The Passover festival of 1946 found the men of the 650th Company, a British army transport unit, in the southern Italian town of Capua.

The soldiers, Jews from Palestine who had signed up to fight in British uniform, were poised between two wars. The world war had ended a year before. Israel’s independence war, in which most of them would fight, would break out the following year.

A copy of the Haggada they created for their seder meal 66 years ago was preserved in a wooden box kept by one of the unit’s soldiers, a 23-year-old driver named Nathan Rubin. It is a unique snapshot of a moment in Jewish history: a glimpse of the mindset of young men who saw the traditional text as a description not of a distant national memory but of events unfolding before their eyes.

In the soldiers' Haggada, the Promised Land appears as a field worked by white-shirted pioneers. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

In the soldiers' Haggada, the Promised Land appears as a field worked by white-shirted pioneers. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

Rubin and his comrades from the 650th were part of the British army’s Jewish Brigade, an outfit formed two years earlier and made up of Palestinian Jewish volunteers. At the time of the seder in 1946, with the Nazis defeated, the company’s soldiers were busy siphoning off British army supplies and borrowing trucks to help the Jewish refugees who had been reaching the brigade’s troops in growing numbers since the German surrender. These were broken people who were often reduced to tears, according to contemporary reports, by the sight of armed Jews and their brigade patch, a golden Star of David.

In one witness account, a woman who was among 4,000 newly freed concentration camp inmates in the Bavarian town of Landsburg-am-Lecht walked up to one of the unit’s jeeps, lay her head on the Star of David painted on the hood and “sobbed like a child.”

The company’s men were smuggling as many of these people as they could to French ports where they could embark for Palestine. Some soldiers, desperate to find their own families, had gone AWOL in search of relatives. And in a largely forgotten episode, a small group from the Jewish Brigade had spent much of the previous summer hunting down Nazis in Austria, appearing at their homes in British uniforms, pronouncing a death sentence “in the name of the Jewish people,” and shooting them in the head.

This turmoil was the backdrop to Passover 1946.

“This Haggada,” reads an inscription at the beginning, “is dedicated to the men of our unit and the guests gathered with us, with the hope that this Seder – our third on Italian soil – will be our last in a foreign land. Our hope is to return quickly to our birthright and build a home there for ourselves and for the masses of our brothers longing for it.”

On a page with the famous sentence reminding readers that everyone must consider themselves to have personally escaped slavery in Egypt, a drawing shows a man in a trench coat and a fedora cradling a small child as he runs from a burning European city. Another drawing shows the Promised Land: a field worked by young, white-shirted pioneers.

The point was that the Exodus was not something that had happened in days of yore — it was something that was happening now. The events of 1946, in this Haggada, are a new version of a much older Jewish story of moving, through great trials and violence, from slavery to freedom.

One of the Jewish Brigade’s other transport units, the 179th, left a record of the festive meal they held in a Naples theater that year.

For the men of the Jewish Brigade, Passover 1946 fell in the pause between two wars (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

For the men of the Jewish Brigade, Passover 1946 fell in the pause between two wars. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

“The first guests began arriving at three in the afternoon,” according to the account, which appeared in a Hebrew paper put out for the brigade’s soldiers. It is preserved at Beit Hagdudim, Israel’s official museum for Jewish volunteers with British forces in both world wars.

“They were a varied bunch: A few American sergeants and then a doctor from the Land of Israel, a troop transport with British soldiers… A jeep with members of the fleet and then a staff car out of which came a British colonel, and then American pilots, Jews from the French army, Jews from Napoli, and others — a miniature ingathering of the exiles.”

Rubin, the driver from the 650th, had been born near Vilna. He left for Palestine with his parents as a child. By 1946, he had been in British uniform for about four years.

His son, Rechav Rubin, a geography professor at Hebrew University, said his father did not use the Haggada after he returned home to Palestine, nor did he ever show it to his children, who discovered it only after Nathan’s death in 1965.

The story of the Jewish Brigade was largely eclipsed by the dramatic events of subsequent years in Israel, which provided more than enough tales of Jewish military valor. But the brigade was significant, both because it trained the men who went on to form the core of Israel’s military and because it was a milestone in the empowerment of a people whose powerlessness had just been made devastatingly apparent. The brigade was, as its commanding officer told his men when they boarded troop ships en route to the battlefield in Italy, “the first official Jewish fighting force since the fall of Judea to the Roman legions.”

For most of the war’s duration, the British had refused to set up a Jewish combat brigade, fearing — correctly — the consequences of arming and training Palestinian Jews who might later turn their weapons on the British Mandate and the Arabs of Palestine. Jews had already fallen “as Englishmen, Americans or Czechs,” the brigade’s chaplain, Bernard Casper, wrote in a memoir published immediately after the war, but they had not been allowed to fight together as Jews.

“History,” he wrote, “would have had to record that the one people who had failed to rise against their oppressor, the worst enemy they had known in all their long and difficult history, was the Jewish people.”

In 1944, the British finally relented, creating a brigade that included some existing Jewish units like the 650th, which were already based in North Africa and Egypt. Before the brigade’s members embarked for Italy, the Palestine Symphony Orchestra showed up at their camp in the Egyptian desert to see them off.

The brigade, Casper wrote, “represented a vent for all our pent-up feelings since our agony at the hands of Hitler began in April, 1933.”

The Haggada included newer texts, including the Zionist anthem, Hatikva (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

The Haggada included newer texts, including the Zionist anthem, Hatikva. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

Before Passover in 1945, as the war neared its end, the brigade was sent up to the front line along the Senio River, facing Germans dug in on the high ground of the opposite bank. Casper, the chaplain, remembered holding a seder in a dugout with tables made of planks covered with blankets. One of the men present was killed at his post later that night. The week of the festival that year, recounted Casper, “was our worst for casualties.”

“Every day of that week,” he wrote, “I had to perform the most heartrending of duties, the burial of a comrade.” Thirty-five of the brigade’s soldiers are buried in a Jewish military cemetery created for them at Mezzano, a village north of Ravenna.

Mordechai Gichon, who spent many of those days in no-man’s land along the Senio trying to map out the positions of the Germans’ 88mm guns, remembered several soldiers being killed by a mortar shell while holding the seder.

Gichon, who is now 89 and a retired military historian, had signed up in Tel Aviv in 1942. “We had already heard of the death camps,” he remembered this week. “We wanted vengeance against the Germans.”

In April 1945, not long after the holiday, Gichon and the rest of the Jewish Brigade took part in the Allied push across the Senio and the shattering of the German front in one of the final battles of the war.

A soldier heads home. In the backgroud are the Arch of Titus and the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the sign points to Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

A soldier heads home. In the backgroud are the Arch of Titus and the Leaning Tower of Pisa; the sign points to Jerusalem. (Courtesy of Prof. Rechav Rubin)

A few months later, after VE Day, he gathered intelligence on local Nazis and SS officers as part of the brigade’s little-known vigilante operation in Austria. The operation was shut down after about 30 executions, he said, when the Jewish leadership in Palestine told the men that getting Jews out of Europe was more important than revenge.

Passover 1946 found Gichon in Holland, where his unit had been posted. Though still officially in the service of the British army, he and his comrades were doing their best to undermine Britain’s Middle East policy by helping Jews get to Palestine, dressing them in British army uniforms and equipping them with fake papers.

“The plain fact was that the Jewish remnant in Europe was on the march,” wrote Casper, the chaplain. “We were witnessing the beginning of a new exodus, an exodus from Europe.”

Gichon celebrated the seder that year in liberated Amsterdam. The following year he would be back in Palestine, engaged as an intelligence officer in the war against the Arabs.

In 1946, he said, “Our feeling was that after 2,000 years the Jews were going back and building a homeland, and they had an army that could strike back.”

“The seder, the festival of freedom, had a different meaning for us in those days,” he said.

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