Coming full circle

Hundreds of former Jewish Brigade soldiers gathered recently for the inauguration of a new wing at the Beit Hagdudim Museum near Netanya.

Jewish Brigade women 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy, Beit Hagdudim)
Jewish Brigade women 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy, Beit Hagdudim)
Volunteerism has always been important to Israelis, so much so that nearly 5 percent of the entire pre-State Jewish population in Palestine (known as the Yishuv) signed up to serve with the British in World War II, despite the crown's draconian stance against Jewish immigration. At the end of June, nearly 70 years after the war's advent, over 700 people - mostly WWII veterans and their families - came from all over Israel to Moshav Avihayil near Netanya to attend the inauguration of a new wing at the Beit Hagdudim Museum. The new wing - the Jewish Volunteers from Eretz Israel to the British Armed Forces during World War II - is dedicated to the over 30,000 Yishuv men and women who volunteered to serve in the British ground, sea, and air forces from 1939 to 1945. "This is a glorious chapter. It's about the volunteerism of 30,000 men and women from all sectors of the Jewish Yishuv, which had a total of 500,000 people," said former Labor Party MK Tamar Eshel of Jerusalem, speaking for the volunteers. Eshel was one of over 3,000 women who volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS, the women's branch of the British Army in WWII), serving as a driver and an education officer in Cairo. Eshel noted how families would enlist together, mentioning the actress Hanna Maron and her mother. Maron, who also attended the ceremony, recited two poems about the ATS and the service conditions. The Beit Hagdudim Museum, one of 12 operated by the Defense Ministry's Museums Unit, was established in 1961 by Jewish Legion veterans of WWI. The original wing is dedicated to the Jews of Palestine, Egypt, Britain, Canada, Argentina and the United States who, in frameworks established by Joseph Trumpeldor and Zeev Jabotinsky, fought with the British against the Turks. "The development of Beit Hagdudim, which now commemorates both world wars, incorporates... volunteerism and the enlistment of groups of Jews to the army and [their] heroic spirit," says Beit Hagdudim director Rachel Silko. "In 1967 the Museums Unit of the Defense Ministry was made responsible for running Beit Hagdudim, thus affording commemoration on a national level. Visitors to the WWI display sometimes discover relatives who volunteered in the British Army." In 1999, the cornerstone was laid for the museum's expansion and for a new wing. The Museums Unit, together with the Association for the Commemoration of Voluntary Service in the British Army during WWII, planned the new wing. The exhibit, designed by S. Grundman, Ltd., features a Haggada written and illustrated by soldiers of the 179th Transport Unit in Italy, with an emphasis on the revival of the Jewish homeland and volunteering with the British Army. Another item on display is a dogtag that belonged to one of 1,363 Pioneer Corps soldiers who fought with the Allies and became prisoners in Greece in 1941. Moshe Shertok (Sharett), who headed the Jewish Agency's State Department, led recruitment efforts in the Yishuv. Addressing the ethical question of volunteering for the British forces in light of Britain's anti-immigration policies, then-chairman of the JA, David Ben-Gurion, uttered his famous words: "We must assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper, and we must resist the White Paper as if there were no war." As the threat of Nazi invasion loomed closer in 1941-1942, conscription to the British armed forces was seen as the most effective way to help defend Palestine. By the end of 1942, news of the extermination of European Jews had reached the Jews of Palestine and brought to the ranks of the British Army a further wave of fighters seeking both revenge and to restore the national honor of the Jewish people. "We were grateful to the British for allowing us to fight the Germans," says Yochanan "Yanush" Pelz, who today heads the Association for the Commemoration of Voluntary Service in the British Army during WWII. "We felt then that even if we did the minimum in fighting the Germans - that was sufficient. The hatred and anger against them was so great." Born in Kielce, Poland, Pelz came to Palestine as a youth in 1935, leaving behind family who all perished in the Holocaust. While enrolled in the Technion the Arab riots broke out, so he enlisted in the Mandate police force, joining the mounted police in 1935-1937. In 1941, Peltz enlisted in the British Armed Forces. Initially, he served in British units, and then in the Jewish units that formally became the Jewish Brigade Group in September 1944. "I was an infantry commander in the Third Battalion, and fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy on the Senio River, where my unit took German prisoners. We were prohibited from publicly announcing our origins and units, but the Germans knew whom they were facing in battle." Yehuda Har Zvi was born in 1921 in Tel Aviv. During his hachshara (training) in Kibbutz Ginegar in 1942, he was chosen by raffle to enlist in the British Army. "The Germans occupied Libya and were near Egypt. I was initially in the Palestine Buffs, in Unit 26. The Jewish units were even-numbered. There were a few Arab units - they were odd-numbered. We were sent to Egypt as escorts of freight trains carrying supplies to the British soldiers, including ammunition. We had to protect the trains from the Beduin." Har Zvi said that toward the end of 1943, the Jewish Agency urged them to become fighters. "We went to the Libyan border. Out of 10,000 British Army soldiers, the young and healthy were chosen to go fight in Europe. Our officers in Italy were British. We trained a lot. I was in the Third Battalion, Company C. We learned everything about how an army runs: uniforms, using weapons, attacking and retreating." The Jewish Brigade, which had its own flag and insignia, entered the northern Italian front at the beginning of March 1945, about two months before the war ended in Europe. For the first time in this war, Jews were fighting Germans as a Jewish division under a Jewish flag. Although 1.5 million Jews served in the Allied forces and resistance organizations in occupied Europe, they all fought under the flags of their countries. Har Zvi, like Pelz, fought in northern Italy on the Senio. "We crossed part of the way in water. We saw the battalion that crossed before us suffer losses from the Germans, including Jews from the Brigade. We reached a destroyed church, where we couldn't find cover. They shot mortar shells at us. I was hit by shrapnel but was miraculously saved by my strong helmet." Later, Har Zvi fought with the Hagana in the War of Independence and was seriously wounded in his eye during a battle in Jerusalem's Mekor Haim neighborhood. After the war, the volunteers worked to help Holocaust survivors in Europe. The exhibit highlights the soldiers' and volunteers' efforts to raise the spirits and promote the physical welfare of the survivors. They sought to imbue the survivors with an awareness of Zionism and organized "the Escape" - illegal immigration to Palestine. One diary belonging to Jewish Brigade soldiers in Poland documents their attempts to find relatives who survived. The volunteers made a great contribution to the establishment of the IDF. The exhibit shows how, upon release from the army, they integrated into the Yishuv's military force and helped win the War of Independence. According to Pelz, service in the British military had taught the Jews of Palestine how to fight as a regular army, rather than as an underground movement. "The IDF wouldn't have become what it did if we hadn't had the experience of serving in the British Army," he said. Beit Hagdudim Museum, Moshav Avihayil (near Netanya); visiting hours: Sunday-Thursday, 8:30 a.m.-4 p.m.; Tel: (09) 882-2212; e-mail: