Going to Jerusalem
“Go with God,” my mother said. I felt her tears on my neck, there in front of the apartment house, under the tall bare tree, its brown leaves scattered on the sidewalk by the cold December wind.
“Take care of yourself,” my father said. We shook hands. I buttoned my coat and walked to the corner of Shenkin. The bus to downtown came in a moment, and I quickly turned and waved. They waved back, holding on to each other, alone together.
I was going to Jerusalem. Beyond Jerusalem lay America, Times Square, Broadway, Hollywood, palatial homes, swimming pools, cars, nice clothes, malt shops, jitterbug, jazz. That was America to me.
I was eighteen years old.
The dispatcher at the cab stand on Rothschild, just off Allenby, waved me into the back of the big black car. It was empty, smelling of tobacco. Two jump seats were unfolded, awaiting passengers. I settled in to the middle seat in the rear. I knew it was selfish, but I wanted to be safe. At least as safe as possible.
I put my hand inside the breast pocket of my jacket to make sure the new British Passport 224866, issued by the government of Palestine, was safe. Soon it would contain a visa granting me entry to the United States.
No war, No Arabs, No bombs.
I’d wanted to live in America ever since I started going to the movies. I used to imagine all of America as one big movie set. Chaim Rosoff, who lived next door to our third floor walk-up in Tel Aviv, called America the “Goldene Medine,” the Golden Land. “It’s where dreams come true,” he used to say.
Soon I would dream there, too.
The dispatcher interrupted my thoughts. “Move over,” he commanded. “Sit by the door. Let the girl sit in the middle.”
“But I was here first. I want to sit in the middle.”
“What’s the matter? You’re too scared to sit by the door?” He laughed, a man with thick eyebrows and golden teeth.
“If he’s scared, let him sit in middle.” A husky voice announced an attractive girl, about my age. Her cheeks were red from the wind, her dark eyes shining with laughter.
I moved to the door.
In short order the rest of the passengers entered the cab. The girl next to me placed a bag in her lap, extracted two knitting needles attached to yarn, twisting snake-like from the bag and began to knit. She shook her long, light brown hair free of her jacket. A bearded young man wearing a skull cap sat on her other side and began reading. Two middle-aged women occupied the jump seats and a young couple sat up front. No one spoke.
The driver was the last to arrive. When he turned around our eyes met.
“Avraham! “ I exclaimed.
“Since when are you driving a cab?” I asked.
“Why would you be going to Jerusalem?”
“I…well…I’m going on an errand. For my father.”
“I’m filling in for the driver. My sick uncle.”
“Yaalah, let’s go!” shouted the dispatcher. Avraham turned the key in the ignition. We lurched ahead.
Avraham mustn’t find out why I was going to Jerusalem, I thought. He mustn’t find out that I was leaving for America. I knew what he would say. He’d say, “You’re a quitter. How can you leave us behind? Your chevre (community), your friends, your people? How can you walk out on this fight for our independence? In a few months we’ll have our own state. For the first time in two thousand years. And you won’t be part of it.”
I knew how I would respond. I’d say, “There’ll never be peace with Arabs. There’ll always be killing. I live only once. I want to live where there’s peace. Where I can get somewhere. I have a right to live my life my way.”
We had these discussions before, Avraham and I, when we were in high school. He was a Zionist, born in the Land of Israel. I was born in Germany, and my family fled from Hitler. “Sands, flies, and Arabs,” my father said a few months after we arrived in Palestine.
I could hear the sounds of voices and running feet that awakened me one night in 1936 when I was six years old. My parents were carrying blankets and pillows out of our apartment in North Tel Aviv. From my window I saw flames, like moving golden sheets, illuminating the southern horizon, towards Jaffa. Scores of men, women, and children were huddled in the open red poppy fields in front of the house. People were bringing them food and supplies.
“The Arabs attacked Jews on the border of Jaffa and Tel Aviv,” my father explained when he returned. “They shot them and set their houses on fire.” He sat down on a chair in the kitchen and wiped his face with a handkerchief. “I was just there this afternoon….”
It was the start of the Meoraot, the Disturbances, that were to last until the outbreak of World War II. Many a night I would hear the crackling of gun shots and scamper under my bed. In the morning I would examine the outside walls for bullet marks.
I thought of it all as we moved forward, down Allenby and other city streets, to the Central Bus Station. There, we joined a convoy of buses, taxis and private cars. Rumors had it that members of the Haganah, the Jewish underground, accompanied the convoys for protection against attacks. Scores of young men milling about alongside vehicles seemed to give credence to the rumors. I had been briefly one of them, but received a medical discharge after being diagnosed with a heart murmur. Now I would be protected by them–I who was leaving them behind.
The flat lands outside Tel Aviv whizzed by, apartment houses soon giving way to Jewish settlements surrounded by wire fences and guard towers. The road to Jerusalem lay before us, gradually twisting and climbing up the mountains of Judea. Stone houses of Arab villages, carved into the mountain sides, appeared after a while. Arabs and Jews lived practically side by side. They might as well have been deserts apart.
Avraham drove steadily, at a fast clip, somewhere in the heart of the convoy, a bus in front and another in back of us. No need to linger in enemy territory. We’d been traveling for about an hour when one of the women in the jump seats began eating a sandwich.
The girl next to me looked at her and laughed. “Some people always think they’ll starve,” she said to no one in particular.
The woman turned around.
“You know, sweetheart, you’re much too skinny. I bet your mother tells you that you don’t eat enough.”
“My mother’s dead,” the girl said quietly. “Killed when our kibbutz was attacked.”
“I’m sorry.” The woman reached out and touched the girl’s hand. “Forgive me.”
A sign by the side of the road proclaimed, “Latrun, Military Installation. Government of Palestine.”
The bus ahead of us slowed down. The woman and the girl settled back in their seats. Avraham stopped.
“Roadblock,” he explained.
From my window I saw British soldiers fanning out among buses and cars, banging on doors, shouting, signaling drivers to stop. Two of them, one on each side of our bus, opened the doors up front. The polished shotguns on their backs glistened in the sun. The soldiers examined the faces of the driver and the couple. Then they looked on the floor of the bus. They slammed the doors shut and opened the back doors.
The man with the beard continued reading, never acknowledging their presence. The young woman knitted as she had been doing since we left Tel Aviv. Were they looking for weapons, I wondered, or for the Hagana? Someone from the Irgun, or the Stern Gang–the other Jewish underground organization?
“Step out, please,” one of the soldiers told the passengers in the jump seats. The two women leaned on the backs of the seats for support, the one still holding her partly eaten sandwich. When the women had left the bus, the soldiers examined the floor. They folded back the hump seats. They looked at the floor under our feet. I felt exposed. They looked at our faces. I had nothing to hide, yet I could feel my heart racing.
The soldiers backed out. The women returned. The soldiers slammed the doors shut.
“Mamzerim,” [bastards] murmured the girl next to me. “At least they could have flipped back the hump seats.”
“Quiet,” said the woman with the sandwich. “Don’t make trouble.”
“Why don’t they go search the Arabs for guns and leave us alone,” Avraham said.
Another convoy arrived from the opposite direction. A taxi came to a halt parallel to ours. Avraham stuck his head out of the window.
“How was the trip from Jerusalem?” he shouted at the driver.
“All quiet,” the man answered.
“Thank God,” said Avraham.
The bus in front of us moved forward.
“All quiet,” the driver had said. And I was thinking in the stillness of the car that for Yossi Mendelson it also was quiet. Permanently.
He was my best friend. Our mothers were best friends. They grew up together in Germany. They stayed friends in the Promised Land. Yossi’s father was a rabbi. Each Passover my parents and I traveled to Jerusalem to participate in the Mendelsons’ Seder.
Yossi was an only child, as was I. He was tall, like his father. Red haired and freckle-faced, like his mother. He had twinkling green eyes from some ancestor unknown to me. He loved to tell jokes and to laugh and sing.
One evening, Yossi and his father were walking home after prayers at the Western Wall, down the cobblestones in the ancient, narrow streets of the Old City. A single sniper’s bullet hit Yossi in the chest. He died the following day.
We heard about it on the news broadcast on Kol Yerushalayim, the Voice of Jerusalem. Two days later my mother and I attended Yossi’s funeral. When they lowered him into the hole in the ground, his skull wobbled in the shroud. My mother held my hand tightly. His mother sobbed. His father shed silent tears. I could feel nothing.
Later that day, in the Mendelsons’ apartment, sitting in mourning on a wooden stool, as was the custom, Mrs. Mendelson looked at me and then whispered in my mother’s ear. On the bus taking us home to Tel Aviv, my mother told me what her friend had said to her:
“Let him have his dream. Let him go to America.”
My mother’s eyes filled with tears.
It was in the springtime, when the way to Jerusalem was green with budding trees and a rich brown with freshly plowed fields, both Arab and Jewish. It was then we buried Yossi. Now, in the chill of winter, I was returning to the place where he no longer lived.
The convoy had made its way down the Mountain of Judea into the valley below. A bus and a car, and a bus and a car, perhaps a dozen altogether, followed one another as if holding on to a lifeline. Soon the mountain rose on both sides of the road.
“Not much more to go,” said the sandwich lady.
“Don’t give us the Evil Eye,” said the woman in the other jump seat with a laugh.
The young man with the beard and the skull cap was asleep. The girl next to me was knitting. I closed my eyes and thought of Yossi, that wouldn’t be seeing him ever again.
The crackling sounds of my childhood. Scores of them at once.
I wanted to hide under my bed.
“Get down, everybody!” shouted Avraham. “Ambush!”
My face hit the floor.
The rat-a-tat of a responding machine gun deafened my ears.
Someone leaned over me. A barrage of something sharp rained on my back. On my head. Was I hit?
I saw my parents holding on to each other as they waved goodbye.
I saw Yossi in his grave.
No. It was I.
I felt the bus speeding. Voices shouting. Buses rumbling.
“I got hit. My arm.” It was Avraham’s voice.
“Can you drive?” a woman asked.
“Yes, for now.”
Sounds of ripping fabric. A gasp of pain.
Then it was quiet.
“You can get off the floor now,” the girl next to me said as she put components of her submachine gun back into the knitting bag. Empty shells were all around me, empty shells that had bounced off my body as their contents zapped through the air.
The second woman in the jump seat was bending forward, bandaging Avraham’s arm. A first-aid kit lay next to her on the seat. Avraham grasped the steering wheel with both hands.
“Just a bullet scrape,” she said. “You’ll be fine.”
I caught his eye in the rearview mirror. I must have looked grim. He smiled.
“I’ll be okay. Just doing my duty.”
So he was in the Haganah detail! As was the girl next to me. The woman administering first aid probably was a Haganah nurse. They risked their lives. And I …I was going to America.
I leaned back in my seat thinking of how I’d just been spared. Thinking of my father’s warning not to sit by the door. The bullet that scraped Avraham…It could have struck me!”
Suddenly my father’s voice echoed in my mind. “Sands, flies, and Arabs.”
I thought of Mrs. Mendelson’s message to my mother: “Let him have his dream. Let him go to America.”
I closed my eyes. What to do?
The trees and houses on the outskirts of Jerusalem were a welcome sight. The convoy rolled down Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, to the Central Bus Station. We all shook hands, congratulating each other on having survived. “Shalom. Shalom. Peace be with you.”
A man on a stretcher was carried from one of the buses into an ambulance. The only motions were those of the men carrying him. His eyes stared ahead. I felt a needle in my heart. He was probably dead. Did he have a mother? A father? Wife and children? The ambulance door was shut. The vehicle pulled out of the station. The siren was not turned on.
“Now tell me why you’re really in Jerusalem,” Avraham said, as we stood on the sidewalk outside the station. “Your father wouldn’t send you on an errand in times like these.”
I looked at him and said nothing.
“You’re leaving, aren’t you? Your visa’s come through.”
I nodded. I couldn’t lie to him now.
He grabbed my arms.
“If you leave you have no right to come back,” he said. “Because we’re all doing our duty. Risking our lives for a common goal. And you’re walking away from it. For your own selfish reasons.”
He released me. Then he turned back into the bus station where another convoy was assembling. He would be in it, of course.
I sat on a nearby bench, my head in my hands.
America, the Goldene Medine, where dreams come true.
Eighteen years old. To be on my own, in the land of opportunity, with no father or mother to tell me what to do. To have my whole life ahead of me. Who knew how far I could go in America? And then, some day, I would be back. Yes. Of course. I would be back.
Times Square, Broadway, Hollywood, palatial homes, swimming pools, cars, nice clothes, malt shops, jitterbug, jazz.
No wars. No shooting. No bombs.
I hailed a cab to the American consulate. A sudden rainstorm rumbled down from the skies. After a while the cab came to a stop. The driver turned around.
“This is as far as I go,” he said. “The consulate is inside the Arab quarter. You don’t expect me to drive there, do you?”
“How’ll I get there?”
“Walk,” the driver laughed.”
On that afternoon of December 26, 1947, a visa was stamped into my passport. An armored car took me and other passengers to Lod Airport. I arrived at LaGuardia on January 12, 1948. The Jewish state would be established four months later.
I’ve visited Israel many times. But I’ve never seen Avraham.
I’ve never looked him up.
Gunter David and his parents fled Germany, their native country, as soon as Adolph Hitler rose to power. They settled in Tel Aviv, in what was then Palestine, where Gunter grew up. He subsequently moved to the U.S., where he worked on major newspapers for 25 years. The Evening Bulletin of Philadelphia nominated him for the Pulitzer Prize. He has returned to Israel numerous times, as a newsman and to visit family and friends, and covered the Yom Kippur War in 1973. His second career was as a family therapist and addiction counselor. Dalia, his wife of 60 years, is also from Israel.