Silver Platter -1948
This is a memoir of Aliya Bet Ha'apala (illegal immigration) and fighting in Israel's War of Independence. It is one man's story. Together
with other such stories (Memoirs of a Palmach volunteer, 1948
, Was there Ethnic Cleansing in Palestine in 1948? it
tends to disprove the claims of Israeli superiority in the war, and other myths that were circulated about
unwilling immigrants who were forced to come to Israel from the DP camps of Europe. It also counteracts the fabricated
notion that the war was initiated by "Zionists" for the purpose of "ethnic cleansing" of Palestine. The author
fought to defend a kibbutz that was attacked by the Egyptian army.
Israelis, like everyone else, were not perfect, and some of the mistakes and frictions of the early years are evident in this story. It might be much "nicer" to provide a prettified version of events, but we want to relate history, not to reinvent it, as some others are doing.
The title, The Silver Platter, is a reference to the famous poem, "The Silver Platter," written by Natan Alterman soon after the United Nations Partition decision in 1947, an advance tribute to the youth who would fall in the coming war.
What is History
I carry some unorthodox views: history must not be taken as the Holy Gospel but with a big grain of salt. Why:
· History is compiled by people called historians who can only tell what they have heard from a biased witness or read in other history books. They have no way of independent scientific verification, such as in math or physics.
· We know stories only because someone was there to witness the event, it is certain that many major historical events went un-witnessed, thus untold. Many major events are not described because people were illiterate.
· There are many versions of the same event, depending on who describes it. See, for example, the history of the Jewish uprising against Romans, or the history of WW II. The same is true of my story – I think I am objective, but others might not be of the same opinion….
Why the title?
This is a personal account of events as witnessed by myself.
I may have been presumptuous in selecting the title, yet it may be suitable. The Silver Platter (Magash Hakesef) is a poem by Natan Alterman written to describe a young couple who were “the silver platter” upon which the Jewish State of Israel was established. I feel that my wife Greta (Towa) and myself are a part of that platter. Let me tell you why.
Where we came from
We were born 1928 and 1929, as Wenzelberg and Glaser, respectively. Greta`s family lived in the Polish city of Bielsko in Polish Silesia, but she was born in Vienna, so that her mother would get proper care after a fist stillborn child. I was born in the ski town of Zakopane in the Polish Tatra mountains.
We lived in our towns until the outbreak of WW2, when our parents had the sense to escape the invading Nazis by going to the east of Poland – each unaware of the existence of the other. This saved our lives, but it meant being exiled by the Soviets to the Urals or Siberia. We were forced to stay out there, in the frozen wastes, until almost the end of WW2.
The Soviets then restored our Polish citizenship, and we were allowed to go “where we pleased” within the Soviet Union. By some chance both our families selected a town placed on a major rail line, named Chu in central Kazakhstan By that time Greta was already a full orphan and I had lost my father. She had to work for survival – I went to school and worked part time. We became acquainted while I was working as cinema projector operator and could get her in to see a movie for free.
Back to “homeland”
By the end of 1945 we were allowed to return to our homeland –Poland. The trip was in a cargo train and lasted 5 weeks, as train had a very slow priority on the system. The cargo cars were equipped with large shelves for sleeping and even had a cooking stove- to heat up whatever food could be scavenged in the railway stops. Greta travelled as a part of a group organized to join a kibbutz in Palestine, and I was with a mother and young brother.
When the train crossed the border, it became very clear that the “homeland” did not want us back. People were yelling: " What? the Soviets take our coal in a train and use the same train to send us Jews! " Some people were pulled off the train and murdered. When we got back to Krakow, my mother decided to stay for a while – to try to sell some family real estate. I joined a “kibbutz group” intended to join kibbutz Neveh Eitan in Palestine.
I understood the hard way that I have no fatherland and had better look for a new one. Prior to that time, we were not a Zionist family and I had no idea that Jews are a nation and should have a state of their own too.
Long way to Palestine
After passing through Slovakia our group arrived at a temporary DP (Displaced Persons) camp in Salzburg. We registered as DPS under false names so as to receive the DP benefits: food and lodging. Our instructor (Madrich) who came from Neveh Eitan to prepare our group for kibbutz life, organized all aspects of our daily life. There were other temporary camps in Austria: Vienna, Innsbruck, and other places.
There were also permanent DP camps, mostly in Germany, where people grouped waiting for their immigration visas to other
Eventually we did board the Hayim Arlozorov (ULUA - See SS Ulua – the story of underground Aliyah, by Arie (Lova) Eliav, am Oved, 1977; In Hebrew: Hasfina Ulua, Sipuro shel Arthur, Hotza`at Am Oved, Tel Aviv, 1977. (dedicated to Tanya)
Most illegal immigrant ships were barely floating wooden vessels. Hayim Arlozorov was the first very solid steel ship, originally built as naval escort during WW1. Our group of immigrants to be (“maapilim") first boarded the “Rosa”, renamed “Shabtai Losinski” on 2/47 from the bay of Taranto in South of Italy. The ship had no luck. A couple of days after sailing, there was a hole in ship`s bottom and it barely returned to Taranto in danger of sinking. All the maapilim descended and began to wait on the shores of Matponto for another ship. Meanwhile, the Rosa was repaired and eventually discharged several hundred ma`apilim in Palestine, next to Nitzanim. One of the members of the Jewish crew was Moti Fein (later Hod) my future CO in the IAF.
The ship Uloa arrived a couple of weeks later and anchored a couple of miles from the shore. The water was shallow there –the only way to board was by sailing from the shore to the ship in rubber boats, which we did. The ship had come all the way from Sweden, where it took on 700 ma`apilim, mostly women survivors of Bergen Belsen who were allowed to enter Sweden after liberation.
The Uloa was in bad shape. It had survived a heavy storm in Atlantic and had very little food and drinking water, not much room either. The crew commanded by Lyova Eliav (Arthur) loaded most of us plus some food and water. Lyova met his future wife – Tanya – among the ma`apilim.
In addition to the 700 or so and people from Sweden there were about 700 more boarded in Metaponto. The”Swedish” passengers threw most of their suitcases and belongings over the board to make some room for the “Italians”. The ship had no passenger facilities at all, except for the crew, all m'aapilim were loaded into ship cargo holds. Holds were outfitted with 5 or six layers of wooden floors, separated by about 50 cm in height and leaving only a few passages. On the planks they put mattresses. We were told to get on a mattress, stay there and not move around except for going to toilet. Using toilets was another exercise in torture. There was no flushing water and very long wait – queue arranged by special detail. We were fed, rarely, sandwiches that were brought to our mattresses. No one was allowed on the topside to prevent the Brits seeing us, but in retrospect it only prevented us from getting some fresh air and forced people to vomit on the mattresses or in passages – adding another horror. Women were separated from men.
The ship was jam packed and sailed east, towards Crete. It was soon intercepted by Royal Navy ships – five destroyers. The Brits were never able to board because of our active resistance. They forced the ship to sail in the direction of Haifa harbor, but the captain, Arazi. steered her toward Bat Galim and beached her on the ground rocks there. The crew tried to scuttle the ship by opening the scuttlecocks, but the Brits boarded and prevented the scuttling.
I shall never forget my first view of Mount Carmel and the beach crowded with locals from Bat Galim who tried to help us get down. Some people tried to swim ashore but were fished out by the Brits.
The ship was there for many years, part of the Bat Galim view, until dismantled for salvage. The British took all us forcibly to their deportation ships to Cyprus anchored in Haifa harbor, such as Empire Rival.
In Cyprus, our group was put into camp number 65, and 66, first into a large tent, later dispersed into Nissen hut barracks made of corrugated steel. The camp was surrounded by barbed wired and armed watchtowers. There was not much to do in the Cyprus detention camp except for cleaning and helping the cooks. In addition I was assigned to study Hebrew, which I did voraciously both as beginner and advanced student. As a result my Hebrew on arrival to Palestine was much better than now, certainly better than that of my "yeke" (German Jewish) farmer relatives.
I also tried to learn English, mostly by reading books and newspapers. We also did a lot of physical training and even some battle training by special instructors from Palestine. It was easy to infiltrate into the camp, one had only to find a Cypriot willing to do it for fun (they did not like the British either) or money.
I met Greta for the second time now during our travel to Palestine, first was in Vienna. We officially decide to became “friends”. Greta came on another ship and was interned in camp 66, across the bridge from ours. We met again in Haifa when I was released from the POW camp, and decided that it was too much of coincidence – we had better marry, which we did later when we could afford it.
At first I stayed with the group, fully intending to go to the destination kibbutz in Palestine. However, the instructor (Madrich) who came from Neveh Eitan to prepare our group for kibbutz life made us sing patriotic sings before each meal. I could never sing two notes correctly. I didn't appreciate either that I actually had to sing for my food. So I left the group and carried on to Palestine on my own.
The British selected me, along with a few others, to help them on a convoy that was supplying food from Famagusta. I was happy to do that, to break the routine and see a bit of Cyprus, even if it was hard labor. By then I was not associated with the kibbutz group any more, but was using a common kitchen facility. Eventually the Brits let me go to Palestine, in November 1947, just in time to participate in fighting.
By November 1947, I was in Palestine, having joined a distant relative who owned a farm in Kfar Bialik. By then the fight was on. For instance travel to Haifa was only possible in an escorted and armored bus. Nahariya was cut of completely as the road to Acco was blocked for Jews. Most of the our roads were either very dangerous or completely cut-off.
So after working in the daytime to help on the farm, I was assigned to guard duty at night. They gave me a large loaded handgun, without any explanation, not to mention training, and I was told to mount the water tower and guard the village from there. The obvious threat came from the nearby Arab villages of Shfar`am (Shfar Amr) and Tamra, but I really had no idea what I was expected to do in case of attack. That may prove a point: We were awful in organization of our defense, but the Arabs must have been worse in the organization of their attacks, otherwise we could not have survive. I voluntarily joined the army on May 18, 1948.
Mobilization and training
I was given a list of clothing and equipment, which I dutifully purchased from my savings – before showing up in Tel Litvinsky (today Tel Hashomer) to register. I was assigned one of the first numbers in the IDF: 25765. It took a few hours to fill out the forms and I was sent to get basic training in the Tel Litvinsky military camp. We have formed a platoon (Ma'hlaka) and were assigned a CO: Lt J. Mannheim and a platoon Sergent M. Greif.
The training lasted all of two weeks. There was very little real combat training but a lot of “bullshit”: how to from rows, march, salute etc - as if we were really going to need it.
Training terminated, we were assigned to the “front”, secretly put on a bus and driven to B`eer Tuvia. The platoon left for Kfar Warbourg on June 1, 1948. Most of the platoon left for Nitzanim, which was already surrounded on the night of June 2. There, they participated in fight to take control of the ex-British camp, successfully, on June 3. I was told to stay behind with another guy and to get trained in the operation of an anti-tank weapon – PIAT (Projector, Infantry, Anti-Tank). A few nights later we were allowed to join our platoon in Nitzanim, carrying the PIAT plus 3 shells. We were never allowed to fire a shell during our training. They were too scarce.
At Nitzanim there was already a Hagana platoon sent to their aid before out platoon. The “old
platoon” was commanded by Avraham who fell in the battle.
The Egyptians started by heavy mortar and artillery shelling from the dawn, then sent in tanks and armored cars from several directions. The defenders were spread out in positions (2 -3 to a position) on the perimeter and in some bunkers. Defending positions were overrun easily by the armor, so we were told to stop an armored column advancing close to the center of kibbutz.
We were told to stop the attacking tanks and started running towards them. I was hit by mortar shrapnel in my head. I started bleeding profusely and was carried by my partner to the bunker. My war ended very quickly. My partner brought me to a bunker for treatment. He went out with the PIAT and another man and they managed to hit an Egyptian tank before he was wounded in the belly.
The battle for Nitzanim was doomed before it started. The kibbutz was in a valley, dominated by a hill called 69, and the ridge of the cemetery. An abandoned British camp served as a gathering place for attacking Egyptian troops. Though the camp had been attacked and taken by the Givati brigade helped by some fighters from Nitzanim and the “first Hagana platoon”. as noted above, it was later abandoned and served the Egyptian Army.
There were 67 fighting kibbutz members, including 10 women and our platoon of 30 people. Communications with the brigade were poor until the transceiver finally broke down, just after Mira, the operator, transmitted a last desperate plea for some help. One has to remember that the transceiver worked in Morse, not voice, thus people sometimes tell different stories -- not everyone understands Morse. We saw armored Egyptian columns advancing past us to Isdood/Tel Aviv, but when we counted their numbers (hundreds) and reported this to the Givati brigade command in Be'er Tuvia, they refused to believe and claimed it was all imagination. There were 36 defenders killed on that day, many others wounded. Jonathan Manheim decided to surrender. Actually he had no idea if the Egyptians were going to kill us or take prisoners, but apparently he thought that there was no choice.
I learned later, after coming back home in 1949 from Egypt, that Abba Kovner branded the defenders of Nitzanim as "cowards who abandoned their land." The kibbutz members were hurt until, much later, Avidan wrote a lame apology .Other kibbutzim, such as Yad Mordechai, also fought bravely but were both given help and ordered to evacuate when further defense became useless. This is thought to be because they belonged to the "workers parties," There were other Kibbutzim in the area, such as Nirim, and Kfar Darom fought bravely and managed to survive in their place. (More information: Nitzanim: a Settlement built twice, by Tzvika Dror, Kibbutz Meuchad Publishing, 1990 ; In Hebrew: Nitzanim, kibutz shenivna pama`yim, by Tzvi`ka Dror, published by Hotza`at hakibutz hameuhad, Misrad habitachon – hahotza`a laor, mudpas beIsrael 1990
About 105 people, kibbutzniks and soldiers were taken prisoner by the Egyptian Army in Nitzanim. We were all interrogated, beaten up, and taken first to a tent camp in Sinai, later to a permanent prison camp in Abbasiyeh, next to Cairo West airport. Life in prison was uneventful, except for occasional beatings. For the first few months we were not allowed to communicate with our families nor to receive parcels from Red Cross/families. All this changed abruptly when an ex-British Army New Zealander named George escaped and arrived in Israel via Cyprus. George came to fight with us voluntarily. Unfortunately his Hebrew was close to nil. During one of the futile tries to recapture the Iraq-Sueidan police station he did not understand that an order was given retreat and was captured by the Egyptians. I can still remember when they brought him and he said: “I don’t like it here, I am not going to stay here”. He did just that, helped sportingly by his ex British CO who was still stationed in Cairo. The Egyptian Major commanding our camp was sent for punishment to the front- he was eventually taken POW by Israelis. We met when they exchanged us, and he said: “believe me, you were treated much better than we were”. His gripe was that the Israelis did not consider his honor as King Faruk`s officer and did not lodge him separately from other ranks. (further reading: Prison Diary, by Eliahu Pollack, written from diaries in 1987 – in Hebrew, Dedicated to the memory of fallen friends) , published privatelyin hebrew: Yoman hashevi, eliyahu pollack, ra`anana, kayitz , tav shin samekh heh. lazekher hehaverio shenaflu bama`arakha. katuv myomanim. )
For me, coming back "home" in March 1949 was a hopeless situation. The army just discharged us and could not care less about our fate. No help either came from the Government, Jewish Agency etc -- no offer to train, find a job, nothing. Faced with the reality, I went to work as a manual unskilled laborer in construction, when I could find work. Eventually I re-enlisted to the IAF, trained for a ground crew job, and continued there until 1971. I finally left the service as Lt. Col and Technion Grad in EE - it became much easier to make a living then. Many of my ex-POW friends could not adapt and emigrated from Israel.
Greta was much more of a fighter than myself.
She joined the Palmach from her kibbutz in Ashdot Ya`acov and served as combat nurse in the 5th regiment of the famous Har'el brigade. She was wounded in action and still carries bits of shrapnel in her skull. She participated in all the heavy fighting for the road to Jerusalem (Bab el Wad), the Beit Gemail hills and monastery, and the "common command post" in Har Tuv with the Jordanian army and up to Uja el Hafir (Nitzana) and Eilat following Golani/Givati).
The “common command post” was a hill in Har Tuv held partly by Jordanian army and partly by the Palmach. The hill commanded the view to Jerusalem road and positions were so close that Jews exchanged “compliments” with the Jordamians. Eventually the Jordanians were chased out. She is mentioned in the book of the Palmach ("Sefer Hapalmach") as the nurse who helped the dying Jimmy – a famous commander in the 5th regiment. She used to go along in every action along with the troops to be able to help the wounded as soon as possible. This saved many lives, but of course jeopardized her own. Sometimes even being there could not help, as in case of Jimmy who was wounded too severely in the battle for Beit Gemail.
Copyright 2008 by Shlomo Ramon and Zionism-Israel Center. All rights reserved. This document may not be reproduced without express permission of the author and the publisher.
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