The Jewish Brigade
The Mother of the State of Israel
by Gad Nahshon
"I did not like the myth of the sabra. I lived in Palestine with Jews who immigrated from many countries. These Jews lived between past and present. Some used to argue in the 'Yishuv' that the Arabs are the ancient Jews. You have to understand that we, the young Jews in Palestine, members of the Hagana or the Palmach, felt like members of another tribe: young, strong, people with roots. We felt that we are different from the Jews of the Diaspora. But when I served in the Jewish Brigade in World War II, I encountered the Holocaust and the shock, and then met the survivors in Europe or in Hebrew, Shearit Hapleta (Displaced People).
"I changed my mind. I understood that we belong to the same nation. Since that time I came to the conclusion that I am a zealous Zionist since Zionism exists for the Jewish nation and not against it. I remember how we looked for our own relatives. Perhaps they survived the Holocaust. I still remember the touching meeting of us, the soldiers of the Jewish Brigades with the survivors. Of course some of us wanted to take revenge, to kill the Nazis and the S.S. We had many discussions about this issue. We decided that victory and the victory of the Zionist idea in our times will be the best revenge," remarked the famous Israeli novelist, Hanoch Bartov, in our interview which took place in the west side of Manhattan.
Bartov came to visit his family and was asked to help in the promotion of the unique documentary: "In Our Hands: The Hidden Story of the Jewish Brigade in World War II." This film has been successfully screened in many PBS stations such as Channel 13 in NYC. This film which is based on an oral history project was produced by Chuck Olin Associates. The director was the Emmy Award winning Chuck Olin. Chuck Cooper and Matthew Palm were the producers. Hanoch Bartov, who joined the Brigade as a young member of the Hagana, is one of the prominent 'heroes' of this 90 minute documentary.
Bartov, who later participated in the 1948 Israel's Independence War, turned out to be a journalist and a novelist who has written a fictionalized account of the Brigade in action. He also described the encounter with the survivors. It should be noted that the Jewish Brigade was established only in Sept. 1944, by a special declaration of Winston Churchill. Around 5,000 young volunteers joined the Jewish Brigade. The Brigade had a chance to fight in the battles in Italy. Some of its members were killed. But after the war ended May 8, 1945 the soldiers engaged in many Zionist activities which contributed to the establishment of the Jewish state. One of these activities was to engineer the rescue and illegal movement of Holocaust survivors to Palestine whose gates were closed since May 1939 to Jewish Olim. Also, these soldiers founded the great secret arms theft network in Europe. The arms were crucial to Israel's 1948 war. Indeed, to those who ask: "What was the Yishuv's, the 600,000 Jews in Palestine, contribution to the Jews in Europe during the Holocaust era?" There is one answer: The legacy and the heritage of the Jewish Brigade.
Of course one must always keep in mind the reality of the 1940's in Palestine: The British Mandatory Regime, a military-police like regime whose goal was to contain the victory of the Zionist idea favoring the interests of the Arabs and Muslims of the Middle East or the British imperialist interests as well. That is the reason, for example, that the British objected to the establishment of a Jewish Brigade. By the way, they allowed Jewish males and females to volunteer to British military units such as the British Airforce, the R.A.F., for example. Around 30,000 Jews served in the British army in World War II.
Hanoch Bartov and other soldiers in the Brigade such as Shlomo Shamir, who was a general in the Israeli army and lives in Tel Aviv, believe that if the Jewish Brigade would have not existed, the state of Israel could have been only a Zionist dream: "This is not an exaggerated thesis or notion," said Bartov, a great story teller. As a writer who wrote 19 novels, plays, and many stories and articles as a veteran journalist ('Maariv'), Bartov links the past to the present: "In the Brigade, I figured out that all the Jews are brothers. I remember that I was engaged in stealing of arms and all kinds of equipment. I remember my feeling of the need to take revenge and kill Nazis. But then I had a more important experience - the meeting of the survivors. They could not believe that we are Jewish soldiers with the Star of David - fighting Jews! They viewed us as messengers of the Messiah. Many of them were Orthodox Jews.
You have to understand that Europe of post-1945 was in a state of anarchy. Those survivors, or D.P.'s, were confused. They were broken and homeless. They did not know what to do. Suddenly they saw us - soldiers with the Star of David. We became their guides as well as their pride. We decided to take care of them. We told the Allies: "the Jews can not go back to their former states such as Poland.
Because of our pressure all the Jews in Germany or Austria were moved to special Jewish camps. In these camps we managed to gather 250,000 Jews. These Jews triggered the Zionist impulse of President Truman in 1946-7. You can argue that the U.S. did not wish to absorb these D.P.'s in America. Indeed, we in the Brigade, by establishing these Jewish camps contributed to the last victory. By the way, we did not force any D.P. to join these camps. The contribution has been epitomized by the famous Exodus Affair," Bartov pointed out. Bartov, of course, explained the fact that in 1948, Israel did not have a real modern army: "The soldiers and the commanders of the Jewish Brigade had military experience of an army - logistics, artillery, and concepts of a modern army," said Bartov, who declared time and again. "I am a Zionist. I am against the myth of the 'sabra.' In 1995, I wrote the novel 'I Am Not The Mythical Sabra' as a protest. Zionism is an invention for the Jewish people. I protest against some of us who still believe in the sabra myth. I also protest against the new fashion of revisionism or the post-Zionists who try to argue that Israel was born out of a sin. (Against the Palestinians...)
One of these post-Zionists is Ilan Pepe from Haifa University. He argues that our great spiritual leaders such as Martin Buber or Gershon Shalom, were just Zionist propagandists. These post-Zionists are looking to cut us from the Jewish nation. I still recall that I met in Europe a relative of mine who spoke Yiddish. He told me about his experience in a death camp. I was shocked. Later I said to myself, we came to rescue these Jews. If they are not our brothers what is the sense of our Zionist enterprise? At that point, I liberated myself completely from the Sabra myth," said Bartov. Bartov, one of Israel's most distinguished and acclaimed writers, a member of the 1948's generation, or in Hebrew 'Dor Tasach', is very sad because of the recent negative phenomenons which have occurred inside the Israeli society: "We have too much capitalism and materialism in Israel. We have produced too many discrepancies. Our executives make more money in a month than their counterparts in America. The Israeli governments have stimulated these negative unhealthy processes of 'get rich quickly'. I think that there was a negative aspect in our policy of aliyah. Many Olim were not Zionists at all. These Olim refused to follow the legacy of the Zionist pioneers who were willing to endure suffering in order to build the state. These Olim were motivated only by economic motivations. Also they developed the notion that the Israelis who established the state were looking only to exploit them. Indeed, often they were right. Today I am worried that we create very rich classes (hi-tech multi-millionaires) and very poor classes at the same time," said Bartov, who belongs to the generation which espoused ideals and dedication to the Jewish state and to the best of the Zionist idea, as well.
Hanoch Bartov was born in Petach Tikvah in 1926. He studied in a religious school and later in the Hebrew university. He lived in Kibbutz Ein-Hahoresh and was a member of the Israeli left camp and the Hagana. He joined the Brigade at the age of 17. He worked as a journalist and was active in Israel's public life. He wrote many books such as "Heshbon Nefesh" in 1951 in which he expressed the frustrations of the 1948's generation or in Hebrew "Dor Tashach." In 1953, he published his most well known book "The One With The Six Wings."
In his novels, Bartov described the encounter with the survivors and he defined himself as a curious child who just looked around and came to his own personal conclusions. In 1961, he wrote "Four Israelis in America" based on his one year lone American experience. Later, he wrote a trilogy in order to express the story of the Palestine child. He discussed his roots as a son of Jewish immigrants who came to Palestine as Zionists with commitment to the Hebrew language as a special goal. In one of his books "Whose Child Are You?" he described his childhood and the reality from his vantage point as a child in Palestine. In another one of this trilogy he described how this child understood the life of the Yishuv from his Bar Mitzvah to his joining as a volunteer of the British army: "I saw in the newspaper, Davar, only a little information about the Holocaust. My mother was crying during this era because she figured out the fact that she would not see her family in Europe anymore. I joined the Hagana before I joined the Brigade. I was only a young teenager. We were afraid of the Nazi invasion, Gen. Rommel, and from Nazi paratroopers as well. I recall that I, as a child, decided to become a good Jew and a good Zionist. But it was originated in my own private decision. Therefore, it was easy to me later to reject the Palestinian myth of the great tough sabra. In the Brigade, I saw the truth - We are all brothers, one people," said Bartov, whose last book has been published in 1994.
Indeed the last novel of his trilogy was called "I Am Zionist. I will Live in Israel Forever." This is Hanoch Bartov, a person with a belief and with roots.
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