A Soldier’s Story
Fri, 06/22/2007
Special To The Jewish Week

On the eve of Israel Independence Day in 1967, Dov Lichtenberg went with friends to the Israel Song Festival in Jerusalem. There, Naomi Shemer’s new song, "Jerusalem of Gold" was first performed by an unknown young singer named Shuli Natan. Later, after midnight, the 25-year-old student received word of his mobilization for army service from a colleague at the university. "It’s not a drill; it’s a real war," he said to the person who handed him the order.

Lichtenberg recently spoke by telephone with The Jewish Week from his home in Tel Aviv about his wartime experiences, always emphasizing that he had been a staff officer, not a hero. In the previous years, he had been serving in the "academic reserves," having alternated his university study with army training and an officer’s course. He joined the regular army when he was 21, after graduating from the Hebrew University. He then served for about two and a half years until the academic year 1966 and then went back to university for a master’s degree.

"In my reserve unit, I served as staff officer in charge of human resources. In my unit, I was not only responsible for keeping records but also for the welfare of the soldiers, including their religious and cultural needs," he says, adding that his work was indeed very interesting.

His unit was new, having first gotten together six months previously, so they hadn’t had much experience working together.

"I must say that everyone at that time was very angry with the government. We were waiting for [United Nations ambassador] Abba Eban to prevent the war. But there we were in the Negev somewhere, getting our unit arranged. For our unit, that time was well used to get organized."

"Of course all of us wanted to do the job and go home but at the same time we were very frightened. I still remember talking to my commander and asking, ‘How many of us are going to be able to go back after this war?’ We were also worried about what might happen to our homes."

They set off with about 30 tanks, moving through the desert, back and forth in the Negev, from one place to another, sometimes zigzagging and doing deceptive maneuvers to order to confuse the nearby Egyptians.

"On the first day of the war," he says, "we did not have many battles, as we were just kind of sneaking into the Egyptian land through an area that was believed to be impossible for tanks. It was relatively easy because our air force was already the master of the skies."

"We did lose one of our officers and another two soldiers when fighting erupted when we were at Bir Lahfan, south of El Arish. At one point, one of the commanders stood up with a flashlight, and the Egyptians shot at him. He was killed. This was the first time I actually saw a victim of war. It was not a nice sight."

"We moved toward the Suez Canal. We went to Bir Gafgafah and then to Bir El-Hassne and finally we approached the Mitla Pass, in about two and a half sleepless days. We had some points where we had to defend ourselves. We were shot at. We generally moved on the main road, and the Egyptians were moving in the same direction on the right and on the left. We could see them."

"We had to leave behind those tanks that were out of gasoline. When we left the tanks, we moved them to a point where they protected each other. The idea of being left alone is not nice, not safe. On several occasions we were approached by groups of Egyptian soldiers who wanted to give in. But we couldn’t take them with us. We eventually reached the Mitla Pass with merely nine tanks, four of them being towed by the others.

"Near the Mitla Pass, we lost a tank to friendly fire," he says, adding, "There’s nothing friendly about it."

"We did take several officers as prisoners when they came with their hands up — but we could not take many, so we made them leave their weapons and their clothing and remain in their underwear. It was very bizarre. In most instances they were told to go wherever they wanted and they were all running to get to the canal, by foot."

He recalls that at one point he saw a wounded Egyptian soldier, lying on his back and begging for water. "Quite naturally, I handed him my canteen. But then the driver of my armed vehicle suddenly shot at the Egyptian, as he was aiming his gun at me.

"When Jerusalem was liberated, the radio was broadcasting over and over again Shuli Natan singing ‘Jerusalem of Gold.’ One very moving moment was when Shuli came to visit the troops (similar to other performers). It so happened that she seemed to appear from nowhere when we passed Bir El-Hassne, at the moment that the radio announced that Jerusalem was liberated."

Lichtenberg didn’t expect the war to end so quickly. He notes that while his unit was prepared with 100 plastic body bags, they suffered four losses and a few injuries.

"You are being trained for war. The real wish we all had was to go home. We had wanted to go to war. We all did. We wanted to get it over and done with. We felt it was unavoidable. But all we really wanted was to go home."

Lichtenberg served in the reserves for 20 more years after the Six-Day War, with the same group of men, many of whom are his close friends. "What unites you with your army mates, that binding is very strong. When you go through traumatic moments with people, you get to be real friends."

"We were all really high when we got back. We were feeling that the Messiah is coming. We had come out alive from an impossible war and did it in six days. We conquered, we are heroes, we are winners, our country is an empire, so we thought."

"We celebrated with our unit at a dinner. Our unit was one of the first to return home, on June 20, just in time to celebrate Shavuot with our families. For a year, we used to look out of the window of our apartment in Jerusalem and watch [the village of] Nebi Samuel. Now that we were lucky that nothing happened to us, the main celebration was to walk there with civilian friends. We knew much about Jerusalem, Hebron, Bethlehem and other historic places we could finally visit."

Lichtenberg continues, "I remember that my father [who was wounded in the Arab Uprising of 1935] once told me that in 1948 he was certain that his sons wouldn’t have to go to military service. I felt similarly in 1967. Now, I feel that not only my grandchildren, but also my great-grandchildren will unfortunately have to fight. As long as our enemies do not accept our right to live in peace, we will have to protect ourselves."

After the 1967 war, Lichtenberg returned to civilian life. He went back to the university and received his master’s degree that summer and his doctorate in 1971.

"What makes me tick is science," Lichtenberg says. He recently stepped down after serving for four years as dean of the Tel Aviv University Medical School and the chairman of the Forum of Medical Faculties in Israel. Now that his term ended, he returned to his research in the field of free radicals, oxidative stress and antioxidants from the points of view of pharmacology, physiology, biochemistry and biophysics. This summer, he will be a visiting scientist at the Institute of Human Nutrition at Columbia University in New York.