Saturday evening, July 17, 1943.
Finally I am beginning with the writing of my journal. Actually, it is not a journal but rather impressions of my travels. But since this is not a regular journey, for the sake of travel itself, but the outcome of my service in the army, excerpts from the daily life of the battalion will naturally be integrated here and there in the account of the journey.
I’ve had the chance to see much since I left the Holy Land, and I would like to tell you, my darling Naominka and Danik my dear, there will certainly come a day when you will want to know where your father was, what he saw and did, and therefore I decided to put on paper the multitude of my impressions. An additional motive for writing is to steal away at least part of my empty time and in this way to spare myself from the worst of my ennui.
We left the Holy Land, in fact, ten days ago, but due to reasons independent of me, my writing was postponed until today, and of course because I’ve had so many impressions, it is possible that I don’t remember all with accuracy, as I saw them in reality. Nevertheless, my hope is that I will not go afar of the truth.
Evening. The sun has crossed the line of the horizon at its half-way point. I am by myself in one of the abandoned tents of Squadron 4, sitting on the ground with my writing block resting on half of a can of kerosene, and writing. If these conditions are far from being comfortable, in our circumstances they are really ideal.
Tomorrow morning our division is moving to its assigned place (about 200 km to the southwest), it is my hope that we will arrange ourselves there in more tolerable conditions and not in travel conditions, as has been until now. I am beginning my writing from today, and from my new place I’ll fill in what I have left out until now.
Reveille was at 0630 as usual, arranging the quarters, washing, shaving, eating continued until 0830. At the time I was supposed to leave for drill exercises, my friends returned to the tent from guard duty in the R.E.M.S. [?] in Benghazi. I seized this opportunity so as not to take part in P.T.—even though I am among its adherents, I do not maintain that it should be performed immediately after eating; and therefore I avoid taking part in it with any opportunity accorded to me.
At the 0900 hour I was supposed to perform my most detested drill exercises. To my joy they were cancelled. In their place came a trip to Benghazi to take part in communal prayers in the synagogue of the city’s Jews. 25 soldiers were permitted for the trip, the rest departed and arrived by hitchhike. The synagogue was sufficiently filled with the soldiers of the various units that camped in the surrounding area (several thousand soldiers from the Land of Israel are camping in the Benghazi area, and the symbol of the Star of David has been hoisted on many of the vehicles of the units of the Land of Israel).1 In addition to the soldiers, a minyan or two of local Jews also assembled. They and their synagogue made the most [illegible] impression on me. Immediately following the sermon of the Military Rabbi, I departed to examine the city.
Benghazi is the largest of the cities of Cyrenaica and the second largest after Tripoli, the capital of the Italian empire, which the Duce2 began to establish in the framework of the ancient Roman empire.
The city, which suffered terribly from air attacks, has been almost completely destroyed. Its largest part is in ruins, you pass through whole streets without meeting a soul. You can enter any house to do your bodily needs, and no one will say a word to you. There is a great stench in the streets. Many of the inhabitants have not yet returned, and so except for one small quarter, where the synagogue is also located, you hardly meet any local citizens. The city is full of soldiers. Except for a couple of trucks, you don’t come across any civilian vehicles, and you get the impression that this is an army city.
The city in its appearance is fairly European. In the way it extends outwards, it even greatly resembles Tel Aviv. Its houses are built with simplicity, thick stone walls that are well plastered. You almost never come across a concrete building, not even with concrete reinforcements, but there are many folding shutters, and likewise porcelain in the city’s modern kitchens and bathrooms. The city has an imperial glory and splendor that is not to be seen in Tel Aviv. There are streets of magnificent columns (they remind you of Carmelit Street in Haifa), the great glory of signs and inscriptions of the many government institutions. Gates of honor and victory in the shape of obelisks, etc. Despite the great destruction, the lasting impression is that Benghazi was the gate to the young Italian empire.
Tuesday July 20, 1943
I had just begun with the writing of my journal and here three days go by in which I do not have a moment to continue with my writing. Even now the sun is about to set. The hour is already 2100. Even though sunset here is about an hour later than back home, the time zones here are as they are in the Holy Land. I would put off the writing until the next day, something I would have to do anyway in continuation. And even when I tried to begin, in order to get into the habit, I would rather be playing ball. Moreover, on Saturday night I was forced to stop my writing in the middle because it was dark, and so now I will continue from where I left off. I hope that tomorrow I will be able to be meticulous in my recording.
The Benghazi port is about the size of the port in Haifa, but it falls short in its facilities. The train that departs from it to the city of Barce (about 100km northeast) is the most wretched you could have seen, and its tracks are even more narrow than the Emek railway line. The local Napi [?] is found in one of the palaces of the city, its main hall is on pillars two stories high, and its roof is made of glass windows. It makes the impression of a magnificent villa or a gentleman’s club for the heads of government and residents of the city. There are marks of bomb damage on this building, too. But in the imagination the picture differs from reality. For some reason, in my imagination, this hall would be filled at night with Italian gentlemen and ladies, attending merry parties.
Near the Napi, I got a haircut, or to be more exact, shaved off my hair. In the conditions in which I am living it is absolutely unnecessary and only serves as a nest of filth. I was about to return to the camp when I came across a number of friends and joined them, and together we went to visit the city’s cathedral. It is a large and magnificent building that was not hit directly by the bombs but only by shrapnel and air blasts, the plaster and the marble coating are peeling off. We stayed there for about a quarter of an hour when in one of the side rooms they began to play an organ. Despite the filth and the destruction I was very much impressed by the abundance of sound, and I regretted that we Jews have no places of prayer that create an atmosphere of majestic splendor and divine feeling, the feeling in which man can free himself for a period of time from the profane life and be one with his Creator. Even though I did not have any ties to the church and the likeness of its rooms, I was filled with a holy spirit from the splendor of the building and the whisper of its tunes. And this is in comparison to the wretched, dirty, disorderly synagogue with its unsavory congregation of worshippers who were so arrogant and carried on.
At 1415 we went to the only cinema in the city. The building itself is sufficiently nice, but it, too, was hit heavily by air attacks and all of its plaster fell off. The hall is not large. Entrance is permitted only to soldiers. The film was not to my taste. Complete idiocy with the exaggerated addition of spiritual masturbation (many young women wearing less than they should and making sensual movements as they danced). Evidently it was adapted especially for soldiers located in the desert, allowing them some release for their desire.
Wednesday, July 21, 1943
What I feared has come to pass. I was forced to stop my writing in the middle due to darkness, and, in the meantime, my debt to my journal only swells and accumulates. I will try over the coming days to complete what is missing and then to continue.
After the cinema, which ended sufficiently early, we returned by hitchhike to the camp (by the way, in Cyrenaica there are no transportation services, only hitchhike). On the way, we went down to wash in the waters of the lake that is located 3 km from the camp. This swimming hole provides us with much pleasure because it gives us the only opportunity to wash ourselves, even if in salty water (except for sea water). After washing, we returned, and once again by hitchhike, to the camp. We ate dinner, and I arranged my things in preparation for tomorrow’s move. And once again I am sitting to write in my journal. When it got dark, as I was returning to my tent, I came across the group that, by the way, is the respectable heart of the division, and together we sang until late. We sang sad songs that reflected our inner sentiments so well. We sang about the sorrow, the pain and degradation that we had merited due to no fault of our own.
The next day, 18.7.43, we rose earlier than usual. We left all our things in trunks, disassembled the camp, the tents, and hastily ate breakfast. At the 0800 hour, five trucks arrived, driven by Sudanese, under the command of a British sergeant. We settled ourselves in the trucks comfortably, each detachment in its own truck. At the head of the line was our officer with the British sergeant and bringing up the rear was a truck with provisions from the kitchen, the supplies, and the warehouse. And once again we left on our wanderings. This time for only one day and with the hope that in our new place we would remain for a longer period of time. The trip was easy and comfortable. We bypassed the city of Benghazi to the southeast, and we saw the large oil fields of enormous dimension, constructed in the days of the Italians. We passed a large agricultural settlement that gave the impression of an experimental station, and huge airfields for the giant ‘Librotros’ airplanes. From both sides of the street grew rows of trees (mostly Eucalyptus that were not fully mature) for a route of many kilometers. After 20 kilometers we entered once again into a desert terrain where here and there we came across the white tents of the Senussi3 with their herds of camels and sheep and for long stretches even fields of very short grain. Over the course of the whole route traces of the war: overturned trucks, damaged tanks, and even destroyed airplanes, etc. Every few kilometers we passed army tents. First an armored unit, then a communications unit, and once again airfields, etc. After a trip of fifty kilometers we arrived at a small Senussi town whose name was Zmanis (they say that the Italians detained the Jews of Benghazi there). In this city our officer engaged in the trade of bartering. For a small number of cigarettes he received grapes and tomatoes for the whole division. Cigarettes in Cyrenaica are the best currency. From there we travelled to Sidi Magrum, which itself is also a small Senussi town, the institutions of the Italian regime were concentrated in it and apparently a garrison also camped there. It has nice and new buildings with Italian inscriptions. The Senussi garrison is camped in this city, and their flag flies over the building where they camp. (In this war, each one is worthy of raising his flag high, we alone do not.) From the King’s road, we digressed about two kilometers to a desert road in order to get to a water station held by 4 of our squadron. Their task is to set the pump in motion and to distribute water to the army and the inhabitants. They live in a nice room that is located under the water tower, and their situation is excellent. An abundance of water, good accommodations, and they are exempt from guard duty, but they suffer from boredom. At the water station we rested, refreshed ourselves with lunch, visited the ancient ruins from the Roman or Greek period and caves with inscriptions. It seems that in the past this was a blooming place of settlement.
There has once again been a break in my writing. I simply became tired from the writing and from the fact that I slept only four hours at night. I used the break to play games of chess (they ended twice with my victory and twice with Moti’s victory), to eat lunch, to read, to sleep a couple of hours and, to my great joy, to receive four letters: two from you, my dear, from mother, and from Roni; in your letter, the cute pictures of Dani. The mail was brought in the squadron’s trucks that came here today from Benghazi for the first time, and with them the Commander of the squadron and the C.S.M. They came to see how we had settled in our new place, they also brought with them yesterday’s newspaper, Egypt Mail. I read, ate dinner, played a little soccer. But I left the game in the middle in order to continue with my writing. It seems to me that I’ll never be able to emerge from my deficit in the journal, and in the meantime, my impressions from the first days are becoming ever more distant, and so, Herzl, in piece-work, because the work is accumulating.
From Magrum we made a light and easy trip leeward for about another 80 km, until we arrived at our designated place, the small town of Azhadbiya. Our small convoy stopped in the center of the town, near the Napi building, which was the post office in the days of the Italians. We got out to purchase foodstuff, as is the way of soldiers who hasten to use any opportunity to buy food. This is true of those who are hungry and those who are full, whether before a meal or immediately following it. Our officer went to see the Town Maigor [sic], under whose command we are entering. After a short while we were brought to our dwelling place, a quadrangular courtyard surrounded by 10 rooms. For the time being, we have only 7 rooms at our disposal. Young locals immediately appeared, they swept the rooms and the courtyard. We were divided up into the rooms, 7-8 persons in a room. The buildings are sufficiently simple but very comfortable. Their walls are thick (almost a meter), built of stone, and plastered in the European style. In the heat of day it is cool in them, and in the cold desert nights you only need one blanket. In the evenings it is not pleasant in the rooms, and so we spend these hours in the courtyard, in friendly conversation or in song.
In our building, like most of those that remain here, and in the rest of the places that were left by the Italians, and were passed from hand to hand several times, there has been much neglect in the last two years, the doors and windows have been removed, and they remain wide open. There is reason to assume that all pieces of wood have been used for warmth and for the heating of the units that have passed through. The building in which we are located, and those surrounding it, were built as barracks for the Italian military garrison, which camped here in the name of enforcing order and discipline among the Senussi of the region. All of the barracks are surrounded with a wall of stone with slits for shooting. Naturally, they are entirely devoid of value in modern warfare, and therefore it was used during combat as an army hospital, and it continues to this day to bear large red crosses on its white walls. We even found, as in all hospitals, numbers for the beds, and naturally pornographic pictures were not absent. In one of the rooms, we set up a kitchen, and in another a dining room. It is all primitive and very simple, but it fulfills our essential needs. We made all our furniture ourselves from the abundance of empty gasoline cans that we found in one of the rooms.
Some time after our arrival, one of the men of the squadron met the only water carrier in the area. This is a Jew who belongs to Squadron 11, provides water to the bottom and central Benghazi region. He was very happy to meet us and immediately brought us a tank of water, and we all took showers from it with the help of a rubber hose. Decidedly pleasant after a hard day of travel.
After dinner, I had a conversation and lengthy argument almost until morning. With this the second day of my journal comes to an end. A long day, interesting but exhausting. The first evening after our arrival, local children had already come to wash our kitchenware for us, for the remnants of food, and the same evening, we left for guard duty.