The Day I Turned Five

It was 50 years ago today in 1967,  and we were living in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.  Now, I don’t know if what I am about to tell you is exactly the way it happened, or if it is the mish-mash of stories I heard and photos and family films I have seen,  or if it is my inner child’s skewed memory of an event that shaped my life on the day I turned five.

We were part of a small community of Israeli families in this lovely East African nation that had just achieved its independence in 1963. My father had been sent there by the Israeli government as an Officer of the Israel Defense Forces and a fluent English speaking Electronics Engineer, and was put in charge of helping the nascent Tanzanian Police force design and manufacture their first transistor radios. He taught the Tanzanian police students engineering and electronics, and together they built these first locally made radios.

zvi with tanzanian police

My father,  Zvi Harrel (first row, second from the right )  with his class of graduates of the Tanzanian Police Academy

There were other Israeli families in Dar es Salaam at the time, each sent there to help the new African country with building infrastructure such as roads and construction projects, improving agricultural technology, business development, arms sales and my dad with his radios. Israel was desperately trying to make friends among newly independent nations and many Israeli specialists and advisers spent the 1960’s in Africa. Like us.

On the morning of my birthday, I eagerly waited for my friends to arrive at our home, excited about the presents I would receive and the fun time we would have playing in our sandbox and up in my tree house

As my friends started to arrive, the moms directed the kids towards the front yard and all the dads went inside. I clearly remember the inside that day, as my father had prepared it ‘for the party.’ From the Dar es Salaam police headquarters, he brought home what to me appeared to be humongous, gray machines with lots of black buttons and lights. I remember them being taller than me.

IMG_5391

My five year old self, riding my bike in front of our house in Dar es Salaam

These huge radio transmitters were placed in the living room and as the fathers came in, they put on head phones and huddled quietly around them, listening intently to radio transmissions, waiting for the familiar two-word codes that meant you were needed in a national emergency. Israel was at war and Arab countries were already broadcasting that Egyptian forces had reached Tel Aviv. Israeli radio broadcasts were somber and eerily silent about events on the ground.  I seem to remember the dads were smoking, which doesn’t surprise me because Israelis awaiting orders of whether to hop on a plane and join their military units to fight for the survival of their small country,  always smoke. Its a thing, one of those unwritten rules. You fight for survival, you smoke.

Little did I know, but in the  weeks before my birthday, there had been rising tension and increasing threats by Egypt, Syria and Jordan against little Israel. They had been amassing their armies on the borders, making death threats on the airwaves and the print media, and Egypt blocked the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping,  itself an act of war. Israelis were worried. Very worried. War was looming and the only questions were when would it start and how would we survive.

Israelis had been preparing for an inevitable war with their Arab neighbors.  Israelis living abroad, especially the men, had already packed a small suitcase and were anxiously awaiting the moment they would get the word from their reserve units to return and help defend the homeland. Everyone was on edge. So was my dad. And so were all the Israeli dads in Africa.

I learned later, that my parents decided to go on with preparations for my birthday party despite the tension and uncertainty and invited the whole Israeli community so we could all be together. A great excuse for moms and kids to play and the dads to huddle around the great big radio receivers and listen to the latest news from Israel.

As chance would have it, the war began at dawn on the very day of my fifth birthday, June 5th, 1967. My birthday party became the gathering place, the headquarters for all Israelis in Dar es Salaam as we eagerly awaited news from home.

It turned out that Israel, our little David of a country, defeated Goliath that week and in only six days destroyed the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, soundly defeating them against all odds. Our fathers were not called up to join their units and after a week of fighting, Israelis breathed a sigh of relief.

However, the most amazing, exhilarating and important result of the Six Day War happened on June 7th, 1967, two days after my birthday. Israeli forces pushed the Jordanian army back,  re-entered the Old City of Jerusalem, re-took the Jewish Quarter and once again, the Jewish people were able to touch and to pray at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount.  Our eternal capital was again in our hands.

Today, May 24th, 2017, is a day of great joy in Israel, as we celebrate the 50th anniversary (according to the Hebrew calendar) of the re-unification of our capital. Thousands of Israeli Jews are celebrating in Jerusalem at this very moment and my heart is with them. I will leave it at that, as this is very complicated. But wow, it has been 50 years.

I felt the need to put pen to paper since I am emotionally very attached to the events of the Six Day War, as if I had played a part in that history. And I guess I did. After all, we share the same birthday.

Harrel photo 1967

The Harrel family in 1967, Zvi, Pola, Anat and baby Micah.

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