Prisoners, still: The ongoing trauma of the Yom Kippur War POWs

Ori Shahak was shot down over Syria. Uri Ehrenfeld was taken captive at the Suez Canal. Thirty-nine years later, the two men are engaged in a campaign for improved state care for prisoners of war. Their own harrowing stories underline the need

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

Israeli prisoners of war in Syria (Photo credit: Wiki commons)
Israeli prisoners of war in Syria (Photo credit: Wiki commons)

Lt. Col. (Res) Ori Shahak is not soothed by the silence that descends on Israel’s cities on the eve of Yom Kippur. He is rattled. The dark days of his imprisonment in Damascus as an Israeli prisoner of war are more likely to return to him in flashes: the heavy steps of the approaching guards, the beatings, the torture, the terrible loneliness of solitary confinement and the way it erodes the health of the mind.

“There are scars,” he said, “and sometimes you forget you have them until they start to bleed.”

Shahak, a fighter pilot who fought in the Six-Day War and was shot down over Damascus on the second day of the Yom Kippur War, is a father and a grandfather; his daughter is a major in the air force; and he works for the Israel Air Force (IAF) till today, teaching the flight school cadets to fly in a single-engine training plane.

Sitting with him for a long conversation, at times explicit about the cruelties of captivity (and the occasional joys, of which more later), he seemed like so many other pilots, his mind governed by a quick, cool and orderly mechanism. Yet like every POW, he said, he suffers at nights, and while the Ministry of Defense has made significant headway in its treatment of Israeli servicemen and women who were taken captive, it still lags behind the United States, where there is a national POW Day and every POW is granted immediate disability recognition.

Shahak and other Yom Kippur War POWs, including Dr. Itamar Barnea, a fighter pilot and psychologist, and Professor Avi Ohry, a doctor who specializes in rehabilitative medicine, came together in 1998 and founded Erim Balaila (Awake at Night), a non-profit organization that Shahak now heads. Their goal was twofold: to knit together the hundreds of remaining POWs — many of whom avoided each other out of a sense of shame — and provide them with a sense of community and a support network; and to advocate for better state treatment of POWs.

Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz hugging Gilad Shalit on the day of his release from captivity (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)
Lt. Gen. Benny Gantz hugging Gilad Shalit on the day of his release from captivity (Photo credit: IDF Spokesperson/ Flash 90)

Gilad Shalit is an example of their success. When he came off the plane, the IDF Chief of the General Staff hugged him. He was not taken to a military complex. He was not questioned. “The needs of the individual were finally put before those of the army at large,” said Uri Ehrenfeld, another member of Erim Balaila, who was taken captive on the eighth day of the Yom Kippur War. Shalit was taken straight home and secluded from the public, cloistered from the outside world and embraced by his family, given time to heal. “Our goal throughout was to ensure that his return would be different from ours,” said Ehrenfeld.

Many POWs have described their questioning at the hands of the Israeli officers upon return as worse than their initial captivity experience. Some were interrogated, charged with treason, tried, and stripped of their rank.

Today that is no longer the case. But Erim Balaila, feeling that the Ministry of Defense treatment of POWs is still inadequate, met with MKs last summer to draft a piece of legislation entitled the Recognition, Treatment and Rehabilitation of POWs Bill. The proposal, based on the ground-breaking research of Israel Prize-winning psychiatric epidemiologist professor Zahava Solomon, calls for a reorganization in the way released POWs are treated in Israel.

Solomon proved that POWs frequently suffer from something called complex PTSD. As opposed to ordinary post-traumatic stress, which can cause symptoms such as nightmares and hyper-arousal of the senses, complex PTSD can cause fundamental and “deep changes in the very structure of a person’s personality.”

For soldiers, the trauma of captivity is profound. Because it comes on the heels of war; is recurrent and ongoing; and has a human face (with the prisoner’s tormentor serving as both a source of pain and a potential savior), the effects are particularly devastating. In fact, in a decades-long study comparing Yom Kippur War veterans and Yom Kippur War veterans who were also POWs, Solomon proved that the POWs had a mortality rate that was four times higher than that of the other group.

Israeli POWs on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Israeli POWs on the southern front during the Yom Kippur War (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

The bill calls for immediate recognition of all POWs as suffering from at least 20 percent disability on account of complex PTSD; and for all of those who die from cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure and nervous system diseases among others, to be recognized as veterans who died from war-inflicted injuries.

The Ministry of Defense said in a statement that it does not support the proposed law on “moral grounds and legal grounds.” Morally, it said, granting POWs automatic recognition would create “discrimination” whereby one group would have to prove a link between their illness and their military treatment and another would not. Legally, the removal of causality would be “a breaking of the basic essence of the rehabilitation law and therefore a dangerous precedent.”

In a phone interview with The Times of Israel, Kadima MK Yisrael Hasson, the author of the bill, said that without the support of the Ministry of Defense the chances of passing the law through the necessary stations in the Knesset, despite near wall-to-wall approval, were “slim to none.”

Shahak charged the Ministry of Defense medical board, which hears soldiers’ claims, with behavior befitting “an insurance company,” and said that its manner of questioning was “like the way they do in Syria.”

Erim Balaila is contemplating launching a public campaign against the Ministry of Defense decision not to back the bill. It is with this in mind that Shahak and Ehrenfeld told their harrowing personal stories.

Loss of freedom

Ori Shahak, a secular, married father of a 5-year-old boy who was quite sure, on the eve of Yom Kippur, that his wife was pregnant, was sent south on the first morning of the war. Flying the air force’s top fighter jet at the time, the Phantom F-4, he strafed a column of Egyptian Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) as they advanced on an Israeli stronghold along the Suez Canal. His navigator, Gilad Regev, cheered; Shahak was stoic. He had already fought in the Six-Day War. The next day, after much confusion, he was sent north, to Syria.

Flying low over the sea, he banked east toward the Golan Heights, saw the smoke rising off the battlefields and continued east, at 1,000 kph, into Syrian airspace. After rising up and reducing his speed, he released his bombs and began to dive, accelerating and moving west toward home. A parachute bloomed in his peripheral vision. Rather than race back to safety, he turned, saying he hoped to organize the rescue of the downed airman. Moments later, while lingering over Syrian airspace, he was hit.

Shahak during a January 1974 interview from prison, Syria's first admission that it held Israeli POWs (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Shahak during a January 1974 interview from prison, Syria’s first admission that it held Israeli POWs (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

Shahak did not swivel his head to look at the damage. He kept his eyes on the dials. “I was completely focused on the instruments,” he said. They showed that one engine was on fire and the other was undamaged. He asked the navigator whether the plane was on fire. Regev said: The plane is a ball of flames from wings to tail. Shahak shut the flaming engine and turned on his afterburners, hoping that a burst of speed could take them back to the border, where they could abandon the plane in safety. They needed to squeeze one more minute of airtime out of the Phantom. But with the Golan Heights in clear sight, the second engine flared out and, as he said during an oral and later written testimony for Erim Balaila in 2007, “There’s nothing to look for in a Phantom on fire with no engines.”

Shahak pulled the eject handle. At first there was silence. He tumbled through the air. Then the parachute opened and a second later his plane exploded. As they drifted down to the ground, Shahak saw Syrian soldiers running toward them. He heard their heavy steps and then blacked out from the blows.

Uri Ehrenfeld, the 19-year-old son of a religious endocrinologist from Jerusalem and a member of an airborne battalion, volunteered, on the weekend before Yom Kippur, to serve along the Suez Canal. He had been in the midst of hard training on the Golan Heights; several weeks of service along the canal — where soldiers were rumored to wear shorts and sandals and spend significant amounts of time fishing in the seawater — was exactly what he had in mind. “I jumped at the opportunity,” he said.

He arrived on Friday morning. A total of 19 soldiers were on the base — including a driver, a generator operator and a cantor for the High Holidays. There was a doctor and three medics. The rest were largely religious armored corps soldiers who had been sent to join the Nahal infantry brigade. Ehrenfeld, a member of Nahal’s storied 50th Airborne Battalion, was the best trained soldier at the Mezach, or pier, the last Israeli stronghold along the canal, where the channel water spilled into the Gulf of Suez.

War broke out at 2 p.m. on October 6. From the very beginning, Ehrenfeld said, it was “a fight for survival, for our lives.” The stronghold was rocked by artillery fire and attacked by wave after wave of Egyptian commandos. They used flame throwers and rockets from nearly point-blank range. Ehrenfeld manned a key position over the water. He operated an anti-tank rocket launcher, an 82-mm. mortar and a heavy machinegun. On Saturday night, the first night of the war, the soldier by his side was killed by a direct shot in the head. He died in mid-conversation.

Uri Ehrenfeld supporting another soldier as they are marched to captivity. (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Uri Ehrenfeld, left, supporting another soldier as they are marched to captivity. (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

For 180 hours, Ehrenfeld said he felt he was trapped in a “box of fire.” He was wounded three times, but continued to hold his position until an order came from Defense Minister Moshe Dayan to surrender. Ehrenfeld had a grenade in his flak jacket and said the notion he had in his mind at the time was “Masada” — a fight to the death. Upon receiving the order, he removed the firing pins from all of the weapons and threw them into the water. Moments later, perhaps realizing the impact of such an order, the IDF brass radioed the base again and said the order had been rescinded and that they were to decide for themselves. The base doctor, an officer named Nachum Varbin, who had performed an emergency tracheotomy without anesthetic on one soldier and had saved many lives, made the decision that the commander of the base had been incapable of making: The time had come to lay down their arms.


Ori Shahak awoke to imposed darkness. His eyes were covered, there was matted blood on his head and his watch was being slipped off his wrist. Then he was thrown onto the floor of a pick-up truck. Traveling to Damascus, he could feel Regev alive by his side, but neither dared exchange a word.

Guards threw him into a hole in al-Mazzeh Prison and left him to his own devices, his hands and feet bound, his eyes covered. In the middle of the old metal door there was a slat that the guards opened occasionally, and on the sides of the slat there were cracks through which he could tell if it was day or night. The sounds of his friends and compatriots being tortured reverberated through the old French prison walls.  He told himself, despairingly, that soon it would be his turn.

The torture was brutal. The interrogators asked questions — about everything from Jewish holidays to atomic secrets — that were translated into a strange, literary Hebrew. Whenever he answered incorrectly or evasively, they whipped the soles of his feet. Sometimes he had to provide incorrect answers just to appease them. At the end of his first interrogation, he had to be carried out of the room like a corpse.

He nearly lost his left foot to infection and was plagued by thirst. But the worst suffering of all, he said, was mental — the uncertainty, the isolation and the loneliness. In order to stay sane, he tried to shut his mind down during the days, when he and the other soldiers were interrogated, and to come alive at night, when the Syrians slept. During those hours, he recalled in his testimony, he returned to his home in his mind. He and his wife had been supposed to paint the house when the war broke out. He discussed color patterns with her and let his imagination guide him through the house, coating the walls in different colors of paint. He balanced his bank account and went through the procedure of renewing his firearm license, which he had neglected to do before the war. And though he didn’t know exactly when his captivity had started, he made scratches on the concrete wall and marked off the weeks.

In December, around the time of his birthday, he decided it was Hanukkah. On each of the eight nights, he lit candles in his mind.

Uri Ehrenfeld, unlike Shahak, had received no training on how to endure captivity. Sitting on the bank of the fort, waiting for the Egyptians to arrive, he and the rest of the soldiers with him were terrified. Many of their fellow soldiers had been killed. All of the rest, including Ehrenfeld, were injured. Their talk veered wildly from suicide to the length of the captivity that awaited them, to banter about where they would meet when it was all over (at the Henry VIII pub in Herzliya).

The Egyptian soldiers ferried them across the water in old wooden row boats. In Port Tawfiq, among the ruined houses on the Egyptian side, photographers, Red Cross officials and Egyptian soldiers crowded around them.  There was some comfort in the commotion. The religious soldiers still carried their phylacteries and a Torah scroll from the base.

The Egyptians then forced Ehrenfeld and two others to cross back to the Israeli side with them and lead them through the stronghold. Egyptian soldiers ran wild through the communication channels and the bunkers, ransacking and looting, and while he led the Egyptian officers through the base he fought two swirling, conflicting fears: that he would soon be taken into captivity and that he would be summarily executed in the trench.

Finally, once the Egyptian colonel in charge verified that the base was not booby-trapped, he made Ehrenfeld lower the Israeli flag from its post and then salute the Egyptian flag as it was raised. The humiliation was one of the worst experiences of his life. Today, outside his home in Jerusalem, he said, he flies the Israeli flag all year round from a 15-foot-high pole.

Ehrenfeld, middle, and the Egyptian colonel, left, saluting the Egyptian flag (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Ehrenfeld, middle, and the Egyptian colonel, left, saluting the Egyptian flag (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

On the western side of the canal the bus carrying the Israeli POWs pulled away from the photographers and the Red Cross personnel. In an alley, a few hundred yards from the photographers, the Egyptian soldiers stopped the bus, blindfolded and handcuffed the Israelis, and began savagely beating them as the bus lurched back into gear.

They stopped at an army base. Ehrenfeld could see beneath his blindfold that it was a bright and sunny Saturday afternoon. He was led to a table and asked his name and serial number. Before he could answer, he was smashed in the face with something hard and he lost consciousness.

He woke up moments before being tossed through the air. Held by the hands and feet and then landing on a soft surface, it took him a few moments to realize he had been thrown onto a pile of his peers.

Ehrenfeld’s cell in Abassiya Prison was bare. There was no bed or mattress. The rough concrete walls were stained with blood and excrement. There were gnats and flies everywhere. A single light bulb burned 24 hours a day. His hands were bound behind his back. By raising his shoulder and lifting the hem of the sack that covered his face, he was able to discern between night and day.

His interrogations were brutal but incoherent. At times they would call him in every few days; at other times, he would be called back three minutes after an interrogation. The questions were sometimes asked in writing and other times orally. They focused on non-issues, such as water storage in his neighborhood in Jerusalem.

One day, though, his interrogator came into the room and, without saying a word, tossed a red paratrooper’s beret on the table. It was Ehrenfeld’s most prized possession. Before surrendering, he said during a 2007 Erim Balaila testimony of his own, he had taken the paratrooper wings out of his wallet and thrown them in the canal. He had stashed his red beret and taken black armored corps boots from one of the dead soldiers in the fort.

“You don’t recognize this?” the interrogator asked. Ehrenfeld said that he didn’t. When the man said that someone had told him it was his, he saw stars. He was sure he was going to be killed. Behind him someone chambered a bullet — perhaps the most fearsome sound in the human repertoire — and Ehrenfeld prepared for death. The soldier fired the bullet behind his ear and for days afterwards Ehrenfeld trembled in fear.

Captivity: stage two

For better or for worse, voices traveled ghost-like through al-Mazzeh Prison. They were audible but untraceable, and Shahak and the other Israelis would call out to each other on occasion. Sometimes they were brutally beaten for this infraction but, even as the blows landed, Shahak recognized that the price was a small one to pay. In February, after four months of interrogations and solitary confinement, a cell door opened and someone screamed in Hebrew, “They’re moving me.” Syrian guards then opened Shahak’s door, too, and led him up the stairs to a large room. When they pulled the sack off his face someone immediately said, “Shahak.” He looked around the room and slowly the gaunt, hairy faces came into focus: They were Israelis, mostly pilots, some from his squadron. The room soon filled with 23 Israeli officers.

Ori Shahak and Gilad Regev's flight route, on a mission to strike Syrian surface-to-air missiles, is marked in red (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Ori Shahak and Gilad Regev’s flight route, on a mission to strike Syrian surface-to-air missiles, is marked in red (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

The officers, kept separately from the enlisted men throughout, lived communally. They split their food up evenly, counting each olive and each pita; they studied English from Syrian propaganda books; and they played bridge on little cards made out of cheese wrappers. On Friday nights, they sat in a big circle and sang the Sabbath songs they knew. On Passover, they belted out the Haggadah songs, which the enlisted men later said they heard at the other end of the prison. On Memorial Day they lit a candle, using oil from the rice they were given and bandage strings as a wick. One of the pilots from Shahak’s squadron took chicken bones that he had whittled down and sewed the flag design into a white T-shirt. They raised it, at great peril, to half-mast on one of the men’s crutches on Memorial Day and to full mast on Independence Day.

When the Syrians finally allowed the POWs to be seen by the Red Cross, Shahak had one simple request: Find out if my wife is pregnant. He had thought she was before the war, but his wife had not yet seen a doctor.

He had no idea that, months earlier, IDF officers had told his wife that he was dead. No one had seen their parachutes and though at first he was listed as missing in action, the officers on the airbase told his wife that she shouldn’t “delude herself.” She even received official confirmation from the Ministry of the Interior five weeks later. Only after a Dutch priest was allowed to see the Israeli prisoners did she learn that he was alive.  When the Red Cross contacted her, she crammed as many words as she could onto the small postcard. The Syrian censor couldn’t read it and didn’t pass it on. The Red Cross officials, for their part, returned to Syria with no news about the pregnancy. They had forgotten to ask.

The end of one captivity, the beginning of another

Uri Ehrenfeld’s captivity was shorter than Ori Shahak’s, lasting for two months, but he spent the entire time alone and most of it in the dark. There had been one reprieve:  He was in the outhouse, throwing his waste down the hole, when another person walked in.  He shouldn’t have been allowed to enter, but the Egyptians had momentarily let their guard down. The man recognized him immediately as an Israeli and asked in Hebrew, “Who are you?” He identified himself as Uri Ehrenfeld from the Mezach stronghold and the man said “I’m Dudi Zayit, a pilot; I was taken right toward the end of the war and you probably don’t know this, but our situation is good. Don’t worry about what the Egyptians tell you; it isn’t true.”

Ehrenfeld with his father after his release (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Ehrenfeld with his father after his release (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

When Zayit died, Ehrenfeld went to the shiva (seven-day mourning period) and told Zayit’s widow what profound solace the brief meeting had brought.

Several weeks later, on a Saturday, he was marched out of his cell and told to pick a uniform and a white pair of sneakers: He was going home.

For Ehrenfeld the homecoming was difficult. His parents were not at the airport. He was sent to Jerusalem, after much fanfare, in a taxi. Days later, the IDF summoned him to the base in Zichron Yaakov for questioning. Professor Solomon told me that Dr. David Senesh, the nephew of the hero Hannah Senesh, who parachuted into Nazi-occupied Europe in order to help save Hungarian Jews, described the experience in the IDF base as worse than his captivity in Egypt. Ehrenfeld, who later went on to work for an Israeli security agency, did not go that far, but he said that the experience of being denied sleep, of in essence “going from a war, to captivity, and from there to another form of captivity,” was “very, very uncomfortable.”

He said he saw a psychologist once, “for an hour,” and then, out of a sense of shame and failure at having fallen into captivity, he “completely avoided” seeing any other POWs for years. Only the necrosis in his legs and the founding of Erim Balaila brought him out of the shadows.

Today, he is retired and spends his spare time sculpting glass: “to try and take hard material and change its shape.”

Ori Shahak weathered several disappointments, watching other prisoners leave before him, until one morning in early June when the guards took him down the stairs without a blindfold for the first time and seated him on a bus. They drove through the bustling city of Damascus, and from there to the airport. In mid-air the pilot told them that they could see another Red Cross plane flying the Syrian prisoners in the opposite direction.

Ori Shahak with his family on the day he returned from captivity (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)
Ori Shahak with his family on the day he returned from captivity (Photo credit: Courtesy: Erim Balaila)

In Tel Aviv, most of the POWs charged toward the doors of the plane. Shahak, ever calm, said he “saw no reason to rush.” He remained by the window, watching the crowd and taking in the scene. Outside, the family members were restrained behind some sort of rope. As he watched the crowd, a woman broke free and raced toward the plane and then everyone streamed forward. The bottleneck opened and he saw his pregnant wife. “She still has a belly!” he yelled.

Six days later his daughter was born.

It’s an experience he hardly remembers. “I was there,” he said, “but the recollections are in stills frames. As though I was looking in on it from the outside.”

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