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Brothers at War

Eliezer Shulman

During the Yom Kippur War, Yosef Wallis was an engineer protecting fighter planes from enemy missiles, Noach Hertz was a Skyhawk pilot blown out of the air by one of those Russian warheads, and Shimon Grilius, creator of the flying explosives, was rotting in a Siberian prison. Four decades later, three friends examine the trajectory that propelled them back home.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

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It was a reunion of sorts. These three diverse, busy kiruv personalities don’t usually have time to get together, but the Yom Kippur War is such a sensitive subject for this group that they agreed to our invitation. Inspirational lecturer Rabbi Noach Hertz, Shvut Ami founder Rabbi Shimon Grilius, and Arachim head Rabbi Yosef Wallis sat down together for an intimate, nostalgic conversation — painful and heartwarming at the same time. Forty-two years ago this week, their paths crossed for the first time — but at that point who would have thought one day they’d be sitting together, full beards and black yarmulkes attesting to a lifestyle so foreign then? 

On the eve of Yom Kippur 1973, Noach Hertz was an IDF fighter pilot with an expectant wife and young child; when the alarm sounded he scrambled to the nearest air force base. The next day he was in the cockpit, flying his Skyhawk toward Damascus. At the same time,Yosef Wallis, an electrical engineer, held a senior position in the military’s emerging division of electronic warfare. His job was to counter the threat of antiaircraft missiles and to give backup protection to Israel’s air offensive. Noach Hertz was one of the pilots he was supposed to safeguard. And Shimon Grilius? At the time, he hadn’t even arrived in Israel. In 1973, he was languishing in a Siberian prison, serving the fourth year of a brutal five-year term for “anti-Soviet activities” — in other words, learning Hebrew and trying to connect to his essential identity as a Jew. Yet Grilius was the third leg of this unlikely triangle: as an engineering student with military clearance, his job was to develop the missiles that the Soviet Union provided to Syria and Egypt, and to find ways of preventing those missiles from being electronically disrupted. One of those missiles brought down Hertz’s plane, destroyed his leg and sent him into Syrian captivity.

Caught by Surprise 

On Yom Kippur 5734 — Shabbos, October 6, 1973 — the Egyptian and Syrian armies launched a joint surprise attack on the State of Israel. The combined air forces of the Arab countries played a major role in the attack; the element of sudden bombardment left Israel’s ground forces unprepared for battle while forcing the IAF to abandon its usual strategy of securing aerial superiority and instead assist the ground troops, while simultaneously attacking Egyptian forces and thwarting attempted incursions by Egyptian commandos.

On the second day of fighting, October 7, the majority of the air force’s efforts were directed at the Syrian front in the IAF’s attempt to destroy Syria’s antiaircraft weapons network. The operation met with searing failure, as seven Phantom fighter jets were shot down while only one Syrian battery was destroyed. The air force would not find an effective solution to the threat of surface-to-air missiles until the end of the war, and it continued to operate under the constant menace of missile fire.

This was a huge blow to Israeli morale, especially considering that just six years earlier, the IAF had wiped out the entire Egyptian air force within the first hours of the Six Day War. After that, the air force was considered the most significant part of Israel’s military, winning 54 percent of the country’s defense budget. 

But proud Israelis weren’t the only ones to take note of the IAF’s prowess. The Egyptians noticed it too, and as a result Egypt approached its patron, the Soviet Union, for assistance in creating a “wall of defense” that would protect it from Israel’s air force. The Egyptians focused primarily on radar-guided SA-2 and SA-3 medium-range missiles. To round out their defensive armaments, they also acquired dozens of radar-guided ZSU-23-4 missiles.

Another blow to Israel’s air superiority came in the middle of 1973, when the Egyptians and Syrians armed themselves with a new type of Soviet antiaircraft missile, the SA-6. This missile, guided by radar and designed to strike within a range of up to 20 kilometers, could be launched from a moving vehicle, which made it possible to deploy the missiles quickly and to relocate them quickly — an important element for evading attackers. The Egyptian and Syrian infantries were also equipped with another innovation: a shoulder-mounted, heat-guided SA-7 “Strela” missile, designed to protect ground troops from air attacks. All this prevented Israeli fighter jets from precision attacks, at least at the beginning of the war when they were caught off guard and unprepared. 

Parachute to Gehinnom 

On Sunday, day two of the war, Noach Hertz first met Yosef Wallis. Hertz was a Skyhawk pilot assigned to a fighter squadron, while Wallis was a senior engineer in an electronic warfare group working to counter the threat of antiaircraft missiles.

“At that time, electronic warfare was in its infancy,” Rabbi Hertz recalls. “In fact, the euphoria and arrogance that was felt after the Six Day War created a feeling of invincibility, as if there was no reason for a defensive electronic antimissile protection system.”

Rabbi Hertz says that going into aerial battle without an electronic antimissile backup is actually less frightening than it sounds. “From the pilot’s perspective, the most important thing is that we could see the missile — either myself or my partner; aerial attacks are conducted by two planes operating in tandem. Today, every plane is equipped with an electronic system that identifies a missile and locks onto it, activating a warning system that alerts the pilot even if he doesn’t see the missile. But back then, we didn’t have those things. We had to see the missile with our eyes. Actually, if you see the missile, it’s a good thing. It means you’ll almost certainly get out alive. Before I was shot down, coming back from a bombing run in Egypt, there were three instances where I saw the missile approaching and maneuvered away. But the fourth missile caught me on my way to Damascus. That’s the one I didn’t see, and this was the result,” he says, tapping his prosthetic leg.

Flying toward Damascus, Noach Hertz witnessed his colleagues shot down, as he dodged missiles, flying low to the ground to avoid radar detection. Of the ten planes in his squadron that were hit, only five pilots succeeded in parachuting out alive. 

“My leg was severely wounded while I was still in the plane. I was in and out of consciousness, and it was only by a miracle that I managed to wake up and activate my parachute. Then I fainted again. I fell into enemy territory and woke up in a Syrian hospital, with my leg amputated.”

Strength in Solitude Noach Hertz opened his eyes to face excruciating pain and people around him talking in Arabic. “I was the fifth person to be captured that day; the other pilots were killed. After that, the air force was grounded, all the planes were brought home, and the army began calculating its next move. Later on, another two pilots were captured due to personal errors, and then they finally began launching attacks the way they were supposed to. Until my capture, planes were falling out of the sky like hailstones,” Hertz relates. When the IDF calculated its losses, they discovered that they lost a quarter of their fighter jets.

Hertz remained in the hospital for four days. He spent most of the time in a stupor induced by painkiller injections, punctuated by the occasional visit of a Syrian interrogator who beat him and threatened him. “One night, they put me in handcuffs, covered my eyes with a black mask, and dragged me out,” he remembers. “I was sure I was being brought back to Israel, and that we had won the war. I traveled for a long time, in terrible pain, but instead of going home, I was dumped in El-Mazza Prison in Damascus.”

Hertz was put in a tiny, windowless cell with a heavy iron door. He was given two thin blankets and slept on the frozen floor throughout the winter. 

“The first person to treat me was a young soldier who couldn’t bring himself to touch my leg,” Noach relates. “I took his medical equipment and bandages, and used them to change my own dressings. Later on, a professional medic began coming to change the bandage from time to time. I lay there with near-starvation rations, without antibiotics, without intravenous fluids, and without painkillers.”

After six weeks, he had his first shower, removing layers of bandage encrusted with dried blood. And for four and a half months, Hertz was isolated from the world. “The most difficult thing is being alone and not even knowing if your loved ones know you’re alive. There were so many unknowns: Did the war end? Does the country still exist? Did my wife have a boy or a girl? I cried out like a child because I didn’t know how to pray.”

During his captivity, Hertz’s thoughts began to turn in a spiritual direction. “Someone who had been captured in 1967 once told me that captivity was good for him,” Hertz says. “I never understood what he meant, but slowly, I began to realize the blessings of my own captivity. I learned that I could survive pain and trauma, that I could deal with the most shocking challenges and overcome adversity. But mostly, I found G-d on the freezing dungeon floor.”

Eventually the Syrian captors allowed the Israeli pilots to speak to each other, and each one told of his small steps in the direction of faith. “Although none of us were religious, the first Shabbos we were together, we decided to create some sort of Kabbalas Shabbos service,” Hertz recalls. “We didn’t know the tefillos, but we could sing. Someone recited Kiddush over muddy coffee, we ate our pita rations instead of challah, and we collected oil from the soup in a little piece of foil and lit ‘candles.’ And so we brought the spirit of Shabbos into our lives.”

Within six months Syria began releasing prisoners, and by June 1974, all the remaining Israeli captives were repatriated in a prisoner exchange. After intense rehab, Hertz returned to the air force as a helicopter pilot. In the interim, one of his officers had become religious, and that further sparked his interest. It took a few more years, but Hertz’s already awakened soul eventually found its place on the benches of the Netivot Olam Yeshiva in Bnei Brak. There, he met other IDF veterans who reconnected to faith under challenging conditions. 


Sentenced to Siberia 

While Noach Hertz describes his experiences in captivity, Shimon Grilius shifts in his chair with visible discomfort. At a certain point, tears gather in his eyes, and he quickly wipes them away. Rabbi Hertz notices his colleague’s distress.

“Nu, Reb Shimon,” he says. “Enough. This has nothing to do with you. You were also imprisoned at the time.”

Rabbi Yosef Wallis pours a cup of water and hands it to Rabbi Grilius. “Reb Shimon, we’ve closed the circle already,” he says, and then adds teasingly, “Noach forgave you a long time ago.”

“I know all that,” Reb Shimon says. “But it pains me anew each time.”

“The first time Reb Shimon heard my story,” explains Rabbi Hertz, “he wept and said, ‘I created those missiles that brought your plane down.’ And every time we meet, I keep setting off his pangs of conscience.”

Rabbi Grilius, who in 1968 was a brilliant Russian engineering student with an emerging Jewish identity, didn’t exactly manufacture missiles for the Syrians, but he did have military clearance and was assigned to perfect the missiles the Soviet Union provided to Syria and Egypt. His job was to find a way to prevent those missiles from being electronically disrupted. 

Grilius was among a group of Jewish students at the University of Raizan engineering school. “In Russian universities, there was an admissions quota for Jews; they could make up no more than two percent of the student body,” Rabbi Grilius explains. “But at the same time, the government knew that the Jewish mind is brilliant, so they would take groups of Jews and send them to learn together in faraway cities. That way, the KGB could watch over us while the government could continue benefiting from our work.”

Grilius says the isolation of the group actually made them stronger in their Yiddishkeit. “We wanted to learn about Judaism, and so we used to listen to Kol Yisrael shortwave broadcasts.” When the Soviets discovered that, they began broadcasting static on that frequency. 

“During the Six Day War, we were riveted by the reports from Israel, and we swelled with pride. But then we began to feel despondent. Our brothers in Israel were fighting, while we were helping the Syrians build their missile arsenal! The KGB saw how we felt and they forced several famous Jews to deliver televised speeches against mitzvah observance.”

But as big an asset as Grilius was to the Soviet military apparatus, his foray into Judaism was considered even bigger treason. The Soviet leaders had made it illegal to pray in public, to study Torah, or even to read Hebrew, and so all these activities were conducted in secret. The ever-vigilant KGB, however, uncovered much of this activity and “perpetrators” immediately lost their jobs and were sent to prison or to labor camps deep in the gulag.

Grilius was arrested in July 1969 along with some other Jews at the university for “anti-Soviet activities” — he had in his possession a record called “Diary of the Six Day War.” He spent two years in Putma labor camp and another three years in Perm 36 — a camp on the Siberian border (today it serves as a museum of conditions in the Gulag), where men slept on planks in unheated wooden barracks where the winter temperatures reached 40 degrees below zero. 

But it was in Perm that he met fellow refusenik Yosef Mendevelitch, who, a few years before, joined a group that tried to fly a small aircraft out of Russia. Mendelevitch (who is today a rosh yeshivah in Jerusalem) didn’t know too much about Judaism, but Grilius — who was overjoyed at the providential meeting — at the time knew nothing at all. And so at great personal risk to both, Mendelevitch became his rebbi; together they found ways to pray, learn Hebrew, to sew kippot out of uniform scraps, keep kosher, and even to keep Shabbos to some extent. They both suffered the torturous cold and isolation of solitary confinement for their efforts. 

After Grilius’s release in 1974, he made aliyah to Israel — where he galvanized ten other Russian Jews who also wanted to learn Torah and teach it to their lost brothers. That group eventually morphed into the Shvut Ami yeshivah for Russian baalei teshuvah.

Trounced by the Syrians 

While Shimon Grilius was trying to survive the Siberian forced labor of the Gulag and Noach Hertz was struggling to stay alive in a Syrian dungeon, Yosef Wallis was working on ways to neutralize the missiles created with Grilius’s brain power. 

But, says Rabbi Wallis today, it was an uphill battle. “As someone who was in the thick of it, I can tell you that the electronic warfare system of the IAF at the time was almost completely incapable of protecting the army during the Yom Kippur War. The Phantom jets did have some antimissile capability, but the Skyhawk planes, which were smaller, had no such electronic protection.” 

The lack of defensive capabilities was partly a result of the overconfidence of the air force, but Rabbi Wallis says that wasn’t the whole story. Defense electronics can detect a threat to a plane, but at the same time the enemy’s radar is searching for planes to hit. As soon as the radar locates a plane, it transfers the information to its missile battery, which activates its own radar, locks on to the plane, and tracks it. Once the missile is launched and heading toward the plane, the fighter pilot has to make a split-second decision: either he can maneuver the plane, or he can utilize an electronic countermeasure — in which case the enemy’s radar will pick up his location. 

“At the beginning of the war at least, many pilots decided not to use electronic protection, but relied instead on their piloting abilities to maneuver in the air,” Wallis remembers.

Yosef Wallis was stationed at the Ramat David Air Force Base together with Noach Hertz — Hertz was to fly, and Wallis was to provide the backup protection against enemy missiles.

“During the war, I would sit in the cafeteria with the pilots and talk to them. They would fly in groups of four, and I would teach them how to use their electronic equipment.

“I remember these four young pilots on their way to a mission. Before they took off, they used the public phone to call their parents and friends,” says Rabbi Wallis. “Those missions were short forays, no more than a half hour long due to the planes’ limited fuel supply. We waited for them to return, but — nothing. No one from that group made it back. We lost the entire quartet. Those last phone calls they made still ring in my ears.” 

Back then, Joe Wallis, or Yossi to his Israeli friends, was a classic success story. He was born in Israel, but moved to New York with his parents when he was a child and was raised secular. He graduated City College and joined the US Marines during the Vietnam War as an electrical engineer, and during that time made contacts in Israel’s Defense Ministry, who persuaded him to move back to Israel — which he did, together with his new wife. Back in Israel, he joined the air force and rose to the rank of captain, having achieved expertise in the field of electronic warfare.

“At that time, the air force was contending with various innovations in Russian radar systems that were being used by Syria and Egypt,” Reb Yosef explains. “The Americans were also interested in those technologies, and due to my knowledge of the field and my American background, I was appointed as the liaison between the IAF and the Americans. We gave the Americans information and they gave us advanced equipment. I remember brainstorming with my American colleagues about how we could overcome the threat of the missiles raining on us. We were literally in a panic. Our electronic warfare systems weren’t working, our enemies had the upper hand.”

At the time, Yosef Wallis felt terrible. His group couldn’t protect the pilots, and it looked like the enemies would trounce them. But at that point, he knew nothing about hashgachah, about Divine Providence and how war in Eretz Yisrael is run by another General. 

After the war life settled down and Wallis became a successful Israeli businessman in aerospace technologies — but he still felt empty. One evening, his wife asked him to pick up supper on his way home from his Ramat Gan office, and he made his way to a trendy takeout restaurant famed for its basar lavan (pork) and pita. But standing in line, he began feeling impatient and out of place. 

And then it hit him — the story he’d heard numerous times about his maternal grandfather, the righteous Reb Shraga Feivel Winkler, dragged from his Hungarian village outside Debrecen to a German slave labor camp. As the war was ending and it was clear that Allied tanks would soon arrive to liberate the camps, the German officers of his camp wanted to humiliate as many Jews as possible before they fled. And so, they summoned the Jews from all the barracks, ordered them to form a wide circle, and brought Reb Shraga Feivel into the middle. 

Liberation was just hours away, but Reb Shraga Feivel was their last project. They handed him a piece of pork, and with a pistol to his head, told him if he’d eat the meat in front of the crowd, he’d go free. If not, he’d be shot. This Yid had starved himself for the past year — subsisting on fetid water and moldy vegetable peels, in order not to bring anything treif to his lips. As the onlookers held their breaths, Reb Shraga Feivel announced to his oppressors, “I will not eat this meat!” Yosef Wallis’s grandfather was killed on the spot. (Many people are familiar with the inspiring story of Yosef Wallis’s father Yehuda Wallis, who put on tefillin in public and was beaten nearly to death — a story Rabbi Wallis has shared on many occasions.)

And now, outside the restaurant, Wallis thought to himself: “Was my grandfather crazy? What made him sacrifice his life like that, hours before liberation?” He walked away from the restaurant an agitated, troubled man. 

A few days later, Wallis heard about a seminar called Arachim that was being given by two scientists, Dr. Sholom Srebrenik and Tzvi Inbal. For four days he listened, questioned, evaluated, and deliberated. At the end of the seminar he was convinced. His previous life was over. Yosef Chaim Wallis became a new man, determined that others would see what he saw. He learned and learned and learned, and eventually became director of the organization.


Warning: Missiles 

Rabbi Noach Hertz, Rabbi Shimon Grilius and Rabbi Yosef Wallis are actually three sides of a 42-year-old triangle, but how did they even know their lives were intertwined?

“One winter, Rabbi Wallis and I were together at an Arachim seminar in Kiev, in the Ukraine,” Rabbi Grilius relates. “The seminar was held in a facility located in the middle of a forest, and there were signs all around warning against picking the mushrooms, since they were poisonous. The area had a high level of radioactivity, as years ago the Soviets manufactured missiles here. During a break, Reb Yosef and I went out for a walk, and he commented that the place looked more like a military base than a hotel. I told him he was correct, that it once was a missile base, but the Soviets turned parts of it into a resort because they didn’t want military officials to leave the base and breach secrecy. Instead, the officers would bring their families here. After perestroika, it continued to function as an inexpensive resort.”

In the course of that conversation, Grilius shared with Wallis why he knew so much about the location: he had worked there himself. 

“I told him that I had also been an electrical engineer in the Israeli air force and how we battled those missiles during the Yom Kippur War. We began comparing dates, and we discovered this amazing confluence of events.” 

At another kiruv seminar, Rabbi Grilius met Rabbi Hertz for the first time. “When I met Rabbi Hertz later, he told me that the missiles I had created had actually helped both of us, him and me, to return to Hashem. As an engineer in Russia, I was broken, knowing I was boosting the arsenal of the enemy while my heart longed to be in Eretz Yisrael — and that feeling of helplessness pushed me to teshuvah. And as for Reb Noach, it was the brutal captivity that awakened his spiritual side.

“On my way here,” Rabbi Grilius continues, “I was thinking about the encounter we’d have today — three Jewish souls who were tested in exile. Reb Yosef was in the exile of American secularism, with all the unlimited possibilities and dreams that it offers. My galus was in Russia, a galus of suffering and religious oppression, and Reb Noach’s galus was here in Eretz Yisrael — it was the galus of self-assured overconfidence. 

“Three different exiles, one shared redemption. Who could ever have dreamed?”

(Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 577)

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