Teens in bomb shelter at Kibbutz Kfar Blum during the Yom Kippur War, Oct. 1973. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Yoel Kahn)
Teens in bomb shelter at Kibbutz Kfar Blum during the Yom Kippur War, Oct. 1973. (Photo/Courtesy Rabbi Yoel Kahn)

I arrived in Israel at age 5 — the day before the Yom Kippur War

In a scene in the new film “Golda,” set during and after the Yom Kippur War, an air raid siren interrupts a meeting of the Israeli cabinet.

Hearing that rising and falling wail threw me back to the days of the 1973 war, shaking me to my core. I felt like a 5-year-old kid again, hearing for the first time the sound that has become all too familiar to Israelis.

My family had arrived at the port of Haifa on Oct. 5, 1973, aboard the aptly named passenger ship Nili, an acronym for the biblical phrase “netzach Yisrael lo yishaker, the strength of Israel shall not die. Six days after leaving our home in Rome and crossing the Mediterranean, we were beginning a new chapter in our lives at an absorption center in the city of Lod, our first home in Israel, near Tel Aviv.

Barely 24 hours later, the war broke out. The night before, so the family story goes, the whir of airplanes constantly flying overhead made my mother anxious, while my father was unperturbed. After all, with an international airport nearby, it was to be expected.

My memories from that war begin with a siren that woke me, my parents and my two younger brothers from our sleep. I remember being carried downstairs to the bomb shelter, where the air was filled with languages: a single TV broadcasting in Hebrew, occasionally drowned out by conversations in Spanish, Russian and Marathi, the native tongue of the Bene Israel community of India.

I remember the headlights of our car painted blue and our curtains drawn at sundown — precautions called for by official blackout restrictions that lasted almost three weeks. I remember the lattice of masking tape put on the windows of my kindergarten in case of a blast.

I don’t remember being afraid. I was just a child observing the world around me with curiosity. If anything, I may have been worried about my parents being worried. I often wondered — but admit I never asked — what it must have felt like for them, having lived in Rome under Nazi occupation and seeing so many close and distant relatives being deported to Auschwitz never to return.

My memories from that war begin with a siren that woke me, my parents and my two younger brothers from our sleep.

The Yom Kippur War, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, remains a deeply painful collective trauma in the history of Israel. It resulted in a staggering number of casualties, with nearly 2,700 Israelis killed and 7,000 wounded, out of a population of 3.27 million. Hundreds were taken prisoner, enduring abuse, torture and starvation in Egypt and Syria.

Unsurprisingly, that war would have a lasting effect on me, too. I developed an interest in its history. That, in turn, influenced my worldview and was one of the motivating forces behind my decision to pursue a career as a diplomat.

The collective and individual repercussions of the Yom Kippur War are reflected, among other things, in the ongoing public debate, driven by new books and declassified information, that continue to captivate the attention of Israeli society today.

One recent example is the popularity of the 2020 TV drama series “Sha’at Neilah” (“Valley of Tears”), which tells the story of a group of soldiers in the Mount Hermon outpost during the war. Tens of thousands of Israelis, many of them veterans of the war, joined a dedicated Facebook page launched by Kan, the broadcaster of the series, to share personal accounts.

On the evening of Oct. 9,  on the fourth day of the war, Major Gen. Aharon Yariv, special adviser to Chief of Staff David Elazar, said at a press conference: “I urge all of us not to think in terms of a threat to the existence of the State of Israel. There is no such danger because the people of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces are strong.”

My personal journey has been intertwined with the history of our nation. That fearless child from 50 years ago and the veteran diplomat that I am today both believe in the strength of am Yisrael, the people of Israel, and in our capacity to persevere through great challenges. Our families, our ancestors, have shown time and again that we can overcome adversity and continue thriving.

My wish for the New Year of 5784 is that we navigate the path ahead with determination, while embracing moderation, hope and love for all of our people.

Marco Sermonetta
Marco Sermoneta

Marco Sermoneta is the San Francisco–based consul general of the State of Israel to the Pacific Northwest.