The most famous foreign volunteer to serve in Israel’s War of Independence was David “Mickey” Marcus, who became the first brigadier general in the Israeli army and was accidentally killed by his own troops.
Marcus, a Jewish colonel in the United States Army, was summoned to Mandatory Palestine before the declaration of the State of Israel to help shape the Haganah — the Jews’ main paramilitary defense force — into a modern fighting unit. Known by the pseudonym “Stone,” Marcus had never been an active Zionist. Nevertheless, he was delighted when he was asked to use his military expertise for the good of the Jewish people.
Marcus threw himself into the struggle. His experience and initiative made him such an invaluable asset to the war effort that he was named a brigadier general and commander of the Jerusalem front on May 28, 1948.
Less than two weeks after his appointment, and following an exhausting day of battle, Marcus walked outside his camp in the Jerusalem hills to relieve himself. Still unversed in Hebrew, he didn’t reply with the password when challenged by a cautious sentry. Two more calls went unanswered before the guard nervously fired his gun. Marcus died from a bullet wound in the chest, shot by a Jewish guard. Stone, and his contribution to Israel’s victories in the War of Independence, were immortalized in the touching 1966 film “Cast a Giant Shadow,” starring Kirk Douglas.
Marcus’s camp was situated outside the Arab village of Abu Gosh, where the town of Telz-Stone, established in 1973, is located today.
Though the town was not named for Marcus but rather US philanthropist Irving Stone, whose funds helped establish it, an obelisk-shaped monument to General Mickey “Stone” Marcus stands in a park inside the town. It was somewhere around here that Marcus was shot and killed.
Close to 4,000 volunteers from dozens of countries participated in Israel’s War of Independence. Their experience and expertise were crucial to the new Israeli army, as many of them had served in armies and navies during World War II. Paul Shulman, for example, was an American and a graduate of the Annapolis Naval Academy who became the first commander of the Israeli Navy. And there were so many Anglo-Saxon veterans in the Israeli Air Force that many operational discussions were held in English.
In all, 123 overseas volunteers were killed or went missing in action during the War of Independence. A touching monument is dedicated to these foreign volunteers — mitnadvei hutz la’aretz in Hebrew, or the acronym MaHaL for short — who came to Israel’s aid during the war and lost their lives while serving in its armed forces, off of Route 38 north of Moshav Mesilat Zion. Behind a unique sculpture is a plaque bearing the names of the fallen. Here are a just a few of their heartbreaking stories.
Mordecai Tuito: Holocaust survivor and war hero
After graduating from a Jewish high school, Tunisian-born Mordecai Tuito went to work sewing shoes and purses for a living. His Jewish heritage and Zionist leanings were no secret, and during Arab riots in 1941 in the Jewish quarter of the city of Gabes, he headed the group coming to his community’s defense.
Nazis took control of Tunisia in 1942, and Tuito was arrested for leading the defense of the Jewish quarter and sentenced to hard labor in a prison camp.
After the war, Tuito spent time in France preparing for life in Israel, and when the United Nations decided in November of 1947 to divide Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, he enlisted in Mahal. As soon as his ship reached Israeli shores in 1948, Tuito joined the French Commandos, a unit whose men hailed from North Africa. Although he was wounded in battle over the southern city of Beersheba, he hid his bandages from sight when the unit was photographed so that his parents, should they see the picture, wouldn’t worry.
His commanders knew that when they needed something done, they could always count on Tuito to volunteer for a mission, often learning that he had already completed the task. Tuito fell in battle on December 26, 1948, just three days after his parents immigrated to Israel. He was 24 years old.
Debora Epstein: From South America to southern Israel
Volunteer Debora Epstein was born in Montevideo, Uruguay. As she grew up, Epstein began to worry about the future of the Jewish people both in the Diaspora and in Mandatory Palestine. Thus when the War of Independence broke out at the end of November 1947, she immediately joined the fight. Epstein was sent to defend the besieged little community of Nitzanim in the Negev Desert.
Epstein’s first experience of the war occurred when the bus she took to Nitzanim was attacked. Throughout many more months of Arab assault, she carried out her duties with an energy and devotion that contributed greatly to her comrades’ morale.
On June 7, 1948, Egyptian forces began a massive offensive. A few hours before the Egyptians succeeded in taking Nitzanim, Epstein was badly hit while tending to a wounded comrade. She died a prisoner of war, that same night, in an Egyptian hospital. She was 19 years old.
William Edmondson: Giving his life for what he believed
William Edmondson was the son of Irish immigrants to the United States. A Communist and a social worker, Edmondson was an idealist ready to go battle for the politically or socially oppressed. An aspiring artist, he also fought against the Nazis in WWII. Afterward, Edmondson studied sculpting in France, where he and some Jewish friends began aiding the “illegal” immigration to Palestine. Edmondson finally ended up there, where he volunteered for, and fought together with, the Palmach paramilitary force.
A fearless soldier, Edmondson had one wish only: if the Jews were to lose to the enemy, he preferred to die in battle and not become a prisoner of war. And that is exactly what happened: On July 9, 1948, during a battle over a village in the center of Israel, an Arab bullet hit him in the head and he died instantly. He was 21 years old.
Solly Bornstein: Scholar and soldier
Born in Poland, Solly (Shlomo) Bornstein was seven when his family moved to London, where his father accepted a rabbinical position. After graduating from high school, he studied in a yeshiva, or religious seminary, for two years, and spent a third year at university. An extremely talented scholar, he also excelled in sports. But Bornstein left his promising future behind him when the War of Independence broke out, telling absolutely no one of his intentions — as an only son, he knew that he would face a plethora of objections from his parents.
Arriving in the newly declared State of Israel as a volunteer soldier in June of 1948, he asked the commanders of his English-speaking unit to place him at the front. Three weeks later he was sent to an army position on Mount Kabul in the Lower Galilee and took part in an attack against snipers on the heights. The next day, the Arabs mounted a counter-assault and Bornstein was killed in battle. He was 21 years old.
Wilfred Canter: Tenacious fighter pilot
Wilfred (Zeev) Canter was born in Kiev. When he was five, his family emigrated to Canada and settled in Toronto. In 1941, Canter enlisted in the Royal Canadian Air Force and after completed his training as a pilot was sent to England. From there, he began flying bombers over Germany, until his plane was hit over Stuttgart and crashed; Canter was the only survivor. Members of the underground helped him escape to Gibraltar, from which he eventually made it back to Canada to recuperate from the injuries he sustained during the crash.
One month later, he was back in England and once again flying bombers over Germany. In 1944 his plane was hit; he and several of his crew parachuted into Germany where they were captured and taken prisoner. Although he helped organize a mass breakout from prison (whose much-fictionalized story was told in the 1963 movie “The Great Escape,” starring Steve McQueen) Canter himself did not make it out of the camp.
On the eve of the Allied conquest of Germany, the prisoners were moved further inland. Canter was able to escape during the transport and managed to hook up with British troops on the ground. After the war, he returned to Canada.
Canter was among the first foreign pilots to volunteer for the Israeli Air Force. After arriving in Israel on August 5, 1948, he joined the newly formed Squadron 103 — the Elephants Squadron, which airlifted supplies to Israeli forces cut off by the Egyptian Army and bombed the enemy when called upon to do so.
Just before midnight on October 24, his right engine caught fire. As he turned the plane to make an emergency landing, it exploded in the air and crashed on the ground. Everyone on board was killed, including Canter. He was 27 years old.
The tranquil Mahal memorial dedicated to foreign volunteers is full of picnic tables, flowers, and nature trails. It is located along Route 38 at the entrance to what is known as the Burma Road, created in May of 1948.
Two months earlier in 1948, Arab troops had blockaded the only byway that ran from the coast to Jerusalem, and the Holy City was cut off from all manner of supplies. To solve the problem, the army was tasked with creating an alternative route. Unable to use explosives, and working at night under the noses of enemy guns, soldiers and civilian artisans succeeded in carving out a makeshift pass using only picks, shovels, hoes, wooden mallets and chisels. Supervising construction of the byway — the Burma Road — was none other than Mickey Marcus, commander of the Jerusalem Front.
Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel. Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.
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