Last week, on Tuesday morning, after Islamic Jihad terrorists fired the first barrage of rockets at multiple targets in southern Israel, my wife phoned her aging parents in Ashkelon to suggest that they pack a suitcase and come stay with us in Jerusalem until the missile fire ceased.
Her 90-year-old father, a survivor of Auschwitz, who lost his parents and 10 brothers in the Holocaust, stoically responded, “Let’s see what develops today.”
Her mother, age 80, spent her childhood in one orphanage after another, after her parents were murdered by the Nazis when she was three years old. “I don’t have the strength to pack a suitcase,” she told my wife. “Besides, tomorrow I have an appointment to see the surgeon who removed the malignancy from my forehead last month.”
Two months before that simple but anxiety-provoking procedure, she underwent a triple bypass. She also suffers from disc problems and arthritis, which makes walking very painful. If a rocket siren sounds when she is in the kitchen, she can’t make the walk to their bomb shelter in the backyard before the missile falls, so she and her husband were preparing to spend the day in the bedroom situated closest to the back door of the house.
Rockets attacks from Gaza have many repercussions in addition to the lives that are snuffed out. Elderly people who live alone suffer from fear and isolation. Schools are closed. Parents have to stay home from work to take care of traumatized children. Social workers and psychological services are unable to treat the numerous people with shock and post-trauma syndrome, which missile attacks bring in their wake.
On Wednesday, when the thunderstorm of missiles showed no sign of ending, my wife and I decided to drive to Ashkelon. Safta (my mother-in-law) insisted on keeping her doctor appointment, and my wife wanted to accompany her. My wife rescheduled her work appointments, and I informed one of my sons that I wouldn’t be able to pick up his son from kindergarten in the afternoon.
Before leaving rocket-free Jerusalem, I made sure to fill our car up with gasoline, not wanting to stop for fuel within missile range, lest one fall on the gas station and send us to heaven in a fiery explosion. As we headed towards Ashkelon, I made a small detour to drive past the site where a rocket had landed the previous day in the middle of a busy highway, relying on the adage that missiles don’t strike twice in the same place.
While certain things make me nervous, rockets aren’t one of them. My wife, a second-generation survivor, is less relaxed. When we reached “Apache territory,” I could hear the tension in her voice when she spoke to her parents from the car. Immediately, in addition to the radio warnings, we now heard the booms of the Iron Dome system intercepting rockets aimed for Ashdod, Rehovot, and Tel Aviv.
Shimon Peres once ridiculed the threat of rockets from Gaza, saying, “Ketushote, shmatushote,” but the explosions are the sounds of real war, and the impact can knock down a small home.
Money from Germany, transferred to Israel via a Holocaust reparations fund, provides my elderly in-laws with a housekeeper five days a week for three hours each day, but when we arrived in their rural Afrida neighborhood, originally founded by Jewish immigrants from South Africa, my wife’s parents were all alone. The housekeeper had to stay home that morning to take care of her children who were off from school because of the rocket launchings.
The old couple came to the front door to unlock the door and greet us. Not having slept all night, they looked emotionally and physically drained, but obviously they were happy we had come. Like always, they insisted we have some cake and coffee in the kitchen. When a Red Alert Warning blared noisily over the city, there were flashes of worry on everyone’s faces.
“You two go into the miklat,” Safta said to my wife and me. “I don’t have strength anymore for the bomb shelter.”
My wife gazed at me. During the Six-Day War, as a young girl, she had to spend hours in the neighborhood bomb shelter during Egyptian shelling from Sinai and the Gaza Strip. Recently, because of recurring missile attacks, her parents had built a private shelter in their backyard at an expense of 50,000 shekels, but, more often than not, they didn’t bother to use it, trusting in Hashem.
That morning, Saba Shmuel hadn’t davened in the local Beit Knesset, a 10-minute walk from his home, fearing a missile attack on the way. Not far from the shul, on a path just beyond the hedge and fence of a Knesset Member who lived in the neighborhood, you could see the new cobblestones which replaced the ones that had been shattered by a falling Ketusha. Another missile had landed on the roof of a house across the street.
Now, we all stood in the kitchen, holding our breaths until the double boom of an Iron Dome missile told us that the danger had passed. In the salon, the TV correspondent read out the latest reports. A radio sounded from the bedroom near the back door. In her deep, hoarse voice, the military correspondent, Karmela Menashe, reassured the beleaguered Israeli populace that Israeli air-force jets were bombing Islamic Jihad targets.
“Empty fields and warehouses,” my wife’s father said cynically.
He had canceled Safta’s post-surgery check-up, not wanting to expose us to the danger involved in driving through the besieged city. While Safta and Saba were arguing about his unilateral decision to reschedule the appointment, my wife phoned their housekeeper to learn how she was faring. Apparently, the phone call presented the housebound woman an opportunity to vent her frustrations and fears and her anger at the government for not ending the terror from Gaza once and for all.
She reported that for the last two years, her seven-year-old suffered from bedwetting at night, which, a child psychologist said, was not unusual with children who lived in the south of Israel under frequent missile attack. The distraught housekeeper also told my wife that her nine-year-old daughter jumped in fright every time she heard a dog bark or a motorcycle backfire, thinking it was an incoming rocket.
Ending the conversation at her mother’s request, my wife phoned one of their friends, a widow who lived alone a few streets away. It turned out that her son had taken her to his home in the city of Ashdod, which was also under heavy fire, so that she wouldn’t be by herself. Also a survivor of the Holocaust, she possessed a heart that wasn’t the strongest, and the rockets didn’t help soothe her ulcers. A few days later, I spoke with her son, a paramedic who worked around the clock during the two and a half days of shelling. He told me:
“Baruch Hashem that we have the Iron Dome system to protect us. I only had to treat three people who had been wounded by shrapnel, and a lady who fell down and hurt her knee while hurrying to a shelter. But we treated more than 40 people suffering from anxiety attacks, several who had to be hospitalized.”
As the afternoon in Ashkelon progressed with a rocket alert sounding almost every hour, we tried to convince the old couple to pack two suitcases and come with us to Jerusalem. Saba seemed ready, but his weak and ailing wife shook her head no. “We’ll be all right in Ashkelon,” she insisted.
I offered to do some grocery shopping for them, but they said they had plenty to eat. Perhaps because of their childhood experience in the Holocaust, when they never knew where the next meal would come from – if it would come at all – their refrigerator, freezer, kitchen closets, and cupboards were stock up with food.
That afternoon, nobody napped. During intervals of calm and constant radio coverage, I asked my father-in-law questions about Auschwitz, taping his gruesome recollections for the background of a book I hope to write. In the past, he had never related in detail his harrowing experiences, but now, with the sounds of war in the distance, he spoke openly, with occasional shudders and tears in his eyes.
When a nursing home in another part of town suffered a direct hit, and an elderly woman had to be rushed to the city’s Barzilai Hospital, we redoubled our efforts to convince them to leave Ashkelon, to no avail. By sunset, I counted seven Red Alerts and 12 Iron Dome booms that shook the rafters of the house.
My father-in-law and I prayed Mincha and Maariv in the house, while my wife’s bent-over mother recited Tehillim with her usual devotion. We ate the soup my wife had prepared, and in the evening, after the nightly news on TV and rumors of a possible cease fire, my wife and I hugged them, said goodbye and headed back to Jerusalem.
A fragile ceasefire went into effect in the morning. The missiles have temporarily stopped, but the devastating after-effects and traumas are sure to continue, even though they don’t make headline news.