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In a siren’s time

Chronic memories of wartimes: broken radio silence, the smell of bananas, and tense waiting for a son to phone home

May 10, 2016. Yom HaZikaron, the memorial siren commences its wail, triggering a chain of memories.

* * *

October 6, 1973.

A siren goes off breaking the midday Yom Kippur calm in Givatayim. At first I think it’s an ambulance, but the wailing keeps on, without the change in pitch or tone of an ambulance moving along the street.

A neighbor runs down the stairwell of the building knocking on doors and shouting, “everyone down to the shelter — it’s an air raid warning.”

My teenage survival instincts kick in and I am ready to jet propel myself down the two flights of steps to where I think the nearest shelter should be — in the basement.

Not so fast. My elderly uncle and aunt are in no such hurry. They start making a flask of coffee and getting together buns and other items of food for the breaking of the fast, as who knows how long we will have to stay in the shelter? Air raids may be bad, but there’s certainly no need to wait with an empty stomach for bombs to start falling. Where are the folding chairs? Should we take some blankets? Have you got the radio?

Finally, we gather all survival essentials and make it down to the relative safety of the bomb shelter, a strange, dimly-lit room with the musty smell of damp, thick concrete walls, a heavy metal door and no windows — just an escape hatch covered with a thick metal grid. Our shelter certainly could have done with some cleaning and the bits of old broken furniture, bicycles and assorted household junk stored in it could have been removed to make way for people. But who knew we needed to prepare?

By the time we get to it, the shelter is not empty. It continues filling up with people pushing in past the heavy metal door.

Confusion: No one is really sure what is happening. The Atonement Day radio silence is broken and slowly we begin to understand that Israel has been attacked on two fronts, by Egypt in the South and Syria in the North. We are at war.

A man enters through the heavy metal door, quietly says goodbye to his young children, kisses his wife farewell, and exits, with a large duffle bag on his back, to join his army unit. His wife turns her head to the wall and tries to choke back the tears. A woman puts an arm around her to comfort her.

Crying will scare the children….

January 18, 1991

It’s three in the morning. Sirens sound throughout the city. This time I am expecting the wake-up call.

I and my fellow soldiers of the Jerusalem District defense unit have been mobilized for some time while Operation Desert Storm gathers momentum in the Gulf. A US-led coalition of 34 countries is committed to forcing Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces to leave Kuwait. Israel is not part of the free-Kuwait crusade, but, in an attempt to break up the coalition, Saddam makes a strategic decision to bomb Israel and draw it into retaliation.

Clear instructions have been published on how to survive a gas attack.

We all have our personal gas masks. Special cribs for babies, an “active” gas mask — battery operated “space-helmet” which can blow “purified” air over the mouths and noses of toddlers, regular gas masks in various sizes for children, teenagers and adults. We are ready.

When my unit is called up to be on standby for the defense of Jerusalem, my wife decides that things are serious. If my unit is needed, Heaven help us all.

Next thing, our entire 45-meter upstairs kibbutz apartment is turned into a “safe-room” for all four families in our building. Windows are sealed with sheets of plastic and masking tape, all in accordance with civil defense instructions. More sheets of plastic and masking tape are on hand, together with damp towels, to seal the door once all are inside the safety of our “safe-room,” in which our personal gas masks wait along with an “active” gas mask for our 2-year-old daughter and a supply of food and water. We are ready.

But tonight, I am not with my wife and daughter. I kissed them goodbye a few days ago. Instead, I am in an army barracks in Jerusalem.

Frantic scrambling around, gas masks are pulled over heads. Earlier in the week I shaved off my beard. Gas masks require smooth skin for a snug fit. We train at putting on masks. If you can smell the banana essence with your mask in place you are in trouble. I smell bananas. I may die. More frantic adjustments till I think I pass the banana smell test. We are ready.

Confusion. The special mobile gas detection units that are roving the streets of Jerusalem report the presence of gas. Have Scuds fallen in the city? It takes some time before somebody realizes that the detection alarms go off every time the units pass a gas station. Some equipment calibration is needed and calm is restored.

Over the next few weeks, sirens and Scuds become a regular feature of life in Israel. It turns out that Saddam can only fire his missiles at night, when the US coalition forces have less chance of preempting strikes by taking out the missile launchers. Israelis continue with routine by day and towards dusk everything shuts down as people rush home to their “safe-rooms” and another evening with Nachman Shai, the voice of calm preparedness, on television.

Friends of ours move from Scud-visited Givatayim to spend the nights with us in the relative safety of our tiny kibbutz apartment.

Only long after the Desert Storm dust has settled do we realize that the thin porous ceiling of our kibbutz apartment offers no protection against gas attacks…

Bananas.

July 8, 2014.

At about six in the evening, the sirens start.

I am attending the Haaretz “Israel Conference on Peace” at the Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv. Confusion. What are sirens doing at a peace conference?

We hear that Israel has launched air attacks against the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip in retaliation for continued rocket fire into Israel from Gaza. Slowly we all shuffle out of the convention hall into the relative safety of a “secure area” in the hotel lobby.

Days and nights of extensive bombing and shelling of Gaza follow, but still rockets are fired at Israel by Hamas and its allies. The ground offensive into Gaza begins.

This time I am not in uniform. I have twin boys who are: one is a medic in the tank corps, the other a staff sergeant in an infantry unit.

No word from the infantry unit. This means that they are no longer in the “waiting area” around Gaza, but have moved into the territory. Days and nights of increasing tension as the “operation” grinds on, casualties mount, nerves fray. Will we be the next to receive a “knock on the door”?

In the early days of the operation, reporting mistakes are made. A news report: an infantry unit is ambushed, the ambushers are wiped out, but not before some Israeli soldiers are killed and injured. It is my son’s army unit. How does one continue working and functioning until the names of the dead are released many hours later? How do the words “their families have been notified” become words of comfort?

Social media and WhatsApp groups are new forms of communication. A family WhatsApp group serves a vital purpose as all report in when the sirens sound. Black humor, photos, updates, we are all okay, at least for now. Picture of a building destroyed only a few hundred meters from my nephew’s apartment in Rishon LeZion. No injuries as all were safely in their concrete “protected-rooms,” a standard feature of each new apartment building.

After about 12 days, we get word that the infantry unit is returning from Gaza to the waiting area around it. The unit organizes a family get-together on one of the kibbutzim in the area.

A totally surreal scene: an impromptu picnic on the green lawn around the tranquil blue swimming pool, all set against the backdrop of continued shelling into and from Gaza. Music plays, with percussion bombs in the background thumping a somewhat erratic beat and adding black clouds to the horizon. Safety instructions: if you hear a siren, it is too late to get to a shelter (and we don’t really have sufficient shelter around the pool for this number of people anyway), so please just lie down on the ground.

Finally the returning soldiers arrive. Collective relief to see the tired and dusty kids as they climb off their transport buses: hugs, smiles, laughter, tears. Our gracious hosts: “No problem boys — feel free to use the pool and shower afterwards — it’s all okay.”

Only it is not really all okay. We have two soldiers in the army. We know that one is with us, but also know that the other has just gone into Gaza. Who knows into what, for what, for how long?

* * *

Slowly the two-minute memorial siren winds down and lets out its dying moans.

When will the sirens sound again?

Can anything be done to avert them?

Confusion.

Bananas.

About the Author
Jonathan Schwartz works as an independent commercial lawyer, with a focus on high-tech and medical devices. Born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, he made Aliyah at the age of 19, and moved to Zur Yigal after spending time in Jerusalem, Kibbutz Tzora and Raanana. He is married with 4 children.
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