Israel paused for a moment this week when news broke of Avigdor (Yanush) Ben-Gal’s death.
Tall, lean and frequently smiling, the fabled warrior who died Saturday of cancer at 79 earned fame as a colonel during the Yom Kippur War, when he commanded the Seventh Armored Brigade’s battle against the Syrian invasion’s main thrust.
In one of military history’s last largescale armored clashes, Ben-Gal’s 100 tanks faced some 700 Syrians tanks.
After four days’ fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the Syrians began the retreat that ended 45 kilometers from Damascus.
“You saved the State of Israel,” the colonel told his surviving troops while the fields on both sides of the border were still strewn with smoldering tanks.
That battle alone secures Ben-Gal a place of honor in military history. No armored force ever emerged so decisively victorious from a battle where it arrived so woefully outnumbered.
Yet in Jewish history Ben-Gal, along with a handful of other Israeli generals, will be recalled for an entirely different reason: They survived the Holocaust.
BORN IN LODZ, Poland, Janusz Ludwig Goldlost was three years old when Germany invaded and his parents whisked him and his five-year-old sister, Ilana, to Siberia. Somewhere along this trail the parents vanished.
The two toddlers walked, hitchhiked and jumped on trains until they were collected by the Polish troops of Gen.
Wladyslaw Anders with whom they proceeded to Tehran. At one point between Poland and Iran, Ben-Gal reminisced decades later, he got hold of a piece of bread, only to see it pulled it from his mouth by a stranger who then ate the starving kid’s rare meal.
In Iran, the Jewish Agency collected hundreds of such lost kids, placed them in camps, fed them, and then led them to Pakistan by train, to Egypt by sea, and finally, by train again, to British Palestine.
“Yanush,” as everyone continued calling him despite his Hebraicized name, reached the Land of Israel four-and-ahalf years after leaving Poland. Yanush was not in the death camps, but Hitler did manage to deprive of him of his parents, home and childhood, not to mention his dignity, which he restored in the most improbable way.
So did Heinz Banner.
BORN AND RAISED in Berlin, Banner was 13 when he and his father watched the nearby synagogue go up in flames on Kristallnacht.
Several days on the boy was expelled from school in a public ceremony where the principal ordered him, in the presence of the entire school, to march away and never return, because – as that headmaster shouted into the school courtyard – he belonged to “a race that committed horrible crimes against the German nation.”
Banner arrived in Kibbutz Ein Gev on the shores of Lake Kinneret where he became Uri Ben-Ari and soon joined the Palmah, with which he fought during the War of Independence in Jerusalem and the Negev while rising to battalion commander.
In the 1956 Sinai campaign Ben-Ari led the IDF to victory in its first-ever large-scale armored battle, after which he was appointed commander of the Armored Corps. And in 1967, less than three decades after having been chased away from Berlin like a stray dog, Ben- Ari commanded the armored column that took northern Jerusalem, charged east through the Judean Desert, and then conquered Jericho; like Joshua.
Albert Mendler’s story was somewhat similar, having been expelled at age 10 from his school in Linz, Austria, before fleeing with his mother through multiple borders until reaching Romania and boarding the last illegal boat the British allowed to anchor in Haifa.
At 16 he joined the Hagana, at 19 he fought outside Jerusalem, and in subsequent wars he climbed the ranks until, as a major-general fighting in Sinai while Yanush was fighting on the Golan, a missile hit Albert’s command- car and killed him.
Anek Rosenberg’s story was more similar to Yanush’s.
World War II’s outbreak caught Anek and his mother in Warsaw, whence they fled the invading Germans and were blocked ahead of a Russian-guarded barbed wire. Anek’s mother then strapped a sign on his chest asking whoever found him to lead him to his father who was stranded in Bialystok.
After bribing a guard, the mother sent the toddler under the fence and into the Polish dark, where he wandered through snowfields and woods until he reached a village where a woman heard him cry and collected him. The following day she led him to his father who now returned with the boy to his mother, only to later return to Warsaw – and vanish.
The mother and the boy proceeded east, ultimately reaching Uzbekistan, where she was arrested. Anek ended up with the Polish troops that landed him in Tehran, where he joined the same journey that led Yanush to the Land of Israel via Pakistan and Egypt.
The mother and boy found each other when she arrived here in 1948. Six years on he was Haim Erez, an infantry foot soldier who 17 years later would cross the Suez Canal as a colonel commanding a hundred tanks.
The man now charging from Asia to Africa at the heart of the maneuver that would decide Israel’s toughest war; the same one who would later be the major-general in charge of the IDF’s Southern Command, was the same one who in a previous life was the toddler wandering alone through Poland’s dark of night.
BIG GENERALS often hailed from military backgrounds.
Grant, Lee, Patton and Napoleon graduated military academies as did Mikhail Kutuzov who chased Napoleon from Russia. Israeli generals always start off as simple conscripts, but they, too, have seldom been immigrants, and even more rarely survivors.
Few noticed this phenomenon until Maj-Gen (res.) Yossi Peled, who survived WWII as a baby hidden by a Belgian family, burst in tears while in uniform during a ceremony in Auschwitz, where his father died.
Yossi, Haim, Uri, Albert and Yanush were part of a select group that embodied the Zionist resolve to save, inspire and transform Exile’s degenerate Jew.
Middle Israel salutes them.