IDF History: Love in the times of the Palmach

banner meir & sarka

Their love story begins years ago; born and raised in Israel, fighting for the establishment of the Jewish state felt only natural for Meir and Sarka (Sarah). From a young age they were part of the Haganah, and as young adults they joined the Palmach, an elite fighting force whose members eventually came to form the backbone of the IDF’s combat forces.

“I remember that we worked in the corn fields together but we weren’t friends,” says Sarka. “The corn fields were huge. When you stood on one side you couldn’t see the other,” adds Meir. “But we weren’t friends,” Sarka repeats. Today, Meir and Sarka Kedem have been married for almost 65 years.

Meir and Sarka served together in the Palmach, the elite fighting force of the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense organization. It was a self-funding group that combined military training with agricultural work, and supported itself by having its members work in kibbutzim. “We lacked resources. We had nothing,” explains Meir. “So it was decided that for two weeks we would work in the kibbutz, and then train for two weeks. That whole time we lived in tents.”

Sarka [left] with a friend at the kibbutz’s goat pen.

Sarka [left] with a friend at the kibbutz’s goat pen.

“When we trained, it was like the army,” says Sarka. “We had shooting practice, we knew how to disassemble weapons with our eyes closed, we had morning runs. The girls did everything just like the boys!”

“We were never ordered to do anything,” tells Sarka. “They always asked who wanted to volunteer. One day, they asked who volunteered to help defend Kibbutz Ramat Yohanan, the kibbutz we lived in. I was 17 and positive that nothing would harm me, so I volunteered. In order to get to the post, you had to run. So I ran in zigzags, like I had been taught! Bullets flew beside me, but I was sure nothing would happen to me.

“We didn’t have a radio or telephones, so we yelled out what bullets we needed and in the evening someone would bring it to us,” explains Sarka. “The weapons we had were whatever we managed to buy illegally, but it wasn’t much.”

“One day, someone in my post was shot in the neck, but the bullet didn’t hit his main artery. He panicked, and I was sure someone else would treat him, because they were all adults and I was only 17,” says Sarka. “But I was from the Palmach! I had to do it. So I put my gun aside and went up to him. He had started to yell and pick at the wound. He could have killed himself. So the first thing I did, was I slapped him! And I guess it helped because he took his hand out of the wound. Then I bandaged his wound and told him that he was fine and that he would be evacuated to the hospital at night. And that’s what happened.”

A member of the Palmach in training.

A member of the Palmach in training.

In 1948, anticipating the withdrawal of the British and the subsequent Arab military uprisings, preparations were made to counter the attacks of local Arabs and of neighboring countries. “Ultimately, our job as part of the Palmach was to ‘hold the fort’ after the British forces withdrew and the Arab armies invaded Israel,” explains Sarka.

“One of the goals of the Arab forces was to control Haifa,” says Meir. “This way, once the British army left, they would be able to little by little wipe out the Jewish community living on the Carmel Mountain. They planned to take over Haifa with the help of two forces; one was to arrive from the north, and the other from Jenin. Of course, the Arab villages on the way would support them.”

“The force arriving from the north had to pass through Malkia. It’s geographic location was such that if we controlled Malkia, we could prevent the Arab forces from passing through Safed, Tiberias, and conquering Haifa,” explains Meir. “So we prepared food and ammunition, and gathered at Ayelet HaShahar. When night fell, we started climbing up the mountains that led to Malkia. But it was hot, and there was a navigational error, and by the time we reached the Kadesh Valley, it was almost sunrise. The thing about Kadesh valley was that at night you could pass through undetected and then conquer Malkia in the morning. But since it was already light outside, we hid in the eastern ridges so that we wouldn’t be spotted.”

“We hid between bushes for a whole, hot day, and when the sun set, we continued to move forward.“ continues Meir. “The Lebanese forces spotted us pretty quickly and they began firing at us. Suddenly, we spotted little black dots, soldiers, climbing down the mountain, heading in our direction. Half of our battalion was killed in the battle. But the enemy retreated.”

Meir [upper row on the right] and Sarka [next to him] with a group of friends.

Meir [upper row on the right] and Sarka [next to him] with a group of friends.

“You have to understand,” said Sarka, who also took part in the battle, “the battalion was made up of ‘Hach’sharot Meguyasot’, training groups. Each group was like a family, and there were people killed from every group. The battle of Malkia became one of the most fierce and significant battles.”

“While we were in Malkia, Ben Gurion declared the State of Israel’s independence. Other forces arrived at Malkia, and we were sent to Tzrifin. I was not a certified nurse, but I worked at the hospital,” tells Sarka. “Back then there was no way of checking if someone was really a doctor, because at the time there were no medical licenses, so if someone said he was a doctor, we believed him! Now, there was one man who claimed to be a doctor, but one of the certified nurses who worked with me thought that he was lying, so she reported him. He was followed, and they found a transmitter that he had hidden in the engine of a refrigerator!”

“He spoke french, and had claimed he was a Jew from France,” added Meir. “He was a spy! He had been messaging the Lebanese army at night!”

“The most important thing to remember,” says Sarka, “is that we were fighting for our home, and when you are fighting for your home, you have to be strong because you have no choice.”

sarka and meir wedding

“I was married in a light blue dress because I thought, “What am I going to do with a white one in the kibbutz?”

After the Palmach was dismantled, Meir joined the IDF as a company commander in an Infantry Brigade. Later on, Sarka and Meir were married, and now they are the proud parents of three children and six grandchildren.

Sarka and Meir Kedem, 2014

Sarka and Meir Kedem, 2014