Now, 60 years later, I recall the “welcome” I received on landing in Haifa as a volunteer to serve in the War of Independence, with several others who were posing as tourists on June 6, 1948.
I fell into conversation with a British major who said, “You’re bloody crazy coming here at this time. Don’t you know what’s going on?” As calmly as possible, I replied that we were on a world tour that included passing through the new Israel. I will never forget how, pointing toward Haifa port, he gloated and said, “That’s where the Arabs are slaughtering the f—ing Jews. We’re pulling out, but it won’t take two weeks before the Jews will beg us to rescue them.”
No sooner had Israel declared independence on May 15, 1948, than five Arab armies invaded the nascent state.
About 3,500 overseas volunteers came from 43 different countries to assist in Israel’s struggle for survival. They were referred to collectively as “Machal,” an acronym of the Hebrew equivalent of “volunteers from abroad.”
Several Machal groups came to Israel together with displaced person on overcrowded refugee ships. One group sailed in the Dolores, a boat designed to accommodate 50 people, but carried 149. South African Machal volunteer, the late Dr. Alan Price, assisted by Evelyn Bernstein, delivered a baby in the captain’s cabin. With the assistance of Joe Woolf, Price succeeded in tracing and meeting this “baby,” who was then living in Kiryat Bialik, during Israel’s 50th birthday celebrations.
It is indeed a privilege to celebrate the 60th birthday of the miraculously re-created Israel, after 2,000 years without a state of our own.
March of the Living, 2008
My daughter, Ashley Bitton, and her two first cousins, Myles Schwartz and Josh Raisin, recently left on the March of the Living, 2008. They represent three of the 13 grandchildren of Holocaust survivors Jack and Roma Buchman.
Two days before liberation in 1945, my father’s mother was murdered by the Nazis in front of his eyes. My father was 13. His family was able to preserve her remains and have her buried.
Before my daughter and her cousins left for Poland, my father described to them where his mother, Pola Buchman, was buried and asked, if there was time, could they visit their great-grandmother’s grave.
After an eight-hour plane ride to Warsaw, with a six-hour time difference, these teenagers began to tour immediately. Their first stop was at the Gensha Cemetery. The three young people wandered around looking for their great-grandmother’s name. When they stood by her grave, they were suddenly enveloped by the entire group. They held hands as they sobbed and told the story of the great-grandmother whom they never knew. Together with the group, our children recited Kaddish. Yesterday was their grandfather’s 76th birthday. What a profound gift they gave to him 60 years later!
Let the Nazis start hiding!
My family, including myself, managed to flee Austria one day before German troops invaded our beautiful country.
There I was in November 1943, hiding in the small town of Wasseiges in Belgium, equipped with false identification. I even had a job at the local sugar mill. My parents had been taken by the Gestapo three months earlier, not knowing about the death camps. I, of course, expected them to return.
That’s when things started to go wrong again. The Belgian resistance had cut some of the German telephone wires. Normally, for any act of sabotage, the Germans would shoot 10 hostages from the nearest town, but the officer in charge must have been a bit more humane. He came to see the mayor of our town and ordered that those wires were to be guarded night and day, or else.
My services were volunteered. With two other fellows, I sat under those wires during many a night, and because it was cold and windy, we built a wall against the wind from oblong straw bundles and made a fire. Once our straw wall caught fire and nearly burned those wires down.
I had a few more close calls, but about a year later, while riding my bike on a forest road, I encountered a strange, topless vehicle with two soldiers who asked me in English, “Are there any Germans here.” My English was just good enough to say “no.” So that jeep with its two Americans drove off.
After four years of hiding from the Nazis, with probably my life at stake, that 30 seconds facing that jeep had turned the tables on the Nazis. Let them start hiding. I had survived.