When the Haganah completely abandons the coastal highway running south from Tel Aviv, Lilith Gervasi’s kibbutz at Yad Mordechai is completely cut off. Only two private aircraft maintained contact between north and south, carrying basic supplies and newspapers.
Lilith is part of the Gahal, or immigrant soldiers. Most of the children in the kibbutz are called Sabra. That is, they had been born in Palestine and knew no other home. Lilith is their guardian when their parents work the fields, both before and during the war.
Lilith’s kibbutz lies just west of the road that links Gaza to the Egyptian beachhead at Majdal. Egypt hurls two infantry battalions, one armored battalion, and an artillery battalion against them one dawn for an attack that lasts five days. It is Lilith’s baptism by fire, the battle that forges her into a fierce warrior. She would go on to fight in every one of her country’s conflicts until orthodox Jews prevailed to remove her from the front lines, and after that she would personally train Del, the daughter of Haziel, to become the even more legendary commander of Bravo Battalion.It is Lilith’s unwavering belief that the Yishuv, the People, always come first.
Much enemy armor is taken out with the PIAT (Projectile, Infantry, Anti-Tank). Those Arab tanks which manage to breach the Yad Mordechai perimeter are set alight at close range with Molotov cocktails or attacked with hand grenades whose fragments would enter the tank through the view slit, wounding the crew and forcing them to retire. Other tanks are taken out with mines, and still others break down and are dragged out of range by armored cars.
But there are just too many Egyptians, and the shelling never ceases. After five days the settler’s ammunition is spent. Lilith helps bury their dead, and then helps carry the wounded through the Egyptian lines under the cover of darkness, along with all the remaining settlers. Yad Mordechai is abandoned, and in the morning the Egyptians burn it to the ground. But during those five days of resistance Tel Aviv is saved from being overrun. The stubborn defense at Yad Mordechai gives Tel Aviv time to bring in reinforcements and firm up the defensive line on the road between the city and Gaza.
On June 11, a truce called by the United Nations goes into effect and lasted until July 9. In nearly one month of war Israel lost 900 soldiers and 300 civilians.
Between the first truce and a second one is ten more days of fighting. The IDF captures Nazareth, the home town of Yeshua, which has grown much larger than the original five hundred souls. The second truce lasts until October 15, and is followed by one solid week of fighting against Egypt. On the first day of that week Israeli warplanes bomb the Egyptian air base at El Arish on the Mediterranean coastline of Sinai, and also cut the railway from El Arish to Rafa.
After the third cease-fire takes effect on October 22, Lilith and the Polish settlers who had taken her in move back into the ruins of Yad Mordechai and begin to rebuild. There would be renewed fighting in the winter, and a fourth and final cease fire, but Lilith judges that the continued existence of her new nation is no longer in doubt.
On her collective farm after the War of Independence Lilith Gervasi immerses herself in honest toil cultivating the fields and garden crops and occasionally defends the settlement from gunmen who infiltrate from the nearby Gaza Strip to kill Jews simply for being Jews. Sometimes these attacks on Yad Mordechai are followed up by fierce IDF reprisal raids. Lilith is mobilized as a sergeant in the IDF reserves to help guide the counterattacks.
Apart from her trusty British-made rifle Lilith owns very little in the way of personal possessions. She has only her clothing, a radio she shares with the others in the Women’s House, and other such modest things. There are tractors and jeeps, but they belong to the whole community. All the profits of the kibbutz are pooled together for the needs of the laborers. The children eat and sleep apart from their parents, and Lilith, who is attending university part of the time, helps to educate them.
On July 23, 1952 there is a coup in Egypt deposing King Farouk, who has ruled his country since 1936. One of the coup plotters named Colonel Gamal Nasser steadily rises in influence to become the usual President-for-life.
Lilith graduates from Hebrew University in 1953 and is commissioned a second lieutenant in the IDF. During her physical examination the IDF doctors noted the mass of keloid whip scars on her back, which limits her range of motion somewhat.They also note the six numbers tattooed on her arm and know exactly how she had been disfigured.
In the fall, Lilith returns to Hebrew University to begin her academic work for a Master’s degree. She is interested in the newly-revived Hebrew language, which had been essentially a dead tongue (like Latin) for more than two thousand five hundred years. After the Babylonian Vacation it fell out of everyday use by the Jewish people, and this was true even in the time of Yeshua, who had spoken the Syrian tongue called Aramaic. Over those twenty-five centuries Hebrew became a rather specialized language spoken only by the scribes and elders in synagogues, and in the Diaspora, when many Jewish communities lost contact with each other, the pronunciation of Hebrew naturally drifted somewhat.
There were marked differences between the way the Shephardi Jews and Ashkenazi Jews spoke Hebrew, and there had been some infiltration of influences from both Russian and Yiddish. When the Zion project was conceived, and European immigrants began to settle in the Levant with the aim of creating a Jewish homeland, the “official” pronunciation of Hebrew was decided by a committee. But it was wrong at many points, and Lilith knew this because from time to time she speaks to Haziel, who remembers how “biblical” Hebrew had really been spoken. It only remained for Lilith to prove it. This was the challenge that formed the heart of her Masters’ Thesis.
Soon after obtaining her advanced degree she received an elevation in rank to seren, which corresponds to captain.
On July 26, 1956 Nasser nationalizes the Suez Canal, seizing control from the British. He closes the Straits of Tirin in the Red Sea, which effectively puts the southernmost Israeli port of Eilat under a blockade. At the same time he refuses to allow any ships bound for Tel Aviv or Haifa to transit the canal. The United Kingdom and France lay plans to take the canal back by force, and they are interested in getting Israel involved in this operation. Israel was already leaning toward a tussle with Egypt, the question was not if but when. Cross-border fedayeen raids from the Gaza strip had never ceased over the eight years Egypt had occupied it.
The French begin to arm the IDF, especially the air force. And in the third week of October Nasser moves part of his army into Gaza, including a number of artillery pieces, which are used to shell the Israeli settlements near the border, of which Lilith’s kibbutz of Yad Mordechai is the closest. Nasser also moves troops into the Sinai Peninsula, supplied with the latest Soviet military equipment.
On October 29 four Israeli World War II vintage P-51 Mustang fighter planes fly into the Sinai and cut, with their propellers, all the telephone lines connecting the Egyptian forces in Sinai to their home office in Cairo. On the same afternoon, 395 IDF paratroopers are dropped at Mitla Pass, only fifty miles from the Suez Canal. Meanwhile, a force commanded by Colonel Ariel Sharon crosses the border and seizes (after very hard fighting) three Egyptian positions along the 150 miles from Israel to the pass. Sharon then disobeys orders to halt and proceeds to take Mitla Pass, at a cost of 38 Israeli lives.
On October 31 an Egyptian frigate fires two hundred shells into Haifa from the sea, but a French destroyer drives it off. Two Israeli destroyers then chase it down and open fire, and later two Israeli warplanes damage it with rockets. The Egyptian ship surrenders, and it is boarded and towed into Haifa.
Israel fights a fierce series of tank battles for Abu Ageila, and after two days the Egyptians withdraw. From this position, Israel can supply its troops in the central Sinai without an attack from the rear.
On November 2 the IDF seizes El Arish on the Sinai Mediterranean coast, which completely isolates the Gaza Strip. By that same evening, the Egyptian governor in Gaza surrenders. The Israelis penetrate to within ten miles of the Suez Canal and take possession of forty Soviet-made T-34 tanks and sixty armored vehicles which had been left behind there.
Seren Lilith Gervasi’s part in the war begins at Eilat and runs down the western shore of the Gulf of Aqaba. The objective is to seize the guns at Sharm el-Sheikh and lift the closure of the Straits of Tiran. Her commander is Colonel Avraham Yoffe, and she is part of a motorized infantry brigade of 1,800 soldiers and 200 vehicles. Their route is along a camel track that was never designed to be used by wheeled vehicles. At one point at Wadi Zaala they all break out their spades, dig their vehicles out of deep sand, and push them uphill.
At Dahab Oasis they have their first firefight against the camel-mounted troops of the Egyptian Frontier Force. They also are supplied with fuel from boats sent down the Gulf of Aqaba from Eilat. Meanwhile, a detachment of Ariel Sharon’s paratroopers advanced in a pincer movement down the Gulf of Suez, nearly doubles the size of the Israeli assault force.
At Sharm el-Sheikh a huge battery of naval guns are positioned to block all shipping to Eilat. There, 1,500 Egyptian troops with their mortars and artillery hold off the Israelis for four hours of intense fighting, and it is over the course of those four hours that Lilith puts forth her supreme fighting effort in this war.The big guns of the fort are disarmed by 9 AM that morning. The water route to Eilat is open once more. Israel achieved all of her war objectives in just one week, which is fortuitous, because the American President Dwight D. Eisenhower threatens to essentially bankrupt France and Britain if they do not wrap things up. IDF losses are 172 killed and 817 wounded.
Having lost the war, Egypt is compelled by the terms of the cease-fire to allow Israeli shipping to pass through the Suez Canal once more. Immediately, an Israeli destroyer squadron passes from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea to support Yoffe, his battalion commanders, Seren Lilith Gervasi, and all their infantry at the tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
Not by word, correspondence, telegram, or phone call does Lilith Gervasi appraise her father in England of any of the things that she had achieved since she parted from him, nor any of the historic events that transpire daily around her. But after the war, when the reserves were being demobilized Haziel came calling to visit before Lilith had exchanged her Seren’s uniform for the clothing appropriate for a collective farm. And Lilith marvels once more that Haziel appears to be precisely the same age as when they first met on the beach at Underhill on the Isle of Wight in 1946.
Haziel embraces Lilith, then stands back a bit to regard the woman with a friendly but appraising gaze.
Your father Benjamin will not live forever.
Lilith loses her smile, for she knows what Haziel is asking her to do. It is something Lilith has dreaded for years.
I’m not ready to tell him everything.
No, but you are, I think, ready to tell him something, and that is a vast improvement.
Sha holds out her hand.
Then Haziel whisks Lilith back to St. Catherine’s lighthouse on the Isle of Wight in the same manner she had once whisked the girl to Yad Mordechai twenty-one years prior. So it had not been a dream or a hallucination after all.
Will you tell me who you really are, Haziel?
Lilith asks that as they walk toward the lighthouse that was so familiar to her.
I will tell you everything. Everything! But only after you have also told your father everything.
Lilith stops in her tracks.
Why Haziel? Why must it be so?
Have you not discerned by now that I am healing your soul?
After a long pause, Lilith nods her head, then resumes her walk.
Good! That too is a sign that what I have been doing is working.
Somewhere between the place where Lilith had paused and the front door of the lighthouse Haziel has slipped away. Lilith is quite alone when she knocks on the door of what had been her girlhood home. A strange, severe looking woman with her hair tied back in a bun opens the door.
Yes, what is it?
Is my…is Benjamin home?
Who are you, if I might ask?
Lilith’s father hobbles up behind the woman to see who has come calling. At first, when he sees the IDF uniform, he doesn’t recognize who it is, and he thinks he is in some sort of trouble again. But his mind merges the two decades of changes on Lilith’s face with his own memories of his daughter.
Lilith? Are you Lilith?
His daughter’s face crinkles up in a way that Benjamin cannot mistake, and this time there are tears, perhaps the first tears she has shed over all that time. Lilith sobs.
Father, I’m so sorry!
They embrace for a long time, and Lilith weeps as she has never done before in her life, for she realizes that her father has done nothing, absolutely nothing, to deserve the silent treatment that she has inflicted on him over all the intervening years. Lilith had rationalized to herself that she was punishing her father for refusing to emigrate to Palestine, but that was nothing more than a huge lie she had made herself believe all that time, and Lilith now marvels at her own capacity for self-deception.
When Benjamin and Lilith separate from their long embrace, the strange woman holds out her hand to Lilith.
I am Laura. I am your father’s wife.
Life goes on.
Benjamin offered that as though he owed an explanation. Lilith is mildly shocked by the news.
Father. We have so much catching up to do, it seems.
Then let us do so, beloved daughter, over a cuppa.
The three share afternoon tea in the large common room of the lighthouse. It is the place that once held a Teletype that gave the family their orders to direct the Clarinet antenna for a strategic bombing run over occupied Europe. Benjamin tells Lilith he was old enough to retire, but operating the lighthouse is not so physically demanding, and he still enjoys making his meteorological observations and publishing articles in his field to various professional journals. Also at certain hours during the day he and Laura guide tourists about the lighthouse grounds and even take them up to the top, something Benjamin forces himself to do despite a bit of arthritis in his knees.
Lilith, for her part, is necessarily vague on answering her father’s questions about how she managed to travel to Israel, since she herself didn’t know the mechanics of that. But everything else she relates, in reverse order, starting from the recent Suez War and going backwards to the birth of her adopted nation.
And all this time, daughter, were there no gentlemen in your life? Have you never considered being married?
Lilith comes to a dead stop there. The heroic accounts of an IDF Major the Arab-Israeli wars are over. Her father’s innocent question dumps her directly into the pit of agonizing memories that smolder yet in the core of her soul.
How shall I proceed father? I am no stranger to the touch of man, but…let’s call it conditioning, shall we? The thought of physical love inevitably takes me back to the camps. You may draw your own conclusions, but that, I think is a mental scar far more long lasting than any of the physical ones I bear, and I know you have seen those.
I am so sorry, Lilith!
Rather it is I who must apologize to you, father. At no time did you do or say anything that merited shunning from your own daughter.
Once, just once, I did see the scars on your back. Will you say anything about what happened to you?
Lilith lowers her head for a long time, gathering the painful memories into a narrative for the first time since it happened. This is it, she thought. And I dread it so, but Haziel wants me to do this.
One time, near the very end, before we were liberated by the American army, the survivors and this was a death camp so there were not very many of us the survivors were mustered together for a roll call, or what the Germans called an appell. We all wore very thin clothing, and it was very cold, as the mornings often were in late March. The commander of the camp gave an order to flog the entire first row of prisoners simply because the exhausted and freezing women had poor posture! And I was in the first row.
Listening to the screams of the prisoners being whipped before my turn was almost worse than the actual punishment. Almost. I vowed that I would not scream when it happened to me, and I begged God for the strength to make that vow hold true. I was stripped naked and held by two female guards over a table while a third laid on the lash. The agony of this punishment is indescribable. I will not even attempt to describe it. But from the first stroke I completely forgot my vow, and I did scream.
Both Benjamin and Laura gape at her with horror.
I lost count of how many strokes I received because I lost consciousness before it was over. I woke up in the camp hospital in only slightly less agony than during the whipping, with my entire back on fire, it felt like. It would take four days before I could get more than a few minutes of uninterrupted sleep at a time. I had lost a lot of blood and the slightest movement opened the scars and caused me to bleed again. So I could not be moved from the hospital or walk under my own power. When the American forces drew very near, the entire camp descended into chaos. I was left behind. A day later I did manage to stumble out of bed for one final task. Troops of the 89th Infantry Division of the US Third Army captured Ohrdruf-Nord on April 4, 1945. Among the many thousands of dead Jews whose burnt or decomposing bodies where strewn about the camp, one female German guard also lay on the ground with her head nearly twisted off the spine. That guard was the one who had laid the lash on my back. She was my first one, father, but she was not my last one, not by a wide margin.
Benjamin closes his eyes and howls in despair, as Laura tries to comfort him.
And so you see, father, as I stand here in my IDF uniform, that the little girl you raised in this lighthouse is no more, replaced by a cold-blooded killer, and we do not really know each other at all, do we?
Please. I must know. Please tell me. What happened to your mother?
Lilith shakes her head firmly.
You’re not ready for that, father. It would kill you. I’m not ready for it yet, and I was there.
She gets up and quietly leaves the lighthouse.Looking around for Haziel, Lilith sees instead an unclothed white human figure with no hair, no eyes or mouth.The figure draws near to Lilith, who is not afraid.She reaches a hand out slowly as though to touch the mannequin-thing. A needle springs out from the surface to pierce one of Lilith’s outstretched fingers, and she draws back her hand in pain. Then there is a rush of images, followed by the heat of the sandy stretch of the eastern Mediterranean that Lilith calls home. The white figure is gone.