Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft has gone through more in life than most people. In her book War Widow: How the Six Day War Changed My Life, she chronicles the trials, tribulations and triumphs in her life. And along the way gives hope to others. In this conversation, you'll find out how very personal her revelations are hopefully, be inspired to read the book and gain truth from her words.
You have led a life of tragedy and resilience. First, tell me why it was necessary to write this book and something about the process?
Ziva Bakman Flamhaft: The first part of your question provides the answer to the reason I needed to write my book: My life of tragedy and resilience. I was an unexperienced, sheltered young woman seemingly unprepared to handle the unimaginable loses I had suffered. And yet, I surprised all around me, including myself, with tremendous strength and resilience I did not know I had.
Resilience cannot be taken for granted, especially with an individual like me who suffered one horrific hardship after another. If truth be told, I haven’t always been resilient after tragedy struck. At times I felt I was the female version of Job, the Biblical figure who was born to suffer. I wished for nothing, as if my life had lost its meaning.
And then you encountered someone, which was a turning point.
Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft: Then a small incident ignited the strength in me and there was no stopping. That incident is mentioned in the book: When I encounter the tall, masculine, handicapped officer, who dared to tell me that he wished to die because he had lost his leg in the war. My reply to his complaint not only made him sob, but he wanted to live like never before.
I began to help others woman, and men, who were victimized by war; strength I did not know I had. Together with my deep sense of justice, my apparent leadership skills, and my hidden strength, I became an activist, singlehandedly demanding fairness for women like me. After an article about my activism appeared in a women’s magazine, war widows from all over my country called me for advice. My strength gave them hope. That is only one part of my story.
Being a woman was a big part of your identity.
Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft: Another part is my expertise as a young war widow in a macho society, where women like me were treated as merchandise. All was allowed. It took me a quarter of a century to be able to speak publicly about that part of my story, when the conditions for a #MeToo movement did not yet exist. There were other parts which society does not yet speak about openly: Mental illness. In my book I talk about growing up with a mother who suffered from severe winter depressions. These three issues alone justify a book. But mostly it’s a compelling story about love, betrayal, loss, forgiveness, hope, and self-empowerment.
What was the writing process like? Had you journaled?
The process was long and hard. Lots of tears. The idea began in a 1993 conference on women and change in the Middle east, where I participated as an academic. After that conference I was fortunate to obtain a prestigious scholarship to interview Israeli and Palestinian women in Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Those interviews became a manuscript, with my own narrative being the introduction. But at the time that book was too anecdotal for academia, and too academic for the trade. There was interest in it years later, when the introduction to that manuscript was turning into my memoir, a project I was too committed to, to move away from in order to return to the first manuscript.
And no, I never journaled.
Tell me in your own words what this book is about, why it is such a compelling read.
Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft: In the process of writing the book, I sometimes felt as if I was writing about someone other than myself. It was shocking that all the horrible things that happened to me happened to one person. If we concentrate only on the period that began the day I got married to Yigal at twenty, to the period that followed the war, each of the events I narrate would have been enough of a dreadful story: A year after our marriage, when Yigal abruptly stopped the car to avoid running over a young boy who ran to the street to catch a ball without looking for coming cars, I felt something ripping in my stomach. I was five months pregnant. It was a Friday.
The next day at my parents’ home for supper, my water broke. I hemorrhaged profusely. Because no blood bank had my rare blood type, my whole extended family donated blood, to no avail. No one had my blood type (AB negative). Only hours late in the whole country one portion of blood was found. Remember, that was 1965. Not knowing if I’d make it, my parents were devastated. And so was I, not for the loss of blood but for the loss of our baby girl.
A year later we lost our baby boy in my sixth month of pregnancy. He lived for 36 hours. I went through surgery to ascertain that I would carry my next pregnancy to its full term. But at the war’s end, after seeing Yigal burnt beyond recognition and hearing his last breaths while he was grasping for air - the memory of which gives me the chills as I am writing these words, my body succumb to the shock.
I spent a month in the hospital trying to save my pregnancy – the only legacy of my fallen husband. There, I vomited for four days, but the nurses did not record that in my chart. The result was an Acetone poisoning. When in the middle of night I alerted the attending doctor, who happened to be the chair of the maternity unit, that something dreadful was happening to me - I felt as if my head was separating from by body – she dismissed my symptoms as depression due to the loss of my husband. I argued, to no avail.
You could tell something was not right.
Ziva Bakman Flamhaft: I didn’t give up. I knew the difference between feeling depressed and what was happening to me. Finally on her third stop at my bed, she saw the kidney dish on my night table. She inquired why it was there, then she became frantic. As it turned out, I was suffering from what is called an Acetone poisoning.
When that doctor connected four IVs to my hands and feet, she told me that without those I wouldn’t survive till dawn. It was after midnight. I survived because of my stubbornness. I needed to live to save my pregnancy. Days later, alone in the hospital in the middle of night, it appeared that I was miscarrying my child. The child I was trying to protect for a month now. Only two interns were available at the maternity ward. When they started to wheel me against my will to the operating room, I pleaded with them to contact my doctor, who had made heroic efforts to save my pregnancy.
They refused. I wanted to contact my parents. It was against regulations, they told me. I was desperate. Once at the ER they began performing a DNC on me, without proper anesthesia. When I screamed in unbearable pain, they called me deranged. Two years later, when I started to think about rebuilding my life, my fallen husband’s best friend – and mine too – brutally raped me.
It destroyed me. I lost trust in mankind. I isolated myself. But after weeks of isolation, I rebelled against that demon who wanted my harm. I wouldn’t let it win. Each of these segments could have been enough of a horror story. And there were more in my life. And yet I didn’t just survive, but I built a rich, meaningful life. The book is about much, much more. Reading it you laugh and cry, you feel despair, but what you’re left with is mostly dignity and hope.
Of all that has happened to you, what was the hardest for you to deal with, or heal from?
Ziva Bakman-Flamhaft: After my miscarriage, when I was wheeled back to my room, I was despondent—not only because of the medical rape I had just experienced, but also because I had lost the most precious connection I had to Yigal. In the morning I noticed Yigal’s father in the corridor, searching for me.
My heart stood still. Please, God, I prayed, let him not find me. It was the first day after the customary thirty days of mourning Jews observe, and the first time he had left his home after Yigal’s death, other than going to his neighborhood synagogue to recite the Kaddish prayer for his son. It was the first time I had seen him since that grim morning at the Haifa hospital, where he sat by his son until he died. But there he was. He did not know it yet, but his hope that he would soon hold his son’s child in his arms was forever faded.
The thought of having to tell him that I had lost his grandchild horrified me. I kept wishing that he would not find me, but he did, and so he was the first in our family to learn that I had suffered a miscarriage. So wretched was his expression when he heard the news that I almost could not bear to look at him. But I did. Intently. Compassionately.
“The most important thing is that you’re healthy,” he said. He looked at me as if he meant to say more, things he did not dare to voice. He did not stay long.
You felt what a lot of women feel after a miscarriage.
Ziva Bakman Flamhaft: The profound remorse and accountability I felt for losing the child, as if I had transgressed or not done enough to save it remains among the most painful of my memories. I ached with the desperate sense that I had failed in my responsibility to immortalize Yigal through his child and that I owed his parents their grandchild.
Many women - people - would not have been able to rebound from what you lived through. What is it that got you through this?
What got me through this is tremendous strength I did not know I had, and my optimism. I’ll use the cliché that I always see the full half of the glass.
"I look for the positive, where it does not seem to exist; for beauty where it is hard to find. I believe that tragedy brings out goodness and a strong sense of justice."
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