To Love a Country

“To Love a Country,” Ensign, May 1972, 89

Holy Land Issue

To Love a Country

June 5, 1967. The day was hot and oppressive; and the hospital waited.

Blackout paper covered the windows, and two orderlies played Chinese checkers in the empty emergency room. The halls were quiet. The maternity ward had been moved from the hospital to a hotel, and the physiotherapy department was empty of outpatients.

Margreta Spencer walked to the locker room and switched on the radio. Five minutes to six. Nothing but the tinkling sounds of an early morning exercise program. She turned off the radio, thinking they couldn’t play anything that ridiculous if a war were on. Nothing to do but wait. The hospital had been emptied of patients days ago with orders to prepare for a thousand casualties.

At nine o’clock she wandered into the hospital lobby. The air was electric. A group stood glued to the radio.

“Israel has now been at war for two hours,” she heard the announcer say.

So it’s really happening. She shivered involuntarily. The possibility of war had always existed; she knew that when she came only a year before to the Beersheba Hospital. A possibility is one thing, though, and the actuality of war is entirely another.

Well, she had made up her mind to stay, so that was that. After all, what was she supposed to do? She couldn’t say, “Israel, I love you—but now that you’re in trouble, goodbye.”

Margreta Spencer. Canadian; Magrath, Alberta. Occupation: physiotherapist. Those were her statistics. Her dream: to pioneer a physio department where she could really make a difference for people. It would be a clinic somewhere in northern Canada, she had thought, where the area was still relatively undeveloped.

A job in Israel had seemed the perfect opportunity to work with physiotherapy in a pioneering stage, to see what she would be up against when she returned to Canada to set up a clinic. That had been her dream until the day she set foot in Israel. Now she didn’t know that she wanted to return anywhere.

Israel had two magnetic attractions: the informal way of life and the people. The boisterous, blustering, all-too-confident Israelis, who, when you made friends with them, were really friends, were a people who spoke their minds—honest almost to a fault. They were a people who wouldn’t obey the Lord in the Old Testament days and still didn’t, but a people who were willing to work hard for everything they wanted. As a physio-therapist, she was finding a more satisfying relationship with her patients than she had ever experienced before.

It was a strange sensation to come to a country that was still only in the making and to know that the people around you were the ones who were helping to make it.

She found that the most ordinary people everywhere had done the most extraordinary things: like Ora Aurback, a Jewish immigrant whom she had met at the Beersheba Choir practice.

Ora had come to Israel illegally before the War of Independence in 1948. Under her maiden name, traveling separately from her husband, she had come as a tourist from Egypt. The British were watching carefully for married couples “visiting” Israel because they knew their intention was to immigrate.

Ora was pregnant at the time and nervous that it would become evident while she waited for papers to be approved. Her husband, in the meantime, had hired out as a seaman on board a boat bound for Haifa, then jumped ship in the Haifa harbor.

Ora and her husband were not the only ones with stories. Everyone had a story. Even the Sabras, the Israelis born in Israel, had fought in one campaign or another, or had been part of an underground movement.

To Margreta Spencer, Israel had been a vague something one read about in the headlines and then forgot, until she became interested in studying Hebrew.

Her brother-in-law, while serving with her in the Western Canadian Mission, had convinced her that she would have a much better understanding of the scriptures if she were to study Hebrew.

“Why not?” she asked herself. When her mission was ended, she went to the rabbi in Ft. William, Ontario, to take lessons. Later she went to Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, England, to work with spinal injuries. The Ft. William Hospital had had patients in all kinds of conditions coming into the physio department, but none of these cases really increased her experience. She wanted to specialize, and specialize she did.

Those years were a whirlwind. Two years at Stoke Mandeville, then on to Belfast to a thoracic hospital. Here she met a woman who could speak Hebrew and who helped her continue her Hebrew studies.

Then she went to London, where she enrolled in a course for the treatment of cerebral palsy and met the runner-up to Miss Israel. Margreta spent as much time as she could talking to her about Israel. One day, laughing at Margreta, the girl pulled out a list of all the hospitals in Israel.

“Find out about Israel yourself,” she said.

Well, why not go to Israel? Margreta debated. The experience would be invaluable, and after all, it was the best way to learn Hebrew.

Days went by with no word of acceptance to any of the letters that she sent. Then the Beersheba Hospital replied affirmatively. She had the job. She was surprised at her impatience to get to Israel. Five days, and it seemed like five years.

The boat left from Brindisi on the southeastern coast of Italy. It was warm, the sky was blue, and the seagulls trailed along in the afterfoam of the boat. She wondered what Israel would be like, hugging herself to keep the excitement in.

The boat docked early in the Haifa port. Israel!

Struggling with her two suitcases, she found the bus station—the Egged, they called it—and ate breakfast: tomatoes and cucumbers, her first taste of Israel’s peculiar habits. Then she was off to Beersheba, down a highway winding through the orange groves, with the scent of orange blossoms heavy in the air. It was spring and green and beautiful.

In Beersheba, she asked for directions and found her way to the hospital, to learn that the head physiotherapist had just quit. That left her and two Swedish girls to run from morning until night to keep up with the work. Days whirled away.

Meanwhile she had no work permit. She worked without pay while she waded through miles of red tape. She was a foreigner—that made the difference, for a foreigner was a persona non grata.

Paul McCracken and his wife helped her. They were Mormons she had located by writing the Improvement Era to see if anyone in Israel were subscribing to the Church publications. When the McCrackens left four months later she was the only Mormon in Israel, so far as she knew.

Hebrew, she found, wasn’t just an intellectual interest anymore; it was a must. She couldn’t speak with her patients, and pantomime was wearing her out. So, she began an evening ulpan, a Hebrew course for new immigrants.

Looking around at the variety of faces, she thought how odd that a country could mean so much to her. She couldn’t remember having had that feeling about Canada. Coming to this country just meant a lot of hardship and taxes for the people, but the same pride was in their eyes. That was why she loved the country too, because it was alive with people who loved it.

Walking home that night she was really depressed, yet for no real reason that she could think of. She ached inside.

Her work permit would soon expire, so she was going to have to make a decision on what to do next, where to go. She could get a six-month extension on the permit; then she would have to make the decision all over again. She knew, no matter what she told herself, that she wanted to stay. To stay? Is that what she really meant? Or to belong, to really be a part of this wonderful country she’d fallen in love with?

As the thought came clear she broke out in a cold sweat, shivering a little in the night air. You just don’t do that, do you, change your citizenship? Besides, there was her family (what would they say?), and there was no Church group here; and there were too many other things to consider. She didn’t want to think about them, as tired as she was, but she went to bed brooding anyway.

War was in the air. Nasser had closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, and Margreta had no time to sit down and think out her decision. Beersheba was an army camp with soldiers everywhere, then suddenly there weren’t any soldiers.

She continued to go to her Hebrew classes, but they weren’t learning anything. Everyone had a radio glued to his ear. Then at seven o’clock on the morning of June 5, Israel was at war. It was almost a relief to hear the announcement. The hospital staff had been standing by, waiting, with nothing to do for days.

By four in the afternoon the casualties began to arrive, three helicopters at a time from the Sinai. Margreta worked into the night, cleaning sweat from dirty bodies, washing soldiers, turning the wounded in their beds. It was late when she went home for a few hours’ sleep, but she couldn’t sleep with the continual drone of the helicopters coming into the landing. Finally she gave up trying and went out on her balcony, only to find that no one else could sleep in the apartment building either.

Doctors worked around the clock at the hospital, and school children helped as volunteers. Buses and cars were smeared with mud and used as ambulances. Officers and prisoners were put in the same room; there was no time to separate them.

Six days and the war was over, but for Margreta Spencer the work really began—to rebuild broken bodies, to mend torn muscles, to teach people to walk, to move, to live again.

In September that year she left for Finland. The six-month extension on her work permit had expired and she needed to get away from Israel to see if her attraction to the country was really as strong as she thought. And she needed the Church.

A year and a half later she received an excited letter from Ora. “Margreta, you can come back,” Ora wrote. “I’ve found you some Mormons!”

Margreta had written to Brigham Young University and found that there would be a travel study group in Israel each summer. She also learned that Israel was under the Swiss Mission jurisdiction and a reported seventeen members were living there. She was ecstatic!

Her next step was getting a job in Israel again. She didn’t really want to go back to the Beersheba Hospital, though they had written that the job was open for her. That hospital was fully established, with a large physio department. She wanted to carry out her dream, if possible, to establish a department where it was really needed.

An ad in a physiotherapy magazine was the perfect opportunity: “WANTED: a qualified physiotherapist to open and establish a physiotherapy department in the Safed Hospital, Israel.”

She dashed off a letter as fast as she could and ran down the street to catch the last mail out. She kept telling herself she couldn’t let her hopes get too high. The magazine was a month old when she received it, and the hospital had probably received dozens of replies by now. Still, she hoped and prayed.

In Safed, a little town in Galilee, Dr. Reis had received twenty applications, to be exact, when Margreta’s letter arrived, but he was impressed with her qualifications. The others were interested in setting up the department and staying for a year or two until it was established, but no one had sounded permanent. Margreta did, and she had worked in Israel before, so she would know the procedures.

He dialed the Beersheba Hospital and felt his choice confirmed when he heard they had been trying to get her back. If they had worked with her a year and a half and still wanted her back, she must be good.

So, Margreta came back home. Well, wasn’t home where you felt you belonged? She came back to a country she loved and had struggled with during a piece of its history. Her country.

On May 27, 1971, with a Church group grown to twenty-four members and a physio department growing into a new hospital, Margreta received her permanent residency to become an Israeli citizen.

  • A free-lance writer/photographer, Sister Cole is a graduate of Brigham Young University. She spent 1971 in Israel and completed photo assignments for United Press International. In the Church she serves as Woods Cross (Utah) Region M Men and Gleaner vice-chairman and is a member of Orchard Fifth Ward, Davis South Stake.

Photos by Laurel G. Cole

Margreta Spencer

Looking south from the traditional Mount of Beatitudes

Western shore of the Sea of Galilee

The Sea of Galilee

Along the western shore of the Sea of Galilee