Zelda Harris
Five on the 100 aliyah from UK list!

Glaring omission

Something has been niggling inside me during these glitzy celebrations for the 70th year.

Something is not there.

Narratives galore, heroism, dedication, bereavement altruism, Zionism but unless I am mistaken not a word about the volunteers from overseas, who came here at the outbreak of the War of Independence to join the  Israeli forces and make the difference.

Most of them had served during World War Two and after, in the armed forces of the countries where they had been born.Some even left without notifying, since for example, the British establishment did not encourage their loyal citizens to go fight in someone else’s army.They were miffed enough at having left Palestine with their tail between their legs.

Jewish men who attempted to leave the British Isles were usually picked out and body-searched before being allowed into the airport and seaports. They left on the pretense that they were going on holiday or business. Others whom I knew personally literally went AWOL leaving their bases and finding their way to Israel. Some pilots were sent to Czechoslovakia where planes that had somehow been purchased were waiting at the ready to be piloted directly to the fledgling State.

As far a the UK was concerned there was no direct flight to Israel and when I left in 1949  I had to fly first to Brussels and from there Sabena Airlines flew us out. Also, the amount of foreign currency allowed out was minuscule, so those who did have the guts to go certainly did not come with means and had to manage on meagre rations as did everyone else in the land.Leon who was later to become my husband, left the British Army and after a process of secret meetings and medical examinations arrived by boat in France, first stop Paris. There he was enlisted by the Jewish Agency and spent several months helping the remaining holocaust survivors streaming in from all over Europe, arrange their documentation and more.Only then they were sent to Marseilles to await boats to bring them to the Promised Land.

When he arrived in Marseilles he found a small group of Westerners who like him had volunteered to act as ‘guards’ to keep order. He found the living accommodation appalling and when shown his dormitory containing about 40 people, he turned everyone out and made them “clean up the filthy mess”.They were all very despondent having been living under miserable conditions, in villas abandoned by the French upper classes during the Nazi occupation,which had also been partly destroyed by bombing.

He told me that the rats were larger than the cats and everything was chaotic.

If the British Army had done something for him, it had empowered him to give orders and at 20 years of age, take responsibility.  He suggested to the confused and desperate hordes that they declare a hunger strike until the Jewish Agency supply the boats which would carry them off to their longed-for destination. Which they did.

The ‘rustybuckets’ as my husband called them were hardly seaworthy and the skippers were usually retired sea dogs. Leon and 18 other westerners(one was the sister of Andre Previn) got on the boat with around 800 others.He described it thus: “With hundreds in the hold sleeping on layers of wooden bunks you can imagine the stench.It was impossible to sleep on deck because there was no shelter but the Skipper took pity on us. As he also needed our help to maintain discipline on the journey, he insisted that we share the crews’ accommodation and their food”.Ten days later they arrived in Haifa where they were sprayed with Flit (DDT). There was nothing else, which could expediently eradicate the Nits and Lice in the hair of those who had been living in unhealthy and unhygienic conditions for months.

This week I visited my friend Lucy Mandelstam a Holocaust survivor, whose husband was Charlie Mandelstam. His claim to fame is that after years of agricultural work he was appointed the first Golf Pro at Caesaria.He had been a Machalnik from South Africa and served in the fledgling Israel Navy. He was one of many S.Africans who left a life of ease. He was an outstanding golfer and cricketer and had served in the British Navy. Others from South Africa were the group of  Doctors and nurses amongst whom were Dr’s Meltzer and Winton, who incidentally saved my life in 1950.Elliot Katzenellenbogen who years later was our family Doctor,Dr Syd Cohen who was also a pilot.Myra and Smoky Simon who was, instrumental in the founding of the Airforce together with Ezer Weizman who had served in the British Airforce. For more information I urge you to go to the MACHAL Archives you may be surprised at the names of those who are internationally famous.  Al Schwimmer whose contribution after the war to  Israel’s aircraft industry was tremendous and  Vidal Sassoon from London who later became the icon of hairdressing.

I knew many of those who lived in Haifa or visited during those days.Dick Rosenberg whose wife Susan still lives in there..  Baron Wiseberg the dashing Fleet Air Arm pilot from Manchester who actually left his base in the UK and found his way to Czechoslovakia wearing his British Uniform.His brother Morris served in the army.

The Kimche family who also contributed greatly to Israel and its institutions.Alan Burke also a Brit who had reached a senior rank in the British Navy and was a contender for the job as Commander of the Navy as was Paul Shulman from USA whose mother was one of the owners of Coca Cola! Sadly neither could speak Hebrew.

So why did they go unnoticed?. After all without these selfless human beings especially the trained pilots and the Doctors,the War of Independence may have had ended quite differently.

There’s an interview on the Machal site with Ezer Weizman and Smoky Simon. In it, Smoky says “even then there was resentment instead of inclusion and recognition.”.

Even now?

Who chose the topics for the celebration of 70 years of the State of Israel?

About the Author
Zelda Harris first came to Israel in 1949, then returned in 1958, and from 1978 has been active in many spheres of Israeli Society. In England was a leader of the Women's Campaign for Soviet Jewry. Together with the late Chaim Herzog, she founded CCC for Electoral Reform, she was the Director of BIPAC in Israel, and a co-founder with Ivan Pope of Metuna, The Organisation for Road Safety, which received the Speaker of Knesset Quality of Life Award for saving lives on the roads and prevention of serious injury. Now a peace activist writing her Life Story.
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