ewish Brigade veterans and members of the public packed a Tel Aviv University auditorium on Friday, February 19, for a special screening of Chuck Olin’s award-winning documentary In Their Own Hands. A subtle blend of Schindler’s List and The Dirty Dozen, Olin’s film tells the thrilling story of the Jewish Brigade – the all-Jewish fighting force that helped to fight and defeat Hitler’s armies on the battlegrounds of Europe.
In Their Own Hands took Chicago filmmaker Chuck Olin over three years to complete. In the mid-1990s, Olin and his team came to Israel in search of those who had fought with the Brigade and videotaped these veterans talking about their experiences. The resulting documentary combines historical footage and videotaped oral testimony to tell a passionate and powerful story of Jewish resilience and bravery.
The screening of In Their Own Hands was part of a monthly series of events organized by the English Speaking Friends of Tel Aviv University. The Friends chose this documentary, organizer Hadassa Kingstone explains, because it sheds light on important events in Jewish and Israeli history. “As well as showing what the Brigade did during the war, it also reveals something about the role they played afterwards, with Holocaust survivors,” says Kingstone, adding that some of the most important aspects of the Brigade’s postwar activities are not widely known, even among Israeli Jews.
When the war ended, the Jewish Brigade remained in Europe, where they sought out Jewish survivors. As well as providing them with material aid, they helped transfer them to Eretz Israel as part of Aliya Bet. Kingstone has a personal connection with this aspect of the Brigade’s history: “They searched for my family in Amsterdam – even though the news was not good.
During Hitler’s rise to power in the 1930s, a massive wave of European Jews came to Eretz Israel to escape the increasing anti-Semitism. Among them was Mordechai Gichon, professor of classical archeology at Tel Aviv University, who made aliya from Germany with his family in 1934. Gichon explains that by 1936, there were around 400,000 Jews in Eretz Israel. When war was declared in 1939, these Jews were gripped with a burning desire to fight and exact revenge against the Nazi armies intent on exterminating the Jewish people.
Gichon recalls the moment he learned of the declaration of war in Europe. “I heard it on a radio news bulletin,” he says. “My immediate reaction was to go and fight.” He was just 18 years old. “I told my parents: ‘I want to go fight the Nazis.’ But my parents said wait – go to university; if the war continues, you can join up.” In 1942, Gichon went to Jerusalem and joined the British Army.
Although so many Jews from Mandatory Palestine were keen to fight – “Many joined up for active service in the regular British Army,” Gichon notes – there was no all-Jewish fighting force that could face the Nazis on the front lines. Instead there was a Jewish battalion attached to the British Army’s East Kent Regiment stationed in Palestine. “They called the battalion the ‘Palestine Buffs’ because of the color of the uniforms,” Gichon recalls.
The Jews, however, wanted their own all-Jewish Brigade. Under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, they petitioned the British government to create a Jewish fighting force. The British refused. “There was a problem, because at the beginning of the war we were in confrontation with the British,” explains Gichon.
In 1939, the British had published their hated White Paper, limiting Jewish immigration to Palestine, restricting sales of land to Jews, backtracking on earlier promises for a Jewish National Home and closing off British Mandate Palestine as a destination for Jews fleeing Nazi persecution in Europe. The British feared that by equipping the Jews to fight, they would inflame the Arabs and prepare the Hagana for a future uprising against British rule.
“The British didn’t want to include Jews,” says Gichon. “They accepted Jews as ‘pioneers’ – army workers who did not fight – but not as fighters. But the Jewish soldiers didn’t want to be ‘pioneers.’ We wanted to actually fight.”
The Jews, under the leadership of Chaim Weizmann of the World Zionist Organization, and David Ben-Gurion of the Jewish Agency, refused to back down. For three long years they continued to lobby the British for an all-Jewish fighting force. Finally, in 1944, Winston Churchill overrode the objections of the British War Office and announced the creation of a Jewish fighting unit.
“Churchill understood the Jews from an emotional standpoint,” Gichon explains. Addressing parliament on September 20, 1944, he declared that “a special unit of that race which has suffered indescribable torments from the Nazis should be represented as a distinct formation amongst the forces gathered for their final overthrow.”
Initially 5,500-strong, the Jewish Brigade Group was organized as part of the British 8th Army and under the command of Brigadier Ernest F. Benjamin, a Jewish Engineering Officer from Canada. This group of 5,500 was not large enough for a fighting force, but soon a flood of Jewish volunteers started to join up, despite the fact that the Jews from Palestine were paid considerably less than their British counterparts. “Many Jewish volunteers from Britain, soldiers from the regular British army joined the Brigade,” recalls Gichon. “I remember one man, a Scot from the Gordon Highlanders – we called him a Jordan Highlander.”
The British Army prohibited Jewish soldiers from British Mandate Palestine from occupying senior positions in the Brigade, so the Hagana created its own secret leadership structure, led by 28-year-old Shlomo Shamir. Its covert mission would become clear after the war was over.
Many of the volunteers were women, who joined the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) and the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAF). Brigade veteran Naomi Yekutieli spoke to Metro about her role as an ambulance driver in the Jewish Brigade’s Auxiliary Territorial Service or ATS. Yekutieli was just 17 years old when she joined the ATS.
“My two sisters had joined up two years earlier,” she says. “I was only 17, so my parents had to sign for me.” After training in Egypt, Yekutieli’s regiment sailed across the Mediterranean to Italy. During the crossing, one of the ships in her convoy blew up and sank. Recalling this story, Yekutieli insists it was not her, but rather her parents who were brave – after all, “They had three girls in the Brigade.” Yekutieli served in Egypt, Italy and Austria during the war, and afterwards stayed on in Europe, helping Holocaust survivors.
Women like Naomi Yekutieli played an essential role in the Jewish Brigade, says Gichon, “The ATS ambulance drivers were so very important, they had such feeling for the wounded. Their attitude was admired by everyone who encountered them.”
In 1945, the combat soldiers of the Jewish Brigade Group were dispatched to Bologna in northern Italy, where they received training in combat and logistics from the British Army. “The soldiers from the Palmah hadn’t any real battle training,” explains Gichon. “They had learned to fight against Arab gangs – but they had no experience fighting in an actual war.” The battle-hardened British soldiers provided the Jewish Brigade volunteers with the training they needed to fight the Germans on the front lines.
“The senior officers were British,” says Gichon. “Some were anti-Semitic. But we learned from them how to be soldiers.” The training was grueling, but the Jewish soldiers were desperate to learn and to fight. Many had family members in Europe. When storms and torrential rains forced the British officers to halt a training exercise, the Jewish soldiers insisted on continuing. They wanted to be ready for anything.
In April of 1945, the Jewish Brigade went into action on the front lines, in the Senio river valley near Bologna. The fighting was fierce and the Brigade suffered many casualties. Hundreds of Jewish soldiers lost their lives. Yet after two months of intense fighting, the Jewish Brigade emerged victorious – and in a reversal of roles, took the defeated German soldiers prisoner.
The war ended just a few weeks after the Brigade’s victory, but its work in Europe was far from over. “We had tremendous luck,” Gichon muses. “After the war ended, we were the first ones to meet the Holocaust survivors.”
Desperate for news of family members in Europe, many Brigade soldiers disobeyed orders and went AWOL from their base on the Italian-Austrian border. They began to search Displaced Persons camps for Jewish survivors. Official DP camp records did not list Jews – the Allied Command did not recognize Jews as having any separate identity of their own – but the Brigade soon started to encounter groups of survivors.
“We instinctively wanted to help them,” recalls Gichon. “We wanted to give them clothes, food, medicines, everything.” The Brigade soldiers soon encountered another problem. “After the war, the attitude of the British to the Jews changed.” Churchill lost the 1945 general election, and the new Labour government was decidedly less sympathetic toward the Jews. “Ernest Bevin, the new Foreign Minister, was anti-Semitic and anti-Israel,” says Gichon. “He did not want the Jews to go to Israel.”
The Allied Command in Europe considered Jewish survivors to be nationals of the countries they had been taken from; and as such they were to be repatriated. “They said: They’re Polish, they can go back to Poland. But you know what happened to Jews who went back there? They were murdered.”
The Hagana decided that these Jewish Holocaust survivors must not be sent back to a home that no longer existed, where they faced almost certain death. They must be transported to a new homeland in Israel. And so the Brigade had a new mission: to seek out Jewish survivors and bring them home – to Israel. “We started to organize Aliya Bet,” says Gichon. “Of course we did it illegally.”
Prof. Gichon recalls how he decided to stay in Europe after the war and help with the Aliya Bet operations.
Using the covert command structure of the Hagana within the Brigade, the Jewish soldiers spread across Europe, finding groups of Jewish survivors and stealing trucks and supplies to transport them. The Brigade carried on its activities under the noses of the British officers, creating a fictional British Army unit, TTG, as a cover for smuggling truckloads of survivors across Europe. “TTG” combines words from Arabic, Hebrew and Yiddish and stands for “Tilhas Tigiz Gesheften” – which translates roughly as “up your ass.” Immediately after the war, the TTG unit were used for revenge missions, hunting out and killing Nazi commanders. “Some of [these Nazis] pretended to be regular citizens,” says Gichon. “But we found them out.” Soon, however, the Brigade shifted its activities from revenge to rescue.
Gichon explains that he was responsible for a site in Holland that sought out Holocaust survivors and helped transport them on toward Eretz Israel. “There were such sites in France, Holland, Germany, Belgium,” says Gichon, adding that he still knows some of the Dutch Jews whom he helped make aliya.
In their efforts to rescue and transport Holocaust survivors, Jewish Brigade soldiers stole military vehicles, gasoline and supplies as well as large quantities of arms and ammunition that would be used by the Hagana later, in the War of Independence.
Did the British commanding officers know what was going on? “British military intelligence knew about it, but didn’t know enough to stop it,” says Gichon, adding that some British officers knew and cooperated or simply turned a blind eye to the Brigade’s activities.
ATS ambulance driver Naomi Yekutieli also stayed in Europe after the war, where she and her colleagues helped Holocaust survivors. The Brigade organized special camps for the Holocaust survivors, providing them with food, clothing and supplies and teaching them about Zionism and Israel. “We helped with the refugee camps in Austria,” recalls Yekutieli. “We made a Passover seder for them and helped them to make aliya.”
Celebrating Jewish holidays, speaking Hebrew and dancing with the Brigade soldiers gave these Holocaust survivors the hope for a new life, and many of them went on to make aliya – illegally – as part of Aliya Bet.
In July 1945, the British disbanded the Brigade, feeling they could no longer tolerate the illegal activities. A year later, the final convoy of Brigade soldiers returned home to Eretz Israel. When the State of Israel declared its independence in 1948, the battle-hardened and experienced Jewish Brigade soldiers helped organize and train the Israel Defense Forces – which included many Jewish survivors whom the Brigade helped to make aliya. The first-rate military training and frontline combat experience these Jewish soldiers gained from the British Army proved invaluable in winning Israel’s War of Independence.
Is In Their Own Hands an accurate portrayal of the formation and activities of the Jewish Brigade? Mordechai Gichon believes it is. “Of course, everyone who was there sees it differently,” he says. “Are there things about the film I would have done differently? Yes. But overall I would say it’s very well made.”
Yet In Their Own Hands
little known in Israel, despite its importance in revealing the
Brigade’s roles during the War, in Aliya Bet and the War of
Independence, says Werner Bachmann, Chair of the English Speaking
Friends association. Yet the screening in Tel Aviv was such a success
that he hopes this may now change.
“The film had a big impact.
A lot of people want to know where they can buy a copy, they want their
children to see it,” he says. “People are saying that everyone in
Israel should know about this documentary, because it’s about our
More information about Chuck Olin’s documentary In
Their Own Hands, including how to purchase a copy, can be found at: