Paratroopers, Jewish Museum Commemorate 50th Anniversary of the Six Day War

From left: Israeli paratroopers Tzion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Chaim Oshri stand at the Western Wall after Israel captured the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on June 7, 1967. (David Rubinger/GPO)

It wasn’t easy for three Israeli septogenarians to embark on a 16-day, seven- city tour of America. But a photograph taken 50 years ago forever transformed the former paratroopers into proud icons for the Six Day War and Jerusalem’s independence. The men in David Rubinger’s photo — Tzion Karasenti, Dr. Yitzhak Yifat and Chaim Oshri — flew halfway around the world on the 50th anniversary of the historic event with a message for America’s Jewish communities.

Their message, Karasenti says, is one of celebration and unity. Karasenti says they want Baltimore’s Jewish community to know “we are together with Israel. We are not like a family: we are a family. We are one nation together. We may have differences of opinion sometimes, but we are one.”

Baltimore was the last stop on a tour that took the paratroopers through Cleveland, Detroit, San Francisco, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston. On the last day of their whirlwind tour, fatigue had visibly taken its toll on the three men. After finishing lunch at the Friends of the IDF offices in Pikesville, Yifat fought the encroachment of sleep, his eyelids drooping and chin dipping into his chest as his friend Karasenti spoke.

Karasenti laughed with Yifat about their fatigue. “We are very tired. We gave everybody everything” on this tour, “and we were happy to do it. When you represent Israel, you bring the celebration with you. Last night, we stayed with the Renbaum family. This was an experience we’ll never forget. It was a magical evening.”

Even after 50 years, Karasenti says he still struggles to verbalize the emotions he felt on June 7, 1967, when his 55th Paratroopers Brigade marched into Jerusalem. He remembers “everything, every moment. I can’t explain the feeling. I remember the feeling of joy, the smell of the market. The moment just embraced our hearts, and we prayed and prayed. We’d lost 176 of our soldiers. It was a heavy price to pay. These boys, they were salt of the earth. We arrived [in Jerusalem] our clothes full of mud, our hands full of blood. But our hearts were beating.”

Karasenti said they knew even then a unified Jerusalem would be a national city, a capital for all who lived under Israeli sovereignty. It’s “our home, and our privilege, to open it to everyone. Everyone can visit. Now [the Jewish community] embraces it as the norm. But 50 years ago, it was something very special.”

On June 6, 1967, as their brigade approached the Jordanian-controlled eastern parts of the city, Yifat, Karasenti and Oshri were reservists in their early 20s who hadn’t yet seen serious combat. That night, as they made their way to the walled Old City, dozens of their cohorts and friends were wounded by Jordanian fire. That evening they endured the hardest fighting: hand-to-hand combat. Yifat narrowly avoided impalement by a bayonet and still bears the scar from the encounter.

On the morning of June 7, the unit pushed through sniper fire and fought their way through the narrow streets up to the Western Wall. As Yifat, Karasenti and Oshri walked along the wall, Rubinger (who died this year at age 92) took the photo that eloquently captured the emotion of the moment.

From left: Tzion Karasenti, Yitzhak Yifat and Chaim Oshri pose for a photo at Tel Aviv University’s campus in Ramat Aviv, Israel on May 7. (Andrew Tobin)

Each year, the paratroopers’ company gathers on Ammunition Hill to remember their fallen friends and comrades, but the bond these three friends share brings them together more often than that. “For 50 years I’ve suffered their company,” Yifat jokes. The three friends laugh even as Yifat stifles another yawn.

“We leave Sunday,” Karasenti said, smiling. “We’ve had an amazing time. It’s been pure joy, to get to share this.”

The Jewish Museum of Maryland also marked the 50th anniversary of the historic victory with a program featuring Mitch Gold, who was a child living in Israel during the conflict, and Jay Bernstein, who spoke of America’s Jewish community during the war.

Gold, a Baltimore native whose parents moved the family to Be’er Sheva in the early 1960s, brought his father’s pictures to show the Israel he saw and experienced during the Six Day War.

His 50-year-old photos brought Israel’s history into the present for the audience of around 50 who gathered at the museum on June 11. They included pictures of tanks in the Independence Day parade in Jerusalem in 1967 and the notice sent to parents from his Israeli public school that featured the headline: “In the event of bombardment.”

Gold recalled seeing flashes on the horizon from the bombs, hearing the helicopters overhead and participating in supporting and feeding the soldiers. “The road behind our house [carried] the first Israeli soldiers to return [from the front].” Gold said he recalled “column after column of Egyptian prisoners” rolling through in army vehicles.

Bernstein spoke of the war’s impact on the American Jewish community. He said the war made Israel’s “vulnerability and isolation” apparent in America, describing the “unprecedented unanimity” of American Jews and the incredible “emotional response to Israel standing alone” amid hostile neighbors. Americans raised “so much money so fast [that] between May 23 and June 10 more money was given to Israel than in the history of private philanthropy in Baltimore.”

People sent more than money: “College students volunteered to bring in harvests, older men sent their sons to Israel.” Bernstein said he believed American Jews were stirred to action because there was an “element of guilt for not doing enough during the war years.”

Former Jewish Times editor and current Jewish history teacher Neil Rubin told the audience of the war’s historical importance, in which Israel “tripled its size, spilled very little blood and humiliated its neighbors.” He said Israel dug 10,000 graves in public parks in preparation for the conflict — graves they scarcely filled.

Rubin emphasized the importance of remembering this crucial period in Israel’s history, telling the audience: “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.”

Gold also stressed that the importance of remembering the Six Day War lay in its implications for the future — and the present. He reminded the audience that Israel remains vulnerable in a tumultuous world and told them: “She still needs our support.”

Erica Rimlinger is an area freelance writer.

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