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‘We came back like humiliated rag dolls’: the shame of captured soldiers

Eetta Prince-Gibson
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‘We came back like humiliated rag dolls’: IDF prisoners' shame

Published: 21 September 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Soldiers taken prisoner in 1973 were stigmatised for returning alive, tortured or not. They tell EETTA PRINCE-GIBSON about their battle for recognition of their trauma.

Uri Ehrenfeld tells his story matter-of-factly, without pathos, and only rarely raises his voice. His face is deeply lined, his voice is raspy. "Other people can't really ever understand," he says slowly. "They can't understand what it meant to fight like that, then to surrender, then to suffer through captivity, and then to be treated as if I were a traitor."

Ehrenfeld was one 301 Israeli soldiers taken prisoner by Syrian and Egyptian forces during the Yom Kippur War. He was held in captivity in Egypt for a month and a half; those who were captured by the Syrians were released some five months later. In both prisons, they were horrifically tortured, physically and mentally.  And when Ehrenfeld and the other Israeli POWs came home, the State of Israel did not know how to help them.

At that time, there was little medical or even theoretical information on Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, from which many of the soldiers were suffering. In fact, the disorder was not formally recognised as a condition until 1980.

But the Israeli POWs challenged more than medical expertise. With their captivity, they defied many of Zionism's and Israel's most cherished ethos and myths. Today, 50 years later, some of those myths have been challenged; some have been shattered, while others remain strong. And the POWs are still fighting for recognition and their rights, in both the courts of public opinion and the law.

In its mission to create the new Jew and a nation, Zionism also created myths of strength and courage. The new Jewish man, and especially the new Jewish soldier, was meant to be strong and independent, able to bear the creation and defence of the Jewish State and the rebirth of the entire Jewish people on his shoulders. 

Signs of weakness were intolerable… it is in this context that the importance of heroic self-sacrifice must be understood.

Zehava Solomon, formr head of mental health research in the iDF

The events at Masada, the last stand of the 967 Jewish patriots in 73 CE, in which men chose a proud death (and murdered the women) over captivity at the hands of the Romans, have become symbolic in Zionist lore. From Tel Hai, one of the first events in which Jews were killed defending a Zionist Jewish community in what would later become Israel, Joseph Trumpeldor's assumed last words – "it is good to die for our land” – have served as a rallying cry for Israeli patriotism.

In Israel after the Holocaust, the fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto, were seen as towering heroes, cruelly contrasted to other Jews in the Holocaust who ostensibly went "like lambs to the slaughter".

In extensive interview with The Jewish Independent, Zehava Solomon, the 2009 recipient of the Israel Prize, Israel's highest civilian award, formerly head of research in the mental health department of the Israel Defence Forces explains that during the years before and immediately after its establishment, the State of Israel needed "to maintain a collectivist ethos, in which the importance of the needs of the community – that we survive as a nation – were put above all.

“Signs of weakness were intolerable, and the importance of the individual were considered secondary.  It is in this context that the importance of heroic self-sacrifice must be understood," says Solomon, now a professor at Tel Aviv University,

For many, Uri Ilan remains one of Israel's most cherished heroes. He was one of five soldiers captured in late 1954 by the Syrian army when they penetrated into Syrian territory to replace the batteries of an Israeli listening device which had been attached to the Syrian army’s telephone network.

David Abudaram in captivity (courtesy)
David Abudaram in captivity (courtesy)

Separated from the others, believing his captors' lies that they had already been killed, and fearing that he would reveal military secrets under torture, Ilan hanged himself on January 13, 1955. In his clothing, Ilan hid nine notes addressed to Israel and his family, the most famous of which is a scrap of paper in which he wrote, "I did not betray. I committed suicide."

The other four were returned to Israel in March 1956, after 15 months in Syrian captivity, in exchange for 41 Syrian prisoners held by Israel. Among them was Meir Moses, who was accused of giving information to the enemy, stripped of his officer’s rank and demoted to the rank of private.

In 2005, he was pardoned by then-President Moshe Katzav.  But in 2015, in an interview in an IDF publication, he revealed that he was still hurting from the humiliation and sense of betrayal by the country for which he was willing to give up his life.

On October 6, 1973 - Yom Kippur -  the armies of Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack against Israel, initiating a three-week-long war on two fronts, in which Israel suffered 656 military deaths and 7,251 injured.  Later, the Agranat Commission, appointed by the Israeli government to investigate the circumstances leading up to the outbreak of the war and the failings of the military and political leadership, revealed Israel was not politically, psychologically or militarily prepared for the Yom Kippur War.

When the war broke out, Uri Ehrenfeld, then 19, was one of 42 soldiers in the Mezach outpost, the southern-most outpost along the side of the Suez Canal held by Israel. The outpost held out against the far stronger Egyptian forces for a full week, while the IDF was unable to send support or rescue.

Surrender was seen as anti-Israeli, as cowardly. The military weren't thinking about us - they were thinking about their egos.

Uri Ehrenfeld, captured soldier

Ehrenfeld says: "I grew up on the story of Uri Ilan. I wanted to be like him. I wanted to fight to the last bullet and die as a proud Jew." But the numbers of wounded increased and ammunition, food, and all medical supplies had run out. The commanding officer, Lt. Shlomo Erdinast, only 21 at the time, was given a command from then-Defence Minister Moshe Dayan to surrender to the Egyptian forces.

But hours later, the outpost was contacted by headquarters and told that the previous order to surrender had been rescinded, and the decision was left up to Erdinast and the other soldiers. That was a cruel decision, says Ehrenfeld.

He is convinced that "the military brass rescinded the decision because suddenly they heard the bells of history. Someone warned Dayan that history would judge him harshly because surrender was seen as anti-Israeli, as cowardly. They weren't thinking at all about us, the soldiers who were dying – they were thinking about their egos and their pride."

Although Erdinast was initially against the surrender, he and the other soldiers were persuaded by the physician, Dr Nahum Verbin, then 29, that it was better to surrender than to face certain death.  

Fighting in another outpost, David Abudaram was also captured by the Egyptians. "I had no choice, but like the men in the Mezach, I am glad that my name appeared on a list of POWs and that it isn't listed on a memorial plaque," he says.

But the military and political establishments were apparently less pleased.  Although joyously greeted at the airport by female soldiers holding bouquets of flowers, after a day or two with their families, the recently freed POWs were taken to a closed military facility, where in addition to the tests to assess their mental and physical states, they were subjected to investigations regarding what they had revealed to the enemy.

With little medical information at their disposal, mental health professionals used methods that would not be used today, including, for example, injection of sodium pentothal, which caused them to relive the events of their captivity. 

Ehrenfeld believes the sodium pentothal, also known as "truth serum", was injected because the military and defence establishments assumed that since they had survived and since, unlike Uri Ilan, they had not committed suicide, they must have passed on secrets to the enemy.

"The military and political higher-ups blamed us for surviving," he says. "We, the soldiers, were witnesses to their failures, so they claimed we were a moral and ethical failure and had betrayed our country."

Indeed, Verbin, the doctor in the Mezach, in an extensive blog written in 2015, wrote that he was formally accused that he had "brought about severe demoralisation of the army and the home front…" He was warned that he would be court martialled, although the military never followed through on its threats.

And as late as 2020, in a two-part television series entitled 301,  produced by and aired on Israel's public television channel, Shmuel Lavi, then commander of the closed facility, argued that as many of 30% of the POWs had been enlisted as enemy agents, many of them as "sleepers" who were meant to re-integrate into Israeli society until they were called upon to act.

David Abudaram today (Eetta Prince-Gibson)
David Abudaram today (Eetta Prince-Gibson)

For decades, the POWs rarely met together; some never even told their wives or their children that they had been POWs. They were, says Abudaram, ashamed of having been POWs.

"I won an award for bravery during the war and I continued serving in the military for decades," says Abudaram, "but I never ever talked about the captivity. I was afraid of the way people would look at me, or that it would hold me back from promotions and advancement. 

"And I never talked about it with my family either," he continues. "In captivity, you are nothing and then the country treats you as if you are nothing."

Given the changing nature of Israel's more recent regional conflicts, there have been few POWs in the past decades. Research conducted by Solomon describes the physical and emotional price that the POWs from the Yom Kippur War paid for their captivity, for what was seen as the "re-traumatisation" when they were interrogated in Israel, and for their isolation and silence. The research found that POWs had significantly higher levels of morbidity and that their mortality rates were 1.6 times higher than the mortality rates among men in a control group. 

I won an award for bravery but I never ever talked about the captivity. I was afraid of the way people would look at me.

David Abudaram

Yet the widespread public perception that politicians and military brass had abandoned the soldiers on the front and failed the country gradually led to a public willingness to slaughter holy cows and question the values that Israeli society had held so dear. 

"Since the Yom Kippur War, Israeli society has become increasingly individualistic, forgoing collectivist ideals for a sensitivity to the individual and his or her right to life, and in this context, to choose captivity rather than death," says Solomon.

That difference can be seen in the way in which the public and the military and political establishment responded to the capture of Gilad Shalit in 2006 by Hamas, who held him captive for over five years. He was released in 2011 as part of a prisoner exchange deal, in which Israel released 1,027 Hamas and Palestinian prisoners.

"The public viewed Shalit as 'everyone's child' and massively supported making every effort to bring him home," Solomon observes.  "And when he returned, he was greeted by the President, the Chief of Staff, and the Prime Minister. There were no investigations and no court martials, and he was never defined as a traitor."

Changes have come incrementally and gradually, emboldening the POWs themselves to demand recognition. In 1998, Ehrenfeld, Abudaram, Erdinast and others formed Erim Balayla ("Awake at Night") as a non-profit support group for former POWs.  Five years later, they advocated in the Knesset for the passage of legislation that would recognise their rights to benefits for 25 diseases resulting from their captivity.  In 2018, they petitioned the Supreme Court to direct the State to make good on the benefits promised them by that legislation, which they have never received.

I feel ashamed that I have to petition the state to receive what the state has already promised in law.

Uri Ehrenfeld

"I feel ashamed that I have to petition the state to receive what the state has already promised in law. We gave everything we could, and now we are fighting to receive an aspirin. Gradually, the public is beginning to understand."  But the establishment and the politicians are clinging to the old ideas, because they are afraid for their reputations and because the State has become unwilling to put out money for its citizens, says Ehrenfeld.

Until recently, there have been few large-scale films or television programs dealing with the Yom Kippur War. In the past few years there have been several, including the 301 television series in 2020, the Valley of Tears docudrama on Israeli TV a recently-released docudrama, The Mezach, which tells the story of the outpost, and a documentary on the POWs in the Yom Kippur War, which will be aired on Israeli public TV later this month.

Notably, 301 includes a prominent slide that reads, "301 IDF soldiers were taken captive during the Yom Kippur War. This film is dedicated to those who were murdered in captivity, to those who survived; to those who were interrogated, hypnotised, and treated with pentothal, here in the State of Israel; and to the POWs who are fighting to this day for care and recognition."

Encouraged by the changes in public perceptions, to mark 50 years since the war, the Erim Balayla group is planning to take the POWs through the Suez Canal and back to Israel. Within Israel, their trip will be accompanied by air force squadrons, and they will be greeted by the Chief of Staff and other high-ranking military personnel.

"In 1973, we came back like humiliated rag dolls," concludes Ehrenfeld. "This time we will come back like the heroes that we were and are."

About the author

Eetta Prince-Gibson

Eetta Prince-Gibson, who lives in Jerusalem, was previously Editor-in-Chief of The Jerusalem Report, is the Israel Editor for Moment Magazine and a regular contributor to Haaretz, The Forward, PRI, and other Israeli and international publications.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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