The Kibbutz Commander
Story by Sharon Tribalski
Photo by Sharon Tribalski
Tokens of heroism in the form of medals sparkle on Eliezer's chest as he stands in the kibbutz's old armory, surrounded by rifles and walkie-talkies. When Janice, his Filipino caregiver, and I, began pinning them on his old "Shinel" coat (donation from Beit Hazera's archive) we quickly realized that there was not enough room for them all. His drawers are filled with medals, Golden medals from the Russian army, decorations of honor from the Israeli Defense Force. All his life, Eliezer has been surrounded by wars and battles, he has dedicated his life to security.
Born in 1920 in Vilnius, Poland, an elder son of the Basson family, he grew up into that crazy war. He spent his youth in a constant race for survival: escapes, bombings, hunger and cold, theft of food to survive and the crossing of borders on his way to freedom. The world he knew was fighting a terrible war. Survival back then was the name of the game. Eliezer as a young man in the "Shomer Hatzair" youth movement, acquired education and values as well as the ability to survive outdoors. That accompanied by his sharp senses, helped him cope and survive.
In 1942, he decided to enlist in the Red Army and became an officer in the Lithuanian Division, a Jewish soldier in the Russian army. He participated in many battles on several fronts. Thousands were killed all around him, but somehow, he survived. He was wounded twice in the leg, lost one eye yet survived and in that war, whoever survived, won.
Now he stands in front of my camera, his eyes sparkling as he enthusiastically tells me how he planted a mine for a jeep carrying four German officers and lifted them up in the air. He has many other stories from that era that could have easily turned into scenes from some Spielberg war movie. He is 99 but his mind is clear and he is energetic and optimistic. It's hard for him to stand without his walker, but he doesn't complain. Not even when I ask him to hold an old, heavy weapon, just like he did back in World War II, and to stand upright as though commanding his charging forces.
In 1946, after three years in the war, he was released from the army and immigrated to Israel. Eliezer came to Kibbutz Beit Zera and established his home there. There he met the love of his life, Nelly, a native of Bulgaria, with whom he founded a beautiful family. During the Independence War he concealed weapons in slicks. In the subsequent wars, he handled the preparation of the shelters and the "hedgehog" positions around the kibbutz. For more than 30 years he continued to work on various security issues for the kibbutz. All of this, while working in the kibbutz chicken coop and later, as a production manager in the "Zemach Feed Mill". Eliezer was the kibbutz's mythical area commander.
From the first moment we met, it was clear to me that I would photograph him in the kibbutz armory. I myself belong to the generation of "bomb shelter children" from the 60s. Long days and sleepless nights we spent in those shelters underground, when above us fell Katyushas ??sometimes hitting the kibbutz.
Eliezer was the "Kibbutz Commander". Next to the armory he had the shelter headquarters, and from there he commanded all the kibbutz security deployment, activating sirens when an alert was given, as well as communicating with the Israeli security forces. To this day, the place is called "Eliezer's Shelter Headquarters". Now he stands upright before the camera, serious and alert, reminding me that none of his peers are alive today.
When we were children, we learned in history books about the battles of World War II, and here in the kibbutz, lives a brave officer who fought in that war and who shares with me his experiences, recreating moments when sheer luck had saved him from a certain death.
I adjust the lighting, salute him, and start taking pictures, looking at him and realizing that just like back then, in the inferno, Eliezer was and remains, a winner.