Pre-Mossad, IDF: English Jewish Brigade fought Nazis, got Jews to Israel

Now second generation are reconnecting over their parents’ stories.

July 21, 2019 22:27

Original members of the Jewish Brigade

Original members of the Jewish Brigade

Before the establishment of the Mossad and the IDF in 1948, a unit of 5,500 Jews known as the Jewish Brigade fought the Nazis as part of the British Army, and carried out underground operations to smuggle Jews across Europe to sail to British-occupied Palestine.

While the activities of Aliyah Bet, the Bericha (Flight) and subsequently the Mossad are well-known, the Jewish Brigade preceded these efforts both in smuggling Jews to Israel – as well as providing food, necessities and preparation for aliyah – under the noses of the British, and in using wildly creative schemes to succeed in those efforts.

Put differently, the movie Exodus about the ship the SS Exodus 1947, which embarked from the port of Sète near Montpellier, France, en route to Palestine, is famous, but the brigade is the story about how Jews were smuggled to the docks to board ships like the Exodus.

The brigade is also distinguished from these other efforts as its establishment was critical in the success of the future IDF. Jewish volunteers in the British Army in general served as a pipeline for an estimated 721 of the IDF’s first 2,180 officers, and the brigade contained a sizable number of those 721.

Graduates of the brigade who took leadership positions in the IDF rose to the highest ranks, with Mordechai Makleff and Haim Laskov both becoming chiefs-of-staff.

Another interesting aspect of the brigade is the human story of the Jews themselves who were involved, or in some ways their descendants.

Just under a decade ago, Rami Litani, son of Eliyahu Litani (originally Alterman), started a public movement to connect with other children of those who served in the Jewish Brigade.

Litani met with The Jerusalem Post both to tell the story of the Jewish Brigade, and to boost efforts to locate additional descendants of brigade members to try to obtain personal stories about the brigade’s members and their exploits.

The Jewish Brigade soldiers were often the first outsiders to meet Holocaust survivors liberated from concentration camps.
Historians have estimated that the brigade itself helped between 15,000 and 22,000 Jews reach Israel from Displaced Persons camps in Europe, which established a platform for what later became a much larger operation.

Part of what inspired Litani about the brigade is the hope they infused, explained in a poem by his father.

In another letter that Litani held up proudly, his father described Holocaust survivors singing in Hebrew to celebrate their liberation.
What connects the brigade thematically to the Mossad, which did not yet exist, was its ingenuity and audacity in smuggling Jews getting passed Britain’s blockade, moving the survivors through Europe and eventually to Israel.

For example, Litani said that frequently when the brigade reached a British checkpoint that required official authorization in order to cross, members produced a document coded with the letters TTG.

When British guards said that it did not correspond to any standard approval for crossing through, brigade members would scare the guards into letting them pass by telling them that it was a top-secret code that they were not cleared to know about.

They would threaten them with interfering with the top-secret operation if the British guards did not let them through, said Litani.
In reality, Litani said that the “top secret” letters TTG were a mix of Arabic and Yiddish loosely translated as “kiss my ass [business].”
Another daring scheme to smuggle Jews to Israel involved brigade members “creating” doubles of themselves, since as real British soldiers they had the right to travel more freely.

Litani explained how brigade members would teach Jewish refugees in only a few nights enough English to get by, how to salute like soldiers, details of their personal lives, and would dress them up in real uniforms.

Pressed about how the British could fall for a scheme that could have so many holes in it, like the impostors not necessarily looking like the brigade members they impersonated, Litani said that British soldier ID cards then lacked a photograph.

Also, he said that with the brigade in the process of being dissolved, there was less attention given to the fate of its members.
The brigade also forged fake marriage certificates, which would allow a woman holding the document ostensibly married to a Palestinian Jew to enter Israel under British law.

Litani said that some of the fake marriages, which had religious status, were never annulled by a rabbinic “get,” or Jewish divorce document.

The Jewish Brigade used British Army trucks to ferry refugees to Italian ports en route to Palestine. The smuggling operation worked in part because in mid-1945, the brigade was primarily stationed in Tarvisio, Italy, near the Austrian and Yugoslavian borders.
The brigade was stationed there after being led by Brig. Ernest “Levi” Benjamin in the 1945 spring offensive in the Alfonsine and Senio River sectors in Italy, fighting the Wehrmacht’s Fourth Parachute Division. At least 70 brigade soldiers fell in the battles, including 30 who were trying to dislodge the Germans from the Senio River. The battle, codenamed Operation Grapeshot, was the final Allied attack during the Italian Campaign in the final stages of the World War II. The dead are buried in the British military cemetery in Ravenna.

In total, 83 members of the Jewish Brigade were killed during the war, and around 200 were wounded.

This was after years of being ignored by the British, who in 1939 had been worried about giving the Jewish volunteers to the British army too much of a role lest they anger the Arabs.

British prime minister Winston Churchill is credited with green-lighting the brigade to see action in September 1944, following entreaties by future Israeli prime minister Moshe Sharett.

Litani has British documents showing that England knew about the smuggling as a general phenomenon, and moved the brigade from Italy to Belgium and Holland in an attempt to stop it.

This attempt failed, said Litani, due to the brigade’s commitment and creativity.

Not that every smuggling operation worked. Litani displayed British documents showing that 46 Jews trying to smuggle others were caught and arrested.

Why are the brigade’s stories less known than Aliyah Bet and the Exodus-type stories?

For one, he said that for years, brigade members did not talk about their roles.

Even decades after living in Israel, Litani said they may have harbored concerns that if they were too loud, Britain might attempt to put its former soldiers on trial for insubordination.

Moreover, compared with some of the other stories surrounding World War II, the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel and the IDF – which many of them joined – their story, however remarkable, was less dramatic.

This is why Litani has been working hard for nearly a decade and more intensely for the last 18 months to document the brigade members’ stories from their books, letters and memoirs, and from their children, who themselves are now pensioners.

With the help of KAN radio and a variety of other initiatives, he has put together a group of 330 persons who are connected to the brigade through their families.

“It is hard work, but I get invigorated from people and the feedback has been inspiring,” said Litani.

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