Tuesday, June 26, 2012

A bit of Beer Sheva history

I have lived in Beer Sheva for 27 years. I arrived with my husband of less than two weeks to a sleepy town at the edge of the desert. We knew no one and nothing. I had been to Beer Sheva once previously in my Bar Ilan days on a two-day tiyul in the Negev. It didn’t impress me back then, and it didn’t impress me when we first moved either.
But that soon changed. First, we met people, lots of people, who quickly became friends, then good friends, then family. I had never met such hospitable, open, helpful people as I did in those first weeks in a strange town, and I never have since. 
Second, I fell in love with the authenticity that is Beer Sheva. This was really Israel. Falafel, Bedouin, History.  I loved the fact that there were Bedouin women riding the roads on donkeys. (I loved what the donkeys left behind a bit less, but such is the price for authenticity.) I loved the train track, a block away from our apartment, and the train car still sitting on it, that was a remnant of the Orient Express, which traveled – in the good old days – from Constantinople to Cairo. I loved the old Soviet style buildings that had been built for the onslaught of Olim from Northern Africa in the ‘50s. They might have been ugly, but they were a reminder of why we were here, and how Israel took in any Jew who needed to come and I loved them for that. But most of all, I fell in love with the British War Cemetery.  

Beer Sheva is the site of a pivotal battle of World War One. The British army and its allies of Australians, New Zealanders, and Indians were situated in Cairo and had to break through to Damascus. They traveled up through the Sinai but were stopped by the Turks (who controlled the area) in Gaza. (Always trouble, that Gaza). So the British circumvented the problem and traveled north via Beer Sheva, which at that time was an Ottoman garrison and a collection of wells.  See here for some amazing pictures of Beer Sheva from 100 years ago. 
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The pitched battle that took place became famous because it was the last major battle in history that took place on horses.

For a full history of the battle (for those interested – it really is fascinating) see here or for some cool pictures here.

Since then, every October 31 is ANZAC day in Beer Sheva, memorializing the Australian and New Zealand Armed Corps, and those who died in the battle.

There are several British military cemeteries in Israel; one on Mt. Scopus in Jerusalem, and another, the largest, in Ramle, which has become infamous as the final resting place of Pvt. Harry Potter. But the one in Beer Sheva is simply breathtaking. Today, tall apartment buildings front the site, and a huge playground is on one side, while at the back, ground was given for as a final resting place for non-Jews. Actually, that last is pretty fitting.

Nevertheless, one only has to step through the iron gates to be taken back 100 years, to imagine what the spot looked like then. Most of the soldiers buried here are in their late teens or early twenties. They died in an alien land, so far from home, so far from their families, so far from anything that could look remotely familiar.

When we first came to Beer Sheva, I passed the cemetery at least once a week, and would stop to pay my regards. Now, I’m not there nearly as often, but when I do go, I spend even more time.

The remnants of Orient Express are long gone, and have been replaced by huge apartment blocks. The Soviet style buildings are still around, but I don’t love them quite as much anymore. They really are ugly…
But the cemetery still holds its spell over me. I think of the long and torturous road that was taken before the Jews could come home to their Land, and how these young men were part of the Divine plan. They didn’t know it, but they gave their lives in the sanctity of G-d. May their memories be for a blessing.
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