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Yom Kippur War: An American remembers being 17 in a kibbutz bunker

Yom Kippur War: 40 years ago, an American teen kibbutz volunteer in Israel dived into a bunker as the three-week war erupted around her. Dizzy with fear but thrilled, in a voyeuristic way, to be at the center of world events, she didn't know that war would become a dominant theme of her future.

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I was already knee-wobbly faint from lack of food and drink; the heat was a vise-grip that made it difficult to breathe. I sat in a chair in my room in front of a uselessly whirring little fan, then flopped on the bed because it looked more comfortable, then changed to another chair because it might be cooler. Finally I gave up and slowly trudged to the main building.

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Lynda Schuster is a former staff reporter in Latin America and the Middle East for the Wall Street Journal and in South Africa for The Christian Science Monitor. She wrote “A Burning Hunger: One Family’s Struggle Against Apartheid,” and she is now at work on a book about the scandalous heiress and Pittsburgh philanthropist, Mary Schenley. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter, Noa.

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The kibbutz was echo-quiet; no one worked on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The little paths that criss-crossed the settlement, usually filled with people walking or riding bicycles or pushing carts with children in them, were deserted. Even the day-and-night radio chatter that wafted out from buildings with the hourly beeping time signal for news was silent. The Voice of Israel had gone dead for the day.

There was air conditioning blasting in the recreation room. In the distance, the Golan’s usually craggy profile was barely visible behind the quivering mask of heat. Michael, my newly minted boyfriend from the British group, shuffled in. Black curls and emerald, cat-slitted eyes, topped off with an antic sense of humor.

Michael said: “I was wondering where you got to.”

I said: “I’m trying not to think about food.”

He reached across me to grab an outdated copy of Time -- but never quite got there. The air around us was suddenly exploding. “Bloody hell!” he said. “What was that?”

More ear-drum-shredding detonations in rapid succession shook the ground. Through the picture window, we saw smoke billowing from the Golan Heights. Someone shouted at us to run to the bomb shelters. I had no idea where to go. We followed a kibbutz member to a clearing, then down leaf-strewn steps to a door. He tugged on it. Locked. 

Michael and I took off at an adrenaline-infused sprint for Simcha’s house, dog-cringing at each explosion. She was standing in her garden with some neighbors.

I said: “What’s happened?”

She said: “We’re under attack. The Syrians crossed the border and are bombing the Golan. The Egyptians crossed into Sinai.”

“How do you know?”

“The Voice of Israel came back on the air. The chief rabbis were on the radio, saying that we’re at war and that it’s OK to break your fast now and not wait until sunset.”

“What should we do?”

“I suggest you return to your buildings.”

We followed her advice, but no one in authority was around. Michael retrieved a radio from his room; we heard the urgent codes being broadcast on the Army channel that called up men to reserve duty. The attacks had taken the country completely by surprise. The kibbutz as well: the place suddenly came alive with men half-dressed in their military uniforms, guns slung over their shoulders, gear falling out of hastily packed duffel bags, rushing to get to their units.

One of the women in charge of the kitchen was dishing out pieces of chicken left over from the previous night, before the fast began. Gnawing on a drumstick, I jogged back to Simcha’s, Michael in tow. She was nowhere to be found. Michael and I felt our way in the gathering dark to the edge of the hill beyond her house. I made out a few other people standing there. They were watching pinpricks of light, tiny jewels in a miles-long necklace, twisting across the Golan Heights toward us. Tanks. Someone in the blackness asked: “Theirs or ours?”

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