The illustrated Black Book about the atrocities perpetrated by the Germans lay on the ornate table in our living room as if put there on purpose for everyone to see. But I never heard a word from my father about how he felt regarding the death of both his parents and beautiful young sister of nineteen who perished in a concentration camp outside Riga, Latvia, during World War ll. He’s sister’s best friend, an attractive Jewish blonde Aryan prototype, had escaped the camp with the help of a guard, and arrived in Cape Town with the gruesome account of how his sister was torn between escaping and leaving her mother behind to die. However, an ornamented framed picture of them elaborately adorned the wall just above where the black book lay. Being a very sensitive and emotional young boy, with a very curious mind, I ventured as far as paging through the formidable book and was horrified to see photographs of heaps of naked bodies piled up high like stacks of wood and large dug out pits filled to the brim with Jews that had been shot. It bothered me but my father kept tight-lipped about the holocaust.
My parents were traditional, coming from Latvia where anti-Semitism was rife. I grew up with many unanswered questions about the Holocaust because it was kind-of taboo to discuss it in our home. Having the make-up of an inquiring mind, I would have to investigate it for myself through inter-reaction with the world. I began by reading the black book.
In 1952 my parents took me out from Herzliya school and enrolled me at SACS, a government school, where my sentiments grew away from the Jewish tradition and more in sync with secular South Africa.
When I graduated from High School I was not balloted to serve in the South African Defense force and found myself at a loose end. So I impulsively decided that I wanted to join the Israeli army and my father surprisingly agreed to it. I was still legally defined as a minor at the age of 18.
I used to read all kinds of books, such as the Hardy boys, Jock of the bushveld, Greek mythology, and the complete works of Josephus by Flavius Josephus. But one book touched my heart and that was Exodus, by Leon Uris.
I arrived in Tel Aviv at 7.30 on the morning of January 26th 1961, together with a crowd of boys and girl volunteers and we were taken to the South African Zionist Federation on Hayarkon Street where we were welcomed by Simie Weinstein. Thereafter we were accommodated in the slightly run-down Elath Hotel, further down the road.
The very next day our contingent was taken to Jaffa for a medical check-up. That evening we were all transported by army truck to Camp Marcus situated on the scenic summit of Mt. Carmel. There we were based as soldiers in uniform in the soldier quarters, learned Hebrew in Ulpan classes, worked in the kitchen and did many other duties. We also went on routine runs in the fresh early morning air along the Haifa byroads, singing, ‘Anu holchim ba regel Hupa hey hupa hey’, to raise our spirits to get used to light training.
But the fun wasn’t to last long. A few weeks later, on February 26th, we found ourselves restricted to Camp 88 where the real training began. This time we lived in large tents that accommodated a few guys. No time was wasted and we were issued all our initial equipment on the day of our arrival. At 5.30 the next morning we were rudely woken and given the order to don our working clothes and straighten the tent pegs in and outside the tents. That evening we had our first parade.
Occasionally Simie Weinstein came to see us with letters and parcels from home. Once he visited us on the eve of Pesach to tell us that the Fed would come to the Seder that was to be held in the army Shekem, to be with us.
On April 23rd the whole camp assembled carrying their haversacks with blankets tied to them, on the parade ground. We set off marching and singing to Pardys Hanah and then caught the train to Ramat Gan. We were to take part in ‘Kennis Hanachal’ at the Ramat Gan stadium in a military display with participants from different divisions of the army. We had been practicing for a couple of days to dance to music with FN semi-automatic rifles. After the show opened with a simulated mock battle, Ben Gurion gave a long speech about Nachal. Then, as the music blared out, we performed our folk dancing show on the large grounds.
Back at camp Simie Weinstein came to visit to congratulate us about our performance at Kennis Hanachal, together with Ben-Moshe, head of the security agency, and later on we presented arms for the President, Ben Tzvi.
By May 23rd we were divided into groups, and each group was designated a different kibbutz. I landed up on kibbutz Gesher Haziv near the Lebanese border. We went on lots of hikes to castles in the area and on tours around the country. One tour to Machtesh Ramon introduced me to the Zin valley and Zin river….my name sake.
On Nov 23rd I met the boys going to advanced training at the Fed. We arrived at camp 80 situated near ‘Bilu’ circle, Rehovot, where we received our equipment and pitched our own big tents.
Soon we were on field training. Rummie was our ‘Mem Mem’ and a little dog we called Bookie was our mascot. I was trained as a sapper. I met an American named Mickey and we shared a pup tent. One night I was walking back to our pup tent from the field kitchen when Mickey, who was in the tent, accidentally jabbed the pin out of his hand grenade. He threw it towards the open area by the toilets where it exploded harmlessly like a July 4th fireworks display. We were Lucky it didn’t explode in our tent when I got there. Another soldier died that way on our next field training only two pup tents away from us by doing the very same thing. On the outset we were strictly instructed to keep the grenades pin-down in its pouch to prevent accidents. Unfortunately, some guys overlooked that rule.
Paratrooping at Tel Nof was a little nerve wracking. On one of my jumps at night I was carrying a ‘sak Chazeh’ (a bag connected to my waist by rope) laden with 80 lbs. of explosives and I landed in a tree, and in hospital. During our training a car pulled up nearby the training swings and Idi Amin got out together with a few official military men. He was Commander in Chief of the Uganda military on a visit to see how things were done in the paratrooper corps.
On January 26th I was summonsed to military camp Surrefen by the Secret Service Agency on the suspicion of being a spy. I used to write my diary quite innocently, in the subdued light of the kerosene lamp every night. I was asked to bring my diary to the bespectacled officer who interrogated me for inspection. I disobeyed orders fearing that it would be confiscated and heard nothing again from the agency.
Just before being discharged from the army while on field training in Dimona, we were issued with new equipment and taken to a deserted airstrip. The Nord plane that was supposed to drop us over Syria to embattle the enemy who were firing down on the kibbutzim from the Golan Heights, didn’t arrive. The High Command chose Golani instead. Sadly, forty boys were killed in that operation.
By the middle of 1962 I was back in Cape Town, inundated with stories to tell about my experiences and to try and settle down to a steady job. But the ‘Zionist’ bug had bitten and I returned to Israel in 1964 to participate in the Masada Expedition under Yigal Yadin.
And once again I volunteered to Israel during the 1967 Six Day War.
I eventually made Aliyah with my wife and small daughter in 1969 but we left Israel back for South Africa after the Yom Kippur war, during which time I had helped the hospitals to transport bloodied army combat clothes in my car to the cleaners.
In 1993 I got divorced and went on Sarel for 3 weeks to the camp called Tel Hashomer. In my spare time I attempted to write a book on my experiences in the Nachal. Unfortunately, I discarded the 1000-page manuscript.
Back to South Africa.
In 2003 I returned to Israel to try to see if I could settle down. I attempted writing again in 2009 and completed three published books within a matter of 10 years. I had managed to convert a load of expression-full memories, bursting forth out of me, in the form of fictional novels.
Please contact: https://kdp.amazon.com/kindle to order your copy.
Alfred Zinn (author)