The Association for the Wellbeing of Israel’s Soldiers (AWIS) has come of age, and its proverbial “three score and ten” celebrations include the evocative “History on the Wall” exhibition, which opened this week at the AWIS headquarters in Tel Aviv.
AWIS is a nonprofit organization established in 1942 by David Ben-Gurion.
The association’s purpose is to give serving soldiers the support and wellbeing goodies and “extras” that the army cannot afford to provide and, as AWIS puts it, “to demonstrate in practical ways our gratitude for their service to the nation.”
“We have all sorts of posters and documents of the organization that date back to before the establishment of the state,” says exhibition curator Avital Regev-Keisar, adding that the AWIS predates the IDF.
The founding of the state and of the army necessitated some titular shifts. The organization started life as the Committee for the Jewish Soldier, established when the heads of the Jewish Yishuv realized that the increasing number of Jews enlisting for the British Army during World War II could do with some support from home.
“When it became clear that the Nazis were murdering Jews in Europe, the Jews from here wanted to help the British overcome the Nazis and help liberate European Jewry,” says Regev-Keisar Yosef Baratz, the first head of the prestate precursor of the AWIS, appears in several stirring pictures in the exhibition. “Baratz and the others in the organization did their best not only to send all sorts of articles and food the Jewish soldiers needed but also to visit them wherever they were,” says Regev- Keisar, pointing to a large reproduction of a black-and-white photograph of Baratz visiting Jewish soldiers at their British Army training camp in the Egyptian desert.
Eager to place the organization’s past and current deeds in a neat historical context, she says, “Here’s a picture of [current reproduction head] Avigdor Kahalani visiting IDF soldiers during the Cast Lead campaign, so you can see the same work goes on, decades later,” she observes. “During Cast Lead, we conveyed around NIS 4 million in donations and about 30,000 kits with things like toiletries and personal hygiene items, 10,000 blankets – everything the soldiers needed.”
There are some lovely arcane-looking prints in the exhibition. One, for example, shows a woman stuffing a doughnut into a willing soldier’s mouth; and in another, from the 1970s, a team of men and women are counting rows of piled-up coins from donations to the AWIS.
Women have always played a central role in catering to the soldiers’ personal requirements. “There are pictures of the legendary dodot [aunts],” says the curator. “Of course, we couldn’t have an exhibition about the AWIS without showing them.”
In those days when long-distance communication within the country, let alone international communication, was highly undeveloped, the Committee for the Jewish Soldier did its best to keep the soldiers fighting overseas abreast of how things were panning out back home. One poster, dated December 19, 1943, goes by the name of the newsletter “Yediot Mi’Haaretz (News from the Land of Israel), with the subtitle “About events in the Land of Israel, in the Diaspora and in the movement, to be published once a week by the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier.”
In the body of the text, the writer explains that the first issue of Yediot Mi’Haaretz is designed as “a modest attempt to provide news from home as quickly as possible to our soldiers far away from the Land of Israel.”
It goes on to advise the reader that the Section for Future of the Soldiers was established that week under the auspices of the Jewish Agency but continues to sternly declare that every Jewish soldier should remember that the section will act as a central reference point for them but that the unit’s existence “in no way exempts the government of the Land of Israel from its duty to ensure the future of the volunteer from this land.”
The newsletter also mentions efforts to establish the first Jewish army troupe, and there is information about how many olim/ma’apilim made it to Palestine that week, politics and other current affairs items.
Besides the aforementioned volunteers who joined the ranks of the British forces, there were others who also offered their services.
“There were people who knitted clothes and others who helped in all kinds of way,” says Regev-Keisar.
“Volunteers included people who made up packages for the soldiers and also people who donated sums of money, even small amounts.”
The curator explains that the Committee did not confine its supportive efforts only to Jewish soldiers abroad. “There was help for the wives and children of the soldiers who were left behind.
There were care facilities for their children and all sorts of activities by the Committee.”
The exhibition includes a poster about a children’s care center at Kfar Yehezkel, and another exhibit shows a detailed list of the items procured for the soldiers’ families.
“The Committee also worked to get tax exemptions for the soldiers while they were serving abroad,” says the curator. “It did its best to take care of everything so the soldiers shouldn’t worry about their family’s financial welfare while they were away fighting.”
All that pre-state experience proved to be invaluable in 1948 and thereafter, and many of the facilities for the first IDF soldiers were already in place when the War of Independence started and in the early years of the state.
There are also plenty of posters of yesteryear on display at the AWIS center, with fetching naive graphics, such as a drawing of a delighted Jewish soldier and the words: “Make a Gift for the Festival of Freedom for Pesach for the Jewish Soldier.” It’s heartwarming stuff.