This holiday, Yom Ha’atzmaut, is preceded by an equally important, yet somber remembrance called Yom Hazikaron, which honors those women and men whose life’s mission was to create and maintain Israel’s independence and standing as the only democratically elected government in the Middle East.
Israel celebrates Yom Ha’atzmaut in many ways, including a ceremonial lighting of twelve torches, symbolizing the Twelve Tribes of Israel and twelve citizens who have made an impact on the country.
I would like to propose that we extend the number to thirteen and include my grandfather, Harry Cohen as someone who had made a small but significant impact on the building of a nation. Harry Cohen, who emigrated to the United States with his mother and sister, answered the call for volunteers put forth by the British Army following the Balfour Declaration. The British needed volunteers to help them secure the country – and my grandfather answered the call. It would be the first time that Jewish men were fighting on Jewish soil since the time of Simeon Bar Kokhba and his revolt in 135 A.D.
These Jewish battalions (gdudim) of World War I were their own revolutionaries – guided by the thoughts and actions of the likes of Joseph Trumpeldor, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, Haim Laskov and others. Over 5,000 soldiers served in the Jewish Legion including the Zion Mule Corps. Most of the volunteers were from England, the United States and Canada, with a small group from Argentina and Palestine. In my grandfather’s papers we see correspondence in the form of a congratulatory telegram to my grandparents on their 50th wedding anniversary from another battalion solder who remained in Israel, David Ben-Gurion.
The story of these men is honored in the Beit Hagdudim Museum on the grounds of the moshav Avichail which was established in 1961 by the veterans of the Jewish battalions of World War I. These men proudly wore (and possibly designed) their uniforms with the Star of David patch on the shoulder sleeve. Perhaps the IDF took some of their inspiration from these men?
I was 17 the first time I went to the Beit Hagdudim Museum and studying in Israel. I went by myself, navigating the bus system and arrived at the museum to find it closed. I was almost in tears. I begged the docent to allow me access as this was the only opportunity I had to visit. I pulled out the photo postcards of my grandfather serving in the field. Lo and behold, the other person in the photo was the uncle of the person standing in front of me, and I was allowed to wander the halls of the museum and see photographs of my grandfather with his unit.
The next time I visited, while on a Hadassah Young Leaders Mission, I slipped away from the group and made my way back to the museum. This time, there was a multimedia presentation of the history of the museum, and of the philosophies of Jabotinsky and Trumpledor. An image flashed on the screen of the “everyman solder.” It was my grandfather! I could not have been prouder, and only sorry that I could not share that moment with anyone I knew.
Heroes or “sheroes” come in all genders, shapes and sizes. In Ruth Gruber’s excellent book Raquela, a Woman of Israel, Gruber tells the true story of Raquela, a ninth-generation sabra. In 1929, Raquela was five, so she would not have known or been aware of the battalion soldiers of my grandfather’s unit, but she studied to be a nurse and was in the first graduating class of nurses at Hadassah Hospital. We see the events of the dawning of a new country as Raquela, herself is coming of age. Her sacrifice is our sacrifice, her joys our joys.
Harry Cohen settled in Danbury, Connecticut where he took over his father-in-law’s market called Krakow Deli and made the most delicious pickles! Harry and his wife Anna went back to Israel in 1967 for the 50th Jubilee celebration for the members of the World War I Jewish battalions. Their trip was cut short by the Six Day War and the unification of Jerusalem.
While Harry Cohen left us when I was 11, I do have distinct memories of him – how my sisters and I would pretend we had mustaches by putting our finger above our lips, making a fake mustache when we kissed our grandfather, as his mustache tickled us! He was a fair man, and an honorable one. I wished I could have had the opportunity to learn more from him and share his experiences. But I have found a home in Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, whose mission over the past 110 years has been to secure the health and safety of the people of Israel. As I do advocacy work with Hadassah, I am reminded that I am Harry’s granddaughter, and stand just a bit taller at the thought.