By Dr. Moshe Amirav
I wrote A Paratrooper’s Story on June 8th, 1967 as I lay wounded in Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem, waiting for surgery to remove a small piece of copper shrapnel in my head from the battle for the liberation of Jerusalem. Far more than my wound preoccupied me, I was overwhelmed by my encounter the day before with the Kotel. The paratroopers’ meeting with the Kotel, which has been documented and filmed so extensively, symbolized, more than any other event, the magnificent victory of the Six Day War for the country and the nation. I felt that we, all the paratroopers that participated in the battle for Jerusalem, became representatives; messengers of generations of Jews who sent us to liberate the city they yearned for, prayed and dreamed about for two thousand years.
I knew Menachem Mendel, a frequent visitor to our home in Netanya, since my childhood. He was a strange and grumpy man. I never saw even so much as a shadow of a smile on his lips. My father once told me that he spent his life mourning “not for his family, but for Zion”. My father also told me that he was a member of a group called Mourners of Zion which gathered in his home. “And what do they do?” – I asked, and my father answered: “They miss the Western Wall”. My curiosity, the curiosity of a 12 year-old, was aroused. Thus, in 1957, I arrived at a Mourners of Zion meeting in Netanya. My mouth open in wonder, I spent the evening listening to Menachem Mendel’s stories about the history of the Mourners of Zion throughout the generations and diasporas. “Even in the Treblinka concentration camp”, Menachem Mendel told me, “we had a group of Mourners of Zion. One day a week, we would torment our souls by fasting”. I couldn’t believe my ears! Even in the death camp people fasted as a sign of mourning for the destruction of the Temple!
When I parted from him, he told me something I remembered for many years: “It says in Tractate Baba-Batra: ‘Whoever mourns for Jerusalem will be privileged to see it in its joy’.” And thus, in those years, the years of my youth, while my friends spent their leisure time having fun, I was busy mourning a captive Jerusalem on the other side of the border.
On Monday, the 5th of June 1967, I arrived in Western Jerusalem as a soldier in a paratrooper brigade. All through that night, we advanced from house to house under heavy fire. The battalion advanced to the east; I knew that it was in the direction of the Old City and the goal was clear: the Western Wall. At the end of that night, which was the longest in my life, we arrived in the area near the Rockefeller Museum. I climbed up onto the roof of the adjacent building and in dawn’s first light I was able to see – Jerusalem.
A Jordanian shell exploded on the roof of the building. As a result of the blast, I flew up in the air. I felt a piece of shrapnel ripping my face and it felt as though it was blowing up my head. Immediately, my face bled and all I heard were screams of “Medic, Medic!” Ofer the medic stopped the bleeding by bandaging me quickly and professionally. He calmed me down by saying: “In a few minutes, a rescue jeep will get here and take you to the hospital.” I understood that for me, the war was over. “But I have to get to the Kotel!” – I cried. Ofer looked at me as though I’d lost my mind: “That’s what interests you now, the Western Wall?!”
A few hours later, I was already at Hadassah Hospital in Ein Karem. I could hear the echo of shooting from the Old City. The next morning, we listened to the broadcast of the Voice of Israel reporter, Raphael Amir: “At this moment, I am going down the stairs toward the Western Wall… I am touching the stones of the Western Wall…” Sounds of gunfire could be heard in the background mixed with the elated cries of the soldiers and the sounds of shofar blowing. I could not continue listening to the broadcast. I got out of bed and told Motti, who was lying in the bed next to mine: “I am going to the Kotel!”
I smile now when I remember how I ran to the Kotel, holding Motti’s hand since I could hardly see where to go. We did not take our time – we ran quickly, past the Moghrabi Gate, pushing forward in a hurry. Suddenly we stopped, thunderstruck. Standing opposite us was the Western Wall: gray, huge, silent, and restrained. I remembered feeling this awe-struck only once before, as a child, when my father brought me close to the Holy Ark.
Slowly, I began my approach to the Kotel, feeling like a shaliach tzibbur, a cantor praying for a congregation; representing my father – Herschel-Zvi of Jerusalem and Lithuania, representing Grandfather Moses and Grandfather Yisrael who were slaughtered in Punar, representing my teacher and rabbi Mourner of Zion Menachem Mendel and his entire family that was killed in Treblinka, representing the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg whose poems I knew by heart and had sent me here.
Someone near me made the “She’hechiyanu” blessing, but I could not answer “Amen”. I just put a hand on the stone and the tears that streamed from my eyes were part water and part prayers, tunes, and longing of generations of Mourners of Zion.
I came back to the hospital later that day to undergo surgery to remove the piece of shrapnel from my head. The next day, lying in bed, I wrote “A Paratrooper’s Story”. The story was published in a book about the paratrooper’s brigade, “Lion’s Gate”, and from there it reached other books and publications until a renewed adaptation found its rightful place in the light and glass exhibit – The Generations Center near the Western Wall.