“I realized that this was the Jewish people’s war and that I had to do my part,” recounts Gelman, better known today as Mrs. Shimon Peres. “I always dreamt of being a nurse in a hospital, and I requested to serve in this function.”
About one hundred nurses from the Land of Israel then served at the hospital in Halmia, near Cairo. One night, a convoy of wounded English soldiers arrived at the hospital. Overwhelmed, the British nurse asked Sonia Peres to help out with the patient load.
However, in the morning, when the head nurse arrived, she bluntly told Peres, “Go clean the cupboards and don’t touch the patients, you accursed creature.”
Not one to meekly swallow an insult, Peres slapped her superior, and the other Jewish nurses cheered. Furious, the head nurse submitted a complaint against Peres, who demanded that the nurse be tried for her racist comment.
In the end, Peres was forced to leave the hospital and was sent to Camp Mina, near the pyramids, where she learned to drive trucks, ambulances, command cars and even tanks.
Thousands of female volunteersApproximately 4,000 women from the Land of Israel volunteered to serve in the British Army. The initial recruitment round began on January 18, 1942.
“This was the first time in history that Jewish women donned uniforms and left their homes, in order to defend them,” notes Anat Granit-Hacohen, a Bar Ilan University PhD candidate.
The women were supposed to be between 18 and 45 years old, but many lied about their ages in order to enlist. For example, Tzipporah Shachar, Rafael Eitan’s sister, was only 17 when she decided to join the army.
“Our father wasn’t happy,” Shachar relates, “because Raful (who was younger than me) and I were the only ones still at home, and we could work on the farm. But my father was the moshav’s security chief, and he couldn’t tell his daughter not to volunteer for the army.
“He signed for me, but on the bottom, he wrote my birthday, hoping that they would reject me because of my age. I arrived at the recruitment office in Haifa, and the supervisor, who knew my father, said: ‘If he doesn’t object, I certainly won’t object.’ He added a year to my age and inducted me.”
Churchill’s underwear and Golda’s shoes
“At that time, there were no women drivers, and the profession was very attractive,” observes Esther Ben-Tzvi of Tivon, who served together with Peres. “It’s as if you were now offered (the chance) to become an astronaut.
“We would go to the Alexandria port, Port Said, or Suez and bring back vehicles that had arrived on ships from the United States. We spent entire days working in the garage.
“We weren’t familiar with the word ‘feminism’, but the idea of being a female driver – and especially a female truck driver – was really revolutionary.”
The women referred to their wide bloomers – made out of parachute material with elastics on the top and on the bottom – as “Churchill’s underwear”. On their feet, they wore black half-boots, which were later known as “Golda’s shoes”.
Their unique hats had a leather strap, which indicated their elite status as drivers. The word “Palestine” was embroidered on their shoulders, but the more daring ones would add the words “Land of Israel” in Hebrew letters.
Once a week, the drivers were allowed to go to Cairo, 20 kilometers away from the base. After work, they would remove their overalls and change into pressed uniforms before setting out on their leave.
“We would go to the Jewish club, meet soldiers from the Land of Israel, read Hebrew newspapers or go to concerts,” recalls Ruth Brada, yet another driver from those days.
‘Gone with the Wind’ in Cairo
In addition, they would attend dances at the city’s most elegant hotels. Their shiny uniforms worked just as well as the most stylish ball gowns.
Shachar fondly remembers the Metro Cinema in Cairo. “At Tel Adashim, we would watch movies, which were screened on the wall of the commissary, and everyone would drag a chair from home.
“But here, there was air conditioning, armchairs in the bathrooms, and marble floors,” Shachar continues. “Three times, we went there to see ‘Gone with the Wind’, and since the movie was long – three hours – they sent us a cook from the camp with a container of sandwiches, to feed us during the intermission.”
Today, these women have photographs of themselves standing in front of the pyramids, in Luxor, and even in Lebanon and Syria, where they would go when they were granted a week’s leave every three months.
As it turns out, Peres unwittingly helped the Lehi (the so-called Stern Gang) at one point during her army service. One of Peres’ comrades was Yaffa Tevuah from Haifa. When Tevuah was hospitalized, Peres took her place as an ambulance driver.
“I had no idea that Yaffa was a member of the Underground,” Peres reminisces. “But while she was in the hospital, officers of the British investigative police came to interrogate her.
“I told them that she was very sick and that her condition was such that they wouldn’t be able to interrogate. They left, and then I asked our commanding officer what they wanted. She said that she didn’t know exactly, but she had a feeling that it was connected to Lord Moyne’s murder.
“I traveled to the camp, took Yaffa’s uniform, got into the ambulance and raced back to the hospital. I went to her; she put on the uniform; and I smuggled her back to the camp.
“We removed some papers and documents from her belongings, and I went outside and burnt them inside a barrel. After I had finished, I drove her back to the hospital, and she got into bed as if she had never left.”
Two days later, Tevuah was arrested and brought to the Allenby Camp in Jerusalem. Although she was never tried, Tevuah was placed in administrative detention as an accomplice to murder.
She had no idea who saved her. “Many years later,” Tevuah reports, “they told me: ‘You don’t know? It was Sonia.’ She was the girlfriend of Peres, who was a Mapai’nik.”
Later, Sonia and Shimon Peres got married and were among the founders of Kibbutz Alumot.
“And there, I - of course - drove a heavy vehicle, based on the experience I had acquired in the British Army,” Sonia Peres concludes.