SHA'AR HAGAI, Israel (Apr. 30)
The slim 76-year-old from Queens, N.Y., doesn’t look like a hero from Israel’s War of Independence.
But in May 1948, Sidney Rabinovich risked his life to help the newborn Jewish state fight for its survival against invading Arab armies.
This week, he and another 500 elderly veterans of Machal — the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from abroad” — reunited in Israel to honor the country they helped defend 50 years ago.
Old comrades-in-arms embraced, shared memories and posed for photographs together.
But this was not a typical reunion. These veterans were not drafted. Inspired by Zionism or compelled to help the Jews in pre-state Palestine after the horrors of the Holocaust, they volunteered to fight in a war far from home in a unique ingathering of the exiles.
Some 3,500 people — including many non-Jews — from 37 countries ranging across the globe from Argentina to Australia came to help the nascent Jewish state in 1948. Of them, 119 were killed in action.
On Wednesday, when Israelis mourned its fallen soldiers, the volunteers gathered at the Machal memorial near Sha’ar Hagai, located in the foothills of Jerusalem, to honor their comrades who made the ultimate contribution to the state of Israel.
It is here that David Marcus, an American volunteer, suggested clearing a rocky path to Jerusalem that became known as the “Burma Road” and that was crucial to breaking the Arab siege of the city.
At Sha’ar Hagai on Memorial Day, the volunteers and their families stood in silence along with the rest of Israel.
Not far from here, at an area known as Latrun, Rabinovich fought on one of the fiercest fronts of the 1948 war.
He arrived in Palestine in April 1948, just one month before Israel declared independence. Rabinovich had served in the U.S. Army, but many of the other volunteers had never held a gun. Training in the cash-strapped, fledgling army was barely existent.
“They gave us three bullets and a Sten gun,” says Rabinovich. “That was it – – we were soldiers.”
Rabinovich and his U.S. buddies were put in an American squad in the 51st Battalion of Givati, the infantry unit.
They were dispatched to Latrun, where the army was trying to break through a stronghold that prevented Israel’s fighters from reaching besieged Jerusalem.
“They put us in the front line because one of us was a former marine,” says Rabinovich. “But we took a beating. Since we were up front, we had to run the farthest when we retreated.”
Alfred Glassman was in Rabinovich’s squad. The 71-year old Bostonian remembers when the shelling began, instantly killing two volunteers from New York, Mandal Math and Jerry Kaplan.
“We never found the bodies,” he says. “They were blown to bits. There are two stones in their memory on Mt. Herzl,” the military cemetery in Jerusalem.
After the Latrun battles, the squad was sent to the coastal town of Ashdod, where they helped fend off the Egyptian army’s drive to reach Tel Aviv.
Volunteers had little time to orient themselves way when they arrived, says Frank Rosenthal, who came from Sweden in March 1948 and fought in the Galilee alongside French, Belgian and Dutch volunteers under a Canadian commander. They communicated in English.
“When we came here, we didn’t know anything,” says Rosenthal, who proudly wears an Israel Defense Forces beret. “We had no idea where we were. The commanders told us, `There are the Arabs. Shoot.’ So we did.”
Arne Budd from Norway fought alongside Rosenthal. He has numerous recollections of the Galilee battles, especially the night of September 6, 1948, when the unit was told to capture a hill near the northern town of Safed.
After nightfall, they plowed upward for 12 hours. In the morning, a bullet pierced Budd’s neck. His commander carried him down the hill on his back, but there were few ambulances. A taxi was summoned to transfer Budd to the hospital.
Alfred Goldschmidt was 17 when he arrived from London. He came to Britain from Germany in 1939 as an 8-year-old boy. His parents perished in Auschwitz.
“After the war, when the state was declared, I felt I had to stand up and be counted,” says Goldschmidt. “Israel couldn’t fail. It had to go on because of what happened in Europe.”
Unlike most volunteers, Goldschmidt chose to serve in a Hebrew-speaking unit, where he helped fight southward along the Negev border to capture Um Rashrash – – a barren point on Israel’s southern tip that would later become the thriving Red Sea resort town of Eilat.
Not all volunteers served on the front lines.
Nathan Frank and his wife, Martha, came from Mexico three weeks after they were married.
“We came here on our honeymoon,” says the husband. They served in intelligence units, where he used his engineering skills and his wife — who is not Jewish – – deciphered codes.
“I didn’t know anything about Judaism,” she says. “But I learned to love the country, its traditions and history.”
Why did she agree to follow her new husband to a war in a distant land?
“I understood,” she says simply.
There were more than a few non-Jewish volunteers who made crucial contributions to the struggle.
Thomas Derek Bowden, for example, was a British paratrooper captured by the Germans during World War II and placed in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He volunteered for Israel in 1948 and founded the army’s paratroopers school.
“They didn’t want any recompense,” Kenyan-born Stanley Medicks says of the non- Jewish volunteers. “They came out of a desire to help the Jewish people.”
Medicks served as an infantry platoon commander and founded the British and European Machal Association.
He sums up the veterans’ feelings as they returned to the battle sites:
“Some of us have lost our hair and some of us have put on weight,” says Medicks, “but our souls burn with pride.”