The heroic story of the Jewish Brigade in WWII

Tortured in Nazi concentration camps, these individuals survived to fight back. Many had lost relatives, who were assumed to have been gassed and slaughtered.

The Jewish Brigade (photo credit: Courtesy)
The Jewish Brigade
(photo credit: Courtesy)
‘I am greatly satisfied,” declared Gen. Mark Clark, the US 5th Army commander, emphasizing “that the Jewish people, who have suffered so terribly at the hands of the Nazis, should now be represented by this frontline fighting force.” Speaking in March 1945 from his headquarters in Italy, he was referring to the new Jewish Brigade, whose vehicles, arms and uniforms bore the Star of David, and who had become a vital and operational military force under him.
Led by its initial commander, Brig. E.F. Benjamin, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade fought alongside troops of other nations. “Tough, tanned and thirsting for revenge,” one military correspondent put it, “these Jewish soldiers have something personal to fight for. Tortured in Nazi concentration camps, these individuals survived to fight back. Many had lost relatives, who were assumed to have been gassed and slaughtered.”
Finally in that month of March 1945, side by side with British and American forces, they held their own against the Germans. 
“The Brigade members have killed Nazis and suffered casualties as well. They have proven on the field of battle what the Jew can do,” Clark powerfully concluded. 
The American general saw his Jewish brethren as superb fighters, but he did not realize that this Jewish Brigade was the first “world-accepted” entity of the State of Israel, which was to be born in 1948.
Only by reading the regular daily newspapers and weekly English-language Jewish papers from the English countries, can one experience what a “Jewish army” meant. However, behind the scenes even greater strides were being taken to move the mandate out of British hands into those of the budding UN, born in San Francisco in May 1945.
In the latter part of that year, even with the war over, the numbers of the Holocaust victims being made known and the unimaginable sights of the survivors and the dead carcases in the former concentration camps, a poll of American citizens indicated that 55% were familiar with the discussion about permitting the Jews to settle in Palestine.
Some 76% were in favor; 7% opposed. How could the thinking of Americans be changed so “settlement” was transformed to permitting the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine?
THE 1ST Battalion of the Jewish Brigade on parade (Army Film & Photographic Unit, Oldham A from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)THE 1ST Battalion of the Jewish Brigade on parade (Army Film & Photographic Unit, Oldham A from the collections of the Imperial War Museum)
From various locales, the champions of our people arose.
A southern American editor, Ralph McGill, wrote after a month long mission to Nuremberg, Cairo and Palestine. 
“In the Holy Land a sharply etched, living and breathing, hard-working and productive, deeply rooted Jewish life exists all up and down the country. It will not be blown away by the gales of power politics. It has proved to be practical by any standard of measure.”
He first brought this message to the public in an address on March 17, 1946. His six articles describing what he had just seen were syndicated in the US, Canada and Great Britain in the spring of that year. His basic conclusions: “objections to Jewish migration into Palestine ridiculous; Jews there have built up the country; 80% of survivor Jews in displaced persons’ camps want to go to Palestine; plenty of room for them – Palestine solution to the problem.”
From his return after his Middle East mission until November 1947, he wrote numerous articles, spoke over the radio constantly, and participated in many national events arranged by the American Christian Conference on Palestine. At Boston’s Symphony Hall on November 20, 1946, 1,000 people were present to hear Sen. Owen Brewster of Maine; James G. McDonald, who became the US’ first ambassador to Israel and Dr. Harry Atkinson, a founder of American Christian Palestine Committee and Ralph McGill. The radio carried the event to the entire area from Boston south to New York City.
Since McGill was the only one that night who had actually seen both the DP camps in Europe and Palestine up close, the crowd hung on his every word. “The Britains have said that without Jewish industries in Palestine the British could not have held out during the early years of WWII. Furthermore, without the 60,000 Palestine Jewish troops in the allied forces and the Jewish Brigade itself, many American generals believe the war would have continued on much longer.” A Tennessee country boy in his youth, McGill stressed “never seen harder working farmers than the Jews...nor better farms.” He described the modern cities in the country and factories “where from cleanup forces to executives all were Jewish.” He concluded that until Palestine problem worked out, “we cannot be comfortable calling ourselves a Christian nation.”
Behind the trip to the Holy Land of McGill and his writings and addresses throughout the US stood Herbert Bayard Swope. Swope, head of the Overseas News Agency, had sent McGill abroad to get “the real story of Palestine.” The first American Pulitzer Prize Winner and a leading Zionist, always out of the spotlight, this journalist and financier knew well that in 1938 McGill was present in Vienna when Hitler led the Nazis as they marched into the city and took over Austria.
Even before the war began, after being one of the few Americans to see Hitler, McGill called for the establishment of a Jewish state.
Dr. Shulamit Schwartz Nardi, who worked closely with Dr. Abba Hillel Silver, handling publications in the 1940s to make the case for an Israel including the publication and distribution of a million copies of James McDonald’s book on Palestine Jewish farming, once told me that Swope played a role in the November 29, 1947, vote which can never be documented because of the manner in which he conducted his affairs.
She also told me that perhaps the greatest moment in American Zionist history was when, in October 1947, Dr. Silver, not David Ben-Gurion, opened the debate at the UN in Flushing Meadow, New York, on the future of a Jewish state. Great and lesser known figures worked hand in hand so that the vote on November 29, 1947 would be in favor of the UN Partition Plan. Seventy four years later, through war and peace, incredible achievements and terrible tragedies, we are the proud citizens of the State of Israel – so may it ever be.