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Sane in Damascus

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Sane in Damascus

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Sane in Damascus
By Amnon Sharon
Translated from the Hebrew by Jessica Setbon
Gefen Publishing House: Jerusalem and New York, (2006)
www.israelbooks.com
ISBN: 965-229-367-9

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.


Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of seventeen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he co-authors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides. The Orthodox Union (OU) and Yeshiva University publish weekly chapters of Drazin and Wagner's book Let's Study Onkelos on www.ou.org/torah and on www.yutorah@yutorah.org. His website is http://booksnthoughts.com.

The views expressed in this review/article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jewish Eye.
Reviewed by Simone Bonim - January 23, 2007

In the opening hours of the Yom Kippur War (1973), Captain Amnon Sharon of the 179th Reserve Brigade was ordered to lead ten Centurion tanks into battle against the Syrians who were aligned along the Golan Heights. The tanks they were allocated were in disrepair, short of fuel, and lightly armed. Despite knowing that their tanks were near useless, Sharon's men still mounted their tanks and rode out to try to hold back the Syrian tanks until reinforcements could arrive. The men were in high spirits, sure that despite their lack of ammunition that they would easily be able to scare the Syrians away. As events turned out, the Syrians were not so skittish, and the men soon found themselves in a real shooting war. For Sharon and his men, that day's battle would be a costly one, with many of his men killed or captured by the Syrians. Yet despite their lack of ammunition, and against all odds, they managed to slow down the Syrian advance.

This was a fact, however, that Sharon was not to learn for months, for he was one of the men captured that day. In Sane in Damascus, Sharon recounts the part that he and his men played in the war, and the eight months that he spent as a captive of the Syrians. Five of those months he spent in solitary confinement, with his only respite from the solitude being the time he spent with his torturers! He also details how he came to be released, his experiences upon his return to Israel, and a bit about the rest of his life up until the present.

Sane in Damascus is an uplifting and unforgettable book. Despite being wounded during the battle, and the harsh treatment, torture, daily interrogations, and the ever present threat of death, Sharon managed to keep his spirits up and never lost hope - or his faith. The son of Holocaust survivors, Sharon knew that he could face anything that the Syrians threw at him, and that he would do everything in his power to survive. Throughout, he relied on G-d, holding tight to his faith and the certain knowledge that he would one day go home to his wife and children, one of which was born while he was in captivity.

Within the scope of this book, Sharon talks about his treatment at the hands of his captors, the steps he took to try to ensure that they would not kill him, and how he and the other Israeli prisoners that he came into contact with tried to support and help each other. He talks about how they celebrated holidays, the prayers they composed, and how they used their memories of loved ones to sustain them through the physical and mental abuses that they suffered. Sharon also discusses how the prisoners, upon their return home, were treated differently with the Blue POWs (air force) being given special treatment compared to that given to the Green POWs (army). He also talks about his rehabilitation and adjustment to 'normal' life, and his feelings about the war, the men he served with, and how his ordeal strengthened, rather than weakened his faith.

Sane in Damascus is an inspirational book that reminds you just how resilient the human spirit is and how important it is to believe in something (G-d) greater than yourself. This is also an important historical work, detailing an integral, but often overlooked aspect of Israeli history. Many books have been written that have touted the miraculous victories and the amazing achievements of this young country, but there are few that discuss the cost paid by the men and women who made these achievements and victories possible. In this book Sharon reminds us that these victories have been paid for in blood, and in pain. Yet in the end, it is a price worth paying: a price that Sharon and his men willingly paid, for the sake of Israel, and her people.


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