A few months after making aliyah six and a half years ago and establishing a home for my family in Gush Etzion, I wrote a letter to family and friends back in the States during the week that commemorated the Lamed-Heh platoon. I’d like to share it with you.
Today was a very emotional day. It began like all others, with me making the rounds from bedroom to bedroom making sure the kids were up and ready on time for school, preparing lunches and nagging the boys to grab a jacket on their way out the door. After dropping off Nili at the bus stop, I continued on to my ulpan class, located at the community center in Alon Shvut, a five-minute drive south from Efrat on Highway 60.
As soon as class began, our instructor informed us that we were invited that morning to watch a play about the “Lamed-Heh” being performed by fourth graders in the local school.
Countless tales of heroism and self-sacrifice mark the struggle to reestablish the State of Israel. This week, we commemorate with reverence the fifty-eighth anniversary of the Lamed-Heh platoon that took to the hills of Gush Etzion with courage and defiance against a relentless and ruthless enemy, and, in a most professional manner, some forty fourth-graders in Alon Shvut recreated their saga.
Known as the southern gateway to Jerusalem, Gush Etzion was strategic in the defense of the southern entrance into the city. Having undergone many attacks by the surrounding Arabs, thirty-eight Hagana soldiers, headed by Danny Mass, set out on foot from Har Tuv, near what is now Beit Shemesh, at 11 PM on January 15, 1948, to bring much-needed medical equipment and arms to the besieged Gush Etzion communities.
These men clearly knew that they were embarking on a suicide mission, but were determined not to abandon their fellow Jews in the Gush who, with every fiber of their being, were safeguarding the gate to Jerusalem. Yet, even if they would succeed in reaching their destination, they would be just thirty-eight extra soldiers joining a few hundred Jews against multitudes of Arabs, including the formidable force of the Jordanian Legion that was trained and equipped by the British.
Still, their devotion was pure and despite the odds, they continued on to the Etzion settlements. Three men were sent back because of injuries. Thus, the thirty-eight became thirty-five, signified by the Hebrew letters, “lamed-heh.”
Dawn broke about an hour before they reached their objective. An Arab shepherd from Tzurif detected them and betrayed their position, resulting in a large contingent of armed Arabs who quickly gathered to block their efforts.
With no way to call for assistance, Danny Mass led his troops to the top of the highest hill in the area and searched for cover. However, as more and more Arabs gathered from the surrounding villages, the thirty-five were unable to escape. Fighting valiantly, the battle lasted the entire day. In the end, hundreds of Arabs, mostly from Tzurif, massacred them.
The British in the nearby police station did not interfere until the last of the Lamed-Heh fell at approximately 4:30, shortly before sundown. Having exhausted all the ammunition they had carried on their backs, the last man died with a rock in his hand. The next day, a British patrol found their stripped and mutilated bodies.
Just days before Israel declared its independence, Gush Etzion was again the center of conflict when, for a period of three days, residents of Kibbutz Kfar Etzion were able to hold off a large Arab army primarily made up of the Jordanian Legion which was headed for Jerusalem. Eventually, and despite surrendering to the Arab army, 240 residents of the kibbutz were massacred, 260 were captured and the settlement was destroyed.
After Israel regained control of Judea and Samaria in June 1967, a new initiative was launched to resettle the Etzion area. The children of those people who fought and died in 1948, and who had been evacuated to safety before those final days of battle, returned to rebuild Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, the first settlement in the Gush after the Six Day War.
Today, there are well over 55,000 Jews living in the communities of Gush Etzion.
This was the story powerfully reenacted by talented fourth graders with eloquence and maturity far beyond their years. Toward the end of the play, a large screen in the background projected the face of each member of the Lamed-Heh who fought heroically until the end, to an audience mourning the loss of thirty-five sons as if it just happened the day before.
We watched the children, in turn, lay a small stone on the surface of the stage as each of the thirty-five names was announced.
Then, without skipping a beat, and with the background music jolting us out of our sorrow, the screen flashed each rebuilt community and each new town, one by one, established in Gush Etzion since 1967. It was as if the screen itself declared “We are here!” There are no words to describe the tear-filled cheers that exploded around me.
Although I’ve known the story of the Lamed-Heh since I was a young girl, I sat quietly and motionless in the back of the audience with my heart in my throat. There was an uncharacteristic seriousness on the faces of these nine-year-old children and I was struck at how adeptly they captured the spirit of this chapter in our history.
How proud the Lamed-Heh would be to see the hope of our people recreate their saga conveying the essence of their sacrifice. How honored are the heroes of Kfar Etzion whose courage embodies the foundation of a community rebuilt by their descendants. And, how honored are we, who live in Gush Etzion today, in the shadow of such greatness. I am humbled, yet proud. I am so grateful and feel so privileged to be truly home.
I walked back to class, my pace slow as if carrying the intensity of the day on my shoulders, cognizant of the enormous sacrifice that enables us to tread freely among these hills. This is our history. Not the Fourth of July or the War Between the States. This is our legacy, not President’s Week or St. Valentine’s Day. Here is our past, from biblical times to the present moment, and, here in the Land of Israel lies our future.
Back in ulpan, a member of the class presented an oral report on Naomi Shemer, an Israeli icon who recently passed away and whose songs have touched the soul of our people throughout our modern-day history. Her words have accompanied Israel throughout its battles and throughout its great strides forward.
It seemed that all of us were of one mind that day, and I was not alone with my thoughts, for as we listened to the last line of our classmate’s report, almost as if on cue, the entire class softly broke out in song and Naomi’s words of Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, “Jerusalem of Gold”, filled the air and gently embraced us.
Till next time,