No Greater Love

74 years ago, on January 18, 1948, during the early stages of Israel’s War of Independence, a convoy left Kibbutz Maale Hachamisha in the Judean hills bound for Jerusalem. The convoy included food, arms and some passengers and was hoping to get through the Arab blockade which was effectively starving the city. Among the passengers was Ann Strauss, a young American volunteer from Cleveland and her Israeli boyfriend, Alter Gershon Rechnitz, a founder of the kibbutz and survivor of the Holocaust. My father, who at the time, was an editor at the Palestine Post and a soldier in the Hagana, wrote to his parents back in New York, describing what happened. He titled the piece, “No Greater Love.”

[Alter’s] “hofesh,” vacation from the kibbutz, was due, and so on Sunday morning they climbed into one of the three trucks which made up the convoy and found seats for themselves among the crates of fruit and cans of milk the kibbutz was sending to Jerusalem. It was a bright, dry winter’s day, a winter “khamsin” or hot spell, which burns all the cold and dampness out of one’s bones and erases all memory of rain and the mud and Jerusalem’s hailstorm. It was a clear day, and the attacking Arabs were in full view as they shot at the convoy from the hills. The driver of the truck they were in was hit and lost control of his vehicle, which skidded into a ditch, breaking the ropes holding the freight and sending it all into a heap on top of the hidden arms. Unable to respond to the Arab fire, the truckload of people tried to take cover behind the bales and boxes which had seemed so big when the vacationers were looking for places to sit down.

With the first shots he pushed her from her precarious seat and stretched out across her body, trying to shield her from the shots. He saved her life – and gave his own. He was hit in the head and chest and was dead when the Magen David Adom picked him up and put him on a stretcher. She only knew that he had been hit – she had felt his hot blood soaking through her clothing as she lay there on the floor of the truck. She was still pleading to see him and asking how badly he was hurt when an injection put her to sleep and she was taken from the First Aid building to the Hadassah Hospital. She will be told, all too soon…A young man died a hero’s death, but that is slight consolation to the girl who loved him.

Alter Gershon Rechnitz, was born in 1914, in Poland. He survived the Holocaust which claimed his entire family, made it to Palestine and was a founding member of Kibbutz Maaleh Hachamisha, north-west of Jerusalem. He was a farmer known for his strong aesthetic sense. After World War II, he was sent back to Europe as an aliyah emissary and returned to participate in the birth of Israel.

Alter’s tombstone in the cemetery of the kibbutz lists the members of his family murdered by the Nazis – his parents, brother and sister. He is one of the thousands of young refugees to escape the horrors of Europe only to fall in defense of his adopted homeland. That he was unable to reconstitute his family in Israel is tragic.

This is why I make it a point to say kaddish on his yahrzeit and to visit his grave. It is critical that we not forget such heroes. Alter’s sacrifice bore fruit – the woman he saved, Anne, remained in Israel, eventually overcame her grief, married and raised a family.

About the Author
Daniel Chertoff worked in the finance industry, in various capacities, for many years. He is the author of "Palestine Posts: An Eyewitness Account of the Birth of Israel" (Toby Press, 2019). He and his wife, Arlene, have lived in Israel for over 30 years and reside in Jerusalem.