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Purity of Arms

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Ray Brunton  E-mail
Ray BruntonI arrived at Palmietfontein with my luggage, was given a paper and told that my destination was Nicosia. Eventually we got onto a plane, a Dakota.

It was towards the end of May. I was one of the first two nurses to leave for Israel. The passengers on the flight were Machalniks and two P.A.A.C. directors. The Machalniks were Joe Behr, Chanoch Getz, Maurice Ostroff, Sydney Levy, Jack and June Medalie, Melville Malkin, Issy Robinson, Simon Roberts, Dennis Rosenfield, Mokkie Schachat, Willie Steingold, Geoff Stark, Fred Sarif and Abe Cohen. I was the only woman, except for June Medalie who was with her doctor husband Jack, and they planned to settle in Israel after their service in the IDF.

The journey was a bit long; when we landed at Tabora RAF base in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) for emergency repairs, we saw 'Wanted' notices with pictures of the Jewish Gil-Gil escapees labeled “terrorists.” It was quite frightening.

We landed at Haifa Airport on 7th June. We waited there, and I remember June Medalie saying to me, “Remember Ray, water is mayim," because that was all we really wanted. Eventually a bus arrived. I must tell you that the buses were worse than any of the Putco buses in Johannesburg, they were like cattle trucks. They took us into Haifa, where we were told that they had not expected any women, and so no arrangements had been made for us. I suggested that they let me go to my sister, Hetta Shapiro, and asked them to let June come with me, but I don’t think they really believed me. They took the boys to the Technion, and two guards took June and me to my sister’s place, where we had a jolly good meal, and slept. The next morning somebody arrived on the doorstep. They had come to fetch me. They weren’t quite sure what to do with June, since she was a physiotherapist and they didn't know exactly what a physiotherapist was! Anyway, they took me along to some place on Jaffa Road in Tel Aviv, where I was interviewed by Dr. Barachet in his apartment, through an interpreter. I managed to get through to him that I was a theatre sister and even if I couldn’t talk the language, I could at least do that work. So I went in with the crowd of boys. They put me on a jeep, where I nearly died of the heat in my hot winter costume.

At Medical Headquarters they told me of a nursing home called Djani where all the rich Arabs used to go. We went there, and although the place was in a very bad state – the electricity had been disconnected – at least I felt there was something we could do there, and we decided to turn this into a hospital. The next day they sent out a German girl by the name of Lily, and told us to go ahead. When we asked for instruments and other equipment, they said that everything needed was there. We discovered that all the grounds had been dug up. First they brought mine detectors to check that there were no mines there, and when they started digging, they found that this was the spot where everything had been hidden. They dug up the instruments (which were really ancient), but we took them out of the ground, and for days Lily and I scrubbed them. I have never worked so hard in my life as I worked there. I worked 20 hours a day, going to sleep at 11.00 a.m. and waking at 2 p.m., because this was the first real military hospital (Military Hospital No. 2). All the others were civilian hospitals. They started sending staff to man the wards, and we managed to get the hospital ready with those terrible instruments. A special group of workers came and repaired the place as best as they could, with lights and all the other things needed – and we found that the best time to bring casualties from Jerusalem was at night, so we were very busy from about 4.00 p.m. right through the night, when the patients were brought to us.

We performed terrific surgery with virtually no instruments. I met one of the finest surgeons I have ever come across in the world. This was a man by the name of Dr. Moses. I believe he is still in Israel, and later became head of the Medical Services. A very clever man, he was a Polish doctor who had apparently worked in the forests in Poland, and he told me that because he had learned his surgery in the forests, he was able to work with virtually no equipment, as he was there for many years. Anyway, this chap was terrific. We had 20 doctors stationed there, and I was the only English-speaking person. I had a vague idea of some Yiddish, but I learned to talk a bit of German from Lily. Amongst those 20 surgeons, we had an orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Spiro, a Czechoslovakian who was a very good doctor. When I said to him that we had no tools, and asked how he was going to do bone-work, he said, “Just leave it to me.” A few days later he arrived with sculptor’s tools and that's what we used for our work; although they were rusty, we nevertheless used them. He actually used wooden hammers, simple chisels and ordinary mallets which I just boiled and sterilized, because we simply had nothing else. We were completely cut off for two weeks, and during this time we had very little medication or anything else, but I had some crochet cotton which I sterilized and used for sewing up patients. This was during the siege of Jerusalem. I must say that we never, ever had a septic case, in fact nothing went wrong. The Lord was on our side, and nobody else.

I asked the boys who went round on the water-truck where I could find medicines, so they took out a map of Jaffa, and on it was written where everybody lived. They took us around, and we went to the homes of the doctors, some of which were occupied, helped ourselves to what we needed, and walked out. I think that being young I just had no fear. We found some penicillin, though strangely enough we couldn’t find much gut, and we took this back to the hospital, where all we could do was laugh. Eventually, medical supplies reached us from Tel Aviv and Dr. Chaim Sheba, head of Medical Services, asked me what we used without tools and gut to sew the boys up with. He was absolutely amazed and just laughed when he heard that we could actually do major surgery and use crochet cotton to sew up with – and still not have any septic cases.

I was most distressed when inexperienced doctors faced with a shattered arm or leg had only one answer – amputation. The wounded of the third attempt to take Latrun on 9th and 10th June were as much victims of their own doctors as they were of the Arab Legion. I witnessed practices that were an offence to every tenet of my training in South Africa, where the cold surgery of amputation was delayed, except for the most obvious cases. Sometimes I would hide the knife, at other times I would protest angrily and passionately, requesting the doctors to wait. Physiotherapist June Medalie, who joined me during this period, was horrified to find the hospital full of amputees.

The deepest heartbreak for me came from one particular case. He was a lad named Jankelow, a sabra medical student, a grand fellow who had worked in the theatre with me. He was called away to the Latrun hills at the time when every man was needed. The news that he was no more left me very sad. I found myself profoundly involved in Israel’s trials, tragedies, mistakes and rawness.

Eventually, Jaffa became “civilized,” and I was sent to Kfar Giladi at Tel Hai. A hospital had been built in the hills, and additional nurses were required. I was to run the hospital and the theatre, and two other sisters were to attend to the wounded in the wards. The strangest thing was that when I was sent from Jaffa to this place, I had some difficulty in getting there. I arrived in Tiberias via some devious route, and when I got there I went to the hospital and asked someone to take me through to Tel Hai. I was told that nobody would take me through, as fighting there was too heavy, but when I insisted, saying that there was no one at the hospital, I was told that there was no hospital there. I insisted that there was one, and eventually the girl who was a housekeeper there volunteered to take an ambulance and go with me, as she could drive. It was an uneventful journey, going through Rosh Pina, and we arrived at the hospital, between Kfar Giladi and Tel Hai. They were very pleased to see me, as they had no theatre sister and there were many casualties. The hospital had no name, being a prefab makeshift building. There was quite heavy fighting in the area, and we worked very hard indeed. One of the sisters, named Leah, had been sent there as a form of punishment because the matron-in-chief didn't like her.

Leah was a particularly good girl, and we had a number of girls from the petroleum pipeline company who came to help us; they were to be nursing aides. One of them, Rivka, a sabra, was annoyed when I arrived to run the place because she had not been asked to do the job. I explained to her that I was the one who had the qualifications, whereas she had none, and this was no place to argue about it. One thing which moved me in Israel, especially in Jaffa, was that when I gave a six-week course in first aid, boys were sent to study and these boys went to the front line with the men. Unfortunately, we lost a lot of them. This course was a sideline to my work, as if I didn't have enough to do, dealing with casualties.

Another thing which amused me was this: one day in Jaffa, I was busy in theatre and I heard music blaring which drove me crazy. I went out and found that the boys had taken all the radios they could find from the abandoned homes, and brought them to the hospital, so every patient had a radio, and each one was tuned to a different station, so you can imagine the noise. As I said, there were quite a lot of incidents which made life rather comical at times.

One morning at Kfar Giladi, the doctor came to tell me that we had to go somewhere with an ambulance, only the two of us, as well as the driver. We stopped somewhere on the Kinneret and waited for a boat. We had first aid equipment with us, and were given guns. A boat came and we witnessed a most peculiar scene – as we docked at Kibbutz Ein-Gev, the ground seemed to move, and I saw an opening with people emerging. All the kibbutz buildings had been destroyed by Syrian fire, and the kibbutz members had gone underground, and sent an SOS for us. We went down to see what surgery we could do, left medication for them and gave them our guns. We took a few patients back with us on the boat.

This all happened at dusk, and when we got back, I asked the doctor where we had been. All he said to me was, “Ray, whatever you have seen today, you don’t know. Just forget about it.” It was just like a dream, it really was, because I can still see that piece of ground opening and people walking out of it. It was incongruous. When you were underground, there were bunkers and everything that was needed.

Mrs. Zagagi, the head of nursing services, arrived and gave me the news that she was sending me down to Beersheba. I asked her what I’d done that she was sending me to all the places where nobody else wanted to be – I was sent to Kfar Giladi where no one could get through to us, I had been in Jaffa, and now to Beersheba. What had I done? “No,” she said, “we just need a theatre sister,” and they felt I could run the hospital there.

Being in Beersheba was very hard because we worked day and night. No other sister could relieve me as they knew no theatre work, but the eight female members of the staff decided that if I was going, they were going with me. They would not stay behind. One and all wanted to go, so she agreed and gave permission – even to the house-keeper, who wouldn’t leave me from the time we were in Tiberias. She was a fabulous person, this Dina. One great difficulty of course was the language, especially as there were a lot of Romanian and Eastern Jews who couldn’t speak Hebrew. I remember South African Doctor Abe Kessler, who is now in Port Elizabeth; because we had no traction, he was very useful in setting fractures. I used to send a message to him to come and help, and he always agreed, as long as we gave him a decent meal. This was always our bargain, and I would write, “You can have a decent meal – you know what we need.” He was with the boys in Carmeli, the infantry. He had a terrific sense of humor and was most obliging. His specialty today is neurosurgery, but at the time he was just a G.P., a field officer and the only doctor there. But the boys liked him, and this was terribly important for their morale. He married a sabra and today lives in Port Elizabeth.

There were a few more little incidents at Kfar Giladi, and then I went down to Beersheba.

Ray Brunton

Getting ready to board a Dakota to fly down to the Negev

My arrival was not really welcomed. It was at night and not being a good traveler, my insides had been knocked around, and when I got there the O.C. said to me, “So you’re the next one they’ve sent to be killed.” When I told him that I didn’t quite understand him, he told me that so far he’d had two nurses in charge, and both had been killed. Not realizing the implication, the next day I discovered that it was my predecessor who had been killed. He did not welcome me and made my life very difficult and also tried to propose all sorts of other ways to get around me – I being a woman, and he a man. I naturally did not fall for any of his little tricks, and he said to me, “Anything could happen, the theatre could blow up like last time.” Unfortunately, a week later while busy in surgery, the X-ray rooms next to us were hit and set on fire. We were operating and I said to the surgeon, “Would you mind slowing up," after which we went out and watched the fire. I went up to him and said, "You know, if I didn’t know you were a witch, I’d think you were, but you can’t get rid of me.” I had a very bad time with this surgeon C.O. Unfortunately, he had been in the concentration camps and wasn’t a man to be put in charge of people. When there was heavy fighting he was never to be seen, he always let the junior man take more responsibility, and I found a lot of the juniors weren’t capable of doing this. We tried to cope as best as we could.

An example – one weekend, he gave all of them leave, and I found that there was not a single doctor in the hospital. This was unforgivable. This particular weekend the Druze and the Circassians, who were fighting on our side, decided to fight amongst themselves, apparently about the water-tank. I landed up with treating 200 casualties, and while organizing their treatment I sent for the medical officer at the police station. This doctor was an elderly man who was not that experienced, other than being a house physician. So I sent him with an urgent message to headquarters. He was not willing to sign it, so I told him to use my name, as we were in urgent need of help. Eventually Lionel Melzer got this message, and four doctors got into a car and drove straight down to Beersheba. They saw me with all these casualties, trying to get plasma and trying to sew people up, as this old doctor could not do the job. I strapped the very bad cases onto stretchers, and instructed my orderlies to send them to Tel Litwinsky by plane, as we just could not do anything for them. When Helman, the other man arrived, he asked me where the other doctors were and I told him I didn't know. He then ordered the four doctors to remove their jackets and start to work. He subsequently discovered that the C.O. doctor had done all that to spite me. These four doctors, Melzer and the others, arranged for doctors to come down and perform surgery. The very bad cases were flown out by the air force for urgent attention. As I said, Dr. Steiner was a peculiar man. Once when Dr. Sheba arrived for an inspection, Steiner was on the roof as he often was, watching the water tank, and he would never use too much water in the theatre. He just never worked. Eventually, things improved and we got more staff, and then I asked for a transfer, as I felt that I had had enough on the front line. That was about May 1949. I was just at the end of my tether, all skin and bone – I have never worked so hard, never done so much scrubbing in my life. In South Africa no theatre sister would be called on to do what I had done.

In Jaffa, out of nothing we made a hospital. I saw a rehabilitation centre for amputees being organized there. June Medalie, the physiotherapist, was put in charge of it, with two boys from South Africa, then medical students and now doctors, Elliot Bader and Harry Miller. Two doctors both from Krugersdrop were also involved, Dr. Harry Kassel and Dr. Maurice Rosenberg. They had over 200 patients there, and I watched the place grow. I also brought the Beersheba hospital up to standard as best as I could, then started ante-natal, post-natal and children’s clinics in my spare time, which was after 6 p.m. in the evening.

One day at Beersheba, on returning to the hospital with the ambulance, one of the guards at the gate told me that there was a woman in labor. I asked why she had not been sent inside the hospital where the O.C. was. Apparently, the guards had been instructed not to admit her, as this was a purely military hospital. I told them there was no such thing, this was a Jewish woman having a child and she had to be admitted. The woman was a refugee from Romania, and her husband could only speak Russian and Romanian. One of my nurses could speak some Russian and English, and by various translations we admitted her and I delivered a 9-pound boy, which was very exciting. The new mother was very young, and it was not an easy birth.

Knowing nothing of the history of Beersheba, I had disobeyed orders, and was to be placed under arrest, which upset the guards. I told them to look the other way, took the arrest notice and marched off to the police station. I did not know that a meeting of officers was in process. I just walked in and announced that a boy had been born. They all got very excited and I asked them what all the excitement was about, it was just a birth. They said, “Do you realize that for 2,000 years no Jew has been born in Beersheba?” I then asked them to read the arrest warrant, and they announced that they had come to put the C.O. Steiner under arrest, so that I could come back to the hospital. Strangely enough, when I was delivering the baby Steiner was present and he asked me what else they taught me in South Africa. I answered that we were taught every branch of nursing, and that he should have delivered the baby, as the woman was experiencing a difficult childbirth, and needed a doctor and not a midwife.

Later, the O.C. of Beersheba area sent for me and told me that all the cabinet ministers were arriving, and that there would be a big official brit [circumcision] ceremony. One of my nurses, Nora Gurfinkel, an experienced children’s nurse, went around to the various units stationed in the area, had a cupboard made, collected clothing and other items for the couple, as they were refugees and had nothing. In fact, so much was collected that we did not give everything to them.

The great day arrived. The Brit was on 14th August, 1949 and it was terrific. Chief Rabbi Waterman came especially and presented me with a bible, and he told me in Yiddish how marvelous he thought everything was. But it was just one of those things that happened. It could have happened to anybody, it just so happened that I was there. This brit this was one of the highlights for all the troops and was something really exciting.

Other recollections…

There was also a time when we moved the theatre in Sdom into a cave for emergency cases. Sdom wasn’t attacked much, but there was firing on us, and although there were not many casualties, they still needed a safe theatre. Naturally, it was not very sterile, being a natural cave with water dripping down, but I think the Lord was just on our side with everything and we managed quite well.

At Kfar Giladi, the hospital superintendent did not understand the medical side of things. Also, one thing that horrified me was that here we had no electricity in order to sterilize instruments, so I had to do “Primus” sterilization, and having treated casualty cases as a result of primuses, you can just imagine my fear of them. However, I learned to overcome my fear, and there I also learned how to make local anesthetics, as we did not have a pharmacist, as there was just no one else to do it. Since I was in charge of the hospital, I was expected to do everything. Naturally, always being cut off, and not having other anesthetics, we simply had no option but to use what we had.

Another hilarious incident which will always remain with me. One day in Kfar Giladi, a little Polish man, named Shmulik, was helping me. He was very fond of me and on that occasion we were terribly busy and I was in the process of plastering a leg. As you know, when you are very tired, you think in your mother tongue. I said, “Shmulik, give me a box.” The next thing was that I found myself on the other end of the theatre, he had cracked me so hard that I flew across the room! Everyone started shouting at him and he shouted back that I had asked him for a box, and the confusion was great. Funnily enough, when I arrived at Sarafand I met Shmulik again, and everyone realized that Ray, the one who had asked for the box, had arrived. This just shows how when you do not know a language well enough, only a few words here and there, you can become confused. All I had meant for him to do was to pass me a box of plaster! There really were a lot of amusing incidents.

Back at Djani, in Jaffa, in the early days, Jack Penn had offered to perform plastic surgery. I accepted his offer, and asked him to bring his own instruments, as his type of surgery would be impossible with our makeshift instruments. He arrived as arranged at 7 a.m. to give a demonstration. I had just gone off to change my uniform. When I came in, he asked me where everyone was, as everyone had been told that he was coming. I had to explain that we had all been on our feet for 48 hours, and that all were keen to see him work, and he could not let them down. I prepared the cases for him, and after his demonstration surgery, Jack asked if I would like to work with him, to which I agreed, if I could be released.

The order for my transfer to Haifa came through, and the quartermaster brought it to me. When I was due to leave, I went downstairs, where all 20 doctors were waiting for me and asked to see the orders. They said that if I moved to Haifa, they would all go on strike! Dr. Spiro took the orders and just tore them up. I had no option but to stay until much later, when I moved to Kfar Giladi.


Author: Ray Medows (nee Brunton). Today Ray lives at “Our Parents Home” in Highlands North, Johannesburg, South Africa.