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Throughout my childhood, my father recounted to anyone who would listen stories from his service with the 38th Royal Fusiliers Jewish Battalion of the British Army which served in the Middle East during the First World War. I am the youngest in the family and growing up in London after the Second World War, these reminiscences and tales of desert treks seemed remote and unreal.
It was only as an adult living in Israel that I discovered the Jewish Battalions Museum, or Beit Hagdudim, in Avihayil just north of Netanya. At last, I realized that my father, Samuel Don, had marched with the great, that together with Jabotinsky and General Allenby, together with the fathers of Zionism, he had done his bit toward ending the Ottoman occupation of the Holy Land. These Jewish forces symbolized the birth of Jewish defense in the region for the first time in 2,000 years.
My first visit to Beit Hagdudim was in the early 1980s when my own children were working on family history projects for their Barmitzvah years. The cycle continues and it is now the grandchildren who are taken to see for themselves what their great-grandfather contributed toward the founding of the Jewish state. Each time I stand teary-eyed in the sanctuary looking at the pictures of my father's 18-year-old face and documents in his familiar handwriting in the memorial album of the 38th Fusiliers.
And each time I am humbled that I did not listen with more respect to his stories.
As a small child, he left Pultusk on the Russian-Polish border and came with his family to London. Growing up in poverty in the East End, he left school at 14 and was apprenticed to a tailor. Looking for adventure, he lied about his age and volunteered in the Jewish Batallions when only 17. At an age when many young men are still in the Boy Scouts, he fought in the Gallipoli campaign and later marched with General Allenby from Heliopolis through the Jordan Valley and Judean Desert. He caught malaria in Jericho and by the time he recovered, Jerusalem had been liberated.
Only in the years that followed did he realize that he had witnessed the rebirth of a nation. It was the only exciting thing he ever did in his life, and he could not believe the extent of industrial and agricultural development in that region.
The approach to Beit Hagdudim, housed in a French colonial-style building landscaped with beautiful gardens, is through the leafy village of Avihayil. I still hear my father's voice saying: "It's all sand." He had no wish to return and sadly never saw the next great battle for Israel, the conquering of the desert.
From 1870 until the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, every Jewish town and village in the Holy Land faced the necessity of protecting itself, and a network of security organizations evolved. Bar Giora, which combined labor and security, was founded in 1907 in the home of Yitzhak Ben-Zvi who later became Israel's second president. In 1909 this became Hashomer, a countrywide organization that employed only Jewish workers. In addition, the Jaffa group provided security for Tel Aviv and the Jewish community of Jaffa. The leaders of these two organizations were respectively Yisrael Shohat and Eliyahu Golomb.
As war was approaching, the villages around Zichron Ya'akov formed the Gideonates, which evolved into the NILI group under the leadership of the agronomist Aaron Aaronson. It was the NILI espionage group - an amazing story in its own right - that provided the British with valuable information, contributing to the success of the liberation from the Turkish Empire.
In 1915 the Zion Mule Corps was created under the command of an Irishman, Colonel Henry Patterson, and the legendary Captain Joseph Trumpeldor.
In 1917 veterans of the Mule Corps joined with Jewish migr s from Russia who had settled in Britain to form the 38th Fusiliers under the command of Patterson. They were originally stationed in Egypt from where they led the British offense of September 1918.
A second Jewish regiment, the 39th Fusiliers was formed from Jewish volunteers from the US and Canada, and later the 40th Fusiliers which included David Ben-Gurion, Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi who had been expelled by the Turks, Dov Joseph and Nehemia Ravin. This brigade absorbed some of the Hashomrim.
The brigades attracted thousands of Jewish youth from Britain, America, Argentina and the Jewish community of Palestine.
Almost all of the three Jewish regiments were disbanded immediately after the war. Although Lord Balfour signed the famous declaration recognizing the right of the Jewish people to make their home in the Holy Land, the Jewish veterans of these brigades who stayed on to form the first Judeans in 1919 were not supported by the British in any way to defend the Jewish community against the riots and violence of the subsequent years. And it took another 30 years and the loss of millions of Jewish lives in the Holocaust before the British left Palestine and the State of Israel was born.
My father returned to London and as a reward for their war efforts, he and other immigrants who had served in these brigades received their naturalization papers. His work as a Civil Defense Warden in the Second World War was tame by comparison, although he wept when searching for my mother's parents after an air raid destroyed their house. He witnessed the destruction of the East End.
Some of the veterans from abroad returned almost immediately to Palestine and bought land in Avihayil, a windswept landscape of sand dunes on the Sharon coast. So how fitting it is that in this now-beautiful village, with its elegant homes and boulevards, the museum of Beit Hagdudim was built.
Visitors are greeted by a film describing the history of the battalions. Historical documents and maps show the routes of battles and the people who led them. For those who have a family connection, the curator and staff are helpful in finding the records in the memorial albums and filling in some gaps in the information.
I think of my father, who endured such hardships and danger, and as I wander around this museum with the next generation, I wonder how he could have left it at that.
Open on Sundays to Thursdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. For further information, call: (09) 862-9240.
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