Photographer focuses lens on battle that saved Israel

The battle of Tel Saki lasted just 72 hours. But Los Angeles photojournalist Hallie Lerman spent three years piecing together, moment by moment, what happened to a band of Israeli soldiers trapped in a tiny bunker there.

A lonely outpost in the Golan Heights, Tel Saki became ground zero for the Yom Kippur War when Syrians attacked Israel on Oct. 6, 1973.

Vastly outnumbered, gravely wounded and out of ammunition, the Israelis somehow kept 1,000 Syrian troops at bay. In so doing, they prevented what could have been a devastating invasion into the heart of the Jewish state.

But the standoff came at a horrible price.

Among those killed was Lerman's 19-year-old American-born cousin, Jacob Rayman. An army medic, he was sent to rescue the five Israelis cornered at Tel Saki and became a victim of Syrian gunfire. He'd emigrated to Israel with his family five years earlier,

Details of the battle at Tel Saki and its aftermath are portrayed in Lerman's new book, "Crying for Imma: Battling for the Soul on the Golan Heights." Lerman will speak at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek and will return in April to speak in San Francisco and Marin.

Permanently scarred, according to Lerman, are the Israeli soldiers who survived the standoff.

"All of them are still suffering from the effects of that battle," she said in a telephone interview from her Los Angeles home.

Accounts of soldiers she interviewed are matched with their snapshots from 1973 along with Lerman's own contemporary photos of Tel Saki and its survivors.

"By looking at this tiny little battle, I tried to get to the picture of battle and what it does to the human soul," Lerman said.

The book also is a tribute to her fallen cousin. Tall, handsome and charismatic, Rayman was "really the best Israel had to offer," said Lerman, who visited her cousin just a month before he was killed.

Lerman returned to Israel in 1995 to begin work on an unrelated photographic project.

On a suggestion from her uncle, she visited Jacob's former commanding officer and learned about the battle.

"We sat up and talked until 2 in the morning," Lerman recounted.

"When I stood up, I suddenly had this vision of the entire project in front of me. I knew then that that was the book I was really being asked to write.

"It was a three-year project of complete obsession."

In all, Lerman made six trips of varying lengths to Israel, gathering information and conducting interviews.

She traveled the country tracking down those who'd fought at Tel Saki. She borrowed and restored tattered snapshots from survivors and retrieved others from the archives of the Israel Defense Force. She visited and photographed the battleground many times.

At first, some survivors were hostile to Lerman's request for information. "I had to be pretty persistent," she said. "Eventually, they'd start to talk and once they started talking, they couldn't stop. And it was these soldiers who thanked me and when it was over, they wept."

Though the battle of Tel Saki has taken on "mythic proportions" in Israel, the fight also was tinged with "great terror, hopelessness and mistakes," according to Lerman. "These soldiers don't feel like heroes."

Initially, five soldiers were sent to patrol for signs of a Syrian invasion. But as Israel prepared to observe Yom Kippur, "no one suspected war," she said. "They were completely caught off guard and they were completely unprepared."

Confronting an overwhelming invading force, the Israelis fought as best they could. "We are only five soldiers but fight as if we were many," Lerman quotes soldier Eliezer Agasi as saying.

Eventually, they fled to the nearby bunker, which lacked ammunition, water and first-aid supplies.

Jacob Rayman was one of the first soldiers sent from the El Al army base to rescue the men. He and 18 others were killed when their armored carriers were attacked.

The population of the bunker grew to more than two dozen wounded or dying men while the Syrians continued to spray bullets and lob grenades. "The bullets hit the wall, start ricocheting and hit my head. They throw in some grenades and succeed in killing a few more of us," commander Menachem Amsbacher says in the book.

At one point, the Syrians stood outside the bunker, debating whether to go inside. The Israeli soldiers stayed as quiet as possible — and for some reason, the Syrians never entered. "Here they were, nearly dead, in unbelievable pain and suffering and here they had to be incredibly quiet," said Lerman.

Finally, the Israelis were rescued and reserve troops managed to repel the Syrian attack. Why the Syrians lingered so long at Tel Saki remains a mystery. "It was this battle that literally saved Israel," Lerman said. If the Syrians had continued, there was "no one else to stand in their way."