For many St. Louisans, memories of war remain vivid 50 years later

Israeli soldiers approaching the Dome on the Rock in Jerusalem, June 7, 1967. Photo: Newsmakers/Getty Images

By Eric Berger, Staff writer

Moshe Givon, a St. Louis resident who served as an army medic in a tank unit in the Sinai Desert during the Six-Day War, says of the tumultuous days of June 5-10, 1967, “We got lucky, and it ended fast.”

After Israel defeated the much larger armies of Egypt, Jordan and Syria to capture territory in Gaza, the Golan Heights, the Sinai, the West Bank and, most meaningfully, the Old City in Jerusalem, Jews in Israel and around the world rejoiced. 

Mali Haberer, then a child living in an apartment in Ma’alot near the border with Lebanon, recalls spending much of the war in a bomb shelter, but then hearing that Israeli soldiers had reached the Western Wall and sounded a shofar and sang “Hatikvah,” the Israeli national anthem.

“We came down to the lobby of the building, and we all were dancing and singing and happy that all the holy places now belonged to Israel,” said Haberer, a Hebrew teacher at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. 

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As with all victories in war, however, alongside the joy, people were grieving. More than 700 Israeli soldiers and thousands of Arabs were killed, and the conflicts between enemies did not suddenly disappear. Fifty years after the war, Israel’s control over territory in the West Bank remains as contested as ever, and there is no peace with the Palestinians. 

In anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War, we asked Israelis who have moved to St. Louis — and local Jews who watched from afar — to share their memories of those six days in June and how they feel about its lasting consequences. 

Eric Berla, 74, a University City dentist, was in U.S. Army flight school in Texas learning how to fly helicopters when he heard that the Israeli Air Force had launched a preemptive strike against the Egyptian army. The Egyptians had jets from the Soviet Union, which threatened to block a vital waterway between Israel and the outside world and kick out United Nations peacekeepers. The Egyptian jets were never able to take flight. 

“I grew up in the shadow of the Shoah, and there we are, gibborim [mighty], heroes,”said Berla, who served in the Vietnam War. “I and the other Jew in our flight school class stuck our chests out a little bit and felt pretty proud.”

Carol Kaplan-Lyss, a teacher, brought a television into her public school classroom in the Philadelphia suburbs to watch what was happening in the Middle East. She later moved to St. Louis and spent almost three  decades teaching in the School District of Clayton.

“We watched almost everything that was going on, and I think it was the first time that my kids — although we had geography and they knew where Israel and Egypt were — really became part of the drama,” said Kaplan-Lyss, whose students were largely Greek-Armenian. “My primary memory was seeing the excitement of my children who had no real relation with Israel getting really involved.”

After taking out Egypt’s air force, Israel pushed the Egyptian army out of the Sinai. At the start of the war, Syrian artillery in the Golan Heights was firing rockets into northern Israeli towns and, later, Jordanian forces opened fire on West Jerusalem. 

Before the start of the war, Yoram Hahn, a gynecologist in St. Louis, was in medical school in Tel Aviv when he and a few others in his class were mobilized. He recalls seeing scores of planes flying very low across the sky toward the Egyptian airfields.

Hahn, a tank commander in the Israel Defense Forces, received orders to head to Ramallah, which was then part of Jordan. 

“The streets were all empty,” he said. “Most of the poor guys were hiding in their homes.” 

Hahn’s unit then headed north to the Golan Heights. The Syrians were firing on kibbutzim from caves at higher elevations. By the time Hahn arrived, earlier waves of Israeli forces had already weakened the Syrian army. 

“Some of (the Syrians) got killed, of course, but most of them ran away,” he said. 

Hahn sees the war as justified but wishes that fewer people “would pay with their lives on our side or their side. People who didn’t do anything bad to anyone. Because politicians want wars, people pay the price.”

He also thinks that Israel might have missed a chance for peace with the Arabs after the war.

“We were too full of ourselves, of having a big empire, with all of the Sinai Desert and the West Bank and part of the Golan Heights,” he said. “If we were a little more humble and had better vision and better leaders, maybe there would be peace. But who knows. It’s easy to look back. It’s difficult to look forward.”

Givon, the medic, recalls never being able to escape the sand in the desert. Constantly dirty, the soldiers carried around jerrycans filled with water to clean themselves. Then a few minutes later, a gust of wind would come through and they would again be covered in sand. 

“It was a war like every war,” said Givon, 71. “It’s not nice to see people who are injured.”

There were, of course, also civilians whose lives were altered. Rami Pinsberg was a junior in high school in Tel Aviv and set to spend two weeks at a kibbutz on the eastern shore of the Sea of Galilee as part of a national service program. They had been there for about six days when they were ordered to return to the city. 

“We didn’t think in terms of war; we thought in terms of” having “two weeks on the Kinneret [Sea of Galilee] — which was fun — cancelled” and “begrudgingly coming back to Tel Aviv,” said Pinsberg, a professor of Hebrew language at Washington University.

When he and classmates went to the kibbutz, his sociology teacher Joshua Diamant stayed behind. He was later called up as a paratrooper and killed on Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem. 

“That was personal for me because two weeks earlier he was teaching me in high school,” said Pinsberg, 66, who describes himself as being on the left politically and supports compromise.

Susie Berger was studying Hebrew at an ulpan (a school for studying Hebrew) in Givatayim, a city near Tel Aviv, when, on the second day of the war, she received a telegram from her parents in Frankfurt, Germany. Come home immediately, it read. But there were no flights leaving, so she stayed in Israel.

She and other immigrants in the ulpan were given dark paper to cover windows so that Arab forces would not be able to see their  lights on at night. 

“It was pretty scary,” said Berger, a catering manager at Monsanto. “There were no men on the streets. It was mostly women.”

Despite the upheaval, Berger, 69, continued to take classes and “life just went on.”

“You just had so much faith in the Israeli army, and every day the news came through that they had taken this and conquered that,” said Berger, who was almost fluent in Hebrew by then and a few weeks later started working at a hotel in Tel Aviv. “I feel deep appreciation for the Israelis who put their lives in danger.”

Tsila Schwartz says of the war: “Some of these dramatic memories are very vivid in my head, while so many of the other memories in my childhood aren’t.”

In her second year of high school, in April 1967, Schwartz and her family moved to a Jerusalem neighborhood near Beit Jala, a Palestinian town in the West Bank and “were so happy in our new apartment.” 

She said she didn’t think about being on the front lines until the war started. 

Before the war, Schwartz said, “There was a period of not knowing what was going to happen. That was one of the hardest periods.”

On that first day, she recalls walking quickly with her family through downtown Jerusalem and entering a bomb shelter as tanks passed. 

“We were afraid that we will be wiped out,” said Schwartz, a 65-year-old artist and calligrapher who lives in Olivette.

But after hearing the news from the Kotel, she recalls “a utopia of going to visit the Old City and a feeling of excitement and feeling like we are Superman. That was a very nice feeling – maybe even too much.”

Schwartz was back in Jerusalem late Thursday night, where she was interviewed by phone while preparing food for Shabbat. She said she wanted to return to Israel to celebrate the anniversary of the reunification and “to feel young again.” And next year, she plans to come for Israel’s 70th birthday. 

As to the chances for peace with the Palestinians, she is not necessarily optimistic but says: “Who knows? Maybe something will happen.

“In Israel, you learn that there is no happiness without sadness and no sadness without happiness.”