Hundreds of Jewish fighters were lost at sea in WWII. Here’s how Israel honors them
560 warriors from Mandate Palestine who fought with the British against Axis powers are still missing. While a nonprofit searches for them, Israelis dedicate a day to their memory
Sometime in the early summer of 1941, seven bodies washed onto the shores of Tripoli, Lebanon, which was then controlled by Nazi-aligned Vichy France.
As soon as it heard the news, the Haganah — Israel’s pre-state defense force — sent a representative to Syria to investigate. Not coincidentally, on May 18 of that year a British ship called the Sea Lion, carrying 23 Jewish Haganah-trained commandos and one British officer, had set off on a mission to sabotage oil refineries in Tripoli. And the ship had disappeared.
Thousands of Jews living in British Mandate Palestine prior to Israel’s establishment took part in missions against the Axis powers. Of these fighters, 560 are considered to be missing in action, as their burial sites are unknown.
Nearly 200 such soldiers were lost at sea during World War II. The Sea Lion’s ill-fated mission — known to the British as Operation Boatswain — is commemorated in Israel as the “24 Yordei Hasira,” translated literally as “The 24 Boatmen.” (The designation honors the British officer in addition to the 23 Jewish soldiers.)
The Sea Lion wasn’t alone in its fate; two more ships carrying Jews from Palestine also disappeared during the war.
Owned by the British Indian Steam Navigation Company, the SS Erinpura was an ocean liner that served as a hospital ship during World War I. The ship was also active during World War II, and on April 29, 1943, left Alexandria in a convoy headed for Malta. It was carrying more than 1,000 troops, including members of the African Auxiliary Pioneer Corps and 140 Jews from pre-state Israel who had volunteered to serve in the British military.
On the evening of May 1, 1943, German bomber aircraft attacked the convoy north of the Libyan city of Benghazi. The ships took evasive action and returned fire. Then a bomber torpedoed a British tanker. It caught fire and capsized within minutes, killing 10 of its crew.
As German planes continued to attack, a bomb hit the Erinpura as well, causing it to quickly sink. More than 800 people aboard the Erinpura were killed, among them 173 of the Jewish volunteers.
A Danish cargo steamer ship called St. Jan, built in 1907, passed through several hands before the Palestine Maritime Lloyd company took it over in 1935. That’s when it acquired its final name — the “SS Har Zion,” or “Mt. Zion” in English — and featured a Star of David on its smokestack. Based in Haifa with a mostly Jewish crew, it sailed under the flag of the British Merchant Navy.
In 1940 the Har Zion was mobilized by the British and began carrying cargo for the British army. On August 29, 1940, it was part of a large convoy that set out from Liverpool across the Atlantic Ocean on its way to Savannah, Georgia. Two days later, the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine: 36 people were lost, including 17 Jewish sailors.
The investigation into the bodies reportedly washed up on the shores of Tripoli after the loss of the Sea Lion came up empty. But what if it hadn’t? What if the investigator had found even one of the seven bodies and had been able to identify him as a member of the 24 Boatmen?
It is possible that in the future, some of the country’s 560 missing soldiers will be found, whether on a beach, in a grave that was covered in dust for decades, or as prisoners in a foreign land: some of those heroes who volunteered for operations carried out by the British army during WWII fought in Iraq, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Greece. All that would be needed for positive identification if their burial sites are discovered are samples of their blood relatives’ DNA.
Eitan, the Israeli army’s unit for detecting missing soldiers, works tirelessly to track down the burial sites of soldiers killed from 1948 to the present. But the unit generally does not look for those who fell before Israel’s War of Independence, and occasionally they need help in locating living relatives to obtain DNA samples for soldiers slain in that war.
That’s where the volunteer organization Giving a Face to the Fallen (GFF) comes in. Founded in 2013, GFF is dedicated to perpetuating the memory of every fallen soldier whose sacrifice contributed to the establishment of the State of Israel. It is GFF that has been tasked with ferreting out details of missing soldiers lost before and during the War of Independence about whom nothing at all is known. Information about living relatives is vital in helping to identify the DNA of fallen soldiers whose gravesites are unknown.
Information about two of the Jewish soldiers lost on the Sea Lion was unavailable to both the British and leaders of the Haganah. It was relatively easy for GFF to discover relatives for Gershon Kopler, who had lived in Mandate Palestine since 1933. But details about the second, Yehuda “Rudi” Czerner, remained a total mystery until GFF began investigating his life.
It took three whole years to unravel his story, looking for every possible strand of information that led to another, searching through memorial material from the 1950s, consulting the Zionist Archives, passports, Jewish records from Poland, and internet sites. Among the documents recovered is a photo of the headstone on the grave of Czerner’s father, who died in 1936 (the rest of the family was murdered in the Holocaust) and even a picture of the Czerner home in Germany.
Finally, after exhaustive research, GFF came to the conclusion that Czerner actually had relatives in Palestine at the time the ship went under. GFF founder Dorit Peri called someone thought to be a descendant of a long-ago common patriarch to ascertain if he was indeed related to Czerner. After asking subtle, roundabout questions about his uncles, cousins, and grandparents, she discovered that he and Czerner had a great-grandparent in common.
Yehuda “Rudi” Czerner was born in Cottbus, Germany, on July 7, 1920, and as a child was active in the city’s Jewish youth movements. At the age of 16, he left his family and immigrated to Palestine, worked as chief gardener on a kibbutz where he met his girlfriend Techiya, and was one of the founders of Kibbutz Kedma.
Something of a loner, he was dedicated to his work and loyal to his friends. He spent as much time as possible learning Hebrew, agriculture, and was especially fascinated by the sea. He participated in Haganah courses including seamanship and even became one of the organization’s instructors. Among his Haganah activities were raids on Arab gangs. In 1941 he volunteered for the British army. To learn more, visit the Giving a Face to the Fallen website.
According to Jewish tradition from the 18th century, Moses was born and died on the seventh day of the Hebrew month of Adar. Every year on this date, which this year falls on February 28, there is an official ceremony on Mt. Herzl for Israel’s fallen whose burial sites, like those of Moses, are unknown.
This year, GFF marks a decade since its founding with a special gathering at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center. During the event, which will take place on the evening of Monday, February 27, GFF will reveal new stories about formerly unknown soldiers, and host veterans of the War of Independence along with families for whom the GFF provided closure. To reserve a place at the event, click here.
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