More than 70 years after soldiers from the British Army’s Jewish Brigade fought against Nazi forces in Italy, the Israel Defense Forces’ 7th Armored Brigade was awarded a medal of valor from the Italian government on their behalf.
The Jewish Brigade was formed in 1944 at the height of World War II, with the view that Jews had a right to fight the Nazis in light of the horrors being inflicted upon their coreligionists. The unit was made up mostly of Jews from British Mandate-era Palestine, along with a few Jewish and non-Jewish senior officers from the United Kingdom.
Last year, the Italian parliament voted unanimously to award the country’s Gold Medal for Military Valor — one of the country’s highest honors — to the Israel Defense Forces as a stand-in for the now defunct Jewish Brigade.
The ceremony was held Wednesday in Moshav Avihail, near Netanya, in a museum dedicated to the antecedent of the Jewish Brigade, the Jewish Legion, which fought against the Ottomans in World War I.
The 7th Armored Brigade was chosen to receive the award on behalf of the IDF as it has historical ties to the Jewish Brigade, many of whose members joined the armored brigade after World War II. Indeed, the first commander of the 7th Brigade, Shlomo Shamir, was a veteran of the Jewish Brigade.
The Jewish Brigade saw combat in Italy in the spring of 1945, toward the end of the war, fighting as part of Operation Grapeshot against German and Fascist Italian forces.
The soldiers of the Jewish Brigade were “young people who did not have their own state but found the generosity to fight and die for the freedom of others,” said Gianluigi Benedetti, the Italian ambassador to Israel, after presenting the medal.
One of those young people was Piero Cividalli, who was born in Italy in 1926. His family left the country for then-Palestine in 1939 after the Fascists enacted anti-Semitic laws, barring Jews from schools, stripping them of their assets and restricting their travel, among other things.
He joined the Jewish Brigade at 18, but it was too late to fight in the war — he was still in basic training in Egypt during Operation Grapeshot. He traveled to his native Italy with the unit shortly after the war ended, in the summer of 1945. Over the next year, he was stationed throughout Europe, in Italy, Austria, Belgium and Holland.
“I was a soldier, I did soldier things — patrols, guarding. We helped with the refugees,” he said, in slightly accented Hebrew.
Soon after Cividalli returned to Israel, he joined the burgeoning IDF and served in the Givati Infantry Brigade’s 53rd Battalion during the 1948 Independence War, as well as the 1956 Sinai War and the 1967 Six Day War.
For Cpt. Daniel Sztulman, a company commander in the 7th Brigade’s 82nd Battalion who was born to an Italian immigrant mother and grew up speaking Italian, the medal connected his family’s history with his current military service.
“I came here today because for me it’s symbolic, it brings things full circle,” he said.
“Honestly, I didn’t know the history before this. I’d heard about the brigade, that it took part in the liberation of Italy, but I didn’t know that most of the people in it later joined the 82nd Battalion, where I serve now,” he said.
After the war, the Jewish Brigade remained in Europe for more than a year. Officially, the Jewish soldiers were charged with helping find and settle Holocaust survivors and refugees. Unofficially, they also took part in assassination campaigns of Nazi officers and helped smuggle Holocaust survivors and refugees through southern Italy and across the Mediterranean Sea into then-Palestine.
Cividalli, who later became an artist, said the medal and recognition were appreciated, but were too slow to arrive.
“It’s better late than never,” he said after the ceremony.