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Memorial Day

The shepherd, the pilot, the long-lost grave: 5 stories of Israel’s 1948 fallen

Hundreds of Jews died in the fight for Jerusalem, including teenage immigrants and seasoned veterans; today, monuments and battle sites remain outside the capital

  • From left: Yaakov Stutsky, Yitzhak Mordecai, Haim Poznansky, Mordecai Franco. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)
    From left: Yaakov Stutsky, Yitzhak Mordecai, Haim Poznansky, Mordecai Franco. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)
  • A bunker used by Arab forces near Beit Mahsir outside Jerusalem. A plane manned by former RAF pilot Yariv Sheinboim crashed outside the village during an operation in 1948. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A bunker used by Arab forces near Beit Mahsir outside Jerusalem. A plane manned by former RAF pilot Yariv Sheinboim crashed outside the village during an operation in 1948. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A highway outside Jerusalem was the site of fierce fighting in 1948 when the thoroughfare was a single lane road leading between the hills to the city. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A highway outside Jerusalem was the site of fierce fighting in 1948 when the thoroughfare was a single lane road leading between the hills to the city. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • Pilots’ Mountain (Har Hatayasim), a major Israeli Air Force memorial site in the Jerusalem hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    Pilots’ Mountain (Har Hatayasim), a major Israeli Air Force memorial site in the Jerusalem hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The military cemetery in Kiryat Anavim outside Jerusalem is the resting place of many casualties of the fight for the capital in 1948. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The military cemetery in Kiryat Anavim outside Jerusalem is the resting place of many casualties of the fight for the capital in 1948. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • The gravestone in Kiryat Avavim of Mordecai Franco, who was killed at age 17 in Jerusalem in the War of Independence. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    The gravestone in Kiryat Avavim of Mordecai Franco, who was killed at age 17 in Jerusalem in the War of Independence. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
  • A Palmach force attempted to break through the Zion Gate in Jerusalem in 1948 to reach Jews inside the Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)
    A Palmach force attempted to break through the Zion Gate in Jerusalem in 1948 to reach Jews inside the Old City. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Six months before his assassination, 47 years after the events took place, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin remembered the day that Yaakov Stutsky fell in battle. At the time Rabin was the commander of the Harel Brigade, formed on April 16, 1948 with soldiers serving in the Palmach — the elite force of the Haganah underground.

Jewish Jerusalem had been under Arab siege for months, and the situation in the city was desperate. Cut off from all other Jewish communities, the city had only one source of supply: a narrow, single-lane road from the coast that ran below fortified heights manned by hostile Arabs. Harel was created from Palmach troops specifically to keep the road clear, with many of the soldiers already veterans in the battle for control of the region.

Stutsky was one of the new brigade’s approximately 1,400 young men and women sworn to ensure that convoys could safely reach Jerusalem with supplies.

Thousands of soldiers lost their lives in the War of Independence. But Rabin, speaking at a memorial ceremony on Mount Herzl, remembered Stutsky in particular. It seems that they had switched army jackets, since Stutsky’s was way too big for him, while the one that Rabin wore was far too tight.

Yaakov Stutsky. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)

On the 20th of April, Stutsky and his men joined a convoy heading for beleaguered Jerusalem. After the soldiers had unloaded medicine, food, fuel and weapons to the city’s residents, the convoy began its return. As it neared Sha’ar Hagai, well-equipped Arabs swooped down from the hills, attacking as it approached.

The vehicles came under heavy fire and Stutsky moved to the front, to prevent an Arab advance. Reinforcements eventually arrived, but until then the Brigade suffered dozens of casualties. Rabin spotted Stutsky several hours later, recognizing him, in part, when he saw his own army jacket on the soldier’s lifeless body.

The Harel Brigade was based at Kiryat Anavim, just over a dozen kilometers (7.5 miles) from Jerusalem, and its first victim was hastily laid to rest in a wadi next to the local cemetery. Casualties mounted at such an alarming pace that graves were dug for fallen troops even before they set out for the battlefield. Four hundred and eighteen soldiers — nearly a third of the Brigade’s total number — were killed during the war, and buried at Kiryat Anavim.

At the far end of the unique burial cemetery stands a striking tribute to fallen members of the brigade, which, according to where you are standing, can resemble either a lion at rest — or a rifle at the ready. Artist Menahem Shemi designed the monument in 1951; his son Aharon, or “Jimmy,” had been killed during the battle for the “Joint Outpost” on October 18, 1948, and lies here with his comrades at arms.

A monument to fallen soldiers from the Harel Brigade at Kiryat Anavim designed by artist Menahem Shemi, whose son was killed in battle and buried at the cemetery. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Two of the men buried at Kiryat Anavim died in an airplane crash on May 10, 1948. Against his father’s wishes, Polish-born Yitzhak Mordechai Sklaniewicz had made his way to Palestine at the age of 15 in 1932. World War II broke out after he finished his studies, and he tried to volunteer in Britain’s armored corps. Rejected because of his status as a resident of the land of Israel, he was sworn into the Palmach the year that it came into being: 1941.

Sklaniewicz believed that weapons would one day determine the future of the Jews in their land and worked feverishly day and night in their production. He also supervised the laying of the first Negev pipeline and was involved in keeping Bedouins and Arab villagers from sabotaging the project. Afterwards he labored around the clock as head of weapons development and production for the Haganah.

Yitzhak Mordechai Sklaniewicz. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)

On the day of the crash, he rode in a Norseman aircraft with the intent of testing a new type of explosive. The plan was, apparently, to bomb the extremely hostile village of Beit Mahsir and thus to assist Palmach troops as they battled villagers and Arab troops for control over the Jerusalem road. Visibility was severely limited, but after identifying the enemy the plane dove through the clouds only to crash in the Jerusalem hills. Everyone on board was killed; their bodies recovered only months later. The circumstances surrounding the crash remain a mystery.

Piloting the plane was former Royal Air Force pilot Yariv Sheinboim. Born in kibbutz Kfar Giladi, he learned to fly at a school in the town of Lydda (Lod) and when World War II broke out he applied for admission to flight school in England. While waiting, he worked as a truck driver and in construction at an airfield in the north of the country. But in 1942, as the war got ever closer to home, he decided to wait no longer and he volunteered in the British air force as a simple soldier. While serving with his unit in Africa, he received word that he had been accepted into flight school. It took him five harrowing months to travel through Africa to reach England but he finished the course as a full-fledged combat pilot.

After five years of service in the RAF, Sheinboim returned home full of excited plans for developing aviation in the land of Israel. As soon as the War of Independence began, he joined the fledging pre-state Israeli air force transporting wounded soldiers and bringing supplies to beleaguered settlements.

The Pilots’ Mountain (Har Hatayasim) memorial site for the Air Force in the Jerusalem hills. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Pilots’ Mountain (Har Hatayasim in Hebrew) is a major Israeli Air Force memorial site in the Jerusalem Hills. The mountain is 795 meters (2,600 feet) above sea level and features a splendid nature reserve covered with forests and a wide variety of flowers that includes ten different species of orchid.

Sections of the plane that crashed nearby are an integral part of a large memorial that commemorates Israeli Air Force pilots who fell in the Jerusalem Hills during the war. Their names are recorded on four-sided pillars depending on the date on which they died.

On the night of April 22, 1948, Harel forces were ordered to take three specific targets in an effort to create a Jewish-controlled corridor between Jerusalem and the settlements just to her north. The targets were two nearly deserted villages and Nebi Samuel, the traditional burial site of the prophet Samuel and strategically situated 908 meters above sea level.

Fortifications left by Arab forces at Nebi Samuel outside Jerusalem. (Shmuel Bar-Am)

Haim Poznansky, born in Tel Aviv, had spent years as a farmer and shepherd while absorbing everything there was to know about the country’s Bedouin. But now he was a company commander in the Palmach, and he insisted on taking part in the attack despite the fact that his brother Yitzhak had been killed only seven weeks previously in an Arab ambush outside of his northern kibbutz.

Haim Poznansky. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)

As the Brigade neared Nebi Samuel, its soldiers were bombarded with such heavy fire that they were forced to retreat. Haim Poznansky was fatally wounded in the wee hours of April 23. With his dying breath he ordered the men who rushed to his side to leave him be, and not to risk their own lives.

Yitzhak Poznansky, nicknamed Poza by his friends, was buried in the cemetery of Kibbutz Beit Keshet. His brother Haim, also dubbed Poza, lies at rest in the military cemetery at Kiryat Anavim.

Mordechai Franco was 13 when he arrived in Mandatory Palestine from Turkey. Three years later he and his youth group from Kibbutz Kinneret joined the Palmach. That same year the War of Independence broke out. Mordecai served in the Galilee while training in the skills needed to set off explosives.

When his platoon was ordered to the Jerusalem Hills, he participated in a number of area battles and took part in the conquest of the city’s Katamon neighborhood as well. He couldn’t wait for the war to be over and wrote to his family letters full of confidence and faith in the outcome.

Franco was part of the Palmach force ordered to break through Zion Gate and make contact with the Old City’s isolated Jewish Quarter. He was killed in battle on May 18, 1948, shortly before his 18th birthday.

Mordecai Franco. (Courtesy/Curator Beit Hapalmach)

There was chaos that day, but after the soldiers threw a grenade in the direction of Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion fragments apparently flew backward and Franco — the only fatality — was killed instantly. Yet in all the confusion, no one knew where he had been taken for burial. His family, which immigrated in 1949, searched for years. His parents passed away without knowing his burial site.

It wasn’t until 2006 that the mystery was solved: after years of searching, the army unit attempting to locate missing soldiers found that instead of the seven bodies listed in a grave at Kiryat Anavim there were actually eight. And one of them was that of Mordecai Franco.

In one of his letters to his family, Franco wrote that after the war “the world will be stunned to learn how a tiny ill-equipped force overcame forces ten times as strong.”

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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