Pessah in Libya

Rare haggada offers glimpse at spirit of soldiers of the Jewish Brigade.

war haggada 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
war haggada 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In l945, soldiers stationed in Libya with the Jewish Brigade's First Camouflage (PAL) Royal Engineers were determined not to be left out of that year's Pessah celebrations. So, when they sat down to Seder, far from their homes in Mandate Palestine, they used a specially designed haggada of their very own. The cover page of the soldiers' haggada bears their unit's emblem - a long-tailed wolf, outstretched in the center of a Magen David, the tail protruding between a couple of the star's corners. On either side of the insignia is written the unit's name, in English on one side and in Hebrew on the other, the letters sitting in what looks like fluttering ribbons. A copy of the First Camouflage unit's haggada is yet another of the gems of Jezreel Valley kibbutznik carpenter-cum-collector Aviram Paz. It consists of 20 rather fragile-looking pages put together on plain paper the size of a regular school exercise book. "Haggada for Pessah" is written in large letters in the middle of the cover page, which is designed to resemble a piece of matza. The edges of the pages are a little tattered, hardly a surprise considering the soldiers' living conditions and the fact that it travelled far and wide before finally ending up in Paz's collection. Gently handling the haggada, Paz turns page after page, affording Metro only a quick glimpse of sketches and some typewritten sentences. He eventually hands it over for perusal. There was something extraordinary about handling such an item, lovingly produced over 60 years ago by Jews from Palestine clinging to their history and traditions so close to the battlefield. "There is actually a very small amount of text in this particular haggada, but on the other hand the artwork is very special," Paz explains, sitting at a large table strewn with books, pamphlets and newspaper articles. "If one looks carefully at each drawing in the First Camouflage's haggada, there are so many different messages coming through connected to their situation at that time and comparisons with the enslaved Jews in Egypt and exodus from that land," he continues. This particular haggada is different from almost all the others in his collection. Of the 200 haggadot produced by Jewish Brigade soldiers, only three boast paint-enhanced artwork, and the First Camouflage haggada is one. One sketch is of four Zionist figures, representing the four sons. Easily recognized by his rather oversized head and fly-away bushy hair is David Ben-Gurion. The other recognizable "son" is Moshe Sharett, Israel's first foreign and second prime minister. Paz has not yet identified the other two figures. Another picture strip (on right) shows a Jewish slave carrying a stone pillar on his back, a uniformed and whip-brandishing overseer hovering menacingly. A pyramid and a large red swastika are in the background. The second picture in that strip depicts a kneeling slave being beaten by an Egyptian and the third shows a rifle-toting Jewish soldier in Palestine, escorting a young Jewish girl carrying a rake over her shoulder. The sun glowing behind the young man and woman is in the shape of a Magen David. Adorning another page of the haggada is a sketch showing the parting of the Red Sea (below), a tin helmeted and armed Jewish soldier escorting refugees to the Promised Land through the gap as two enemy soldiers drown in the high waves on one side of them. Although most of the fish drawn in the "sea" on either side are harmless, the shark portrayed is doubly dangerous as it has a swastika emblazoned on its side. Another item in Paz's collection is a tiny metal badge, whose emblem is the same as that drawn on the front cover of the haggada on the table. "Now this is really, really rare," Paz says, with a triumphant look in his eyes. "Probably the only one of its kind." "There were over 200 Jewish soldiers from Palestine in Libya with the First Camouflage under the command of a Major Aharonov, and in November 1943 they sailed from Alexandria to Pugia in Italy. In Italy, they were eventually divided up into smaller groups and absorbed by the American 8th Army, fighting in eastern Italy. Some built Bailey bridges and others fashioned Sherman tanks and Howitzers from wood and cardboard to fool the enemy into thinking there was more heavy stuff around than in reality," Paz says. Nearly all the units designed their own emblems, but with no money available, the insignia remained on cloth or paper and were used on Rosh Hashana cards for the soldiers to send home. Paz has also obtained some of these cards, and he pulls out a few. All show a Magen David, but particular units are characterized by what's in the star. Unit 650 used a clock face, with the small hand on the 6 and long on the 50 minute marker. A transportation unit's emblem bore a royal crown in its Magen David, and Jewish women serving in the ATS (Auxilliary Territorial Service) had adopted a Magen David with the letters ATS in its center. "The emblems weren't anything official, and the First Camouflage were the only ones that somehow found an Italian craftsman to make them," explains Paz, pointing to the badge, which is only a little larger than a coin. "Maybe because they were attached to the Americans, they had some money and were able to do this," muses the collector, who also explains that after the war, the First Camouflage regrouped in Bari, Italy, and were given responsibility for Jewish refugees in that area. That responsibility included helping the refugees reach Palestine before the soldiers went home a short time later, with the creation of the State of Israel, to serve in Israel Defense Forces, enacting in modern times the biblical legend of bringing the Jews out of slavery.