Exactly 60 years ago, on a dark and cold January night, 35 Israeli Palmach fighters went on a mission to assist the defenders of the besieged Etzion Bloc. Not one of them returned to tell the story.
The details of that dreadful night and following morning were gathered from evidence of the local Arab farmers and from the British troops who arrived at the scene when the battle ended.
Those of us who have traveled along road number 367 leading from Bet Shemesh to Gush Etzion might have noticed a semi-circular memorial lookout point, immediately after the road begins its steep ascent up towards the Gush.
This is the memorial for the 35 men of the "Mountain Platoon" who were sent on the night of Jan. 15, 1948 by the Hagana headquarters in Jerusalem to deliver supplies and ammunition to the residents of the Etzion Bloc.
The Gush had been under siege for several months. The only paved road connecting the Gush to Jerusalem was blockaded by three Arab towns and hundreds of Arab villagers. The only way to send supplies was to have them carried on the backs of young men at night who bypassed the hostile villages by climbing the steep slopes of the Judean mountains.
Thirty-eight young men, under the command of Danny Mass, left the outpost of Har-tuv, each carrying 100 pounds of supplies on his back. Captain Danny Mass was chosen to lead the men, as he was the former commander of the Gush and well acquainted with the terrain. The plan was to walk quietly through the night, bypass all the Arab villages on the way, and arrive at the Gush, ‘0 miles up the mountain, by dawn.
But things did not work according to the plan. Immediately after leaving the outpost, a detour had to be taken in order to bypass the British police fort safely. A short while later one of the men sprained his ankle, and two of the others accompanied him back to Hartuv. The remaining 35 started the ascent and were slowed down by the strenuous terrain, the steep mountains, and the heavy weights on their backs.
Before dawn they ran into two Arab women who were out gathering wood for fuel. The commander spared their lives, and perhaps they were the ones who delivered the news to the Arabs that a military unit was marching in the hills headed for the Gush.
By sunrise, the platoon was surrounded by hundreds of armed Arab villagers. Mass and his men climbed a small hill and tried to hold on. More and more villagers joined the Arab mob. A fierce battle ended later that afternoon. All the 35 men were massacred, their bodies desecrated, and all the equipment and ammunition looted.
The terrible news reached the Hagana headquarters later that night, but there were no men to send. The British officer from the Hebron station supervised the gathering of the bodies. He had to pay Arab villagers to carry the bodies on their mules to the closest road. Twelve of the bodies could not be identified, and all 35 were buried in a temporary common grave in the Gush cemetery.
The Yishuv the Jewish population in Israel before statehood was in shock. Not only was the Gush still under siege, but 35 of our very best men were lost. Rumors about the terrible fate of the men spread all over Israel and abroad. The young Palmach poet, Chaim Gury, who was then on a mission in Europe, wrote the famous poem "Hiney Mutalot Gufoteinu," "Here lay our bodies ."
Three further attempts to break the siege to the Gush were undertaken, but none succeeded. In May 1948, the few remaining fighters from the four kibbutzim in the Etzion Bloc surrendered and were taken captive by the Jordanian legion.
One of the young men of the Lamed Hey was Tuvya Kushnir. A talented biology student from The Hebrew University, Tuvya was also a Hagana volunteer and a member of the "Mountain Platoon." As many young men did at that time, he devoted himself to both.
By the age of ‘4, Tuvya had already achieved an honor many scholars never reach throughout their lives. A rare Israeli wildflower is named after him. In one of his excursions in the Judean Desert before the war, Tuvya discovered a unique species of crocus. Researched in Israel and sent to major laboratories around the world, it was recognized as indeed a new species. And as it was first revealed and identified by the young student, it was given his name.
The "Colchicum Tuviae," or the "Tuvya Crocus," is a gentle and delicate winter flower that can be found only in the Judean desert, the Negev, and Sinai. It sprouts every November and blossoms until February.
The tragedy of the Lamed Hey was a great loss for the young Jewish state. After the war the bodies were transferred to Mount Herzl and reburied in a special section for the Gush Etztion warriors.
In 1949 a kibbutz was established south of Bet Shemesh, Kibbutz Netiv Ha Lamed Hey "The Route of the Thirty-Five." In the summer of 1967, after the Six Day War, the former residents of the Gush returned to their land and homes and were able to once again rebuild one of the most beautiful, flourishing, and exciting communities in Israel the Etzion Bloc.
The loss of the 35 is commemorated in many ways: by the rebuilding of the Gush, by many songs and poems, some towns have streets named after them, and of course the kibbutz. But for me it will always be through this little flower, bearing the name of this young man. Each year it will break through the hard dry crust of the desert and remind me of Tuvya and his friends, the Lamed Hey.
David Hyman is shaliach and Israel Program Center director for UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey.