Filmmaker shines a light on unsung Diaspora warriors of 1948

US- Canadian producer and cinematographer Jeff Hoffman's inspiration for his latest film was to his grandfather, Leo Quint.

January 26, 2017 12:36

Divvy Ahronheim interviews Smoky Simon. (photo credit: JEFF HOFFMAN)

The idea of fighting and survival has always fascinated USCanadian producer and cinematographer Jeff Hoffman.

As a child, he used to pick the brain of his uncle – an Auschwitz survivor – about the Holocaust, particularly about why some Jews fought and others did not.

He attributes the inspiration for his latest film, Four Million Bullets – The Untold Fight for Survival, to his grandfather, Leo Quint of Newton, Massachusetts.

“My grandpa was a Zionist,” he tells The Jerusalem Post Magazine over the phone from his home in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Quint, an upholstery shop owner, used to travel to Israel in the state’s early years and would donate GMC work trucks to Kibbutz Beit Zera, which converted them into ambulances. Quint filmed many of his travels, enabling his grandson to delve into his ancestor’s past.

Thus, the seed of a story was planted in Hoffman’s mind, one that swiftly blossomed with his discovery of the Ayalon Institute – an underground bullet factory in Rehovot, used by the Hagana between 1945 and 1948 under the guise of a kibbutz laundry.

Zippy Porath, former name Borowsky (with the revolver), who served in the Hagana as a medic, also participates as an interviewee in the documentary (photo credit: THE PALMAH MUSEUM)

Today, the once-clandestine facility stands as a proud tribute to the 45 young men and women who produced more than four million bullets there, right under the nose of the British.

“This could be an incredibly interesting story,” Hoffman thought to himself – a real-life story that he believed “could make James Bond pale in comparison.” Hoffman set out to transform the Ayalon Institute’s tribute into something more farreaching and globally accessible, in the body of a film.

This set in motion extensive research into the events that led to the second wave of aliya, and those who responded to David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir’s appeals to US Jews in the 1940s to help rally manpower, funds, airplanes, ships and weapons for the Jewish cause in Palestine.

WITH FIRE in his eyes, the former Hollywood filmmaker reached out to people all over the world – primarily Canadian, American and South African Jews and non-Jews – who volunteered to fight alongside the Jews in Palestine for Israeli statehood.

Hoffman recruited Canadian Hebrew speaker Divvy Ahronheim to carry out the interviews, as well as filling the positions of associate producer and writer.

“For over a year we’ve been traveling all over the world, meeting with men and women who were directly involved in the birth of the state of Israel and capturing their amazing stories on camera,” Ahronheim tells the Magazine.

“We’ve interviewed members of Mahal – the international volunteers who trained with the Hagana in the 1940s, sabras [Jews born in Mandatory Palestine] who were teenagers fighting in the War of Independence, children of the American industrialists who secretly raised funds and smuggled ships, arms, weapons and planes to Israel in the interwar period, politicians, experts, academics and witnesses who all have unbelievable stories to tell – some of which have never been heard before, despite the existence of several films on these topics.

“Our film has evolved into an incredible on-camera history series involving surviving members of the 4,000 International Jewish and gentile volunteer soldiers, along with the Jewish financiers who funded (under penalty of prison and death) the airplanes, ships, and guns smuggled from all over the world to help fight for independence, when the Arab nations were prepared to sweep the Jews into the sea,” the director states.

“After the horrors of World War II, there was no second chance – they had to win or die.”

INTERVIEWEE ANN Bussel of Miami Beach, Florida, holds one piece of the vast puzzle. “David Ben-Gurion had contacted [Rudolf] Sonneborn and said that ‘we need the help of American leaders,’” she says in the trailer for Four Million Bullets.

Ann Bussel interviewed in her house in Florida (photo credit: JEFF HOFFMAN)

The Sonneborn Institute clandestinely raised hundreds of millions of dollars to assist Jews in both Palestine and Europe.

Bussel’s father, Shepard Broad, was one of the original members of the group, and was instrumental in purchasing and outfitting refugee boats for Aliya Bet, the code name given to illegal immigration by Jews to Mandatory Palestine, in violation of restrictions laid down by the British White Paper of 1939. Bussel has in her possession letters of gratitude to her late father, from both Meir and Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek for his contribution to the establishment of the state of Israel.

SMOKY SIMON, a Mahal volunteer from South Africa who served as chief of air operations in Israel’s War of Independence, was another subject of the film. Featured in the trailer, Simon – who today lives in Herzliya – describes the beginning stages of the fledgling Israel Defense Forces.

“We took these aircraft. Bombs were being manufactured, 20-kilogram bombs, and we carried them on our laps. You had the pilot and you had what we call the bomb-chucker, and when we got to the target we dropped the bombs. That was the Israel Air Force in its early stages,” he says.

“The spirit was all about the people of the time, and today we don’t find that same spirit,” Hoffman says nostalgically.

“They all said there was no alternative. There was no other place to go – only Palestine was the Jewish homeland.”

“If not for the heroic and innovative cooperation between the Jews of Palestine and the international volunteers before, during and after battle, the State of Israel might not have survived past her first month,” says Hoffman.

With quarter of the film left to complete, he stresses that many eyewitnesses have died and “time is not on our side,” increasing the urgency to complete the editing, after which he intends to get the film out to a multitude of educational Jewish organizations worldwide.

He is also in the process of raising additional funds to allow the continuation of the project.

Hoffman mentions regretfully that two of his interviewees have already died since he and Ahronheim began interviewing.

“It’s a tribute to these heroes and heroines of Israel, and it would be great for them to be acknowledged while they’re still alive,” he emphasizes.

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