The last time I saw him

The last time I saw him

Alon Wald talks about his father’s death at Ammunition Hill and his own work there

Effective speakers care deeply about what they present to audiences. Although it’s possible for good actors to fake it, usually listeners can tell, and unengaged speakers leave people checking their phones, rolling their eyes, and eventually eyeing the exits.

But no matter how deeply, passionately involved speakers are in their subjects, they rarely can match the bone-deep connection that Alon Wald has with Ammunition Hill National Heritage Center, the Jerusalem museum that he helps oversee and will discuss for the Jewish National Fund on March 6. (See below.)

Mr. Wald’s father, Captain Rami Wald, fought on Ammunition Hill on June 6, 1967, at the beginning of the Six-Day War, and he died there, just 56 meters from where his son’s office is now. Mr. Alon is Ammunition Hill’s marketing manager and event coordinator, and functions as one of its overseas ambassadors.

That death led to Mr. Wald’s complicated, well-examined, successful, patriotic life, but it did not do so easily, as he makes clear.

“I’m 57 years old now,” Mr. Wald said. “When I was 10 months old, my father made a choice. He left me and my mother for the sake of the nation. For the greater good.”

When he was a child — an only child, and his mother, Ginat, did not remarry and so remained a single parent — Mr. Wald didn’t know why he didn’t have a father. He knew that all the other kids in his class had fathers, and each month a different father would come in and talk about what he did or what he knew or what he loved, and each week that father’s child would beam. “He’d look so proud,” Mr. Wald said. “And the little 6-year-old me, he couldn’t accept it.

“I envied my friends, and I needed answers.”

When he was 8, “my mother decided that I was old enough to meet my father.” In other words, “I was old enough to pay a visit to the cemetery. Literally, to see his grave.

“So I’m arriving with my mother at the famous cemetery, Mount Herzl, and I see a bunch of people I’d never seen before, all crying over a tombstone. So I cried, because I thought that was what I was supposed to do. At the end of the day, it was too much for me, and we returned home, and I asked my mother, ‘Mommy, I need to know. Please tell me who took Dad from us. Please tell me why I’m the only kid in my class without a father.’

Yaki Hetz, who won a Medal of Valor for his defense of Ammunition Hill in 1967, now leads tours there.

“Even up to today, when I ask my mother something, she answers. She told me that before the Six Day War, they waited. The whole nation waited. President Nasser” — that was Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser — “made a coalition, and kept making promises, saying things like ‘Jews, we’re going to storm in Palestine and finish off what Hitler didn’t achieve. I’m going to throw you all into the sea.’ So the nation felt like a second Holocaust was going to fall on our heads.

“So my mother said to me, ‘Alonchik, we dug trenches in front of our home,’ in Rishon L’Tzion, ‘and we felt like we were on the verge of annihilation. And we knew that your father would be taken away.

“‘Because he was your father, and he was also my husband, but he was also a member of the much-admired 55th Paratroopers Brigade. And then after two weeks, this horrible knock came to our doorstep, this knock that Israelis knows so well.’

“And my mother says to me, ‘Your father looks for you, and he sees you. And he opens the door, and he sees his friends. They know each other. They are brothers in arms. They fought for our safety, for our liberty, for our existence, years ago.

“‘They didn’t have to say too much. They said, take your stuff and come with us.’”

The paratroopers were reservists, Mr. Wald said. His father was 32 years old when he died. He was young — his family was new, his baby was not yet a year old, his future should have been in front of him — but he already was an IDF veteran. He was in the reserves. He could have said no.

“I’m telling you the story of reservists,” Mr. Wald continued. “Two weeks before, they all were civilians. Fathers, husbands, lovers. Lawyers, rabbis, kibbutzniks. The stories of wars in Israel are the stories of human beings.

“The IDF is a professional army, but it’s not enough. It’s not big enough to collide against four Arab armies, seven Arab armies. As good as they are, as tough as they are, as famous as they, there are not enough of them whenever we face a full-scale war. So a majority of the fighting units are reservists.

“And we know them. They are our next-door neighbor, the grocer in the shop on the corner, our daughter’s teacher. When the Six-Day War started, the regular army was in the south, against the Egyptians, and in the north, the Golan Heights, against the Syrians. So who could Rabin, the chief of staff, bring to Jerusalem but the reservists?”

Ammunition Hill is where a bloody battle for Jerusalem was fought and won; it is now a museum and heritage site.

That’s what led to the knock on the Walds’ door.

“They didn’t say too much; they just said, ‘Take your stuff and come with us,’” Mr. Wald reports that his mother told him. “She told me that everything was packed for two weeks. ‘Your father was ready for this,’ she told me.

“And he goes to the bedroom and comes out with his camouflage uniform.

“He is ready.

“And then she says something to me that I never will forget. His friends are on the doorstep. ‘I’m standing next to him, shaking,’ my mother said. ‘Your grandfather is on the other side of the room. And your father is looking for you. I don’t remember what you were doing, but he picked you up from the floor, and he hugged you deeply. I remember it like it was in slow motion.’

“‘He hugged you to try to steal every second from those valuable last minutes. And then he made a choice, and he stepped toward your grandfather, and he gives your grandfather my son.’

“And then my mother says that she did something that belongs to today, not to 57 years ago. She runs to the back of the apartment, and she comes back with a black camera, a Canon that I have until today. She loads the film and she says to him, ‘Wait, wait.’ And she says, ‘Hold the boy. Hold Alonchik.’ And she clicks.

“I have that photo still. It is the last memory I have for my father. And it gives me so many answers.

“In Israel, you know, the distance between the front lines and the civilians is so close — literally, geographically, physical, mentally. The photo shows me time and again that my father was not a machine of war.

Rami Wald was 32 years old when he died on Ammunition Hill.

“It shows me that he needed to confront himself, and to summon so many powers to make himself leave me and my mother. He was a human being. He needed a last sniff of my head; he’d always loved to sniff my head since the day I was born, and I also love to sniff babies’ heads.

“He needed that. He needed the last embrace of my mother. He needed the last gaze into the eyes of my grandfather. Because this is part of who we are. We do not love war. We worship peace and life. And I carry this photo with me all my life, because it is as close to my father as I could possibly feel.”

The Six-Day War itself is an extraordinary story, Mr. Wald said, and he often lectures about it. The most important thing is that it lasted only six days, “and these fathers and uncles and rabbis and physicians and lovers and new fathers liberated Jerusalem in two and a half days. In six days, they confronted the toughest of the Arab armies, and brought us back from the edge of annihilation, and thousands of Jewish people were dancing in front of the Kotel.

“We tripled the size of Israel. We changed the Middle East completely. We came back to the Temple Mount and the Western Wall and the old Jewish quarters. The nation marveled at the reunification of Jerusalem.

“But 182 guys paid the ultimate sacrifice for the liberation of Jerusalem, and their families could not rejoice and dance and be happy.

“And I’m talking about all the families, because the liberators of Jerusalem, the 10th Brigade and the 55th Paratroopers Brigade, were all one big family. They all knew each other. And now they’re being pushed to the side when there’s one parade after another in front of the Kotel. The families were literally neglected and abandoned, because the nation and world Jewry were preoccupied with celebrations.”

But then something changed for the Walds and the other families of fallen soldiers.

“What really started my life, what really defined who I am today, was a decision my father’s friend made. One hundred of the 182 were from the 55th Brigade. So on the eve of the second parade, they decided that enough was enough.”

The brigade’s commanding officers met and decided that they could not parade any longer. There was much to celebrate but also much to mourn. They decided that “if the nation will not do it, we will do it ourselves, and they made charts literally dividing Israel among themselves.” The families of each of the fallen soldiers were assigned guardian angels. “The following morning, at 10 a.m., 10 of them came to the doorstep of my mother and father’s home,” Mr. Wald said. “My father was gone for about two weeks already.

HIs son, Alon Wald, now helps Ammunition Hill tell Israel’s story.

“And my mother opens the door and she sees 10 salts of the earth, amazing paratroopers who were civilians once again.

“Nobody sent them there. Going there was going against the natural instinct to be admired, to dance at the front of the celebrations.

“My mother knew them all. They were all good friends. And they pointed at me and told her that he doesn’t have a father any more but he has 10 uncles. Brothers. Friends. It doesn’t matter what the title is. Alonchik will never be alone again.”

And that worked. It took years for Mr. Wald to learn the full story — he wasn’t told until he was old enough to be able to hear it — but he was protected, with love and care. He was not alone.

When he was a small child, he played hide and seek in Ammunition Hill’s trenches, without having any idea how central it was to his own life.

When he was 17, Mr. Wald, like most Israelis his age, was ready to be inducted into the Israeli Defense Forces. “As you can imagine, for the first 17 years of my life I wanted to know my father, and I wanted to be worthy of his legacy. So when the Army, the nation, asked me what I wanted to do in the army, I said that I want to be a paratrooper.

“I wanted to be like my father. I wanted to wear the same red boots as he did, and to sweat like he did, and to make my 10 fathers proud of me.

“But I learned that it was not a possibility for me, because in Israel, we protect bereaved families. By law, if someone dies in action, a younger brother or son by law cannot go to a combat unit. But I wanted to do it. It was in my guts.”

Although the law tries to protect people in situations like Mr. Wald’s, there is a way out, he said. “Your guardian can sign a waiver. And most of the time the guardians are sweet, humble mothers. But me, the fighter, the stubborn, stupid, clueless, egoistic lad, pushes his mother.” His mother tried to say no, but she lost. “I begged and begged,” Mr. Wald said. Eventually, he reported, she said, “My son, if this is what you want to do, I will sign the waiver.” She was gambling her own future happiness, as well as her son’s life, Mr. Wald said. “She was saying to the nation, ‘Take my son, it’s on me.’ She was like Abraham saying to the Kadosh Baruch Hu that he could have Isaac. She becomes in this instant as brave as each and every one of the guys who can talk to you about their deeds for hours.

Rami and Ginat Wald on their wedding day.

“You must never judge a mother who said yes or no to a waiver in Israel, a peace-loving country.

“I went with my mother to a lawyer, working on behalf of the Ministry of Defense, who had to see that my mother was of sound mind and body, not being intimidated, forced, or medicated into signing the waiver. He asked my mother, ‘Are you absolutely sure that you know what you’re doing,’ and she said yes.

“And before she signed the papers, she looked at me, with the eyes that have led me all my life, and she said, ‘I am going to sign this waiver, but you have to promise me something. Promise me that you won’t be as stupid or as brave as your father.’”

As his father had done, Mr. Wald became a paratrooper — you have to volunteer and then be accepted for that job, and he did and he was. He became a member of an elite commando unit. “I was the first in my crew to join an officers course, and after the intifada ended, I was privileged to be chosen to be one of the founding officers of the unit Maglan — we are the guys who jump behind enemy lines with special lasers. I really wanted to be part of this unit, and to be of service to my nation.”

After he finished his IDF service, “Israel’s secret service, the Shabak, found me,” Mr. Wald said. He became an air marshal on El Al; after that he headed security teams at Israeli embassies around the world, in such places as Cairo, Slovenia, Slovakia, Austria, and Vienna.

“My mother didn’t sleep for five years,” he said ruefully. He had “this bunch of amazing guys, who were a wall of bricks behind me, guarding me. My father, he was here,” he said, gesturing at his head. “I created an amorphous figure who was next to me whenever I was afraid — and I was afraid many times during my service. He was my inner conscience and my power.”

For the last 12 years, Mr. Wald has worked at Ammunition Hill, the place “in the north side of Jerusalem, the battlefield that hosted the pivotal battle that paved the way for the reunification of Jerusalem. It was an epic battle, and today it is a heritage site. And the guys who fought there, they were seen as gods on earth, not actual human beings.”

But they all were actual human beings, including his father.

“Now, when I turn into the parking lot at Ammunition Hill, the place where my father died is literally underneath my car. His deeds will never be taken for granted, as far as I’m concerned. And the promise that his friends gave to me and my mother, and to families all over Israel, is the backbone of Israel. The spirit of Israel. And that’s what I talk about when I host students, kids, youth movements, college kids, and families at Ammunition Hill. I talk about what I got when my father’s friends decided, against their instincts, to leave the celebrations and adopt me forever.

This is the last picture of Alon and Rami Wald together; Rami is about to go off to war.

“When they adopted me, they were civilians. They are the guys who escorted me to my bar mitzvah day, to the synagogue for the celebration for my wedding. These are the guys who led me to my army services. These are the guys who took me to the hospital when my wife gave birth to our first daughter, and our second daughter, and our third daughter. And now I am very aware of being a father. It’s a holy mission.

“I was able to ask these guys all the tough questions that I had to ask. Did my father love me? Did you love your families? Why did you leave your families? What does war mean?

“I couldn’t ask my father these questions. I couldn’t rebel against him. I couldn’t beg him for the car keys.

“I didn’t realize then that I wanted to forgive him for leaving me. And I can tell you proudly now that after so many years of searching, I have forgiven my father utterly. I know today that when he sniffed my head for the first time, he was convinced that he was saving my life, and the life of my mother, and the life of the people of Israel.

“And I can tell you proudly that I know my father today. Everything I’ve done in my life, every choice, every confrontation, I did using the moral codes that I share with my people.”

So when these men and their friends asked him to run Ammunition Hill, the place that is at the heart of his story, he said yes.

“You have heard all the stories,” he said they told him. “You asked us all the tough questions. You know how to relate to youngsters. You speak English better than we do.” (In fact, Mr. Wald speaks English not only fluently, with power and emotion, but also with grammar and a precise vocabulary.) “You know about media, marketing, and management. So please become our voice.”

So “that is what I do today,” Mr. Wald said. “Ammunition Hill has evolved from being a national heritage site to becoming an international education asset.” That’s been in large part because of the support of the Jewish National Fund, and Mr. Wald is deeply grateful to it, he stressed. It allows the institution to tell Israel’s story.

Mr. Wald is overseas much of the time, speaking to groups at Hillels, JCCs, synagogues, and other community groups. “The story needs to be told,” he said. “People are hearing allegations — or outright lies — about Israelis as child killers, as Nazis, as conquerors.”

Ammunition Hill’s CEO, Katri Maoz, gives a school group a tour of the heritage site.

Mr. Wald tells them the truth.

“We speak six languages, we use state-of-the-art modern facilities that allow me to address my kids, your kids, Jews, non-Jews, telling them that this is Israel,” he said. “This is a peace-loving nation that will fight for its existence but never forget our everlasting wish for peace.

“I’m not a pacifist,” he added. “I will fight. I will do whatever is necessary to save my nation. I have done it time and again, and I will do it now, even at 57 years of age.

“I am now commanding the first responders in my town — I live in Rehovot — after October 7. I am too old to join my guys in Gaza. Veterans have special units. We are too old to fight, too old to be recruited — but ‘never again’ became personal to us after the seventh of October, and we realized that if something this size happens again, the army and the police will not be there.

“So being as devoted as I am, and as connected as I am, I came to my mayor and chief of police, and said, ‘You guys, we are here for you.’ In Israel, we do not have the civil National Guard. And the mayor said yes.

“He said that he thought it would take months to launch it, and I said, ‘No, no, you do not understand. Never again means that we’re going to form this with or without you, but we need your help.’ He made the decision, and within two weeks, I received the command of over 60 amazing guys. We received rifles. Our cars became police cars, with blue lights.

“We still have the same core values.

“What my mother gave me when she said to me ‘Do not be as stupid and as brave as your father’ is the backbone of what I do. Look around and hear stories.

“She gave me something remarkable to share with your kids. Believe in your work. Believe in yourself. Leave your comfort zone a little bit to the right or to the left and you can make miracles. You don’t have to be on the edges to make a difference. You can create history without having to go all the way to be completely stupid or utterly brave.”

Ammunition Hill is apolitical, Mr. Wald said. “I cannot change the Middle East. I cannot change the political disputes in Israel. But I also cannot let political issues enter the doorstep.

“There have been so many governments and coalitions in Israel that have come and gone, but Ammunition Hill stands for our core values. And kids come in and see that this is my Jerusalem. This is my story.

“I can be brave tomorrow morning without going into the army. I can confront BDW, antisemitism, and stand for my rights.”

Although he likes speaking to adults, Mr. Wald said — and to be clear, much of his work in fundraising, a mission in which he believes deeply, because every institution needs money just to exist, much less to thrive — he likes talking to young people even more. When he says that young people are the future, he’s not mouthing a platitude, he’s offering one of the deepest truths he knows.

A truth he’s learned the hard way.

Who: Alon Wald

What: At the JNF’s Breakfast for Israel, he will talk about Ammunition Hill and the situation in Israel now

When: On Wednesday, March 6. Registration is at 7:30 a.m.; breakfast and the program start at 8

Where: In Livingston; the address will be provided

To register: Go to, email Beverly Gutterman at, or call her at (973) 593-0095, ext. 827.

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