Saturday, the U.S. Embassy contacted us and put us on what might have been one of the last government-chartered planes out of Ben Gurion to Athens. This morning, as coordination is becoming harder to achieve, we received a separate notice to report to Haifa for a ship leaving for Cyprus at 9 a.m. on Oct. 16. There are either too many Americans to get out by plane or they may have determined that it is too dangerous to fly. There were 20,000 on the list when we showed up at the airport Saturday night.
The plane was a throwback to everything I ever read or learned about evacuations during the last century. In every row, there were children – three and four kids under age five. One group with kippot and tzitzit, another group with jerseys for competing U.S. baseball teams, and a third group just a tangled mass of indistinguishable arms, legs and hair; a human Gordian knot.
But most unforgettably, there must have been 15 babies all crying on the plane, all through the flight, in different pitches, volumes and cadences, all feeding on one another, in a sound that seemed to grow louder and louder as additional babies, spurred on by the others, joined in. It was a terrible, mournful cacophony: the soundtrack for the War.
The unmarked Lithuanian plane that the U.S. Government subcontracted was filled with mentally disabled adults, blind people, old people in wheelchairs, and others – all trying to escape the violence that everybody here knows is coming. There were also the harder moments before the flight — like the reading of names by the Embassy staff of the ones who made it onto the plane: The happy ones gathering to the left, the distraught ones, who had come too late, on the right. And all through the scene, there was the gathering of ever longer lines of people trying to get out: people who were just minutes slower than us in packing their bags, checking out, or finding a cab.
There were many tables at Ben Gurion with flags for each government to support the evacuation, Germany here, Britain there, the U.S. in the middle. Other people were arriving and seeing that their flag was not there were left motionless, not knowing what their next step should be. All the while, you could hear the sound of shells bursting somewhere in an unintelligible middle distance, and with each blast, the Embassy staff nervously looked at one another wondering how long they’d have.
Before we left the hotel, the air raid sirens in the hotel went off again and again. When you hear them, you put on your shoes and hurry for the hotel stairwell. You go inside and you see people in pajamas, men without shirts and children in all orders of disarray. Coming back from one “red alert,” we took the elevator to get back to our room with another family. With them was a 5-year-old girl dressed in a thin night dress with an open bottom. They got off on the floor before us and we said good night. When I looked down after the elevator door closed, I saw that the girl had peed all over the floor. It will take a long time for Israel to recover, or more likely, for a new Israel to emerge. The hotel was busy before – now the line is out the door. All the South is coming North. The front desk was very thankful when we gave up our room.
Other stories catch your attention. All through the destroyed Kibbutzim and villages, people are starting to gather the small dogs. The animals who somehow, miraculously, survived after their human families were killed. They have been roaming the streets alone: starving, terrified, and often severely injured. Teams of vets have gone down South with pet food, supplies, and equipment to help animals abandoned due to the Hamas attacks. The animals know what happened: they were witnesses. They understood the blood and hid in bushes, piles of rubble and in the debris of their homes, waiting for any kindness. In many cases, they sat shivah for their dead owners until someone came to relieve them from their lonely vigil.
It’s the same for the animals of the field: These destroyed Kibbutzim and Moshavim were agricultural settlements.
The call for volunteers has gone up throughout Israel: the cows still need to be milked, the chickens fed, and the crops brought in, and there is no one left to do it. Sukkot is harvest time, and all the farmers are dead. And what of these Kibbutzim and small villages, how will they survive? They are not like American cities which are collections of independent neighbors who live next to each other by chance – they are interdependent socialist communities: Take a person out and the machine starts to sputter, kill half of the town and there is no return.
The remaining parts of the machine are bent and scattered on the ground. Each of these towns, within kilometers of the Gaza border, and cleared of humanity by Hamas, will become the great minefields of future generations: their utopian communities lost under a sea of explosives.
And listen to this: Anybody with a medical license is being called to service. Of course, you say, with 3,000 maimed and injured in unspeakable ways, who would question the need for doctors? But when you dig deeper, the horrifying rationale for the call-up becomes clear: There are not enough medical professionals in the country to process the 1,300 death certificates that have to be signed and do the work required to identify the dead through DNA testing.
Long lines of relatives of missing persons – both the sobbing and the stony-faced – come to the hospitals to give blood, not for the living, but looking for a match with the dead. Processing a massacre has become far more complex than the days of Babiyar, Plaszow or the Ponary Forest; but is this really to be the measure of what our generation contributed to humanity?
So, yesterday morning we were in Athens and suddenly there is no War. But you jump if you hear a bang in a way that you never did before. You feel as though you’re the only person who’s twirling in circles surrounded by a world that doesn’t understand why you’re spinning.