“We Had to Save Israel from Destruction”
A Personal Story of Heroism in the Sinai Desert
Rabbi Yechiel Wasserman serves as Co-President of the World Mizrachi movement, following many decades of work in Israel’s National Institutions. In October 1973, he was injured while serving in the IDF’s Tank Corps on the southern front, defending Israel against the invading Egyptian army. Rabbi Aron White spoke to Rav Wasserman to hear his story.
When the war broke out on Yom Kippur 5734, where were you?
On that fateful Yom Kippur, I was a sixth year Hesder student and I was davening at my yeshiva, Yeshivat Hakotel. I had recently got engaged to Rina and we were due to be married on Chanukah. The war caught all of Israel by surprise, so as we stood there davening, none of us could have imagined what was coming so quickly. One night I was in Yeshivat Hakotel with my roommate Yitzchak Statman, and the next day we were in our tank together near the Suez Canal responding to Egyptian anti-tank missiles. When we said U’netaneh Tokef in Mussaf, none of us thought the words “Who will live and who will die?” would become so tangible, so quickly. I was sitting in the same row as a student named Rav Shmuel Orlan hy”d, who was killed in the Golan the next day. “Who by fire, who by water?” – within a few days, I had friends who were killed in burning tanks and friends who drowned in the Suez Canal.
The war broke out at 1:55pm, and once it broke out anyone in the yeshiva who had served in the army was called up for reserve duty. It was a meaningful experience to leave the atmosphere of a yeshiva on Yom Kippur, together with another 150 students, to defend our country and people.
Where were you sent to fight?
I arrived at the location where my unit was gathering, Gan HaAtzmaut in Yerushalayim, and from there we were sent to the Sinai Desert. Israel was invaded by Syria in the north and by Egypt in the south, and some of us were sent to each front. At that time, there were four Hesder Yeshivot – Kerem B’Yavneh, Sha’alvim, Hakotel and Har Etzion. Many of the students had served in tanks (Shiryon), and it was to the tanks we were sent.
I served in Battalion 164, which was made up of many Hesder students. We arrived in the Sinai Desert on Sunday night, and began preparing our ammunition and tanks to join the battle to support the units already there. Egyptian tanks had crossed the Suez Canal into the Sinai Desert, and we were defending the south of Israel from their invasion. Beginning that evening, we fired at the Egyptian tanks, and fierce battles ensued over the next 72 hours. We advanced, but then were pushed back. I cannot begin to describe what it is like to be on the battlefield – the noises, the emotions, the sights. Haim Sabato wrote the book Tium Kavanot, Adjusting Sights, to describe his experiences on the battlefield in the Yom Kippur War. One has to be an excellent writer to even begin to convey what the experience is like.
My role in the tank was to coordinate between the driver and the loader, telling the loader which ammunition to load based on the type of target we were facing. This involved me having to partially come out of the tank, while making sure to return inside to be protected from anti-tank fire. Israel was caught by surprise; Egypt had Sagger anti-tank missiles that were far more dangerous than what we had been aware of.
For 72 hours we barely slept or ate. On Wednesday morning, Erev Sukkot, our tank was hit by a Sagger anti-tank missile. I was struck by shrapnel – I would later learn that hundreds of pieces of shrapnel had hit me, including in my head and in my eye. Our tank began to burn. I was dragged out of the tank by our driver, Ezra Bashari.
What happened to you then?
With the last of my strength I grabbed my tefillin that were next to me as Ezra dragged me out. I was put onto another tank which rushed me to a field hospital in Refidim – by the time I got to the field hospital I had passed out. I woke up eight days later in Sheba Hospital in Ramat Gan, where I would be for the next eight months. Over those months I needed seven operations, as well as rehabilitation to relearn how to walk. The doctors also showed me just how close I had come to losing my life – had the shrapnel hit just a few millimeters away, it would have pierced my brain and probably killed me.
When I woke up in Sheba, my fiancee Rina was by the bed. As I came round, I asked her three questions. “Will you still marry me?” to which she said “yes.” “Is the fighting still going on?” to which she just smiled wryly. Thankfully Israel was doing better then, but the battle was still raging and she didn’t want me worrying about anything except my recovery. And finally, “What happened to my tefillin?” Everyone thought that my injuries must be making me imagine things – there were no tefillin with me in the hospital, and people just thought I was imagining things. But I knew I had grabbed my tefillin!
So what did happen with the tefillin?
Three months later, a soldier from Bnei Brak came to visit me, and told me that he has a present for me – and handed me the tefillin. He explained that when I was transferred to the tank that took me to the Refidim field hospital, the tefillin fell into the belly of the tank. After the war ended and the tanks were being serviced, an engineer found them. He came out of the tank, and asked: “Anyone know who Wasserman is, whose tefillin were in this tank?” This religious soldier knew Rina from Bnei Akiva in Bnei Brak, and so he knew who I was. He said he would bring them to me. To this day, I wear those tefillin every day!
How do you look back at the war and your experiences now?
Many people focus on the failures of the Yom Kippur War – how Israel was surprised, and how close to 3,000 soldiers were killed. While these are definitely true, I don’t think people focus enough on the fact that we ended up winning the war! If we hadn’t stopped them, the Egyptians would have rolled into Be’er Sheva and the Syrians into Teveria. We prevented the destruction of Israel and we have to be thankful for and mindful of that. There was also a significant role played by the Hesder students, who served in hundreds of tanks, making a major impact on the war effort. Many Hesder students were killed and injured in the Yom Kippur War, and it made a big impact when Israeli society saw that yeshiva students took part and fought side-by-side with the rest of Israel to defend our Land.
On a personal note, for many years I had some type of PTSD. I couldn’t hear tank fire or even look at a picture of a tank, and I certainly couldn’t watch anything like a war movie. Decades later, I felt I was ready to confront this – I gathered my children and grandchildren, and we traveled to Yad LaShiryon, the Tank Museum at Latrun. There I climbed onto a tank with my whole family, told them the story of what happened, and we took a photo together on the tank. I think of that tank as my tank of victory, surrounded by my family in Israel.