The volunteers

Three Mahal veterans who now live in Jerusalem share their tales of the War of Independence.

mahal men 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy of David Teperson)
mahal men 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy of David Teperson)
Sixty years ago, during Israel's War of Independence, some 3,500 men and women from 44 countries around the world left the comfort of their homes and families to help the fledgling Jewish state in its struggle for survival as part of Mahal (the Hebrew acronym for "overseas volunteers"). Mainly World War II veterans with military training and experience, their contribution was decisive in helping Israel establish an army and win its fight for existence against an invading force of five Arab armies. The Mahalniks, as they were known, brought with them the military expertise, familiarity with equipment and arms, combat experience and knowledge of military frameworks that proved vital to the newly formed IDF on the ground, at sea and in the air. Mahalniks served in every branch of the IDF, including artillery, infantry, armored corps, medical corps, engineers, signals, radar and the navy - many in key positions of command. The 425 Mahalniks who flew in the Israel Air Force and air transport command made up 95 percent of the air crews. In addition, 450 served in the Palmah and 200 were doctors and nurses in hospitals and frontline casualty stations. Some 250 Americans and Canadians manned the 10 Aliya Bet (illegal immigration) ships that ran the British blockade before the establishment of the state, bringing more than 31,000 Holocaust survivors to Palestine. And Mahalniks also paid the price of war - 121 of them (117 men and four women) fell during the War of Independence. Many more were injured and some went missing in action. Mahalniks were overwhelmingly from English-speaking countries, but also included volunteers from Latin America, Europe and even some Arab countries. They were mainly Jews, motivated by Jewish solidarity and concerns for the security of the Yishuv in its struggle for survival, as well as by the historic reestablishment of a Jewish state after 2,000 years. But there were also non-Jews among them, horrified by the Holocaust, who wanted to aid the Jewish people. The most famous Mahal volunteer was American Col. David (Mickey) Marcus, who was recruited to serve as prime minister David Ben-Gurion's military adviser, and helped lay the foundation for transforming the pre-state defense forces into a regular army. His role in the construction of the Burma Road, which helped break the siege of Jerusalem, was critical. Killed by friendly fire in June 1948, Marcus was laid to rest at West Point, the only American soldier to be buried there who died fighting for a foreign country. Ben-Gurion called the Mahal volunteers "the Diaspora's most important contribution to the survival of the State of Israel." In May 1993, then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said at the consecration of the Mahal Memorial in the Sha'ar Hagai Forest: "You came to us when we needed you most, during those dark and uncertain days of our War of Independence. You gave us not only your experience, but your lives as well. The people of the State of Israel will never forget, and will always cherish this unique contribution made by you - the volunteers of Mahal." Nevertheless, for much of Israel's history, Mahal's contribution has remained one of the best kept secrets of the War of Independence. It took 45 years before the Mahal Memorial was set up. And thousands of archival Mahal documents and photographs are still housed in the Kfar Shmaryahu home of former Mahalnik, David Teperson, who came from South Africa in 1948. One reason for the lack of publicity about Mahal is that most Mahalniks returned to their countries of origin after the war. Another was fear of the embargo policies and legal consequences the volunteers could face in the home countries (especially the US). Moreover, in the wake of the war, Israeli leaders believed that it was important for nation-building to emphasize the role of the Yishuv in the struggle for independence. In Jerusalem met with three local former Mahalniks, all octogenarians, who answered the call of 1948, and remained to make Israel their home. These are their stories. Yochanan Dreifuss - Aliya Bet Born in Germany in 1925, Yochanan Dreifuss came to Chicago in 1939 with his family. During World War II, he served in the 42nd Infantry Division of the US Army. "We were the first ones into the Dachau concentration camp," Dreifuss recalls sitting in the living room of his apartment in Givat Hamivtar. "For me, it was an even more emotional experience. My father had been a prisoner in Dachau and Buchenwald between May and December 1938. I can still see the prisoners standing behind the barbed wire, trying to shout with joy at being liberated. We were only about 100 feet away but we could hardly hear them because they were so weak." After his discharge from the military, Dreifuss returned to Chicago, started studying and joined the Zionist movement, Hashomer Hatzair. He was sent to hachshara (preparatory training toward aliya) and volunteered for Aliya Bet. "I left the US on the last Aliya Bet ship," he relates. "She was originally called the Mayflower and had been Teddy Roosevelt's yacht. Then called the Mala, the ship had been used as an icebreaker during World War II and was no longer even close to luxurious. In hachshara, I was a carpenter so I became the ship's carpenter. I didn't know anything about ships except that I got violently seasick on them." The Mala set sail in February 1948. Immediately, before the ship even cleared New York harbor, she broke down. Repaired and on her way, the Mala reached Marseille, where she remained for a few days while being refitted for the olim. "Bunks, which were really just like the shelves the prisoners slept on in Dachau, were put in, jammed one next to the other," Dreifuss recalls. "One night, we sailed into a little French harbor and picked up 2,000 olim," he continues. "The ship was renamed the Calanit and we departed for Israel. Conditions on board were awful. The smell was dreadful. We kept the portholes open all the time and people spent most of their time on deck." It took seven days to make the journey. The ship arrived in Haifa, after the establishment of the state, and docked without problems. She remained for 10 days and then returned to France to pick up another load of olim. "We were back in Marseille when a delegation of the second group of olim arrived. They had been on the Exodus, the ship that had been sent back to Germany. They had experience with Aliya Bet boats and wanted to inspect the ship to see the conditions. When they saw the Calanit, they refused to go. Nevertheless, we finally convinced them to board." Conditions during the second crossing were very stormy and Dreifuss remembers a very seasick woman on the deck with her baby. "She was so sick, she could not care for her child. I still have this picture in my mind of the poor woman and her unattended baby. Of course, we did our best to help her and her child." After the second trip, the Calanit was sent to Europe and scrapped. Dreifuss went to Kibbutz Ein Hashofet for hachshara. From there, he was sent to Sha'ar Hagolan, which had been abandoned on orders of the army when it couldn't be defended. The kibbutz was retaken after two days, but not before the Syrians had removed every piece of wood from the doors and windows and trashed the rooms. Dreifuss worked putting in new door and window frames and then went to Sasa, where he remained from 1949 to 1962. In 1950, a pretty young woman from the Bronx, named Aliza, arrived in Sasa and shortly afterward, the two were married. In the 1960s, the couple moved to Jerusalem, where Dreifuss worked for 28 years at H. Stern, the Brazilian jewelry firm, the last five years as general director. Retired, the pair have three children and eight grandchildren. Dreifuss has mixed feelings about how Israel has turned out. "After World War II, when I saw what had happened in Europe to the Jews, I felt we must create a Jewish state. And that which we have created is in many respects good and positive. But the Israel I came to then is so far away from the country today. I am disappointed by the extremism, the greed and the corruption. I am very much afraid that in spite of the many positive aspects, this will end in disaster." Dr. David Macarov - Codes and Ciphers Born in Atlanta, Dr. David Macarov joined Young Judea at age 12, where he learned early on about Palestine and also about what Hitler was doing in Europe. After Pearl Harbor, he volunteered for the US Army to fight Hitler. "But because it was the US Army and because I davka wanted to fight Hitler, I was sent to the Pacific front," he explains. Macarov, a retired Hebrew University social work professor, who at 89 is still quite active tending the extensive garden behind his Nayot home, spent two years as a weather observer in China, Burma and India. "It was not a picnic," he recalls. "We were strafed, bombed and mortared." After his military discharge, Macarov moved to New York, where he worked for the Zionist organization, Masada, helping to buy Aliya Bet ships. In 1946, he attended the Brandeis Camp Institute, where he met Frieda, a nurse from Ozone Park, Queens, who is now his wife of more than 60 years. At about that time, Ya'acov Dori, who would become the IDF's first chief of staff and later president of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, came to the US to organize a course that would prepare partisans to fight behind enemy lines, should the need arise. Macarov volunteered for the course. "It was the only course of its kind ever held in the US," he notes. In May 1947, Macarov decided that he had had enough of behind-the-scenes work and he and Frieda made aliya, coming as students to the Hebrew University, where the pair studied Hebrew. "We didn't know a word of the language," he recalls. "Before long, we were asked to volunteer for the Hagana. The American students who volunteered were taken to the Alliance School on Rehov Kiah for training. We used broomsticks for rifles and threw stones instead of grenades." "My first action was defending Shimon Hatzadik," Macarov continues. "We had one volunteer named Bobby Reisman, an ex-US army paratrooper. I remember on the way to Shimon Hatzadik, we needed a 10th man for a minyan and when I asked him, he replied: 'Some people got religion and some ain't' and refused. "At Shimon Hatzadik, we hid our arms under the steps of the synagogue bima [platform] so that the British wouldn't find them but we could still get them if the Arabs came. Bobby was assigned to guard the synagogue. The British sent a young, uneducated private to look for arms. Bobby immediately threw on a tallit, got on the bima and started davening. The soldier tried to stick his bayonet under the bima. Bobby yelled out: 'Don't do that. This is our Holy of Holies.' Then, he looked heavenward and said: 'Forgive him for he knows not what he does.' The young soldier ran out and Bobby turned to me, saying: 'Some people got religion and some ain't.'" Macarov's second action was defending Neveh Ya'acov. "The Arab plan to invade Neveh Ya'acov was intercepted on the wireless by Moshe Levin [later a Jerusalem Post editor and Time magazine correspondent]. We couldn't hold the area. But even so, Neveh Ya'akov was never conquered; it was abandoned. After we killed the livestock and burned the buildings, we retreated to Schneller." During this period, Macarov was working for the Jewish Agency Youth Department, under Abe Herman (later Avraham Harman, who went on to become Israel's ambassador to the US and president of the Hebrew University). "Harman got a request to draw up a plan to recruit overseas volunteers for military duty," Macarov relates. "This was the official beginning of Mahal. Abe's plan included learning Hebrew, touring the country, staying in a kibbutz, studying Zionist history and only after getting to know the country, military training. But due to the exigencies of war, the plan was truncated to recruiting and assigning volunteers for the military. "Abe's plan included insurance if killed or injured, monthly payments and severance pay," Macarov continues. "But there were those who came before the plan - the Aliya Bet crews, the American students at the Hebrew University. They protested that this was not fair to them. So those who came before the establishment of the state were also added and we all became Mahal members." During the siege of Jerusalem, Frieda and David lived in an old house in Rehov Narkis. "Every morning we would get up and find bullets and shells on our doorstep," he recalls, showing a few he has saved for posterity. Frieda's Hagana service consisted of being sent as a spotter to Rehov Hanevi'im to report if Arabs were approaching. "I didn't know very much Hebrew and I couldn't tell an Arab from a Jew so I was removed from this post," she says. Next, she was asked to go to the central post office on Jaffa Road and meet two men. She was given a grenade and asked to hide it under her shirt. Then the three drove to Motza. "When I came back, all I could think about was how beautiful the area around Motza was. I had no fear. I was just glad to have gone on a trip." Frieda worked as a nurse in the TB hospital, first in Mekor Haim, and after this became too dangerous, on Ethiopia Street. Finally, the patients were evacuated to Tel Aviv. After Neveh Ya'acov, it was discovered that Macarov had partial hearing loss from World War II and he was reassigned to guard duty. "I didn't like it [guard duty] so I went to Abe Harman and told him I have a skill I think the army can use. While I was in the course for partisans behind enemy lines, I learned codes and ciphers. I was sent to the Jewish Agency to find Aloni. I found a young man in the basement and told him about my skills. He was very unimpressed. Two weeks went by and I heard nothing. Finally, I decided to go back. "When I returned an entirely different person was there. I asked for Aloni and he told me: 'I am Aloni.' Aloni, it turned out, was the name of the job and not the person. He was very enthusiastic about my skills. I told him the previous guy had not been. He said: 'That is why he is no longer here.'" Macarov was given a choice of where to serve and he picked the air force because his Hebrew still wasn't great and the air force operated mainly in English. The couple was flown to Tel Aviv in June 1948. Macarov became a Lt. Colonel in the air force and they lived in an air force camp in Jaffa, where their first child was born. Frieda worked in the children's ward of a Tel Aviv hospital. But then Frieda's mother became ill. Originally intending to return to the US for only six months, they ended up staying for eight years. During that time, three more children were born and Macarov received his social work degrees from Case Western Reserve in Cleveland. In 1958, when they returned, Macarov went to work for the Jewish Agency. In 1960, he began teaching at the Hebrew University, retiring as professor emeritus in 1988. Frieda was a school nurse and public health nurse. Today, they have four children, 11 grandchildren and two great grandchildren, all living in Israel. Ruth Stern (Saretzky) - Nurse Ruth Stern (then Saretzky) was one of 800 Mahal volunteers from South Africa. She came from the small town of Boksburg near Johannesburg. In 1946, the South African Zionist Federation (SAZF) started a year-long course for youth leaders to go to Palestine. Run by Herman in the Jewish Agency, the course took 26 young South African Jews to Palestine to learn about Zionism. The participants were obliged to return to South Africa to be group leaders. "I read about the course and wanted to be part of it," Stern recalls. "I was only 19 years old but that year changed my life. We were housed in the Ayalot agricultural college and studied Hebrew, history, etc. Every two weeks, we went on trips around the country. On one trip to the Negev, we went to see a group that was preparing to settle Revivim. They were 25 young people. I spent a Shabbat with them and I lost my heart to a young man who danced with me named Uri Weinhaben." Stern decided to leave the course to be with the garin (seed group). During the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur 1946, when 11 kibbutzim were set up in the Negev, she took part in the establishment of Revivim. But then Herman arrived by taxi and took her back to the South African group. When the group left, she returned with them to South Africa. She joined the Zionist group Habonim and started studying dietetics and biochemistry. At this time Mahal was being organized in South Africa. "One day, in late 1947, I came home and found a letter from Palestine," she remembers. "It was from the secretary of Revivim. Uri had been killed in an ambush trying to rescue friends under attack. I was lost. I had led a protected life in South Africa with no real hardship except the time I spent in Revivim. The shock of his death was tremendous. The idealism and modesty of those pioneers was incredible. I saw them through the eyes of hero worship. I realized what the Jewish people owed them. I had promised Uri I would return to Palestine to help the Jewish people and I was determined to do so." Stern went to the SAZF and volunteered to go to Palestine as a nurse. At first, the SAZF wanted only war veterans but in the end, accepted her. She left with a group of 19 men. Upon arrival in Haifa in September 1948, Stern was sent to an induction center to become part of the medical corps and from there to the Tel Hashomer military hospital, then called Litwinsky, where she would spend the next nine months. "The wards were in long barrack left over from the British army," Stern recalls. "I was assigned to internal medicine. We had no supplies. We would boil the syringes and reuse them - the same with the needles, sterilizing them over an open flame. There were no changes of sheets or blankets. But no one complained. We all pitched in and no one ever said she was too qualified to do menial tasks." Finally, after a number of weeks, supplies started to arrive, sent by Diaspora Jews. "Suddenly, we had blankets, sheets, cotton wool, sterilized equipment. I was very proud to see supplies from South Africa." One day as Stern was doing her rounds, she noticed a patient lying on a bed and reading a book in English. "I was very intrigued. He had an interesting face and I could tell he was an officer. I said hello. Until then, I hadn't been interested in anyone since Uri. Later, I checked the records and found out that he was one of the soldiers who opened up the way to Eilat and his name was Theodore Ben-Amar. That evening, in the nurses room, he came in to smoke. I was about to tell him the room was out of bounds for patients when the department head entered and greeted him. Teddy was released the next day but he came back and swept me off my feet. We were married in August 1949 and I left the army." Ben-Amar went to Haifa to study architecture at the Technion along with his new bride. Then the couple moved to Netanya and to Ashkelon, where Ben-Amar was city engineer. They had two sons and Stern taught English. In 1973, Ben-Amar died and Stern moved to Jerusalem and began teaching at Leyada (Hebrew University High School), where she became head of the English department. She also taught refresher courses for teachers at the Hebrew University. "I had one student at Leyada whose mother became ill and later died," she notes. "He was absent a lot and I asked to talk to his father. That is how I met my second husband, Gideon Stern. He was like the man who came to dinner and never left. That was 30 years ago." Stern has two sons and five grandchildren. Gideon Stern has three children, seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren. In 2003, Stern was awarded Ot Hakomemiyut by the State of Israel and the Ministry of Defense for her Mahal activities. "The ignorance about Mahal is frightening," says Stern. "The story is not known. Without Mahal, the War of Independence would have taken a different turn. The expertise that Mahal volunteers brought gave a tremendous boost to this tiny, beleaguered country. Mahal did an amazing job and should be credited for it. "Living in Israel is a calling," she continues. "I felt called to devote my life to the Jewish people. When people complain about the state, I ask them: Has it ever been done in history before that a dispersed people has become a nation after 2,000 years of persecution, and whoever can come here and participate is welcome? "It is a privilege to be a part of this renewal. There is still a lot that remains to be done. But don't complain - be a part of the team in doing it."