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The transition between the eve of a holiday and the cusp of a holocaust

Haim Gouri
Two months after the end of the Yom Kippur War, on the 25th of December, 1973, the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem held an evening with the poet Haim Gouri. The minutes of the evening are preserved at the National Library. Gouri looks back at the war and talks about the moving experiences he experienced during and after it. He also gives the audience some sense of the broad historical and spiritual context.

"And at 2 p.m. the same siren was heard"

First, he talks about the moment the siren went off, a shared memory that was still fresh at the time: "And at 2 p.m. the sound of the siren was heard; a sound our generation won't forget until their dying day. This siren, the wailing siren, that came suddenly, all at once, inspired in many of our hearts some existential fear."


"It is doubtful if the Jews have recovered by now"

Gouri tells of how by 3 p.m. on Yom Kipper, he was called to join his army unit. Exalted and amazed, he traveled to Tel Aviv from the hitchhiking station in Jerusalem like all the other soldiers. Gouri recreates the feeling of historical fate, a unique moment, and deep shock: "This transition between the eve of a holiday and the cusp of a Holocaust… it is doubtful if the Jews have recovered by now. In my opinion, they are still in shock".


1948 and 1973

The army wanted to send Gouri to the front, to be with the troops as an education officer, but there was a lot of confusion and the education officers remained in the headquarters. The next day, on the 7th of October, he is asked to write a military manifesto, a proclamation. He immediately went on to make a comparison between the War of Independence and this new war, which was as of yet unnamed: "I thought that the one thing that came to my mind was to make a comparison or some sort of analogy, despite all the differences, between the war of '48 and the war of 1973, because during both of them everything hung in the balance…."


Haim Gouri talks about the unique existential feeling that occurred when the war broke out:
"Why do I say that the siren of Yom Kippur had something of an existential threat in it? For us, as Israeli citizens… we do not have a collective memory of defeat… we remember events, massacres; we remember the year of Tel Hai; we remember 1931 and 1939… but we always said, were told as children and told our children that from every bout we emerged stronger… but we also have another side within us… that thing that is part of Jewish existential fear, and which the Land of Israel evidently did not exempt us from… of life at the cusp of ending; always the heart and the knife. This double existence is very problematic, because we quickly make the transition from the Judean lion to the Jacobite worm."


Heartbreaking words over the radio

Gouri, the man of words, responds to the language that he encountered in the army, specifially in military radio communications:
"…the language of restraint, the language of understatement it is the distance between it and the reality… that is heartbreaking. When a person says, 'I will try to manage, but a few cannons could help me', he knows that he's in a very bad position and the 'I will try to manage' is a terrible cry. He is a person who is fighting with his soldiers against terrible masses… and despite that fact, still says, 'I will try to manage'…"


Encounters with Soldiers: Fear and Connection to History

Gouri talks about his experiences meeting people who spoke about a situation on the cusp of total lost; of the possibility that the Arab armies could have attacked on the intermediate days of the holiday of Sukkot, when many people would be on vacation in Sinai and the country would be full of cars and traffic jams. In such a situation, "it's possible that the history of thousands of years would have come to end, if not in a holocaust then with terrible injuries".  Gouri looks back and says "the immediate transition between absolute security to an existential experience of terrible fear, national fear in addition to personal fear, is something that will apparently stay with us for a very long time."
Fear was but one common experience. Haim Gouri also tells of the historical feeling that connected Israelis to their Judaism. If, before the war most people were preoccupied with the idea that "we are Israelis more than we are Jews", the war brought people to a place "where they were thrown into a situation wherein they were partners, with all their beings, to the fate of their nation, while their hearts, brains and educations were incongruent to the mark of a historical, existential experience". Gouri talks about the loneliness that the strong, armed, Spartan, and secure Israel encountered during the war. The loneliness led to a feeling of being on the cusp of a holocaust, to a situation wherein "the unbelievable suddenly becomes a blood-polluted reality". Gouri thinks that it's possible that the experience will change the way many Israelis perceive their Diaspora forefathers. If, since the establishment of the State of Israel (and even before), it was easy for Israelis to consistently criticize the heads of communities who "couldn't read the signs correctly", now they could understand how it is possible for an entire nation, a modern, armed State, to read the signs incorrectly and to experience a reality where they are on the brink of destruction.


The Existence of a Ghetto? Dimona as an Option?

The comparison between the war of 1973 and the war of 1948 preoccupies Gouri and he raises a few original insights. A large percentage of the population was killed during the long war that was the War of Independence. Haim Gouri considers the Yom Kippur War to be a long war, but notes that in 1948, "there was a base optimism [a sense] of dawn, of genesis, or the start of some sort of national revolution". Israel was admired then, but in 1973 the Israelis experienced strong loneliness: "Someone says, maybe our secure existence is a ghetto. This is the standard and fashionable immanent threat, despite the Zionist revolution. The nation of Israel exchanged a form for a form, an identity for an identity, but in the end it remained a nation that dwells alone". Gouri talks about the most difficult thoughts that he heard during the course of the war: "There were times they ominously brought up Dimona as an either-or situation either we live together or we die together…"


Will we forever eat the sword?

Haim Gouri tells about his conversations with groups of soldiers:  long, open conversations, encouraged by officers out of a sense of democracy. He tells about young people wondering about whether they have a future. A young soldier says to him: "In another year or two I'll be released, maybe I'll get married and have children and then another war will break out, and after that another war will break out. Don't you feel like your future is a nightmare you can't wake up from?" Political questions also come up in these conversations – questions about the responsibility of the higher-ups and the conduct of the highest authorities.


The poet looks forward in hope 

Haim Gouri talks about the historical context he presented to the soldiers, an outlook that "expropriates the individual from his loneliness": the fight for the return to Zion, the War of Independence, the invading push of the Egyptians and the Jordanian Legion, and the encounter with Holocaust survivors in Europe. And he gives encouragement from the broad perspective of someone who had already experienced decisive moments in history: 

"Don't see the future as a closed horizon. The Arabs are also hurting. The war will not resume because  there are people who are looking for another way, another possibility as well."