As the hour passed midnight on the fourth of Kislev, the month of Hanukka, the greatest man I ever met, a modern-day Maccabee, the Palmah legend and Palmah Museum inductee Mordechai Schwartz, otherwise known as Motke Eish Ha’garzen, Motke the Axeman, my father, unexpectedly died.
Many have read history as a discipline, hobby or inspiration, but I had the amazing opportunity of being the son of living history, of having the enormous fortune, honor and privilege of being raised by a Palmahnik, a Jewish youth who changed both world and Jewish history, and one who personified the credo of the Palmah, Po lo maznichim haver – Here we don’t leave a friend behind.
For two thousand years the Jew was taunted and humiliated, mocked as an erstwhile warrior whose glory days were in the distant past. But in the years 1947/48/49 a new day dawned, unprecedented in the annals of human and military history – the resurrection of the Jewish warrior and of the ancient battle cry of Acharei (Follow me)!” In the summer of 1946, his high school days over, my father made a decision that would affect not only his life but the lives of generations to come. He would give his all to end the misery of his beloved people as he joined the heirs of the Maccabees and Bar-Kochba’s warriors by enlisting in the Palmah.
Recognized by his superiors for his athleticism, daring, bravery and quick thinking, my father was assigned tasks as a commando, a scout, a rescuer of Holocaust survivors (carrying them on his back from ships under the cover of night past British patrols), a commander of raids against the British in Ramle and Netanya, and a fighter and commander in the elite Portzim Battalion of the Harel Brigade, partaking in the most ferocious battles in Jerusalem and surrounding areas – Jaffa, Tel Litvinsky, Bab el-Wad, Beit Shemesh, Latrun, Castel, Katamon and Mount Zion.
After the War of Independence he was an undercover agent in the early days of the Shin Bet. Later he served as community projects coordinator in Beersheba.
In the States his unique blend of character traits, both Jewish and worldly, was reflected in the projects he undertook and his profound influence on me as we joined forces to establish a film production company to create entertaining and educational works covering a range of issues. In 1994 he produced Back to Our Roots, a telethon which aired across the United States, South America and the Virgin Islands to combat the effects of assimilation. Later when domestic violence was on an upsurge in New York City he created The Staff, a self-defense video, based on the Palmah Kapap fighting system, as well as conducting classes.
Yet as a Palmahnik, his ability to anticipate danger aimed against Jewish interests and to formulate the appropriate measures to prevent its escalation propelled him to take action when the threat of Y2K loomed over New York. Thus, he became instrumental in urging New York Jewish organizations and groups to prepare synagogues against attacks. Even with the growth of BDS he took action and was influential in the design of the first anti-BDS app, Fight BDS. When media bias distorted Israel during the Gaza war/ Operation Protective Edge, he inspired me to lead the historic first march against anti-Semitism in New York City, on September 14, 2014 – “Silence? Never Again!” And when stabbing attacks took place in late 2014/ early 2015 in Israel he insisted I contact The Jerusalem Post
editor in chief and relate his suggestion that the military provide Israeli citizenry with protective vests.
Even in the last few weeks of his life, in Israel he was working on a YouTube news channel to present the beauty of Israel, thus helping Israeli businesses, while producing a Kapap self-defense video against the “knife intifada.”
But what most impressed me and others was his utter commitment to the Palmah credo of brotherhood no matter the pain or discomfort. This level of commitment was nothing new to him. In the graduation run transforming one from Palmah recruit to Palmahnik commando he ran 20 miles with a nail in his foot so as not to damage morale. It was a mindset I witnessed time again, especially in the last 12 years of his life.
While most men reaching extreme old age in a severe debilitated condition, due to war wounds, would have stopped overextending themselves, he would travel back and from New York to Philadelphia to make minyan for a group of senior citizens for the High Holy Days and Succot, totaling 2,100 km., for five years in a row. A co-founder of Shomrei Haam, a leadership program enabling Jewish youth to interact with Palmahnikim, he and fellow Palmahnik hero Michael Shamah, of the Negev Brigade, would travel far and wide to recount the heroic acts of their comrades, despite his great physical suffering.
I always sensed a deep inner pride when he spoke of the Battle of Mount Zion. But it was not until eight months ago when I came across David Ben-Gurion’s book Israel: A Personal History, that I fully comprehended its significance. “Tonight Palmah commander of Company D and his 20 Palmahnikim descended Yemin Moshe and ascended Har Zion arriving at Zion’s Gate and thus rescued 1,700 Jews from the Old City fleeing from the Arab onslaught,” wrote Ben-Gurion.
Instantly I recognized the story of the battle and realized the commander Ben-Gurion mentioned was my father. At that moment I understood my father’s quiet pride; he and his men were instrumental in saving 1,700 Jewish lives and the generations that would arise from them.
The legacy he left through his exploits, activism, creativity, deeds, wisdom and Shomrei Ha’am is a gift to all who care about the Jewish present and future.
Nothing else I will ever do will be as important as when for 12 years I served and ministered to my father, a modern-day Maccabee who brought light to all.