Life is Belief & Struggle - Ahmed Shawqi

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The hand of fate

Blogging has been practically non-existent for the last few months because I received a contract to write the memoirs of a little known Israeli military hero from the War of Independence. My deadline is looming and I have just the conclusion to write which is all well and good except I am suffering from the worse case of writer's block in the known verse.

As much as my goal is to breathe life in this memoir; I find the birth pangs are grinding down my will and impairing my ability to focus on the task at hand. In an effort to jump start this process I thought I would write a little about the man whose memoirs I am writing.

His name isn't very well known although he played a direct role in the formation of the Israeli state and fought as a sapper with the Soviet Red Army. In fact, he was instrumental and played a direct hand in ensuing the Soviet's escape a German pincher movement in the Ukraine.

If the Red Army hadn't successfully crossed the Dnieper River more 1.2 million Russian soldiers and equipment would have been vanquished from the field of battle, and consequently, the Soviets would have lost all ability to fight on. Imagine - the consequences for us in the West; if the Soviets were defeated in the fall of 1941.

It is really not surprising his name was only known in the upper echelon of Israeli military and early Labor Zionist political/government circles. He left Israel in 1956 feeling the Labor Zionist movement had betrayed the very people - like him - who were among the few to take up arms and risked the treasure of their lives to make the Zionist state a reality.

The lesson we so often learn is that only the victors write history and so why would a man like him be lauded? A man who routinely referred to David Ben Gurion a 'shrimp' and thought Golda Meir was the 'root of all ugliness'. A man who believed Moshe Dayan should have been tried by a military court for incompetence, and wasn't only because of his family's connections within Labor Zionist movement. Or who thought that Menachem Begin had a gift for making a speech but couldn't fight his way out of a paper bag. A man who commanded the young Ariel Sharon and thought him a good boy who could be counted on to do exactly what he was told to do – no matter the price.

Every once in a while a witness outside the victor's circle gets heard and gives a contrary cry to the established narrative of the victors. When I was first offered the project I wrote a friend and asked his opinion on the matter. He wrote and I quote -

Even setting aside his own role, anyone that even witnessed battles as diverse as helping yet another Soviet army being destroyed in a Kiev-like encirclement battle, Tobruk, and Haifa – let’s see, by my tally, that’s someone who:
helped prevent the defeat of the Soviet’s in the first year of their war with Germany, helped prevent the Nazis from capturing the Suez Canal – preventing a linkage between Germany and Japan, and played a causal role in the creation of Israel.

Most people never get the chance to be present at one major historical event – this guy was present and active at 3. I hate to admit it, but some things are better than sex.
I am not so sure about the sex part (the verdict is still out on that one) but there are very few personal accounts of life in the Red Army during Operation Barbarossa. It is one of those little historical ironies that most accounts available to us in the west tell the tale concerning life for a German soldier on the Russian front. There are varied reasons for this - one of which is the constant Soviet need to rewrite their own historical narrative to reflect whatever current political realities of the day was reining. And so here is an excerpt from Jaques Bar's - Life on the Russian Front 1941

The convoy was rolling as fast as the road allowed  in order to reach the bridge in the shortest time possible and by the shortest route. There wasn't much talk amongst the ranks during this time and it occurred to me that the first group of Soviet soldiers were probably hoping to reach the bridge before the Germans and praying the crossing would be done in time. The second group was probably wishing the Germans had already reached the bridge and were waiting for the convoy. I was preoccupied with trying to determine the ratio between the first and second group. The regiment sent forward a detachment to the bridge holders to persuade them to wait and not to blow up the bridge precisely at midnight in case the convoy arrived late and providing the facts on the ground would allow it.

We arrived twenty-three minutes after midnight and found the bridge was still standing. The convoy crossed the river in seven minutes and the bridge was safely blown away. With a group of German troops still on our heels but moving cautiously we continued on in the night in the direction of the river. We did not dare to stop even for a moment after crossing the river but continued to drive in a southeast direction, climbing the top of a deep canyon on the east banks of the river. The road was steep, narrow and curved which made it very difficult for the larger trucks to manoeuvre. It was assumed there were probably a few other German units who had already crossed the river in a few places – possibly north and upstream of our position.

The drivers by this time were weary and harassed from the constant need to drive without sleep or food. Long before sunrise the convoy came out from the canyon into the open steppe and started moving very fast in the southeasterly direction. The wide road on the steppe made it possible to drive three to four trucks side by side and this abridged the length of the convoy to half a mile long. The race was to get to the new Russian front lines before any fighting occurred and possibly hunker, down in the forests where German air craft could not sight us and attack from the sky.

Out of nowhere came a barrage from different firearms and explosions. The convoy was racing directly into a line of fire and it was instantly apparent we were the target. Kirilenko immediately jumped out from the truck he was riding with Gorbachev and me to join his assigned men. Under heavy fire, the convoy broke formation in an attempt to look for cover or hideouts in all directions – spreading out as widely as possible. The fire intensified and concentrated on the convoy where the explosives seemed to be concentrated. Different types of shrapnel were hitting the convoy and no matter which direction the drivers took to evade fire. Whenever a vehicle stopped, frightened soldiers crawled or leaped out from the trucks, screaming this was an ambush, a trap, the Germans had trapped them in a surprise attack.

The soldiers left the convoy and spread out onto the field leaping from one place to another and took up positions in the lowest possible places on the ground - great distances from the trucks and waited for further orders. I knew the realities of the front line but I never expected to find myself in the midst of live fire on the front line. I had convinced myself the evacuation and the retreat would be safe and not pose any real risk of danger. I did not think I was exposing myself to the opportunity of certain death. I looked up into the terrified eyes of Gorbachev whose eyes told me the situation was clear. The convoy had been intercepted by German troops and within a very short period of time everything would be lost and destroyed.

I made it clear to Gorbachev that I could not surrender to the Germans because I was a Jew and since no chance of escape existed, I would commit suicide. No other solution was possible for me. Gorbachev was close to breaking down; so deep was he shocked by the latest turn of events. He turned to me and said that he had no other choice but to fight to the bitter end. He would not allow himself to be taken alive. Then just as suddenly, the shooting ceased and the noise from the guns grew quiet.

Gorbachev and I jumped out from the truck and saw two trucks with white white cloths were moving towards the direction from where the shooting had originated. 
There were scattered bodies of the dead and wound soldiers lying everywhere in the fields. There was no attempt at subterfuge and the white flag of surrender was tied to a truck in the lead. This time, the Ukrainian nationalist elements in the regiment were convinced their moment had come and the convoy would be shortly and firmly be under German control.

Gorbachev and I were surprised and interrupted from carrying out our suicide pact by a group of Ukrainian nationalists acting on their own initiative. They forcibly disarmed us and placed us under armed guard until we could be handed over to German military authorities, The Ukrainians promised that after our interrogation by the Germany authorities they would personally kill us both. Gorbachev couldn’t understand why the regiment surrendered without even displaying token resistance while I sunk into despair.

It was an existential moment for me, and I was left pondering, why it was so necessary to come this far, only to be caught by the German division within miles of the new Russian front. I was willing to endure long periods of being cold, wet and lice, suffering chronic hunger and sleep deprivation; if this suffering meant one day I would get my life and freedom back. This left me questioning why my luck had run out at such a moment as this. This ignorable end meant that my opportunity to do something of lasting importance had passed and future historians would never remember or have reason to mention my tragedy.   The all clear was given and the convoy moved back into formation and proceeded to move forward towards the obvious ‘German’ lines.

The self-appointed pro-German Ukrainian soldiers began their new orders by firing additional shots from the machine guns of the moving trucks to ensure all those soldiers lying down were really dead, and if not dead before, were well and truly dead now.

  When the convoy reached the firing lines and crossed over with the soldiers there was once again much confusion written on the Soviet faces. These were not German troops but Soviet Red Army soldiers behind the newly established front. The convoy was the victim of a friendly fire incident. The Soviets at the new front lines were never advised or made aware there was the possibility of a regimental sapper convoy arriving sometime after midnight. Furthermore, after string upon string of devastating losses and retreats, it seemed far too incredible for a convoy of this size to have been able to succeed in piercing through the German army iron rings of tanks and guns.

If it wasn’t for the cover of darkness and the convoy arriving late, the Red Army would never have mistaken the regimental sapper convoy for a motorized column of German infantry. After a short battle and the misunderstanding the issue was cleared and the convoy was allowed to pass through with only a loss of about 10% of our strength. The friendly fire incident started because darkness had not completely lifted and the arriving force was taken as a motorized column of German infantry. The Ukrainian soldiers realized that they were also victims of a misunderstanding born out of the fog of war.

The first draft is due on Thursday, and no doubt, there will be multiple re-writes, but until then, let us all ponder the hand of fate.