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In Op-Eds, soldiers argued about politics in the Yishuv

Trove of publications by WWII Jewish soldiers from Palestine gets new home at NLI

Newspapers, journals, and other periodicals produced by Jewish units from Palestine in British Army reveal rich intellectual and emotional lives of soldiers fighting in Europe

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

  • Front page of the October 19, 1944 issue of 'Lahayal,' the daily newspaper for Jewish soldiers in Europe published in Italy. Top headlines are about the progress of the Allies in Europe.(Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
    Front page of the October 19, 1944 issue of 'Lahayal,' the daily newspaper for Jewish soldiers in Europe published in Italy. Top headlines are about the progress of the Allies in Europe.(Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
  • A platoon leader in the 3rd Bn. of the Jewish Brigade Lt. Max Weiner, originally from Dresden, Germany, and now from Palestine. Weiner, with his Jewish Brigade insignia clearly visible on his left sleeve was in the area of Pideura, Italy March, 1945. (Photographer: Levine, 196th Signal Photo Co./Signal Corps Archive from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
    A platoon leader in the 3rd Bn. of the Jewish Brigade Lt. Max Weiner, originally from Dresden, Germany, and now from Palestine. Weiner, with his Jewish Brigade insignia clearly visible on his left sleeve was in the area of Pideura, Italy March, 1945. (Photographer: Levine, 196th Signal Photo Co./Signal Corps Archive from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
  • Cover of the haggadah created by the soldiers of the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit used at the 1943 Passover seder in Benghazi, Libya. The Allies had finally recaptured the city from the Axis powers in December 1942. The 600 seder participants included local Jewish survivors and Jewish soldiers serving in the area. The image shows the troops heading east to liberate the Jews of Europe. (Courtesy of Aviram Paz)
    Cover of the haggadah created by the soldiers of the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit used at the 1943 Passover seder in Benghazi, Libya. The Allies had finally recaptured the city from the Axis powers in December 1942. The 600 seder participants included local Jewish survivors and Jewish soldiers serving in the area. The image shows the troops heading east to liberate the Jews of Europe. (Courtesy of Aviram Paz)
  • One Jewish unit's publication includes a 'Shower Conversations' section with jokes and lighthearted banter from one of the units. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
    One Jewish unit's publication includes a 'Shower Conversations' section with jokes and lighthearted banter from one of the units. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
  • A group of Jewish Brigade soldiers at Karnak, near Luxor, Egypt in September 1944. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
    A group of Jewish Brigade soldiers at Karnak, near Luxor, Egypt in September 1944. (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)
  • One Jewish unit's publication includes a 'Our Children Write' section with messages from young loved ones at home. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
    One Jewish unit's publication includes a 'Our Children Write' section with messages from young loved ones at home. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)
  • The rabbi of the Jewish Brigade visits an aid station in Italy and distributes newspapers, March 1945. (Photographer: Levine, 196th Signal Photo Co./Signal Corps Archive from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)
    The rabbi of the Jewish Brigade visits an aid station in Italy and distributes newspapers, March 1945. (Photographer: Levine, 196th Signal Photo Co./Signal Corps Archive from United States, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

As news of increased pogroms committed against Jews in Europe reached British Mandate Palestine in 1939, David Ben-Gurion, leader of the Jewish community and later Israel’s first prime minister, called on Jewish youth to “assist the British in the war as if there were no White Paper [British Mandate policy limiting Jewish immigration] and… resist the White Paper as if there were no war. ”

His call was widely heeded: To do their part in fighting the Axis powers and save European Jewry from the Nazis, 40,000 young Jews from pre-state Israel served in the British Army. This was almost 10% of the Yishuv’s population at the time.

The National Library of Israel recently acquired at auction a collection of 40 Hebrew-language journals, newspapers, and booklets produced by units of Palestinian Jews in the British Army during World War II.

“It’s not an exaggeration to say that an entire generation left the country to serve. It was a huge phenomenon. It was also the first time that women could participate in the fighting effort,” said Dr. Hezi Amiur, curator of the Israel collection at the National Library.

Young people enlisted with the British Army — save for those who chose to join the Palmach, the Yishuv’s underground army fighting the British and Arabs in Palestine.

A drawing of Lady Justice watching as Hitler is crushed by the American, Soviet and British flags appears in a Jewish unit’s publication. The words say, ‘The day of reckoning draws near.’ (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

Each Jewish unit produced its own periodical. And in that era, young people were accustomed to communicating through the written word. Having grown up in the Yishuv’s educational system, the soldiers had excellent Hebrew.

“In some cases, no copies survived from a particular unit’s publication. In other cases, single copies trickled in over time through donations or auction purchases. To be able to buy a single lot containing examples of so many of these publications was really an unusual and important opportunity,” Amiur said in an interview with The Times of Israel at his office at the library on the campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

According to Amiur, these publications are invaluable in helping us understand what the soldiers saw, experienced, thought, and felt while serving in North Africa and southern Europe.

Members of the Yishuv started enlisting as soon as the war broke out in the fall of 1939, with the numbers growing greatly in the 1940s as reports of atrocities committed against European Jewry increasingly reached the Jewish community in Palestine.

In 1942, the Jewish Agency for Israel — the governing body of the Yishuv — began actively recruiting volunteers for the war effort.

The Jewish soldiers served in combat and combat support units. Among them were the Royal East Kent Infantry Regiment, the Royal Pioneer Corps, which engaged in labor and light engineering tasks, and a variety of transport units.

The Jewish Infantry Brigade Group (Jewish Brigade) was formed in late 1944. Rather than a group of soldiers from the Yishuv within a larger British Army unit, this was an entire brigade made up solely of Jews from Palestine commanded by Anglo-Jewish officers. Many of the Jewish Brigade soldiers stayed in Europe after the war to care for refugees, smuggle weapons to the Yishuv, and organize illegal immigration of Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

A Jewish Brigade soldier and Jewish Agency nurse taking care of Jewish refugee children in Florence, Italy, Sept. 1944. (Zoltan Kluger, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

“These soldiers were not out of uniform. They were still British soldiers while engaging in these activities. Eventually, tens of thousands of them returned home and became the kernel of what would become the Israel Defense Forces with the establishment of Israel in 1948,” Amiur said.

Also in 1944, the daily newspaper for Hebrew-speaking soldiers serving in Europe, Lahayal (For the Soldier), began publication — first in Rome and later in Brussels. The National Library collected all the issues of Lahayal, which was also read in Israel, in real-time. Each of the newspaper’s issues from 1944 to 1946 has been digitized and are available for viewing online. (Some, but not all, of the other publications have been digitized.)

Cover of July 25, 1943 issue of ‘Hechayal Ha’ivri’ (The Jewish Soldier) publication of the 178th Eretz Yisrael (Palestine) general transport unit of the Royal Army Service Corps. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

While Lahayal was a more professional operation, the publications produced by the individual units were more basic and were published only when possible. They were typewritten and often copied on stencil machines if printing facilities were not available. Some contained illustrations. When the paper supply was short, the reverse sides of confiscated local official letterhead or telegrams were used.

This was also the case with Passover haggadahs which each of the units produced for their use on base or in the field.

Aviram Paz from Kibbutz Mishmar Ha’emek has been collecting material from this period for 30 years. Among the thousands of items in his private collection are hundreds of examples of the Jewish units’ haggadahs. He published an English-language book, “Exodus from Egypt in Days of Yore, in Recent Times,” that includes a selection of these rare haggadahs from the 1940s. The National Library has exhibited select items from his collection.

A prime example is the Benghazi Haggadah produced for a Passover seder for 600 participants in Benghazi, Libya, in 1943. Put together by soldiers from the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit, the haggadah was copied on the reverse side of documents from the fascist Libyan government.

Short on resources, the soldiers of the 403rd Transport Unit and the 53rd Logistics Unit printed their haggadah on the backs of telegrams of ‘borrowed’ administrative letterhead, such as this. (Courtesy of Aviram Paz)

“The soldiers built their own story on top of the Exodus story. They saw what they were doing reflected in the exodus from Egypt,” Paz said.

The cover of the Benghazi Haggadah shows Jewish soldiers heading west — not east — out of Egypt. Unlike the freed Hebrew slaves heading to the Promised Land, they were heading west to Libya and then to Italy to fight the Axis.

According to Amiur, the soldiers from the Yishuv came into contact with Holocaust survivors for the first time in Libya.

The survivors saw them as saviors

“The survivors saw them as saviors,” Amiur said.

The soldiers’ first-hand encounters with survivors and the Holocaust made a major impression on them. They were witnesses and reported on what they saw and heard.

One Jewish unit’s publication includes a ‘Shower Conversations’ section with jokes and lighthearted banter from one of the units. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

They wrote about the Nazi-led murder machine in news articles, as well as prose and poetry. One soldier named Yehezkel wrote a poem titled, “Via al Italia” in which he speaks of walking proudly as a free Jew under the Arch of Titus, as his fist turns to steel and thoughts turn to vengeance.

The publications also included articles about the war’s progress, as well as news about what was happening back in Palestine. In opinion pieces, soldiers argued about politics in the Yishuv.

There were also sections with reports on holiday preparations, lighthearted jokes, political cartoons, and messages from family members at home.

One Jewish unit’s publication includes a ‘Our Children Write’ section with messages from young loved ones at home. (Courtesy of the National Library of Israel)

“It was a microcosm of Eretz Yisrael (The Land of Israel) in Europe,” Amiur said.

Paz said people laughed at him when he first started collecting these publications and related material. But people are increasingly appreciating the value of what these unique journals and newspapers from a specific and limited period in history reveal.

“There is a whole world in these periodicals,” Paz said.

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