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Haifa - Mishmarot

10th January 1948

Translated by Selwyn Rose

The following morning our eyes beheld the well-known Mount Carmel backdrop. A guard ship approached us and several British officers came on board. My heart started thumping: perhaps we were again going to be arrested and sent back to Germany? The ship entered Haifa port and tied up at a quay, as it had before, except that this time the scenario was different. Apart from the British guards there were also Arab and Jewish stevedores hanging around. Two British officers at the gangplank checked our passports. One of them compared the passport photograph with my face, returned the document and waved me through. I hadn't managed a single step forward when a man approached me and, telling me in Yiddish to follow him, led me with quick steps to an old bus standing close by. The man had a very serious, unsmiling look on his face and said not a word. When he had finished shepherding our group to the bus, it started moving and, in a tense atmosphere, we left the port area.

We're in Palestine. It's not a dream! It's real!

I remembered Oberscharführer Wagner that day in Sobibor, when a 'Transport' of Jews had arrived for extermination, and we were loading up the wagons with all the effects of those who had been killed from that and the previous 'Transports'. We worked all the time on the run and our path, to and from the storeroom, was lined with Germans and Ukrainians, hurrying us along with blows. When I was passing Wagner, at the run, carrying a parcel bigger than myself, he looked at me and said:

Lauft, lauft Brüder israels, ihr kommt noch Palestina” - “Run, Run, Child of Israel; you'll get to Palestine!”
His words pierced my heart like a dagger. Now I felt like shouting out:
“Wagner! I'm in Palestine!” But I sat silent. We all sat silently - not singing, not showing any signs of joy. We were too deeply immersed in the rejuvenating sight of our Silver Land.
We quickly left the City and turned south. To our left was the Carmel, to our right fields and banana-plantations. Suddenly, we stopped. Two young fellows, dressed in khaki trousers and thick, course jackets, got on and sat in front on the right and left side of the bus, next to the windows. They both withdrew, from under their jackets, Sten-guns, clipped in the magazines and looked out of the windows. The tension in the bus grew. Guys with guns next to the windows? Are we likely to be attacked by Arabs? While I was in Germany, I had read about incidents like these. Nobody said anything, but faces became serious.

In this fashion we approached an Arab village. In the fields, women villagers were working, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow. Along the roadside, strode more women villagers, carrying massive bales of dry twigs and young branches on their heads. Men rode on donkeys. A strong smell of smoke filled the bus. On the slope above the bus, a flock of black goats was at pasture.

No one shot at us. A short distance beyond the village, we again stopped. The two chaps said “Shalom,” with an apologetic smile and got off the bus, hiding their guns under their jackets.

I didn't know, at that time, that Oberscharführer Wagner and Hauptsturmführer Stengel, the Commandant of Sobibor and Treblinka extermination camps, had received asylum in Syria.

We drove between citrus groves and avenues of fir trees which hid the sun. The citrus trees were weighed down by the fruit they were bearing. I was drunk on the scenes surrounding me on every side. I imagined that I was in a Garden of Eden, here on earth - a Paradise I had dreamed of as a child. I wanted to kiss the ground, the trees, the bushes - everyone and everything I saw.

The bus drove into the grounds of Kibbutz Mishmarot and stopped alongside a round tower. People gathered round and looked at us - and we at them - like two races from different planets. A member, wearing a peaked cap, welcomed us in some kind of Yiddish, liberally mixed with Hebrew, none of which we understood, and led us to the dining-room. Other members, older, and with furrowed faces, came to see us there, asking where we were from and if we knew this one or the other of their family, or knew something of their fate. Saddened and disappointed at our replies, they drifted away.

When we had finished eating, the man - delegated by the Kibbutz to look after us and settle us in - took us to an area where tents had been erected between the trees. In each tent were four iron beds with straw mattresses. In the clothing store of the kibbutz, we received blankets, work-clothes and working-boots. We joked about our 'apartments' and we invited each other to our 'palaces' but there was no serious criticism behind our remarks; we accepted the situation as being quite expected under the circumstances. Later, I went for a stroll with Sarah round the Kibbutz grounds, and we enjoyed the sight of the small cottage-like houses, flower-gardens, the lawns and trees, the chicken houses, the cow-sheds, the citrus groves and the surrounding fields. Our ambition of building our own Kibbutz seemed within reach.

In the evening, we were called to a meeting. Our Kibbutz 'mentor' came, bringing with him the Secretary of the Kibbutz and a third man, younger than either of them, about thirty, or so, with an athletic body, a head like a bronze statue, his face showing strength and determination. The Kibbutz Secretary welcomed us and explained the norms of the Kibbutz. He said that in the near future, we would be placed in work teams in the various branches of the Kibbutz, in order to gain practical experience for the running our own Kibbutz. In the meantime, we would all be working in the citrus groves, picking oranges. The man with the serious face - the Kibbutz security officer - explained the security situation to us, saying that the Arab states were preparing to attack the Jewish community in Palestine, as soon as the British left. In the short time left to us before this happened, we have to prepare ourselves for the attack. At a distance of a few kilometres from us, he added, was a large force of Arabs in the villages and towns of Wadi 'Arra and it was quite likely that the Jewish villages in the area would have to defend themselves to the death. The settlements were organizing themselves within the framework of the Hagannah. Every settlement was training a platoon or larger, according to its size. Mishmarot had a platoon which was used officially as supernumery police constables in the settlement police force, under the command of the British. It was necessary to strengthen this platoon and one of our members would be chosen to do so.

We looked at each other in bewilderment. Things were happening too quickly. Seeing our embarrassment, the man said:

“You don't have to decide now; let me know tomorrow which of you is the man.”
I felt at that moment, in all my being that I had to volunteer for that duty and that there was no need to delay. I stood up and called out:
“I want to volunteer to join that platoon.”
The man came up to me, asked my name, shook me by the hand and said:
“My name's Micha'el. We'll see each other tomorrow morning at eight o'clock, outside the dining-room.”
It was the first time during the whole evening that I had seen the man smile.

That night I dreamt that I was in the Warsaw ghetto. A platoon of German soldiers was marching down Muranowska Street. The street was empty, the houses abandoned. The doors and windows wide open; it was like a ghost town. In the dream, I thought: How is it that I have returned and come back to this place, - I - who escaped from here and also from Sobibor? How did it happen that I am again in the ghetto? No! I won't fall into their hands. I've learned from my experiences. I have to find a way to get away from them. But the Germans are marching towards me in their nailed boots, they're getting closer and I know that they're coming for me. I run into a courtyard and climb the stairs of a house. All the doors are open; all the apartments empty. I run from room to room until I come to a large room whose front wall, the one facing the street, is missing. I hear the Germans marching up the stairs and coming closer. I feel that all is lost. I move to the front of the room facing the street, intending to throw myself down to the street but down there, in the street, I see a German standing and looking at me. Suddenly, he flies up to me from the street and stands in front of me, in the room. He points his 'Schmeisser' at me, with a strange smile on his face. At that instant, without thinking, I let fly with a tremendous kick to his groin, using all my strength. The German lets out an agonized scream and falls backwards into the street.........

I woke up and sat up in my bed. I could hear a strange crying sound from somewhere, getting stronger. I looked around me. Through the flap, a broad band of light entered the tent. My companions had also woken up. For the moment, I couldn't decide if I were still dreaming, or if the crying that I heard was real. Our neighbours in the next tent had also woken up and were trying to explain the strange, wailing noise. Eventually, our liaison chap came in with a broad smile and a laugh, explaining that no one was crying - the strange sounds we had heard were the jackals roaming round the citrus groves.

In the meantime, lying on my bed, I analyzed my dream. Up until now, all my dreams - nightmares - had ended with me being killed by the Germans. This time it was I who had killed the German. I was deeply satisfied. But the empty deserted streets of the Warsaw ghetto haunted me for a long time afterwards.

The following day, I learned to use a rifle and throw a hand-grenade. I dedicated myself with all my heart and soul to learning the arts of war and was filled with pride at being part of the special constabulary force.

That same day, in January 1948, forty years ago, a new chapter opened in my life: a chapter nevertheless full of wars and conflicts, of battle fronts; as a sapper in the 'Golani' Brigade, in countless mine-fields; of my fight to integrate into a normal life and to prove to myself that I, who had come to maturity and my Bar-Mitzvah with a gas-chamber staring me in the face; who had been humiliated by having to sort the belongings of those of my brothers and sisters who were then led like lambs to the slaughter by the Nazis; who fought for my life like a wild animal in the forests of Poland just to win one extra day of life; who had fought the British - they who dared to think of preventing me from landing on the very shores of my homeland - the one and only place on earth where I felt I had any right to be - and returning me to the hated shores of Germany, the land of those damned murderers - a chapter in which I, Dov ben Moisheh and Rivkah Freiberg, the Last of the Freibergs, survived and can work and produce and raise a family in Israel and be like any other human being.

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