Rivka Grabovsky and her children in an undated photo. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law/ Zman)
Main image: Rivka Grabovsky and her children in an undated photo. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law/ Zman)
Memorial Day

An unsung heroine’s 1948 tale of courage and captivity resonates anew after October 7

Rivka Grabovsky’s little-known ordeals, during the War of Independence and as a POW held by Syria, take on added layers as Israelis process a more recent tragedy

Tal Schneider is a Political Correspondent at The Times of Israel

Main image: Rivka Grabovsky and her children in an undated photo. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law/ Zman)

Hiding in a storage space in her village-turned-war zone, Rivka Grabovsky waited for the enemy to find her. Outside, she could hear the fighters who had invaded her small community shouting in Arabic as they went from home to home, looting, pillaging and taking hostages.

For hours, a small group of local security officers had tried to fight off the enemy, but as the intense battle wore on they were eventually outmatched and overrun. She had barely made it into the dugout. Now she hoped to remain hidden until nightfall.

Soon, though, Grabovsky made a run for it, sprinting into a field of thorns with only a single shoe. Eventually an enemy combatant found her and took her captive, a fate shared by other members of her small community.

The year was 1948.

As Israel commemorates its national memorial and independence days this week, the overlooked saga of a heroine from the 1948 War of Independence bears an uncanny resemblance to the October 7 massacre, which looms large over this year’s celebrations.

On October 7, thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel, brutally murdering 1,200 people and kidnapping 252 to the Gaza Strip. One hundred thirty-two hostages — including four held by Hamas for nearly a decade — are still there, though not all are alive.

The scale of the tragedy is unprecedented in Israeli history, but it bears similarities to an episode in the 1948 War of Independence, when 45 Israelis, eight of them women, were taken hostage by the Syrian army. Most were from Mishmar HaYarden, a village established in the Upper Galilee in 1890.

Grabovsky, whose saga is almost entirely absent from the canon of Israeli heroes, was a widowed farmer in Mishmar HaYarden. She was born in Rosh Pina in 1898, the eighth of nine children born to Aharon and Sarah Feinstein. During the intense battle for Mishmar HaYarden in June 1948, she was 50 years old and a mother of five.

Ten years before her capture, her husband, Chaim Grabovsky, and their eldest son, Menachem, were murdered by Arab rioters while carrying barrels of water from the nearby Jordan River to Mishmar HaYarden. Not long after, Grabovksy gave birth to her fifth child and named him Chaim Menachem.

Rivka and Chaim Grabovsky prior to Chaim’s 1938 murder. (From the book ‘Three Days in Sivan’/ Zman)

Grabovsky died in 1962, but her story has survived because a year after the battle for Mishmar HaYarden, the self-described “peasant” recounted the fighting and her year in captivity in a long article in the now-defunct Haboker newspaper.

Reading about Grabovsky’s experience on June 10, 1948, one might think it was October 7, 2023.

As Syrian forces approached the village just west of the Jordan River, Grabovsky sent Chaim Menachem and her daughter Tzippora away for safety. Her sons Karmi and Aharon remained with her.

On June 10, Syrian forces advanced on the village and Grabovsky describes the battle in the village in detail. Karmi was killed practically before her eyes. Grabovsky ran between houses to escape the onslaught. On the side of the road, she wrote, she saw “a mutilated cow, an injured and blood-splattered donkey, and a raging mule. Everything around me had been destroyed. Unconsciously, my lips began to move in prayer: ‘My God, my God, have mercy on us, on our boys, our farms, and our courage so we do not fall.'”

She fled to the village clinic, where she formed a plan to gather the local girls and escape further west to the nearby Kibbutz Ayelet Hashahar. Her plan was rejected, deemed too dangerous.

Mishmar HaYarden in 1946. (Zoltan Kluger/ Zman)

Throughout the day of the Mishmar HaYarden battle, Gabovsky ran between buildings, sending messages from the wireless radio to the village command as she dodged Syrian fire.

“One finger was shattered, and shrapnel hit my leg,” she wrote. “I went inside and dressed my wounds. The enemy’s fire grew stronger from every direction. They had already reached the outer homes of the village… What hope had 30 men against thousands? Meanwhile, the Syrians raided all the houses — stole, broke, and ate anything they could get their hands on.”

After hours of intense fighting, Mishmar HaYarden’s defenders were starting to run low on ammunition. Their hopes for fresh supplies and reinforcements did not come to fruition.

“Seeing our terrible state, my heart broke in my chest,” Grabovsky wrote. “No, I shouted, no, I will not give myself over, I must notify our army of our situation. Perhaps it will come tonight.”

Rivka and Chaim Grabovsky, center, and their son Karmi, far left, with Jewish auxiliary police during the time of the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt.

Grabovsky managed to run from the line of fire and hide in a storage closet where she awaited nightfall.

“Meanwhile, the Syrians raided all the houses. As I sit, I hear their shouting. They loot the houses… The day dragged on and on. It was longer than eternity. I wait for night, I wait until I get dizzy.”

She later described her escape from the village and eventual capture near a Syrian checkpoint. “With no other choice, I walked toward them,” she wrote. “That is how I was taken captive.”

‘Had they indeed abandoned us?’

Even though she was in Syrian hands, Grabovsky still held out hope that Israel’s fledgling army would come to her rescue as she gazed at the darkened heavens above.

“I sat curled up on the edge of the trench and gazed up,” she wrote. “The skies were dotted with stars, and airplanes flew at great heights. Those were our airplanes, because the Syrians hurried to get into the trenches. They attempted to speak with me, but I remained silent and did not shut my eyes all night, lest our reinforcements arrive. Had they indeed abandoned us?”

From there, she was transported east toward the Jordan River, then through the Golan Heights to Quneitra and eventually to Damascus.

“I was loaded onto a truck and we drove down [from] the village. I cannot describe what I felt then. From every direction, teeth were grinding and hands were raised to beat me. However, it seemed the driver had orders to bring me in alive and well, and so we reached the banks of the Jordan River.”

The site where the last defenders of Mishmar HaYarden were fortified, and from where they were taken captive. (Dr. Avishai Teicher/ Wikimedia Commons/ Zman)

Because there was no bridge, the soldiers and those who had been captured had to cross by going through the narrow river.

“I was led by a Syrian medic and with him, I crossed the Jordan River on foot. We waded in water that reached my chest, and I emerged wet and broken with my clothes stuck to my skin,” she recalled.

“We went up the hill to the road. When I reached the road, I was stopped by three Syrian soldiers who ordered me to strip my battledress coat. When I refused, one of them hit me on the head with the butt of his gun. I fell unconscious. I woke to the soldiers kicking me, and when I stood, I threw my battledress at them and continued walking.”

Rivka Grabovsky. (Used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

In Damascus, Grabovsky recounted how she was put in a room with Syrian prisoners who had been arrested for petty crimes: “I was given half a bench to rest on, and one [of the prisoners] put a bag of clothes between him and me so I could rest my head upon it. Everyone fell asleep and began to snore.”

She later asked to be transferred to be with the rest of the Israeli hostages. During the move between the two jails — on foot, to the sounds of jeering crowds — she saw Jewish captives being led from the synagogues in Aleppo, Homs, and Damascus, still wearing their Shabbat clothes.

“I was led through streets and alleys. We were led by shouts from all the stores, ‘Hi Jew!’ Thus, we reached the central police building,” she wrote.

“Hundreds of police officers peeked at us from the windows. We went down a long corridor with closed cells on either side. I asked the police officers, ‘Where are they?’ and our people in the rooms heard a familiar voice and all jumped to their feet. When the officer opened the door, the girls jumped up with tears and joy.”

Some of the young women, members of the Etzel paramilitary organization who had come to defend Mishmar HaYarden, were with Grabovsky in Syrian captivity.

Illustrative: The return of Israeli captives from Syria after the War of Independence. (Public domain)

They would describe Grabovsky as the “hostages’ mother” and as the woman who would take care of the young girls and talk to the Syrian soldiers about their conditions.

“They would not be detached from me,” Grabovsky said of the other hostages after their reunion. “They all thought I had been killed, and suddenly they had such a surprise. I cannot describe the joy then. ‘Now we feel as though a mother has come to us,’ they said. And indeed, I did not disappoint the girls. I was a mother and a sister to them.”

After 11 months in captivity, Grabovsky and other Israeli prisoners of war were released by the Syrians in a prisoner exchange deal as the war wound down. Syria recovered 97 of its POWs.

No hero’s welcome

Grabovsky’s heroism has never been recognized by the state, though her story is not completely unknown.

“During the War of Independence, many women were taken hostage from Gush Etzion, Nitzanim, and Mishmar HaYarden,” said historian Aryeh Itzhaki. “Rivka Grabovsky was unique. She was Israel’s number one hero. Among all the men and women in Mishmar HaYarden, she was the most daring fighter, and she was no longer young then and a mother of five.”

However, said Itzhaki, the young state largely ignored Mishmar HaYarden because of its right-wing ideology.

“During the War of Independence, they weren’t given guns, they didn’t send reinforcements,” he said. “They weren’t in the club and so didn’t get their due.”

A man from Mishmar HaYarden near the the Jordan River in 1947. (Zoltan Kluger/ Zman)

Aside from her time in Syrian prison, Grabovsky’s life story is surprisingly complex. To Hebrew poetry history enthusiasts, she may be familiar for reasons not connected to her wartime heroics: As a young girl living among the first waves of Jewish immigration into Ottoman Palestine she kept a black notebook that she filled with poetry of the times.

Among the poems are all nine stanzas of “Our Hope,” composed in 1886 by Naftali Herz Imber. The first two stanzas would go on to become Israel’s national anthem, and Grabovsky’s notebook contains early evidence of the original lyrics in full.

The notebook has since been afforded great historical importance as providing glimpse into the culture in the Jewish settlements before World War I. Its discovery and recovery from Lebanon is a tale unto itself.

In 1982, some 20 years after Grabovsky died, a reserves combat medic named Chaim Shani who had been called up during the First Lebanon War was on patrol with a Druze reserve officer when they found themselves outside Sidon’s main synagogue.

Chaim Shani, the Israeli reservist who found Rivka Grabovsky’s notebook in Sidon, Lebanon, in an undated photo. (Courtesy)

Just a few years earlier, the last remaining Jewish family, the Levis, had left Sidon, but when Grabovsky was young, she used to travel with family and friends from Rosh Pina to the Lebanese city to visit Jewish relatives or trade with its large Jewish community.

Shani and his buddy started looking through the synagogue.

“In a box, we found a notebook of poems, and Rivka’s name was written in it along with other names. I took the notebook and thought I would return it to the owner,” Shani recalled to The Times of Israel. “When I returned to Israel from reserve duty, I took part in a Hebrew poetry event and told the story on the stage. One of the audience was a relative of Rivka’s daughter, Tzippora Adler. She said, ‘I’ll take it to her.'”

Shani, a Kiryat Shmona resident who worked for the Education Ministry before retiring, told The Times of Israel that the mystery of how Grabovsky’s notebook reached Sidon “will likely never be solved.”

A poster of the Palestinian Fatah movement plastered on one of the walls of a fading synagogue in Sidon, Lebanon, on February 8, 2015. Nothing remains that gives a sense of the vibrant Jewish community that once lived in Sidon. (Photo credit: Joseph Eid/AFP)

Grabovsky had likely thought her legacy would be as a pioneering settler of the Land of Israel. She had dedicated her life to working the land and her farm in Mishmar HaYarden, and after being freed from captivity she intended to continue.

However, after returning from Syrian captivity, she was told that the entire area was part of a demilitarized zone as per the ceasefire agreement with Syria. A new Mishmar HaYarden was being established on land to the west of the destroyed village, while the land of the original Mishmar Hayarden would later be used by the state to establish Kibbutz Gadot.

The people of Mishmar HaYarden who had returned from captivity complained to the authorities and an argument broke out over the compensation they deserved.

Historian Itzhaki, who documented the battles for Mishmar HaYarden, is convinced that the dispossession of the land was political, much like the lack of recognition for Grabovsky’s and others’ heroics.

A memorial to the fallen defending Mishmar HaYarden. (Yaakov Saar/ Zman)

“An extraordinary injustice was done to her,” he said. “All the lands of Mishmar HaYarden were given to Kibbutz Gadot, and after years of arguments over compensation, she and the other residents of Mishmar HaYarden were given small sums.”

Grabovsky moved to Netanya and died there in 1962, never having returned to her native village.

“I knew her and met her at the end of her life,” said Itzhaki. “She became destitute and worked as the cleaning manager for a care home in Netanya. She washed dishes and floors and passed away at the age of 64.”

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