Sane in Damascus
By Amnon Sharon
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Setbon
Gefen Publishing House: Jerusalem and New York, (2006)
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - June 30, 2009
This small book is about an immense hero, an Israeli military prisoner in Syria, how he suffered at Syrian hands, and why he was able to endure. The tale should be read and understood because of the history it relates, its revelations about Israel and Syria in the 1970s and because it teaches people how to live and endure despite the problems of daily life.
Amnon Sharon, an Israeli business man with a pregnant wife, was in the military reserves as a captain of the armored corps when Israel was unexpectedly attacked during the early morning hours of October 6, 1973, on the sacred holiday of Yom Kippur, when many soldiers were home on leave with their families to celebrate the sacred holiday. Sharon was a secular Jew who observed the holiday as a day of pleasure and not as a period of religious obligation. However, in prison, Sharon tells us, "I learned to believe in God, in the God present in the heart of every person willing to accept Him, for God helps those who help themselves."
Sharon is called to military duty that Yom Kippur and leads his poorly equipped group of tanks to the northern Sharon heights where his tank is hit and set on fire. He is wounded and seized as a prisoner.
He is kept in oppressive isolation in a small germ infested cell for five of the eight months that he was imprisoned. He is given nothing to read and spends hours thinking about his family, what they are doing. Has his wife given birth to their second son? He is fed a scanty diet with worm infested foods and has to learn how to spit out the worms as one might spit out an olive pit while enjoying a martini. He is seized and pulled into daily interrogations where he is forced to stand for hours with a smelly black sack covering his head. He is beaten in every part of his body by sadistic soldiers who attempt to force this reservist reveal secret information about the makeup of the active duty Israeli forces, something he knows nothing about. His open bleeding wounds become infected, but are not treated. He still suffers from these wounds more than thirty years after they were inflicted. His feet trouble him daily and he lost feeling in every finger.
Sharon knows little about Jewish holidays and prayers when he enters his imprisonment. Yet, he tries while imprisoned, in his own way, to celebrate the holidays when he thinks they are occurring. He creates his own prayer, a prayer he recites three times each day, a prayer that suffuses his being with a sense of solidarity with God and with solace.
Hear O Israel. The Lord is God, the Lord is One. Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of
the universe, through whose word everything came to be. Blessed are You, Lord our
God, King of the universe, through whose word everything is done. Lord God, give me
strength to continue, keep me healthy, protect me and my family. Amen, amen, amen.
Sharon does not return to his civilian job when he is released and returns home. He hides his throbbing pains and joins the standing army of his people. He is appointed commander of a reserve battalion, then fights in Lebanon in Operation Peace for Galilee, later commands a compulsory service battalion in Sinai, and still later assumes an administrative position as deputy head of doctrine for the Israeli armed corps.
While Sharon does not mention him, we should compare his experiences with those of the famous Viennese psychiatrist Victor E. Frankl, who died in 1997, who suffered for three years in Auschwitz, Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps. Frankl wrote a landmark bestseller about his unspeakable experiences called Man's Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy.
Frankl notices that the primary force that sustains people in adversity is meaning; if individuals have meaning in their life, they have a better chance to survive. Those who lack meaning in their lives have nothing to sustain them when they find themselves in horrible situations. Many people turn to religion for this meaning, and to the extent that they truly believe, they can bear adversity.
Frankl found another meaning while he suffered in the Nazi cells. He thought of being reunited with his wife, whom he loved dearly. He imagined the reunion. This yearning for his wife gave him meaning, a sense of purpose, a reason to live, and it sustained him. Later, when he was released he learnt that his wife had died during her internment. Yet, because she had been alive in his mind for the three year of his imprisonment, although dead, she kept him alive.
Sharon's account shows that he was saved by both his new religious feelings and his love of family; these gave him the meaning he needed to survive.