Closing the Circle with an Old Comrade

By | Dec 06, 2022
Highlights, Israel, Latest
Two young civilians smile from the top of a tank in the Sinai Peninsula near a palm tree in this black and white photo.

For decades, I have heard and recited the words that in many congregations precede the communal recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish, the prayer of remembrance for the dead: “We keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.”

I’m now 75, and as I have grown older that sentence has become less abstract to me. So I have been giving it more thought and reflection. When Israel’s Six Day War broke out in June of 1967, volunteers from around the world, most but not all young Jews, came running. Many more from the United States wanted to come, and tried to, but were essentially blocked by the U.S. government, or by parents.

I made it over there in the weeks following the war and joined hundreds of other volunteers doing a variety of tasks throughout Israel in place of mobilized soldiers: everything from picking fruit on kibbutzim to clearing refuse and debris from Mount Scopus.

But a handful of us, Yanks, Brits, Canadians and Australians, plus volunteers from Argentina and Brazil, had a more intriguing assignment. We were sent to an abandoned United Nations military base outside El Arish, on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast in northern Sinai. We were civilian volunteers, without weapons or insignias on our uniforms, but we worked under the leadership and direction of Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers.

As I wrote in a piece for Moment, we drove and towed in from the desert captured Russian-made Egyptian tanks, trucks, artillery, ammunition and armored personnel carriers—some barely used before being abandoned. Then we loaded them onto railroad flat cars and sent them back to Israel.

What we did in no way approached the bravery and sacrifice of the members of the Israel Defense Forces who won the war. But, even after hostilities had ceased, we felt we were part of something larger—perhaps unfairly basking in the military’s reflected glory. There was a certain amount of risk and danger in our work, which was largely unsupervised with heavy armored vehicles and ammunition.

man posing with rifle

Mark Pinsky with his rifle in Israel. Courtesy of Mark Pinsky.

Two of our Australian buddies, lifelong Melbourne friends Max Haber and Norman Rosenbaum, were killed in separate accidents in the course of their work. Max was crushed when the cannon on a tank he was driving broke loose; Norm was killed when an artillery shell exploded. Their families agreed that they should be buried in Israel.

Given the distance from Australia and the circumstances of their deaths, this was not surprising. Before I left for the Middle East in the days following the war, perhaps in an expression of youthful bravado, I told my Duke roommate that if anything happened to me, I also wanted to be buried in Israel.

As I wrote in my Moment article, while on a 2017 trip to Australia to visit my daughter, then living in Melbourne, I connected with each of Max and Norman’s surviving brothers. I shared memories and photos of our time together in Sinai. It always troubled me that I was laid up in the El Arish barracks with dysentery and dehydration and could not attend Max’s military funeral. Norman was killed after I returned to the United States, so I was unable to attend his funeral as well.

This fall I returned to Israel for the first time in 55 years, with a Duke University alumni tour of Israel. So it seemed only natural to try to visit Max and Norman’s graves during the brief time our group was in the Tel Aviv area. This is something I have needed to do for a long time, and it just felt right to do it now, for all of us volunteers and the families. When I mentioned my intention in an email, old volunteers from around the country, who hadn’t seen each other in 50 years, made the same requests: They all asked me to put a stone on Max and Norman’s graves.

Norman was buried at a massive civilian cemetery, while Max was at a military cemetery. We were able to find the exact location of their graves with the help of Max’s brother Alex, and Leah Sapir, an Argentine volunteer in El Arish who had settled in Israel. She tried to visit Norman and Max’s graves on Israel’s annual Day of Remembrance, but she wasn’t feeling well enough to join us for this visit.

Two of my Israeli friends, Jay and Liora Wall, generously volunteered to help us. First, we went to the civilian cemetery at Holon City in the Gush Dan District, where Norman is buried. But it was locked tight for Shabbat. In Hebrew and English, Jay and I appealed to the caretaker to let us in, but he wouldn’t budge.

a gravestone with Hebrew writing on it.

Max Haber’s grave at a military cemetery in Israel. Photo by Sarah M. Brown.

We had better results at the impeccably maintained Military Cemetery in the Ramat Hasharon district, which remained open. Yet even with directions it took some wandering around to find Max’s grave, which was just inside the cemetery’s entrance.

So it was that I found myself standing at the resting place of a young man I knew a lifetime ago, in Sinai in the weeks following the Six Day War. We three—my wife Sallie, Liora Wall, and I— gathered around the grave. Liora translated the Hebrew inscription on the stone. Apparently, Max had been posthumously admitted to the IDF as a private. The inscription gave the date that he “fell.”

Liora had thought to bring a yahrzeit candle and flowers. She lit the candle and placed it in a metal box made for that purpose next to the headstone. We said Kaddish together and I placed three stones on the grave on my friends’ behalf. Then I said a few words about Max, a fun-loving guy with a hearty laugh, and also about his good friend Norman, and shed a few tears.

For some volunteers, the summer of 1967 was a signal event that changed and shaped their lives. For others, like myself, it was the first of many such experiences—albeit a significant one.

Standing in front of Max’s grave, I succumbed to the unavoidable temptation of wondering what Max’s and Norman’s lives would have been like had they lived. The boys’ brothers told me in Melbourne that they were sure Max and Norman would have remained close friends for their entire lives and would have remained steadfast supporters of the Jewish State.

Zichrona Livracha—may their memories be for a blessing. “We keep faith with those who sleep in the dust.”

Top Image: Mark Pinsky and Max Haber sitting atop a tank after the Six-Day War. 

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