By Shi Davidi
HERZILYA, Israel — Four generations of the Sharashov family gathered at the Herzilya Country Club to celebrate the Bris (circumcision) of its newest member on Oct. 18. Niv Badihi, born eight days earlier, is the tenth addition to the fourth generation of a family that barely escaped Syrian persecution of Jews in 1920s. As family and friends sampled the appetizers and sipped wine in the tent-like hall, Guy Badihi brought his first child to Esther Sharashov, our savta (grandmother in Hebrew), to hold for the first time. Cradling all three kinds of her five children, 10 of her 14 grandchildren and seven of her 10 great-grandchildren. With a look of completeness shining from her face, she began to pester me and my cousins who have yet to marry. “Now it’s your turn,” she told us all. “I want to see you all with kids before my time runs out.”
I couldn’t help thinking to myself: “I wish saba (grandfather in Hebrew) could have seen all his kids born.”
My family grieved the 50th anniversary of Haim Sharashov’s death this summer, only weeks after Israel celebrated the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the sate. For our family, like many others in Israel, the Independence Day celebrations were bittersweet. We celebrated the birth of our nation and mourned the family members protecting it.
On May 14, 1948, David ben Gurion announced the creation of Israel, a new nation where Palestine was at the time. Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq quickly declared war on the fledgling Jewish state and saba left his family for the last time. The Israel Defense Force, which needed arms as desperately as it needed soldiers, asked saba to use his connections and acquire weapons.
His dealings led him to Czechoslovakia where he acquired a large amount of arms. The arms made it to Israel but saba, who was 38, didn’t. My grandmother was told he was killed on the way back and that his contribution was an important one. About two months pregnant with their fifth child, the fate of Israel was the last thing on her mind. When she gave birth to a son she named him Haim in honour of her late husband. To this day, no one in the family can call him Haim. To us he is Vicki (short for Victor) but no one seems to know why that name was chosen.
That arms shipment was the last contribution saba made to Israel, but far from the first. His contributions to Israel began well before the nation even existed. Although the details of his family tree are sketchy, we know his roots are in Eastern Europe. Sick of the threat of pogroms and the rampant anti-semitism, his parents moved to Egypt either before he was born or when he was very young. The anti-Jewish sentiments were just as bad in Egypt, so the family decide to give Syria a try. They settled relatively comfortably there, until strong anti-Jewish feelings grew among Arabs who were concerned over the huge number of Jews moving to what was then Palestine.
It was then that Zionist ideology (the driving force behind the creation of Israel) captured saba’s imagination. Tired of watching the situation for Jews in Syria deteriorate, he was among the last Jews in Syria deteriorate, he was among the last Jews to legally emigrate to Palestine before the British, who occupied the are since the First World War, shut its borders to Jews under Arab pressure.
His parents moved to Lebanon but saba ended up in Haifa (in what was then Palestine) where he met my grandma, who had reached Palestine by train after disguising herself as an Arab woman with a fake passport (Muslim women were forbidden from having pictures in their passports at the time). It was there they began their family, but saba would spend most of his remaining years helping other people’s children.
When the British shut Palestine’s borders to Jews it was saba’s job to find the gaps. It was through these gaps that Habricha, a Zionist group that saved Jews in Europe from Nazi persecution in the ‘30s and ‘40s, smuggled Jews into the country. It was also through these gaps saba brought Jews, mostly children from Syria and Lebanon, into Palestine. These children would roam the edge of the border with a picture of my grandfather. Once they found him, he would help them cross the border and take them to a holding camp. There they would sleep in barracks for a few days, until arrangements were made to send them to a Kibbutz (a communal agricultural community). If the parents of these children ever made it across the border, they would be reunited. Most grew up with other children like themselves, unsure of what happened to their folks.
It was through these activities that saba became involved with the Haganah (Hebrew for the defense), an underground Zionist group that acted as a political representative fro the Zionist cause internationally, while building a military arsenal quietly. Through his close ties with Kibbutzim, saba would help hide the Haganah’s weapons. Outlawed by the British Haganah’s membership meant arrest if caught and possession of weapons made jail time a certainty.
Saba did this until Lechi, a more extreme Jewish underground group, bombed the King David Hotel in Jerusalem. This was the finale in a string of attacks that finally drove the British from Palestine. Not long after, the United Nations passed a plan to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. With every Arab country voting against the proposal, the Zionists knew war was imminent. Preparations for the war began long before David Ben Gurion declared Israel a nation. When Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq attacked Israel, a rag-tag army went to work with the weapons men like saba had acquired and hid. It wasn’t long after that saba left home fro the last time.
“When you grow up without a father, you always feel that something is missing,” says Tzila Kaser, my aunt and saba’s first child. She was nine and a half when saba was killed and remembers the most about him. Tzila is the first person to tell me all I know of saba. Savta cannot speak of him without crying. My mom who was seven at the time, cannot talk about it. “It’s like a wound that never heals, it always bleeds,” says Tzila. When saba was killed, savta sent my mom and Tzila to a Kibbutz. Shimon, who was six when saba died, followed not long after. Slosh, the youngest child in the family, has no memories of saba and Vicki grew up never knowing what it’s like to say abba (father).
Savta had tough times making ends meet. She worked cleaning houses during the day and sewing at night. She had very little to give her kids, but it was enough.
As I watched savta, her hair given the chance ot grey, her body given the opportunity to age, I can’t help but think of saba. What would he be like right now? What would his voice be like? His demeanour? How great would his stories be? And what would he think of the way his family turned out? Savta is smiling, joyously watching her family grow. Her kids live well, are healthy and all of the family’s men have survived the ensuing wars. And it is then I realized how much every Israeli owes to saba and the thousands like him, who didn’t see their sacrifice rewarded.