October 23, 2019
by Alfred Traum
Britain's response to the mass violence against Jews on Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) on November 9-10, 1938, was to offer a safe haven to children at risk living under the Nazi yoke, and thus the Kindertransport program was born. By the time World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, approximately 10,000 children had arrived in Britain via the Kindertransport program. In many cases, parents made that heart-wrenching decision to send their children away without knowing if they would ever be reunited. But by taking that step, the parents saved their children’s lives.
By 1946, it became clear that the majority of these children, in many cases now young adults, were orphaned; their families had been murdered by the Nazis. They had neither homes nor families to which to return, and in addition, most were stateless. The British government made a second humanitarian gesture: it offered full citizenship to these children. All that was necessary was one’s signature of acceptance, and one became a fully fledged citizen of the United Kingdom, with all the benefits and obligations that entailed. I happily exchanged my “Enemy Alien Identity Card” for a British passport. A passport that was welcomed throughout the world.
As for the obligations, for 18-year-old males, one became eligible to be conscripted for military service. That was something I had looked forward to. Most of my friends who were older than me were already serving in one of the branches of the military. About a month after my 18th birthday, I received my call-up papers. I reported to the Selective Service Office in Manchester where I, and many others, received a thorough physical exam given by a team of doctors and a psychologist just to make certain there were no other issues to be taken into account before being classified A1 and fit to serve. I qualified, was given an A1 grade, told to go home, and in due course I would be notified as to where and when to report.
However, on May 14, 1948, everything changed for me. The State of Israel was declared and was immediately attacked by the five surrounding Arab countries: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt. At first the Arabs had the upper hand. In the area now referred to as the West Bank, Arab forces attacked kibbutz Kfar Etzion and, after the defenders surrendered, massacred all but four, 128 in all. Seven hundred thousand Palestinian Arabs fled or were expelled as the fighting progressed. Approximately 850,000 Jews, who had lived in Arab lands from time immemorial, fled or were evacuated or expelled, and became homeless. But for the first time in Jewish history they did not wander aimlessly, but had a place to go and be welcomed: ISRAEL. In less than two years, they were settled and became part of Israeli society. What had actually taken place was an exchange of populations. I was torn by the thought that I would be joining the British Army, which was not under any threat, when I should actually be joining the Israeli Army, which was under attack. I agonized over this for some time and finally decided to volunteer and make my way to Israel. Through the Zionist youth organization, I learned that there was a clandestine recruiting system in place and soon found myself en route to Israel with a stop in Marseilles, where we waited for a ship that would take us. I met up with a small group of volunteers from Leeds, England. They were considerably older and had all served in the British Army during World War II. Eventually, an Israeli ship, the Kedmah, took us on and, together with about 300 DPs (displaced persons who were Holocaust survivors), we departed for Israel.
The pundits that filled the airwaves gave Israel little chance of survival, considering that the Arab states had a population of close to 200 million with well-equipped armies, and Israel’s entire population was approximately 600,000 men, women, and children with no formal military. However, there were many Israelis who had fought alongside British forces during the war and were well-seasoned soldiers even though their number was small. Both Britain and the United States had an arms embargo against Israel. The situation looked very grim. On arrival in Israel, my British traveling companions were quickly deployed.
There was a battalion comprised mostly from English speaking countries, who had all served in World War II. But they didn’t know what to do with me, since I was young and inexperienced. They asked what I had done in England. I told them I had worked in a radio repair shop. They lit up as though I had just handed them a million dollars. Apparently a shipment of “walkie-talkie” radios had been received, but needed work before they could be distributed among the troops. I was sent to a former British Army camp and there, together with one other Israeli fellow, tackled a mountain of surplus radio equipment, gradually managing to get some working and handing them over to the military.
But a modern miracle occurred. One that would more than match anything from biblical times. About 4,000 volunteers from Britain, the United States, South Africa, and Canada came to Israel, and among them were seasoned fighter pilots, bomber pilots, and many others with military expertise who were quickly deployed. And of all countries in the world, Czechoslovakia became the military hardware superstore, and readily sold Israel much-needed hardware, including Messerschmitt 109 fighter planes, Spandau machine guns, ammunition, bombs, and small arms. Three B-17 Flying Fortresses were somehow spirited out of the United States, purchased in Panama, and flown to Czechoslovakia, where they were quickly loaded up with much-needed arms and flown to Israel. Even though Israel suffered dearly and there is hardly a family that did not experience a casualty in their immediate or extended family, gradually, and much to the world’s astonishment, the tide of the war began to turn in favor of Israel. By the latter part of 1949, a truce was arranged by the UN, establishing the boundaries that even to date are known as the much-disputed 1949 border.
Most of the volunteers were demobilized, and many made their way back to their home countries. I was handed a flight ticket that would take me to Amsterdam, and from there I would have to make my way back home. Although I wanted to make Israel my home, I felt that I had first to return and fulfill my obligation to serve in the British Army. I did not know anyone who had been in a similar situation as I faced and therefore had no idea of what might be waiting for me. While I was standing outside the volunteer office with the flight ticket in my hand, a fellow I once met in Manchester walked by. We chatted for a short while, and I asked him what he did there. He told me that he worked for ZIM, the Israeli shipping company, as a radio officer on one of their ships. Suddenly I saw my future. That brief encounter changed my life. And I never regretted it.
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