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Six Day War - I Put a Note in the Wall

Front row: Dr. Bornstein, head of the Burns Unit with his wife and twin sons and Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Back row: Prof. Chaim Boiches, who became Dean of the Faculty of Medicine, other volunteer doctors from the U.S., Australia and England and Ben Novis (second on the right)

In May 1967, I was in London doing post-graduate medical studies and working at the Hospital for Neurological Diseases at Queen's Square. I had come from South Africa two years previously. During this stressful period when war seemed imminent, I received a call from an ex-South African doctor who told me that the local branch of the Israel Medical Association in London was calling an urgent meeting. Potential volunteers were being sought to help out in Israeli hospitals, in the event that war actually broke out.

I didn't hesitate. I went to the meeting and signed up as a volunteer. Of course there were difficulties; my parents weren't very happy with my decision, which they considered foolhardy, and I also had to explain at the hospital that I was giving up my job for a time and going to help in Israel. I had one unexpected supporter: I was living at London House, a hostel for overseas students, and the person in charge, a VC from World War II, said he had expected that I and the other Jewish fellows would be going to Israel.

When the war broke out, we were instructed to go to Rex House in the West End of London for a medical examination and to sign papers, and then to wait. We didn't have to wait long; on the third day of the war, an airplane left England with a number of Israelis and equipment. We doctors were due to leave on the fourth day, but the flight was postponed and as everyone knows, the war ended surprisingly quickly.

Nevertheless, we flew to Israel the day after the war ended. We were taken to Herzliya and put up at a hostel and the next day, all the doctors were allocated to different hospitals. I was assigned to the Burns Unit at Tel Hashomer, which was a particularly active unit because of all the war injuries that resulted in severe burns.

As we had the first day free, a number of us took the opportunity of travelling to Jerusalem to see the newly-liberated Western Wall. It was incredibly exciting. The plaza had just been cleared the day before, but we had to walk a long way along a road marked "Be careful of mines". There was no division between men and women at this stage and we all rushed up to put a note in the Wall. I am sure that many echoed what I myself wrote – a prayer for peace.

The next day, I started work at Tel Hashomer. I was put up by a family in Savyon and given a bicycle to get to the hospital. I was one of three volunteer doctors in that unit, which was frequently visited by famous people, including David Ben Gurion, Danny Kaye and Yitzhak Rabin. I worked there for about six weeks and I particularly remember attending a wonderful concert on the lawn for the benefit of the soldiers at which Shuli Natan sang "Jerusalem of Gold". That had become the musical symbol of the war.

I was dating Carol at that time, and she came out to join me for a visit when my work finished and the army doctors had returned to their posts at the hospital. It was a moving and exciting time to be in Israel and this experience influenced our decision to make our home in Israel, not only in times of war, but in times of peace. (We are still waiting in hope.)

Life has strange twists and turns, and today, after my retirement as head of the Gastrointestinal Unit at Meir Hospital, I am working again at Tel Hashomer Hospital as a volunteer doctor.

Would I be living in Israel today if not for the Six Day War? I am not sure. What is certain is that the Six Day War changed my life personally, just as it did the fate of Israel. 

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Monday, 22 July 2024

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