Having just attended the premier of the film “Above and Beyond” I am filled with tremendous gratitude for the protagonists, “those magnificent men in their flying machines.” Producer Nancy Spielberg (Steven’s sister) and director Roberta Grossman (“Blessed is the Match”) were both in attendance. The film recounts the personal stories of the young pilots who fought in Israel’s War of Independence. Almost all of the men in Israel’s nascent Air Force came from abroad and their experiences in Israel were life altering.
They were part of a group known by the acronym Machal (volunteers from outside the land). They had expertise gained from combat in WWII that very few in Israel had. Psychologically their presence had a massive positive impact on the native Sabras, who realised that they were not alone. This is in direct contrast to the Shoah, when the Jews of Europe had felt very much isolated. There were 3,500 volunteers in Machal in 1948. 180 served in the air force (pilots and ground crew) who, as the website of the film states:
Through their stories (they) reveal how under-equipped and isolated the Israelis were, how desperately they needed planes and pilots and how critical the actions of these young (mostly) American men were for the country’s survival.”
The packed audience was on an emotional rollercoaster alternating between laughing at the pilots hilarious recollections of some of their out of cockpit antics and tearing up at the tragedy of the loss of some of these handsome youngsters, who gave their lives for our independence.
Technically, the documentary was so slickly produced and directed, it was difficult to tell where the period footage ended and the reenactments began, a real work of art and a tribute to director Grossman and her special effects team. Content-wise, the mixture of pilot bravado and unabashedly Zionist sentiment were skillfully woven together. The film really focused on the colourful personalities of the pilots with very intimate interviews.
One of the best-known anecdotes deals with the first combat mission of the IAF. It consisted of four Czechoslovakian Messerschmitts that had been hastily reassembled in hangers in Israel and, without even having time to test them properly, flown in a desperate attempt to halt the Egyptian advance. As one of the pilots laconically observed:
Our flight clothing had Luftwaffe wings on which I took off. Jewish boys flying in Nazi planes with Nazi uniforms. The irony of it did not escape any of us…Part of my family, my grandmother and cousins, ended up in Auschwitz. I felt that the remnants had a right to life…”
Shimon Avidan the Brigade commander of Givati desperately appealed for air support. He said, “if you don’t stop them (the Egyptians) now, they will be in Tel Aviv in the morning.”
The pilots, an American volunteer, Lou Lenart, who speaks extensively in the film, one South African, Eddie Cohen and two Israelis, Moddy Alon and Ezer Weitzman, who later become the head of the IAF and later still the President of Israel, flew over the massive Egyptian convoy, who were startled at the sight of fighter planes emblazoned with the Star of David. Their intelligence had reported that the Jews didn’t have planes. Yet here were these same non-existent planes strafing and bombing them! The Egyptian convoy halted in panic just outside Ashdod at “Gesher Ad Halom,” barely twenty miles from their objective, and never advanced any further. An intercepted Egyptian military cable stated: “We are being heavily attacked by enemy aircraft and are scattering.”
Tragically the plane of Eddie Cohen crashed or was shot down. Even though the IAF lost a quarter of its planes on its maiden combat sortie, according to the film, it was, “the single most important battle in the whole IAF. They stopped the Egyptians cold.” This was to set the tone for the future: achieving the mission despite personal sacrifice.
Decades later these magnificent Machal volunteers, now in the twighlight of their lives, still recall with deep emotion these momentous events in the history of the Jewish people:
I was born to be here at that moment of history. It was the greatest moment in my life. It was beshert.”
“I saw Jewish refugees coming in bending down in order to kiss the ground. I knew then and there that this was the reason I had come.”