Shmuel Polin
ניט מיט שעלטן/לאַכן קען מען די וועלט איבערמאַכן

Diary of an Israeli Medic

We got our first call. It was well into the Intifada (the Palestinian-Arab uprising between 2000-2008 in Israel). We took off speeding immediately into the black night from the tachana (ambulance station) turning on the orhim (lights) on the natan (ICU, intensive care ambulance unit) ambulance. A burst of red light filtered its way from the truck in a circular motion around us on the streets. Cars were stopping, children were watching and mishtara (police), fire trucks and other ragils (non ICU ambulances) were following from behind.

I began shaking uncontrollably. My teeth were chattering like the toys you see at the dentist’s office. The radio was static, noisy, moment in and out we would hear a single word brake free.

Finally the moked (dispatcher) could be heard clearly and his voice was coming through with a lucid radio signal. He was babbling to us on the sipur mikreh (story of events for the nature of the call) “Pigooah al Rehov Hagadna v’Rehov Beit-Gadan” (A terrorist attack, explosion between streets Gadna and Gadan).

My heart fell. I could hear my pulse run quickly. My heart was running like a feral car with a diesel engine. I held my hand to my heart and felt my pulse run away ahead of me. It was nerve racking. As we pulled closer to the pigooah (terrorist bombing) site, we turned on the sirens. They started flaring and blaring. The nahag (driver) commanded the natan with the control of a starship. We were speeding very fast now. With every turn I could hear the clattering of medical equipment rolling around under the seats. The neck brace, stair chair, and stretcher rocked back and forth hitting against the back door of the natan as if they had been trying to break free with every turn. Red light poured out around us. It looked like we were the Starship Enterprise and we were coming in at light speed. Any moment I was waiting for Captain Robert April to commandeer “light speed ahead!” The sirens were our anthem. As we drew closer we put on our kifafot (gloves). We took great interest in pulling them back, wiggling our digits around, and snapping them against our wrists.

As the red lights spun around me, I thought back to a simpler, calmer time, when I was much younger. The red lights spinning around me reminded me of the little light box my mother bought for me, when I was about six. I remember one night in particular when I could not sleep. I came to my mother telling her I couldn’t sleep, that my room was dark and I was afraid. She told me to go to my room and she would be back in a minute or so. My mother came into my room with a tiny white and red paper box. The box had an electrical cord attached to it. It tattled against the ground following my mother as she walked in. She attached the electrical cord into the wall. Suddenly, my room came alive with red images spinning around my room. The paper box was red and in it sped tiny images around in a circle: cars, people, fire trucks, children and adults. As the images gyrated around the light, out projected the pictures all over my walls. The flood of red light in my room was soothing and I was able to relax in the night.

The natan arrived to a hellish scene. We were greeted with a blaze of fire. It was chaos, utter pandemonium. Men were running around with buckets of water trying to kill the blaze. Houses were on fire. But the children, they were everywhere. Due to their very limited understanding of the situation many of the kids were getting close to the fire and running around looking at it. The bomb going off signaled more of a New Year’s celebration to them than terrorism. They were running around on the streets as if nothing was wrong while many of their mothers were chasing them around. It looked like the kids were having fun. Firemen already at the scene were spraying water all over the fire, battling it as in a triumphant battle of heaven versus hell. As the cool water hit the burning flames and ash, sparks and cracks were going off as if there had been fireworks and gunshots from every corner. At first we couldn’t see the car; however, it soon revealed itself from the flames as smoke lifted from the fire.

We ran to the car. We couldn’t see anything in it. The car was full of smoke. The windows and doors were locked. I pushed up against the driver’s door as hard as I could to budge it open and “pop”. The door opened and a cloud of smoke poured out of the car. I stuck my head into the smoke cloud and held onto the inside handle of the door. Then it hit me. The smoke came with a smell. It was the smell of burnt flesh. It smells different to each person. To me, it reminded me of a hamburger that had been cooked for too long, and left on the grill burnt. As the smoked cleared I could see in front of me. A figure appeared. It no longer looked like a person. It looked like a blackened, burnt, hamburger skinned Crypt Keeper. I recall looking at my friends working with me and saying without even thinking “The Crypt Keeper!” He was dead. He no longer was human. He looked like a monster or a devil.

My hands were still on the inside handle of the door. My head was still inside the car. I withdrew my hand from the door, and my head from the car in utter fear and stepped back from the smoldering corpse. I remember his mouth wide, wide open as though he was still screaming. His teeth were a bright white and stuck out from the blackened body. His eyes were burnt out of his head revealing two sockets. His hands were still standing up far from the rest of the body and they were in a hex-like shape, a cress-crossing each other a few inches away from his face. It looked like he was trying to guard his face from the flames with his arms. Nevertheless, it didn’t work, and his face looked just as blackened as any other part of his shriveled up hamburger-like corpse. The man was black, burnt and stiff. He looked like a monster that had escaped from the gates of hell. I rushed out of the car to the ambulance, fearful of what I had just seen. As I took off I let one of the madachoolim know I was going to get a stretcher for the body. I opened the side door to the natan and sat down.

I thought about my off -handed comment about the “Crypt Keeper” to the madachoolim at the scene of the pigooah. When I was a child, I remember one night in particular. It was very late at night and my father was watching television. I pleaded him, all night to stay up and watch television with him. I wanted to be a big shot like him and stay up late with the television. I finally won, and he relented so we both watched television that night. That night my father had the remote and he settled upon us watching “Tales from the Crypt Keeper”. “Tales from the Crypt Keeper” was a show from the early to mid nineties. In the show a decomposing corpse, known as the Crypt Keeper, tells horror stories to the viewing audience. The show brakes into scene during the stories revealing often horrifying and disturbing images from the narrative omitted. I was very young and so the Crypt Keeper was a bit too mature for my viewing age. The image of a wrinkled old dead corpse talking bothered me dearly. I don’t remember much of the episode that night clearly. Most of the episode I viewed from behind my hands covering my eyes. Only time to time I would bear sight on the images of the show. I remember at one point seeing a stork poked out the eyes of a man lost from his girlfriend in the desert. I remember the sun pouring down upon him and him collapsing in the sand and a stork flying down from up in the sky, landing, and then attacking him, poking out his eyes and gorging on them. But what bothered me most was the disconcerting icon of a decomposing Crypt Keeper. That was too graphic for a young boy. When it was over, I was terrified of even the thought of going to bed. I was no big shot as it turned out. I was very afraid. I imagined myself in my room alone and the crackling, creepy signature laughter of the Crypt Keeper waking me up from my sound sleep. As I sat in bed the image of the Crypt Keeper haunted my mind. The reoccurring vivid nightmare and thoughts of the Crypt Keeper played over and over in my head. Finally, I ran into my mother and father’s room and told my mother I couldn’t sleep, that the Crypt Keeper was lingering in my head from earlier. I pleaded with my mother so that I could sleep in the comfort of their bed that night. I remember her easing me to sleep between her and my father, telling me that the Crypt Keeper wasn’t real and that he was only make believe. Only then, next to my mother could I sleep soundly and relatively peacefully.

Sitting in the ambulance thinking about the Crypt Keeper I drew my attention back to the man in the car. I thought how he looked just like the Crypt Keeper and that he ought to be haunting my nightmares as a child and that the burnt man must not be real. It took me awhile to tolerate it, to realize it, but he was real. While I was in the ambulance I grabbed the stretcher and opened up the back doors and pushed it out the back of the ambulance. The stretcher flew out the back of the natan onto the road. It spun around and I jumped out slamming the door shut behind me. I ran to the smoldering car and each of us dragged the body out of the car onto the stretchers. The body was stiff and flakey. As we pulled the body out of the seat we could hear tares and ripping. It was parts of the skin boiling and such hissing, popping and tearing. Flakes of charred skin tore off the body against the side of the car as we bumped it against the door on the way out. Flakes were all over. The flakes of ashen skin were on our hands, our gloves, in the air all around us. We were even breathing it in. It made us thirsty. Some of us were coughing and had a hard time breathing the char tainted air. As we laid the body on the stretcher, it still smoldered and hissed at us as if we had uprooted it from where it belonged and now it was angry.

We loaded up the body in the stretcher into the natan and put a heavy sheet over him, tucking him into the stretcher. It looked like it was going to bed. We began to make our way to the tachana (station). As we drove to the tachana I sat in the back of the natan with the dead body. I glared at the body. I thought it was interesting. I looked at his face trying to imagine what he looked like only a few hours ago. Truth was we didn’t know anything. We didn’t know if he was terrorist, Israeli, Jewish, or Palestinian. How he blew up, if the car blew up, or if a Molotov cocktail was thrown at him. He was burned beyond recognition. I poked at the body with my finger and felt it was still hot. I danced my fingers over his chest like a ballerina feeling the warmth. I stared at him for great lengths thinking about my childhood again.

Driving around with the body tucked into the stretcher late at night, I thought back to one of my favorite pastimes when I was a child with my parents. It was night drives. When my parents had the hardest time putting me to sleep, they would pack me in the car for a night drive. I found roaming in a car very soothing. It was relaxing. As my father drove in the front of the car my mother would sit in the back while I lay down next to her. She often would sing me lullabies as I lay in the back next to her. She would take her hand and dance her fingers across my chest also. She’d pluck her fingers around me, on me, and dance her digits on my chest. She would dance her fingers on me masterfully like a professional ballerina. This thought makes me smile even now. The combination of my mother dancing her hands, her touch, and the night drives in the car always helped put me right to sleep very quickly. Even today I fall asleep easily when driven around in a car or listening to soothing music. I think it’s because of the comfort I felt at an early age in the common atmosphere with my parents always around. Often times at work when being in the ambulance at late hours, I often shut my eyes and thought back to my mother and father driving me around when I was young and I would get very sleepy.

We arrived at the Beit Cholim (in Beersheba) hospital shortly. There was a separate part of the hospital, a different building that acted as a morgue. We pulled up to the morgue. The car stopped and the sound of the engine thumbing and puttering ceased. I got out of the side door of the natan and opened up the back doors. The stretcher jumped out of the natan. It slipped and rolled right out of the natan as if it were running out. We grabbed it and spun it around, rolling past the entrance doors into the first room. The first room was the icebox of the morgue. It looked exactly like the icebox morgues from the movies. A bed from one of the little cubicles of the icebox was already out waiting for us. We rolled the stretcher up next to the bed each of us pulled the mita v’sadin (hospital sheets) off the stretcher and each of us grabbed a corner. We counted to three to lift the body up onto a morgue bed stretcher. “Ehad (one)… Shtain (two)… Shalosh (three).” I remember the body was remarkably light. As the body layed flat on the morgue bed a rofeh (doctor) walked into the room. He walked up to us and dropped a clipboard on the chest of the John Doe. The doctor then proceeded to look for any items left on the body. He aimed in the right for the pocket. He reached his hand into the charred pants pocket and pulled out a watch, pen, a Tenodat Zahood (identity card). He opened it up. It had been a Tzahal (Army) issued blue (Israeli) Tenodat Zahood. We jumped around huddling looking at the card. The rofeh picked up the clipboard with the tenodat zahood in hand and left. All stopped right then. All of us stood quiet, hearts thumping fast again, teeth chattering, shivering. A chill went down my spine. He was a victim of a bombing. An Israeli, just like any one of us going about his every day life. Recalling the picture we looked at the body again. He was young. Now the final parts of the puzzle were falling into place. He was now humanized, not just any other nameless, faceless, John Doe body we had picked up. He was a new regular in Tzahal.

We left the morgue and sat around outside for quite awhile recalling every last detail of the nesayah. We began to pack up and throw away the sheet and get new ones tucked onto the stretcher. As we began to pack up to leave the morgue and prepare for the next call, a car pulled up next to us. A haredi (religious) woman wearing a babushka (headscarf) dashed past us over into the morgue. Her face looked like it was melted with an amalgamation of depression, fear, and most of all buried emotion. Eye shadow and make up poured down her face as she crept closer to the morgue she quickly started to break down delicately and begin to cry. She ran in and the door swung open and rocked back and forth several times like a door in a saloon of an old time Wild West motion picture. I peep through the tiny circular window opening to see what was going on, on the other side of the door. It was the boy’s mother. The image of her leaning over her son’s burnt corpse is hard to forget. What she then said shook me hard. Her tears poured down her face, she uttered out “Why have you taken my boy so young?” She stood over him crying, weeping while she was still hugging her son.

Looking at the mother besides her son, I again picture my mother when I was a child. I remember how on occasion when my mother had finally succeeded at putting me to sleep, I would roll over in bed. I would squint and shutter my eyes open for just a moment to look around me. I recall seeing my mother standing right next to the door. I wasn’t ever fully awake and I didn’t ever let her know I saw her there. I was careful to always act asleep. I peeked with one eye slit open, watching her carefully as she watched me, sleeping peacefully. It made me feel good and warm inside to know she was watching me. As Id slip back into sleep, she’d often come up and hug me in bed. She would hold on to me for what felt like an eternity each time. She’d hug me closely in her arms, much as tightly as the mother holding her son in the Beit Cholim, and whisper in my ear, “I wish this moment would last forever.” I remember thinking, Why can’t it.

About the Author
Shmuel Polin is a fourth-year rabbinical student at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR). A Greater Philadelphia/New Jersey native, he completed his B.A. at American University in Washington D.C. where he studied Jewish Studies and International Studies. He also completed both an M.A. in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and an M.A. in Jewish Studies from Gratz College of Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. His thesis focused on the depiction of European antisemitism in 1930's-1940's American and foreign cinema. Shmuel has years of experience of teaching Hebrew School at Kehillat HaNahar of New Hope, Pennsylvania, leading as a student rabbi at Beth Boruk Temple (Richmond, Indiana) and Temple Israel (Paducah, Kentucky), and also working for Israeli non-governmental organizations. Currently living in Cincinnati, he is finishing up his studies at HUC-JIR, while serving as the rabbinic intern of Adath Israel and as the student rabbi of Beth Boruk Temple.