Paul Mirbach

From Unexpected Quarters

He was a tyrant, cruel and ruthless. I have so much to thank him for.

The winter of 1990-1991 was not particularly harsh, as far as I can recall, but the storm clouds were gathering in the region, specifically in the deserts of Kuwait and Iraq. That winter, the tension and anxiety in Israel was palpable. This was not the first time that Israelis had had to face the prospect of mass death – the weeks leading up to the six Day War, and the first days of the Yom Kippur War, when things were not going well for us, come to mind. However, it was the first time for this generation of young Israeli families, who had grown accustomed over the last fifteen years to a sense of security. And now this. The entire country had been mobilized. The Home Front Command, long looked upon with barely concealed disdain in comparison to the more heroic Paratroopers and Golani brigades, was now in the foreground, for the first time in Israel’s short military history. They did an admirable job, equipping every citizen with gas masks and instructions on how to improvise a gas-proof room in every house, but that did not entirely ease the tension. It was a surreal sight to see people walking on the streets, with a cardboard box containing their gas masks slung over their shoulders, or young mothers pushing prams, while struggling with the mamat (Hebrew for a mobile protected cot for babies) at the same time. In 1982 and during the Lebanon War, many families on the northern border would temporarily abandon their homes and go live with relatives in the cities, far from the Katyusha rockets. The proud and obdurate Israelis, never missing an opportunity to judge others, would question the courage of these families under their breath, hinting at an expectation to remain strong and not be intimidated into leaving their homes. Now, the tables were turned. Knowing that Saddam Hussein would target population centers and major cities, many sought refuge in cities and settlements in the Israeli periphery. This was the atmosphere, that fateful winter.

Me? In the eight short years I had lived in Israel, I had become acquainted with war and violence. I had been in Israel barely four months when the First Lebanon War had broken out, and had experienced the loss of three members of our kibbutz in the space of two months. A year later, I myself was inside Lebanon, as an infantry soldier, patrolling, and lying in ambushes. Later, as a reservist, I saw action during the First Intifada, having been shot at and had a Molotov cocktail thrown at my jeep. This war, which had not yet started, was different. We were the target, but we weren’t participants. For the first time I can remember, we placed the trust for our security in the hands of others, and however much we had faith in the ability and the sincerity of the United States to protect us, we were not entirely comfortable with that.

At the time, I was responsible for the security of the kibbutz. With the approaching clouds of war, it was an intense period, attending countless briefings and having to prepare the entire kibbutz for every eventuality that Saddam would throw our way. The instructions I received, were to prepare a sealed room in every house on the kibbutz. My bedroom had a corner piled with plastic sheeting and rolls of duct tape. Further, operating procedure was that in each sealed room, there would be at least two people, so that one could help the other with the gas mask and anticipated anxiety attacks. Ours was a young kibbutz, barely ten years old, with many young, single adults, just starting their new lives. So, the process of “buddying up” sometimes brought about some interesting associations.

Then one day, she approached me and asked me if I would help her seal her room. Unsuspecting, armed with duct tape and plastic sheeting, I went over to her house. And, I never left. We fell into an unexpected romance, which took both of us by surprise. It wasn’t so much intense and passionate, but rather deep and comfortable. For nine years, we had passed each other on the paths of the kibbutz, perhaps nodding to one another. Or, sitting across from one another in a committee meeting or at a general meeting. Perhaps we stood next to one another, packing alfalfa seeds for market, or cutting anemones on a freezing winter morning. And our eyes never met. This was not love at first sight. Not even second sight. Rather, force of circumstance threw us together and from it flourished a love and companionship, so warm and genuine. In that stuffy room, with no daylight and an ambience that left much to be desired I was introduced to her infinite kindness and consideration, her untiring willingness to help others and her huge heart, so large, it didn’t seem possible it could reside in such a small body. Luckily, there was a bed.

Two days later, as I was walking to work from my new dwellings, I came across and old, beaten VW Beetle, parked suspiciously just outside the locked gates of the kibbutz. The previous day, I had attended a briefing, where we were warned of a potential scenario that local Arabs would exploit the situation to participate in subterfuge, in sympathy with Saddam Hussein. These warnings included the possibility of booby traps and car bombs. And here, just outside our gates, was a strange, battered car, abandoned and looking just like the kind of vehicle nobody would mind if it was blown up. My instincts kicked in and I contacted the police sapper unit. Sirens whining and lights flashing, three vehicles converged on our entrance. A sapper approached the car wearing a bomb suit, and looking like an olive colored Michelin Man. Using a mirror on a stick, he checked the undercarriage. Then using a sort of metal ruler he carefully checked for wiring before he jimmied the door on the passenger side. Gingerly, he opened the door. When there was no explosion, he popped the glove compartment and found the vehicle registration, registered to none other than the brother of my newfound lover! Do any of you remember that awkward situation when you meet the parents of your future spouse for the first time? Try top that one! How do I introduce myself? Hi, I’m Paul, and yes, I’m the one who is in love with your sister. Oh, and by the way, I nearly blew up your car? Will that work?

Within three months we were engaged. Within six, we were married. Our first son was named, in a way, after my late brother, who left this world way too soon. Our second son’s name in Hebrew means “a gift” – and he is such a boon. But, the real gift, the one that changed my life and for which I am so thankful, was given me unwittingly by Saddam Hussein.

About the Author
Paul Mirbach (PEM), made Aliya from South Africa to kibbutz Tuval in 1982 with a garin of Habonim members. Together they built a new kibbutz, transforming rocks and mud into a green oasis in the Gallilee. Paul still lives on Tuval. He calls it his little corner of Paradise.