank units. I was one of them. I trained to become a tank commander, but it was really I. my driver who was in charge.
We rarely, if ever, lost our way. We never broke down. We flew across the sands of the training areas. He always made sure that we were in the best firing position, never exposed to the “enemy”. I forgave him his chain-smoking. The smoke from his cigarettes would waft up from his compartment in the forward portion of the hull. Even as I stood with half my body above the commander’s hatch that smoke reached me.
And so it was one day, as we were flying across the dunes that my NOMEX pant leg got caught on an ammunition hook inside the turret. I had given my gunner D. a brief command to keep the 105 mm main gun on target, and he activated the gyroscopic gun stabilizer. I. drove the tank to the left, and the barrel of the main gun automatically turned right, along with the entire turret, and my leg was suddenly caught in the gigantic gear of the turret ring.
As I felt my left leg being crushed, I quietly ordered I. to stop the tank. We stopped. “My leg is caught on something. Can you take a look?” I spoke into the microphone of the intercom attached to our helmets. He lowered the back rest of his seat. Lying on his back he said that he could see my left leg stuck in the gear. “Can you get me loose using the hand control handle? Can you try turning it slowly?” I. said that he would try. “Try turning it the other way!” I whispered into the microphone. His first attempt just tightened the gear of the turret ring around my leg.
Y. had radioed command in the meantime and an ambulance was on its way. Once he saw that my leg was loose, I. quickly climbed from his compartment. He and Y. opened the stretcher that was on the side of the turret and gently put me on it.
I was very fortunate. The doctor told me that I could have lost my leg and bled out. After some months on crutches I returned to my unit and to my crew, and I told I. that from that moment, the very moment he had turned the hand control to save me, he became my brother.
He married a while later. He invited me to his wedding, and introduced me to his bride, D. He introduced me to his family. I visited him and he visited me. We met often, both on and off duty. We shared many experiences when we served together as reservists.
When I left Israel to live in the US, we remained close. Whenever I was in Israel I would call him and I would see him and his family. I would call him from the US. When my daughter married he came to the wedding.
Over the years I found out that his wife, D. had family in France. And, up until a few days ago, I really did not think too much about that.
I called I. today. “You are going to live a very long life!” he said. He told me that his relatives, his wife’s family, were visiting and that they had just talked about me that morning. I asked if they were alright, I asked if they were in any danger there. I. told me that they were just fine. We agreed that really, one should not be so disrespectful of any religion and that sure, freedom of speech was fine and needed to be honored, but that it was just wrong to disrespect any religion. I offered my hospitality to his family.
“What? I’m sorry, what did you say?” he asked me. And so I repeated my offer. I told my brother that I knew they had his home to go to, and that I hoped it would never come to that. “They can come here also, if there is ever a situation that demanded a safe haven besides Israel. Moi aussi, je suis juif…” We agreed that our hope was that the Jews of France would see better days ahead. Both of us remained skeptical.
My brother, mon frère. We are both grandparents now. We wonder what happened to the world. We ask ourselves what kind of world awaits our grandchildren. We shake our heads in disbelief. And we remain close, despite the distance.