One of the longest things I have ever posted, but well worth the read! These are amazing stories of survival amid the horrors of the holocaust--and how those survivors committed themselves to the creation of the new State of Israel. This makes me wonder where this sense of sacrifice and commitment went--why are today's leaders so lacking in this heroic sense of selfless Zionism? What happened to this dream??
(If you are looking to skip his story, I highly suggest going to the archive list to click on the next one--this is a REALLY LONG post.)
Realizing the dream: Six Bay Area men and the founding of a nation
by joe eskenazi
In the beginning, the Torah tells us, God created heaven and earth. The oceans were made to teem with life and the land blessed with seed-bearing fruit. God said,
“Let there be light,” and there was light.
This is a clean and efficient way to do business. God, notably, did not say, “Let there be a modern Jewish state.” The creation of that, 60 years ago, required immeasurable toil, guile, sacrifice and blood.
Israel was not born through a pronouncement from God or man, but by the efforts of thousands of people.
Many Bay Area men and women put their lives on the line for Israel in 1948.
There are countless stories. Here are six.
David Apfelbaum shifts uncomfortably in his chair — and it really is his chair, as he is sitting at the counter of David’s Deli in San Francisco. He is the eponymous David.
When asked why he would risk his life for the nascent state of Israel, he leans close and speaks in a grave voice barely above a whisper.
“I can tell you one little thing — if you want to hear.
“When I was almost 11 years old, I was in a camp, in Poland, a subdivision of Majdanek. I was hanged.”
He pauses. “By my hands. From a tree. They wanted me to shout out all kinds of things. I knew they would shoot me anyway, and I was a very stubborn child. So I wasn’t going to shout. They took bayonets and put them into my body. I have 18 holes.
“This one,” he says gruffly, jamming a finger right between his eyes, into the now-apparent crater, “you can see.”
Apfelbaum was ripped from the tree and kicked to a bloody pulp. He was hurled into a cramped cellar filled three-quarters of the way to the ceiling with rancid water. For three days and nights he crouched in the bilge, only trotted out twice a day to receive 25 lashes across the back.
“The last time, I could barely hear. My ears, they are full of blood. I had the map of Europe all over my body. A bloody map of Europe. That is my joke,” he says, not smiling.
Finally, with Apfelbaum half-conscious on the ground, a low-ranking SS man asked the camp commandant, “What should we do with this dog?”
“Shoot him” was the immediate reply.
“But he is already dead.”
Apfelbaum was tossed into a chamber amid 50 or 60 rotting corpses. He clawed his way out of the pile of murdered Jews and hid for weeks under barracks, still in the concentration camp.
“And then, you know, typhus.” The 79-year-old sighs and looks down at his wrinkled palms on the counter. “Anyway, I am alive.”
So, in retrospect, it was an easy decision for Apfelbaum to flout international law and smuggle children to pre-state Israel. What’s the worst they could do to a man who’d already seen the worst of it?
“No,” he corrects gently. “I did not see the worst of it. I went through the worst of it.”
After the war, Apfelbaum studied at German universities and taught Hebrew literature in Jewish schools. That was, as he puts it, his “not-secret life.”
Yet after the sun slipped beneath the horizon, he would duck away into the shadows as a secret agent of Bricha (Hebrew for “flight” and “escape”), the clandestine Jewish organization that ferried Jews into pre-state Israel.
A typical group would be 30 or 40 kids from a refugee camp, but sometimes there were 80 or more. Apfelbaum might load them into a train, flatbed trucks or horse carts, or they might even walk all night. But, in the end, he’d pass them on to the next Bricha agent as the children continued their journey to Israel. It would take dozens of men like Apfelbaum to slowly shepherd the kids from Poland down to Italy, where they took to the sea.
“There was one time when we had 85 or 86 youngsters moving from Czechoslovakia to Western Germany. And all of a sudden, I heard some dogs barking. So I must admit, I did something crazy,” he says.
“I started a fire. I figured [the police] would run toward the fire, so I told the children to run the other direction.”
Apfelbaum spoke many languages — German, Russian, Czech, Hungarian and Romanian just for starters — and he had a passport for each nation.
“One of the names was very funny,” he says with a wry smile.
“You know, we didn’t have any butter at that time, so we used the Hebrew word; one of my names was Chemovich, which means ‘the butter man.’”
Another passport was for Kemachovicz, which loosely translates as “flour and butter man” in Slovakian.
“We used to joke and laugh about those names.”
Decades later — and decades ago — Apfelbaum was touring Tel HaShomer hospital near Tel Aviv (“I have been to Israel 56 times,” he notes matter-of-factly). There he was waylaid by some of the hospital’s functionaries who seemed eager to show him a new X-ray machine. So he acquiesced and walked into the darkened room.
When the lights snapped on, Apfelbaum found himself surrounded by young doctors and army officers and Israeli civilians. They were his children — the children he had smuggled into Israel.
“At this party, there were more than 300 of them,” he says, a faraway look in his eyes. “But there are much, much more than that.”
In Apfelbaum’s life, there are no simple answers. So when asked what Israel means to him, he sat for a long time.
“OK, I’ll tell you a little story,” he says.
Apfelbaum takes off his rectangular spectacles, and for just a moment, he rubs the corners of his red eyes.
“The last time I was in Israel was for the funeral of one of my best friends — actually, he called me his brother — David Elazar. We called him Dado.”
Elazar, who would eventually become the Israel Defense Forces’ chief of staff, was chief of the Northern Command during the Six-Day War in 1967. Apfelbaum was in Israel at the time, and Elazar drove him to the Western Wall almost immediately after its capture.
Twenty years earlier, Apfelbaum had somehow escaped the furnace that incinerated thousands of years of European Jewry virtually in its totality. Yet now he walked, stiffly, toward the holiest site in all Judaism. Elazar trailed a few steps behind snapping pictures.
“I didn’t know I was doing this, but later he showed me the film. First, I am walking very slowly, like a man on ice. And then, the closer I come to it, I am walking faster.”
“And at the end — I am running.”
Dr. Bernard Kaufman
Vienna, 1920. Bernard Kaufman was a 6-year-old boy with wavy red hair and watery blue eyes. A portrait of him from the time — outfitted in a navy blue sailor suit, with his hands on his hips — hangs over the mantelpiece of his San Francisco home, all these years later.
Kaufman was out on a walk around town with his father, a doctor, when a barrage of insults clustered around the word “Juden” shattered the morning calm. Father and son were approached by three soldiers on leave from the Austrian army. The trio had had little luck against the Allies; their odds were looking much better against the Kaufmans.
Spit hit the cobblestones, fists were clenched and the attack began. But
this story will not end how you think it will.
“They attacked my father, and I never saw anything like it. My father, he knew how to fight, you know, and he came close to killing three people. He smashed them to bits. This was unbelievable. I still have it — the memory of it is vivid,” Kaufman, now 94, says in a near-whisper.
“The last man, my father hit him so hard I saw the jaw smashed and the bones breaking. And I was a child , so …” At this point, Kaufman loudly emits a noise somewhere between a laugh and a sob. “I didn’t know what to do. But I had to protect my father. So, I put my arms around the man and bit him in the tuchus. It must have been terrible, because he screamed and screamed and he couldn’t get me loose.
“Friends of those three soldiers eventually came and carried them out. What became of them, I do not know.”
Kaufman leans back on his couch, drained by the intense memory. His family did not need the subsequent ascent of European anti-Semitism to become ardent Zionists — yet they bore its brunt nevertheless.
You could say young Bernard Kaufman had his principles beaten into him. He was beaten on the way to school. He was beaten at school, and he was beaten on the way home. He was beaten on the streets, on the trams and in the marketplace. On one occasion, a gang of thugs set upon him after he failed to doff his cap as he walked past a Catholic church. On other days, large boys held him down while a smaller boy jammed a fistful of ham into Kaufman’s mouth. These memories, too, are crystal clear.
But not every recollection of youth is violent and foul. Kaufman smiles when he remembers the 1923 World Zionist Congress, which his family attended in Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia. “There was a tremendous ado because while the caucus was in session, President Harding died. So the American delegation formed a special committee to memorialize the president.”
Hundreds of Jews packed the hall. Many of them had walked there from parts unknown, as they couldn’t afford a railroad ticket.
In 1928, Kaufman’s father completed his medical studies and moved the family back to San Francisco (where Bernard was born in 1914), missing the pogroms and desperation that were to follow. Kaufman graduated from Stanford University and Tulane medical school before being drafted into the Army as a medical officer.
His Zionist activism was put on hold as he careened throughout Europe tending to the wounds of American soldiers — at least as far as his superiors knew.
“I became active in trying to get people into Palestine, and I arranged for transportation and food — illegally, of course. All illegally.
“We were successful in some cases, of moving a significant number of people. One time, we moved 3,000.”
When asked how many organizers that required, he grinned.
“Three. There were two shlichim — these were people who came from Palestine to help organize the refugees. And these people were so damn tough. There was absolutely nothing that could hold them back or block their efforts. And they contacted me and asked me to be of help.”
If Kaufman’s activities had been exposed, he risked a probable court-martial. When asked how this would have affected his subsequent medical career, the doctor answered economically: “Adversely.”
He returned to San Francisco, where he was an internal medicine specialist for 54 years. His memories of the late 1940s are, once again, “crystal clear.” There were the days he walked into every Jewish business on Geary from the ocean to downtown looking for donations to the Zionist Organization of America and Israel Bonds (he founded the local branch of the latter). There were the near-fistfights with local member of the anti-Zionist American Council for Judaism, a national group opposing the formation of a Jewish state. And, of course, there was that night, that unforgettable night.
On May 15, 1948, Israel declared independence.
“There was a mass meeting at the Scottish Rite Auditorium on Van Ness Avenue and there seemed to be masses of people in there,” he recalls with a rapturous look on his face.
“There was a lot of dancing and singing going on. And I danced all night. And I cried all night.”
Kaufman weeps at the memory even now. In fact, he weeps at many memories of the era, even the good ones.
“I don’t know why. Maybe I’m a creampuff,” he says through a teary-eyed smile. “But the memories, they mean so much to me.”
Because when it comes to Israel, the story did end the way Kaufman thought it would — the way he dreamed it would.
“Dreams,” he says of Israel’s founding generation. “They made dreams into realities. And that’s rare. That’s rare.”
With a sickening series of splintering cracks audible even above the din of the mob, the great wooden doors gave way.
Arab marauders streamed into the home of Massooda Gabbai like invaders breaching a medieval castle. But this was not the Middle Ages; this was Iraq in 1941. It was the “farhood,” the orgy of vengeance and looting directed against the Jewish community of Baghdad after the British invaded Iraq’s capital.
The octogenarian Gabbai grabbed her 11-year-old grandson, Edward Ben-Eliezer, and dragged him to the roof of her palatial home. For two solid days, the looters cleaned out the house, which was full of furniture and carpets stored there as inventory for the family business. The rioters even backed up trucks to the front door.
Bullets whizzed past the grandmother and grandson, fired randomly from the police station across the street, but the mob left the roof alone.
For two solid days, Ben-Eliezer and his grandmother cowered under a lean-to.
“I took my grandmother and I hugged her and didn’t let her go. And the bullets is coming from all over,” he said in his rapid-fire Middle Eastern cadence. “Two days. We didn’t eat.”
As the sun rose on the third day, the pair took advantage of a lull in the carnage to make their escape. They quickly noticed that every door in the Jewish neighborhood had been smashed. But that was far from the worst of it.
“There were parts of bodies and blood all over. There is kids I know from the neighborhood, and they cut [off] their heads or their hands. They slaughtered everybody in the neighborhood. I’m telling you, if we didn’t go on the roof, that would be us in pieces there,” says Ben-Eliezer, 78, his brown eyes staring at the floor of his room in San Francisco’s Jewish Home.
“When looking at all this blood, she put her hand on my face and we started running. I told her, ‘When I grow up, this will never happen to Jewish people again.’ I don’t know why I said that. She put her hand over my eyes and said, ‘Yes, yes, yes’ — three times.”
It was not an idle promise.
Not long after his bar mitzvah, he joined the Baghdad branch of the Haganah, Israel’s pre-state army. He smiles, slightly malevolently — “at 14 years old, you can do a lot of things!”
Ben-Eliezer’s parents never found the crates of ammunition he buried in the family’s basement and tiled over. They never realized that the teenager handed over the copious amounts of money he made tutoring wealthy boys to the Haganah, where it was transformed into “anything, you name it — machine guns, pistols, hand bombs, any kind of ammunition you can explode, we had it.”
In short, they didn’t catch on that their son was killing people, sometimes with his bare hands.
“There were some people who were against us: gangsters. And some Jewish people are afraid of them. Well, you need somebody to go and terrorize them. And we used to do that. But we don’t terrorize with noise [weapons]. You just eliminate them — once and forever,” says Ben-Eliezer. His playful smile is gone. He is, quite literally, deadly serious.
“You go there, you and your friend, and you give [the gangster] something to drink. And then you’ll be on top of him. And then you do your job.”
By the time he was 15 or 16, this was a job Ben-Eliezer excelled at.
In addition to military training and “doing your job,” the Haganah also provided Jewish holiday parties, lessons on Torah and spiritual instruction. Ben-Eliezer savors the memory of the “wonderful young lady” who taught Hebrew songs and Jewish history in a dark, fortified basement.
He never learned her real name.
Make no mistake, though — this was not the Boy Scouts. Every week the Iraqi authorities cracked down on the Zionist underground. Every week “10 more beautiful Jewish children” swung above the city streets. In 1947, word got back to him that the government was on to him. Hoping to avoid a date with the hangman, he went into hiding. Perhaps not surprisingly, his assignments from the Haganah became more and more dangerous.
“What can I tell them, no? ‘No, I’ll go to my hanging.’”
Rather than eliminate local gangsters and bullies, Ben-Eliezer turned to hampering Iraq’s ability to wage war with the future state of Israel.
On a moonless night in 1947, he set off with seven other men and a woman. Soundlessly, the platoon made its way through the rough countryside (never through the middle of the fields, never in a straight line).
Finally, the Jews came to rest in the shadows of an Iraqi military base. Aligned in a crescent in front of them were eight hulking bombers. Eighteen hands began snapping together wires, clips and explosives. The troops fanned out, depositing a package beneath each plane and circling back to a central location; all eight bombs were wired to a detonator like a lethal string of Christmas lights.
One by one, the Haganah fighters sprinted past the detonator and into the darkness. The last soldier, who operated the switch, was the fastest runner; he would have the shortest head-start following the explosions. Finally, he dropped the lever.
With a blinding flash, the eight bombers were engulfed in a fiery chain reaction. Debris thudded to the ground and Arabic shouting and gunfire rippled through the night. In the confusion, one of Ben-Eliezer’s colleagues tripped and broke his neck.
More than 60 years later, Ben-Eliezer shakes his head. He’s still angry.
“Oh, that was stupid,” he spits out. “That was a stupid loss. You know, when someone is hurt and dead, you say that guy is stupid. He didn’t watch himself. You don’t feel sorry for him because if you are a good soldier, you learned to watch yourself. That is what you are taught.”
With that lesson drilled into them, the eight remaining soldiers could grit their teeth and run off into the night. If there was to be grieving, it could come later.
It was now too dangerous for Ben-Eliezer to stay in Iraq. So he attempted to sneak into Iran to get to Israel, walking at night and hiding in caves during the day. This time, however, the Iraqi police caught up with him. His party was shot at, captured and dragged back to Mosul, where they were locked in a synagogue.
Ben-Eliezer pauses. Then, improbably, he smiles.
“You know that sentence, ‘If you have money, it will take you places?’” Well, it solves a lot of problems,” he says with a chuckle.
Money not only takes you to places, it takes you away from them. Haganah agents arrived at the synagogue. Money changed hands — lots of money, evidently. Ben-Eliezer’s group of 22 Jews was provided with a pair of cars. They drove all night, deep into Iran’s interior, ending up at a Jewish refugee camp. Several months later, a massive passenger plane rumbled into the dusty encampment. More than 400 Jews clamored aboard, bound for Israel. Ben-Eliezer was one of them.
Over the next several years the kibbutznik fought to get his 10 siblings and parents into Israel. He also brought his grandmother, to whom he’d promised all those years earlier that Jews would never again be slaughtered defenselessly.
Ben-Eliezer, who immigrated to the Bay Area in the 1950s, sits quietly for quite a while. And then he speaks.
“She was very healthy and beautiful until the last day of her life. She lived to 104.
“And she died — in Israel.”
The hulking cargo truck rumbled down the dusty Israeli highway. Sweating in the back beneath a canvas canopy, Ralph Anspach suddenly noticed there were dozens of trucks like his on the road — as well as flatbeds, limousines, hearses and any other variation of engine connected to wheels that could carry a man to battle.
Anspach was outfitted in a mismatched medley of a jacket, pants, a tunic and boots, topped by a helmet that didn’t fit.
The men were as varied as the clothes they wore and the vehicles they rode to uncertain fates. And yet, there was a palpable — and audible — camaraderie.
“We were part of this long convoy full of young people, singing,” recalls Anspach, 82, smiling at the distant memory.
“We were all happily singing, joyfully singing on our way down south.”
Anspach had on that very day joined an anti-tank brigade. He asked his newly minted commanding officer about their artillery guns. The officer flashed him a smile. What artillery guns?
Slightly bewildered, Anspach queried if it might be prudent to turn the hell around.
The C.O. grinned. “Don’t worry. The boys are going in tonight to capture Hill 113. There’s an Egyptian base on top of the hill and they have four six-pounders.”
But Anspach did worry. He was an artilleryman in World War II, and the first thing any soldier learned — really, the first thing — was that if capture is imminent, you must destroy the tiny firing mechanisms within the artillery guns. Without them, the cannons are as useless as a car up on blocks.
The C.O. grinned again. The boys — “he always talked about ‘the boys’” — stole a bunch of firing mechanisms years ago from the British. He was sure everything would work out — and it did. Not for the many young Jews whose bodies were strewn about Hill 113 in the Negev when Anspach arrived, of course. But the guns were there, and the Israelis took them.
“We used to call it ‘Bevan Ordinance,’” jokes Anspach, referring to Aneurin Bevan, a British government minister at the time.
“The British gave the Egyptians all kind of ordinance when they left, and then we would take it from them.”
In a way, it was Bevan who convinced Anspach to put down his college textbooks and pick up a gun to defend a nation he had never visited.
Anspach was a young college student at the University of Chicago, where Bevan’s wife Jennie Lee, a Labor member of the British Parliament, was delivering a symposium.
Following the speech, a professor cornered Lee and asked her why Labor, which ran on a platform of allowing Jews into Palestine, was now sending troops to keep them out by force.
“I will never forget the way she looked at him in this scathing British way and said, ‘Young man, how naïve can you be? Haven’t you ever heard of oil?’”
Anspach, now a retired San Francisco State economics professor, shakes his head. “And that tells you more than thousands of tomes that have been written. The Jews didn’t have any oil, but the Arabs did. That gave me some real insight into the world.”
By that time, however, Anspach had gleaned plenty of insight. His family had left the semi-autonomous state of Danzig just a few steps ahead of the Gestapo. By the time they fled, purity laws formally forbade Jews from going to the movie theater or the beach (Anspach, who had bright blonde hair and turquoise eyes, went anyway).
When Anspach marched into the New York office of the Jewish Agency and said he wanted to fight, he received an exceedingly cool reaction. Fighting for a foreign army would be illegal, he was told. The Jewish Agency wanted no part of any illegal activities. Perhaps he’d be interested in joining an organization called “Land and Labor for Palestine”? He would pick fruit to replace the agricultural workers risking their lives in the war.
Anspach was not high on the idea of sailing 6,000 miles to pick some oranges. And yet, by the time he was sent to his fifth doctor and received his fifth physical, he caught on that Land and Labor for Palestine had bigger plans for him than climbing trees.
So did the FBI. During an initiation in the Catskills, government helicopters buzzed the resort where all the young Jewish men were staying.
“They told us to go outside and play pingpong, because you’re here on vacation,” recalls Anspach.
He was passed tickets to a steamer headed for France. A man with an English-language newspaper tucked under his arm would meet them at the dock. They were to follow him — discreetly.
From there, Anspach ended up at a transit center in the south of France. Israeli volunteers mixed with Holocaust survivors in the illegal camp; all the western countries had agreed to block immigration into Israel. And yet, French gendarmes smoked their Gauloises and bickered among themselves, even while the camp residents performed military exercises in plain view.
“At that time, the French were very good,” says Anspach, who now lives there up to eight months a year.
Finally, a hodgepodge of bedraggled refugees and strong young men disguised as bedraggled refugees was carted to Port Bouc. A 500-ton riverboat steamer “that looked like it would have been used on a movie set as a derelict in the Mississippi” idled at the quay. Names were shouted out, and Jews boarded the ship one by one. But the names had little relation to the people hopping off of the dock.
“These must have been lists of people the French agreed to,” speculates Anspach. “Anyway, my name was Sarah Rabinovich.”
So, it was “Sarah Rabinovich” who ducked for cover and choked on acrid black smoke while Egyptian planes “used us for target practice” atop Hill 113.
“Sarah Rabinovich” fired his six-pound gun — and, later, top-of-the-line German 57-millimeter beauties with the swastikas still on them — at Egyptian armored compounds or troop positions as bullets whistled by (not once, incidentally, did the anti-tank brigade encounter a tank).
Yet it was decidedly not “Sarah Rabinovich” who was nearly shot to pieces outside of Auja. It was easy to tell; after all, Anspach was caught with his pants down — literally.
“One time in Auja, I was relieving myself in the desert; you’d often go a little ways away. And all of a sudden, this Egyptian Spitfire [warplane] tries to kill me!” Now he grins at the absurdity of the situation. He did not back then.
“He made two [strafing] runs. And there I was, hugging the ground. I didn’t even have a gun with me.”
Anspach’s war ended in a remote settlement called Um Rash-Rash. The Jordanians were put to flight and the Jews stripped off their dust- and sweat-caked uniforms and streamed into the Red Sea. In the distance, three British destroyers prowled the waves, providing a visual hint to the Israeli army that attacking nearby Aqaba, Jordan would be unwise.
Um Rash-Rash has a new name now: Eilat.
In the years since he returned to the United States, Anspach has learned a great deal about the war he fought and the Jewish state he helped create. Apparently, he was some sort of imperialist aggressor, and his vastly superior army used high-tech weaponry to stave off bands of ill-supplied and poorly organized Arabs.
“I heard so much of that when I was teaching [at SFSU]. The Jews won because of Holocaust guilt and the imperial feeling behind them. That is not how it happened. All the imperialism — it was on the other side!” he recalls, his persistent smile long gone.
It wasn’t imperialism that motivated Anspach. It was something far more palpable. He remembered his last day on German soil. An SS man in a showy black uniform glanced at Anspach and his brother’s passports.
“He asked us whether we were Jewish and we said ‘yes.’ And he said, ‘Boys, I hope we’re not going to see you here again, fighting us,’” recalled Anspach.
At the time, the Anspachs offered a curt “no, sir” — on the outside.
“Both my brother and I thought the same thing. ‘You son of a bitch. You just give us a chance to get that gun.’”
Names, places and dates. It was Johnny Cash who sang “I’ve Been Everywhere,” but Jacques Torczyner really has — and he’s got the names, places and dates to prove it.
With startling alacrity, the 95-year-old Rossmoor resident rattles off the play-by-play from Zionist meetings on several continents or recalls long, windswept walks along the Seine with future Israeli heads of state.
It has been an improbable life for a man who would have been content simply carrying on his father’s Antwerp diamond business. But the Nazis had other plans.
The entire Torczyner clan fled Belgium, traveling on the lam from Paris to the Pyrenees, where they walked over the border to Spain. From there, the family took a boat to Cuba. And on Dec. 17, 1940 — Torczyner remembers the dates for everything — they landed in Miami.
“And we made such a big mistake!” he says. “We had cousins who asked us to buy land on Collins Avenue, but we went to New York. Oh, if we’d done that, we’d have made a lot of money!”
In New York, Torczyner soon maneuvered himself to the top of the political department of the World Zionist Organization. Before long he was the right-hand man of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, the fiery and outspoken Zionist orator.
Silver told Torczyner to join the Republican Party — “there were no Jews there.” And that suited Torczyner fine. Along the walls of his flat are photographs of him in various stages of life with every major Republican figure from Sen. Robert Taft to President George H.W. Bush.
Silver’s name is not as well known as the men and woman currently pictured on, say, Israeli currency. But the Cleveland rabbi and Zionist Organization of America president was a powerful influence on the people and government of the United States regarding the formation of a Jewish state. And his man in the trenches was Jacques Torczyner.
It was Torczyner who oversaw the North American delegate election for the World Zionist Congress in December 1946. On the table were two courses of action: Should Israel declare statehood, or hold off in exchange for Britain’s promise of allowing 100,000 Jewish refugees into pre-state Israel?
This election was all about rounding up the most delegates. Torczyner had delivered the plurality of delegates to the plenum, and the vote went the ZOA’s way: A declaration of Jewish statehood was recommended. The decision came at 4 a.m., and Torczyner still remembers how future Israeli President Chaim Weizmann and his “moderates” slumped off into the night after losing the day to Silver and David Ben-Gurion.
It was a major day in Torczyner’s life, and for more than the obvious reasons. “Silver had said, ‘Jacques, in your campaign for the World Zionist Congress, if you don’t succeed, I’ll chop your head off.’”
Yet the groundwork for a declaration of Israeli statehood — and the inevitable war to follow — was long in the making.
On July 1, 1945, Torczyner, Ben-Gurion and 16 others filed into the East 57th Street apartment of Rudolph Sonneborn in Manhattan.
For nearly seven hours, Ben-Gurion spoke. At the end of the day, the Haganah had been founded. Sonneborn would soon be running weaponry to Israel.
“Ben-Gurion said something that nobody in America would like to hear. He said we cannot create a state without a war,” recalls Torczyner.
“And he explained how we must be able to defend ourselves — because don’t forget, America had made an embargo on weapons to the Mideast.”
Torczyner recalls walking the streets of New York with future Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek, whose pockets were bulging with cash for purchase of guns on the down-low.
When asked where Kollek made his purchases, Torczyner gives a wicked grin.
“I don’t know, he didn’t take me there. This was illegal, don’t you forget.”
On Nov. 29, 1947, Torczyner sat in the stands at a former skating rink in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., that had been converted into a United Nations building. By a vote of 33-13 with 10 abstentions, the U.N. voted Israel into existence. It wasn’t a particularly nerve-wracking day for Torczyner. He knew the votes were there.
“Let me tell you, I know we had the votes and I’ll tell you why. On Thursday, it was Thanksgiving. On Wednesday, we didn’t have the votes. So we forced the U.N. to observe Thanksgiving and because of the weekend, they postponed [the vote] until Saturday,” he recalls.
Spotted a few days, Torczyner and his ZOA allies began working individual delegates. When asked what methods of persuasion they employed, he grins again.
“I won’t tell you. I don’t want to corrupt you. But the only way for some of them — you know how.”
He rests on his couch, surrounded by books and maps and photos of Silver, Weizmann and Ben-Gurion. His more youthful self stares out from many of the photos as well.
“I think I can tell you that this was a historic moment in Jewish history. So I was part of Jewish history,” he says with a nod.
“And now, 60 years later, I am worried about the future.”
Rabbi Jack Frankel
In 1948 it was not a cliché to shout “round up the usual suspects.”
And in 1948, Rabbi Jack Frankel was one of the usual suspects.
When Count Folke Bernadotte, the United Nations Security Council mediator for the brewing Israeli-Arab war, was shot to death Sept. 17 of that year by Jewish extremists, every suspicious character for miles around was hustled into a jail cell.
Frankel was bearded, sunburned and sweaty after fighting in the Negev.
“I looked like a rhapsody in rummage,” he says.
He soon found himself in a cell next to a man who carried a .45-caliber automatic in the same little box as his tefillin.
Days went by. As he protested for the hundredth time that he was an American volunteer soldier who didn’t have anything to do with assassinations, he suddenly found himself being stared at from afar by a pair of stern, unblinking eyes.
And, for just a moment, he was free. He was 11 years old again and sitting at the terminus of 69th Street between Jamaica Bay and the Atlantic Ocean.
Back then there were only two houses on the entire sandy block. He would take his old dog out to the rotting scow on the bay, and beneath the blazing Brooklyn sun Frankel would devour Alexandre Dumas or Raphael Sabatini before sprinting home, grabbing a broom out
of the closet and whacking his much older brother on the derriere while bellowing “I’m Captain Blood, and I challenge thee to a duel!”
“I couldn’t sit for a week when he got through with me,” he says.
And, just as quickly, he was back in the dingy Israeli cell.
The piercing eyes focused on Frankel were framed by a flowing beard. The Chassidic rabbi walked, slowly, toward the bars.
“Yankel Frankel — that’s you, isn’t it?”
It was Rabbi Avraham Shapiro, the prison’s chaplain and the headmaster of the Brooklyn yeshiva Frankel had attended for more than a decade starting at age 5.
“Last I saw you, you were running away to join the Marines. Now you’re in a jail cell. What happened to you?”
The former Ner Tamid rabbi loosens his tie, leans
back in his chair and runs a hand through his full head of silver hair. A cable car rumbles and clangs its way past his Powell Street apartment.
He offers a wan little grin and exhales deeply. Simply put, a lot happened to him.
At 81 — or, as he puts it, “four times 20 and 1” — Jack Frankel looks younger than his years. But 15-year-old Yankel Frankel was already shaving, smoking and three years into a job driving a milk truck. When he volunteered for the Marines, they took him.
Three months later, when it was revealed that he was shy of his 16th birthday, he was given his honorable discharge. He enrolled in Brooklyn College (“who could refuse a veteran?”). Not quite a year later, he ran away again and joined up. This time, they didn’t catch him until he was 17, which was the entrance age.
Frankel has taken great pains to extirpate much of his World War II experience from his memory. On being shot down off Saipan and spending nine days as a “guest” of the empire of Japan, he only notes, “They could have taught the Germans some of the essence of torture.”
Frankel was freed when the Americans overran the island.
Another time, when he was in the advance invasion force of Okinawa, a fellow yeshiva boy happened to leap into Frankel’s foxhole. As shells soared over, illuminating the night, the two reminisced about “the rebbe who used to pull the strap off his pants if you came in late — and, one day, he dropped his pants.”
After the war, Frankel began working for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Ostensibly, he was a roving radio man — and Frankel does have a remarkably good radio voice, even today. In reality, he was smuggling people and armaments to Israel. After moving “a shipment” of 100 refugees out of Hungary, Frankel decided it was time to smuggle something else into Israel — himself.
The 21-year-old left his passport with a friend in France. Posing as a Yiddish-speaking Polish refugee, he and 1,800 other ragged souls trudged onto a creaking death trap of a ship meant to accommodate no more than 400 passengers. (“When Leon Uris came to interview us before he wrote his “Exodus” he said, “I can’t exaggerate this.” And I said, “This is the truth!”)
The coast of Israel was in sight when the British diverted Frankel’s ship to Cyprus. The refugees, many of them camp survivors, were shepherded behind barbed wire once again.
It was a short stay for Frankel. Haganah fighters infiltrated the camp. Anyone who was willing to hoist a gun for the Jewish state was welcome to join them. Frankel and others cut wires and crawled their way to freedom. Once more, he boarded a rusting ship of dubious seaworthiness and was off.
Once more, the British intervened. This time, however, there would be no return to Cyprus. Those who could swim (and even some who couldn’t) leapt overboard and paddled for the Israeli shore. Frankel was fished out of the water by a bear of a man. He was congratulated for joining the Palmach (and if he didn’t like it, he could go back in the water). What’s more, if he didn’t learn how to ask for food in Hebrew, he’d go hungry.
Frankel was outfitted in Czech shorts, an English shirt and a French Foreign Legion cap. Completing the mix-and-match ensemble, his boots were heavy British clogs.
Finally, he was handed a Czech rifle from 1903 (unfortunately, Frankel was not the direct beneficiary of the modern rifles he had earlier obtained for Israel from the Philippine government in a deal struck in Vienna).
Frankel does not go into heavy detail about his combat experience in Israel. But it is safe to say that he did not find himself exchanging gunfire with an enemy as fanatically set upon victory as the Japanese in Okinawa. This was a life-or-death struggle for the Jews — and friends did die in Frankel’s arms — but the average soldier in the invading Arab forces just wanted to survive.
Little wonder, then, that Frankel’s forces prevailed in Safed thanks, in essence, to the world’s largest noisemaker.
Ostensibly, the Davidka was a 3-inch diameter mortar jury-rigged by Israeli forces. As a weapon, it was of limited utility — it packed barely any bang and was wildly inaccurate. The massive, 90-pound shells it fired were actually larger than the mortar itself, protruding grotesquely from the barrel of the cannon (hence the inaccuracy).
But it made a hell of a noise.
“The noise in those hills really reverberates. It was a hollowish, eerie, shuttering sound. Anyway, it scared the hell out of the Arabs, and they took off,” Frankel recalls.
The very Davidka that Frankel credits with “saving our necks” now stands in the center of Safed — in Davidka Square.
Frankel was later transferred into the Israel Air Force. He flew in tiny Piper Cubs, opening the door and tossing grenades onto the Arab soldiers below. The planes flew so low that men hurling grenades out the door were often hit with their own shrapnel.
On other occasions, Frankel and others pushed huge boxes of broken glass out the back of a C-47 cargo plane, scattering thousands of shards across the runway of Cairo’s airport.
“It was that kind of war,” he says of these makeshift methods of maiming and killing.
So, in a nutshell, that’s what happened to Yankel Frankel. That’s what he told his old headmaster, Rabbi Shapiro, when the latter got him out of jail.
And that’s what he told the Israeli soldier he hitched a ride with from the airport — a young officer named Ariel Sharon.
But that’s another story.