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New Yorkers who fought for the independence of Zion.

It's not every day that you meet a celebrity while walking through Manhattan, but if you chanced to be strolling through midtown in the early summer of 1947, you might have run into boxing champion Barney Ross.

Winner of the lightweight, welterweight, and junior welterweight championships in the 1930s and later a decorated veteran of World War Two's Guadalcanal battle, Ross threw himself into the postwar struggle to create a Jewish State. In the summer of 1947, Ross could be found on Manhattan street corners with a group of activists from the American League for a Free Palestine (better known as the Bergson Group), recruiting young Americans for a "George Washington Legion" that would fight the British in Palestine.

The prospect of fighting for Jerusalem alongside Barney Ross helped entice 20 year-old Nathan Nadler, a native of Brooklyn's Brownsville neighborhood, to sign up. A brief interview at the Free Palestine League's office followed, at the end of which he was given a phone number to call if he was "really interested" in pursuing the matter. That led to a second interview, under suitably dramatic circumstances, "with floodlights shining in my eyes the whole time, so I couldn't see who was interviewing me," he later recalled. The skeptical Nadler thought to himself, "A Nechtiger tog," a Yiddish expression indicating his doubt that anything would come of it all, but a few days later, he received a call instructing him to proceed to a pier in Philadelphia to join the crew of the S.S. President Warfield, a ship that would try to bring Holocaust survivors from Europe to Palestine in defiance of British immigration restrictions.

After climbing the rope ladder to the ship, he was greeted by "A priest! With a clerical collar, a black tunic, and a big cross on his chest about eight inches high." It was the Rev. John Stanley Grauel, Methodist minister and Nadler's crew mate on the ship that would soon be renamed the "Exodus." Barney Ross and the American League for a Free Palestine, who sent Nadler to the Exodus, were actually supporters of the Revisionist-affiliated Irgun Zvai Leumi, while the Exodus was sponsored by their rival, the Labor Zionist-affiliated Haganah, but American supporters of the two groups were sometimes able to set aside their differences for a common cause.

Nadler was one of several hundred idealistic New Yorkers who risked their lives by taking part in the struggle for Jewish statehood. They included Jews, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Italian-Americans, and they served as sailors, gunrunners, soldiers, pilots in the tumultuous events leading up to the establishment of the State of Israel. Some were captivated by the idea of the Jews fulfilling Biblical prophecy by returning to the Holy Land. Others were driven by sympathy for the victims of the Holocaust. All shared the deeply-held conviction that the Jews deserved a state and that decent people everywhere had an obligation to help them get it.


The unlikely hub of New York's fight for Zion was the Hotel Fourteen, a residential hotel situated atop the famed Copacabana Club on East 60th Street. Owners Fanny and Ruby Barnett, both passionate Zionists, put the hotel at the disposal of Palestine Labor Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion, who lived and worked there on his visits to run a weapons pipeline from the United States to the Holy Land. The Manhattan-based petrochemical industrialist Rudolph Sonneborn was the key figure in this operation, meeting frequently with Ben-Gurion at the hotel nicknamed "Kibbutz Fourteen" and in the El Patio Room at the Hotel McAlpin, to plan operations.

The first phase focused on acquiring boats to smuggle refugees. With funds raised by Sonneborn, old boats were purchased, docked at piers on City Island (near the Bronx), Staten Island, and Brooklyn Heights, and refurbished. Volunteer crewmen such as Nathan Nadler were plentiful. Other New Yorkers in the crew of the Exodus included the ship's captain, ex-Merchant Marine Bernard Marks, and Brooklynites Arthur Ritzer and Cyril Weinstein. The diversity of the Exodus crew is illustrated by the fact that among its members were both Leon Reinharth, who was studying at the Jewish Institute of Religion to become a Reform rabbi, and David Starec, who was studying at Yeshiva University to become an Orthodox rabbi. After the voyage of the Exodus, both young men took part in the battles for Jerusalem in the War of Independence.

On July 18, 1947, the Exodus was intercepted by the British as it approached the Tel Aviv coastline. Passengers and crew fought a pitched battle with the truncheon-swinging British soldiers who boarded the ship. Nathan Adler was among those who was seriously wounded, and another victim, crewman Bill Bernstein, died of his injuries after being denied medical attention until the boat was towed to Haifa thirteen hours later. The refugees were herded aboard another ship, the Empire Rival, which would return them to France. Crew member Eli Kalm, a Bronx native, knew he could avoid deportation if he identified himself as an American citizen. He declined to do so.

"To me, it was a very rare privilege to see what it is like to be a Displaced Person," he wrote to a friend. He found out soon enough. The conditions aboard the Empire Rival reminded him of "living in a subway during the rush hours with all the fans turned off." In this poignant passage, Kalm captured the mood of the passengers upon being told they were being taken back to France:
 Being a Bronxite, I know my Bronx Jews. I know my
 mother: she would yell like hell. But these were Jews I
 had not known, who had been through the ropes.
 They stood there, dead quiet, tears came from a couple
 of women, and what did they answer? They all got up
 and sang Hatikvah. I am used to hearing Hatkivah by
 now, but it runs chills down my spine. It's like hearing
 [American POWs singing] the Star Spangled Banner in
 a Japanese prison camp."


One might think that one experience of this nature would be enough for a lifetime, but some of the New Yorkers who took part in the Aliyah Bet [unauthorized immigration] struggle sailed on more than one refugee ship. Consider the case of the beefy, profusely tattooed Walter "Heavy" Greaves, a professional sailor who survived three torpedo attacks during his World War Two service. Horrified by what he saw on a visit to a DP camp in Germany while on shore leave at the end of the war, Greaves was inspired when, after returning home to New York, he "read in the papers that the Jews wanted a state of their own." He thought to himself, "Why not, goddamit?" Greaves found his way to the crew of the S.S. Ben Hecht, a refugee ship organized by the Bergson Group in early 1947. When the ship was captured by the British, Greaves was disappointed that the passengers and crew were separated, with the refugees taken to Cyprus while "Heavy" and his cob leagues were taken to the Acre Prison, in Palestine. But Acre proved to be a fascinating experience for Greaves. Housed alongside fighters from the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Greaves was amazed to find his cellmates defying the pressures of prison life by organizing entire schools, where they studied "languages, mathematics, and how to handle explosives."

The British, under international pressure, soon released the American crew members, and Greaves was back in New York, looking for another refugee ship to join. At a synagogue in the Bronx, he met members of a Haganah cell preparing a boat called the S.S. Paducah, soon renamed the Geula. To Greaves's disappointment, the Geula organizers at first hesitated to accept him because of his ties to the Irgun-affiliated S.S. Ben Hecht. Eventually, however, Greaves won them over, and he sailed with the Geula to Bulgaria, where 1,400 Jewish refugees were taken aboard. A week later, the ship was captured as it approached the Palestine coast. Taken to a detention camp in Cyprus, the American crew members hid their identities in order to be housed together with the refugees. Unfortunately for Greaves, a strip-search revealed the large American flag tattooed across his chest. After his release, "Heavy" made his way to France, where he spent the next year refurbishing other refugee ships, smuggling guns to Palestine, and eventually enlisting in the Israeli Army. After the war, Greaves remained in Israel for a time, training sailors for the young nation.

Meanwhile, back at "Kibbutz Fourteen," Rudolph Sonneborn and company were purchasing and developing weapons for the Israeli Army-to-be. Tight British restrictions on weapons-acqusitions by Palestine Jewry, combined with the Truman administration's embargo on arms to the Holy Land, made Sonneborn's gun-smuggling operation imperative. Some weapons were donated by World War Two veterans; some were bought on the black market; and some were homemade. They enlisted Mota Teumim, a doctoral candidate in aeronautical engineering at the Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, to invent a handheld bazooka. The prototypes were created in a disguised machine-shop on Greene Street. Forest Hills engineer Phil Alper volunteered to design both a machine-gun and the machinery necessary to produce it. Much of the information he used was gleaned from old technical journals that he found in the New York Public library.

Sonneborn purchased a number of derelict Bronx warehouses to house weapons and assorted other useful items, including large quantities of old machinery that the U.S. government auctioned off as scrap metal. To evade the embargo, the guns were packed in crates labeled "Industrial Goods" or "Used Machine Parts."


On one occasion, police officers stumbled upon the contents of one of the warehouses, and quickly cordoned off the building. Sonneborn associate Abraham Feinberg went straight to Gracie Mansion, knowing that Mayor Bill O'Dwyer, an Irish-American, sympathized with the Palestine struggle. O'Dwyer had previously served as executive director of the War Refugee Board, a U.S. government agency that rescued Jews from the Nazis in the waning months of the war. He had also publicly endorsed "A Flag is Born," a controversial Zionist play, starring young Marlon Brando, which the Bergson Group produced to raise funds for the voyage of the S.S. Ben Hecht. The mayor quickly resolved the warehouse episode to the Haganah's satisfaction: he arranged for the policemen guarding the site to be out sick for the next twenty-four hours, by the end of which the Haganah had emptied all the goods and loaded them on ships bound for Palestine.

The mayor was not the only O'Dwyer who aided the fight for Zion. His younger brother Paul, an attorney, raised funds and provided pro bono legal assistance to the American League for a Free Palestine. When an Irgun arms cache was discovered in a 28th street loft in April 1948, O'Dwyer represented the defendants, Isaiah Warshaw of Brooklyn and Joseph Untermeyer, son of former Manhattan judge Esther Untermeyer. At their first hearing, O'Dwyer asked for dismissal of the charges on the grounds that if the young men were "engaged in sending arms and ammunition to Israel, it would be a worthwhile act." Magistrate Frederick Strong agreed and threw out the case.

Strong was one of many New York judges who sided with the fight for Zion. Judge Vernon Riddick presided when George Studley of Manhattan, today a prominent New York City restaurateur, was arrested with four comrades when they were spotted with crates of Irgun weapons in a Bronx storage depot. O'Dwyer's opening statement was a political speech, praising the defendants for trying to "help people defend their homes and hillsides." As O'Dwyer began to ridicule the conspiracy charge by accusing the State Department of conspiring against the Jewish people, Judge Riddick interrupted him in mid-sentence by dismissing the case.

Late one night in January 1948, a crate of TNT accidentally broke open while being loaded on a ship at Jersey City's Pier F. Phil Alper, Jack Dorfman of Brooklyn, Martin Adelson of the Bronx, "Big Moe" Wolfson of Jamaica, Queens, Joseph Siger of neighboring Laurelton, and three comrades were arrested. They had the good fortune, however, to be taken before Judge Sylvester Ryan, an Irish-American who regarded Jews fighting the British as kindred spirits. "I do not regard you as criminals," Ryan declared, noting that the defendants were trying "to provide means of defense to an otherwise helpless people." The young men could have received long prison terms; Ryan sentenced them to one year of probation.

Ryan was one of many New York judges who looked kindly upon the fight for Jewish independence. A trucker who was later arrested in connection with the Pier F operation was let off with just a fine; Judge John Giordano was impressed that the defendant "was doing something for other people in other parts of the world for whom he had a kindly feeling." Judge John Glennon meted out $25 fines as the punishment for four students from the Brooklyn rabbinical seminary Torah Vodaath who were caught testing weapons that were to be shipped to the Haganah.

Manhattan funeral parlor directors played a unique role in these efforts. Somber-faced Zionist activists, posing as mourners, would stage phony funerals in which coffins stuffed with weapons were loaded onto hearses and then driven to arms depots in Yonkers, White Plains, the Bronx and Brooklyn. From there, other drivers would transport the "dearly departed" to piers at Brooklyn's Bush Terminal and the Marine Terminal in Hoboken. Still draped with dekkes, the black cloth traditionally placed on Jewish coffins, the heavy caskets were placed on ships bound for Palestine. Some Irish-American dock workers eventually realized the math about the coffins but, out of sympathy for the Jews and antipathy towards the British, agreed to look the other way.


The fledgling Israeli air force, was also, to a large extent, the product of American volunteers. There were so many English-speakers in its ranks that English was the required language for army radio communications until 1950, well after the War of Independence ended. Many of the aircraft in Israel's first small fleet were surplus World War Two planes, such as C-46s and Lockheed Constellations, that the Sonneborn group acquired and refurbished in New Jersey. At the same time, ex-New Yorker Hank Greenspun bought and repaired planes in southern California, storing them at the Burbank airport until they could be flown to Palestine. Brooklyn flight engineer and former TWA mechanic Willie Sosnow was Greenspun's right-hand man. Greenspun, Sosnow, and several other New Yorkers were eventually arrested and indicted for conspiracy to violate the Truman administration's arms embargo, but a sympathetic judge let them off with suspended sentences and fines.

A colorful array of New Yorkers served among Israel's first pilots. Columbia University student Tryg Maseng, the son of Norwegian immigrants, had been a captain in the U.S. air force and joined Israel's because "I was too late for the Spanish civil war." Sam Boshes signed up as an Israeli pilot after flying the dangerous B-26--nicknamed the Widow Maker--in World War Two. Their comrades included Al Raisin, one of the only pilots for Israel who could fly a B-17 bomber; Giddy Lichtman, who shot down three Arab planes; and Bill Pomerantz, who died in a plane crash on his way back to the United States after the War of Independence.

The most spectacular of these pilots' feats took place not in Israel but in Egypt. Assigned to fly a recently-acquired B-17 from Czechoslovakia to Israel in the summer of 1948, Ray Kurtz, a veteran of the Brooklyn police and fire departments, realized his flight path would take him within striking distance of Cairo. On a July afternoon, Kurtz zeroed in on the palace of King Farouk and began dropping bombs. Until that point, the Egyptians had been bombing Tel Aviv and did not believe the tiny Israeli air force could possibly strike within Egypt. Thus although Kurtz's raid caused only modest damage, it sent shock waves through Egypt. Convinced that the Jews possessed far greater aerial power than they realized, the Egyptians virtually halted their attacks on Tel Aviv, and moved their powerful 88-mm. guns to defend Cairo against future Israeli bombing raids that never occurred. Kurtz's attack also provided Israelis with a huge boost in morale. "It was like we had dropped the atomic bomb," as one of the Israeli pilots later put it.


New Yorkers could also be found in the ranks of the fledgling Israeli Army, from ordinary foot soldiers to the highest ranking general, the former Brooklynite David Daniel Marcus, better known as Mickey. A West Point graduate, mob-busting federal attorney, and one-time New York City Commissioner of Corrections, Marcus was a brilliant military planner who designed the command structure that helped transform the ragtag Haganah into a modern fighting force. He wrote its training manuals and created the military strategy used in the War of Independence, only to die in a tragic army accident shortly after being made a Lieutenant General.

Recruiters for the Israeli Army were active in New York throughout 1948. Wellesley Aron of the Haganah maintained offices in the Hotel Breslin, on the lower west side, where potential soldiers were interviewed. Those who passed then underwent training at a hidden site in upstate Peekskill, eventually reaching Israel disguised as French agricultural workers.

The Irgun's campaign for American volunteers was less successful. The aforementioned "George Washington Legion" for which Barney Ross recruited was stymied when the State Department announced in March 1948 that any American taking part in the War of Independence would be stripped of his U.S. citizenship. Nonetheless, individual Bergson Group activists and members of the Revisionist youth movement Betar made their way to Palestine to join up with Irgun militia units there.

Despite the State Department's threats, many idealistic New Yorkers headed for the battlefields of the Middle East. Max Alper--brother of machine-gun designer Phil Alper--became the first Israeli soldier to shoot down an Arab plane (an Egyptian Spitfire, on the war's second day). Brooklynite Joe Moss, served in an artillery unit that defeated Egyptian tank units in the battles for the Negev. Yeshiva College rabbinical student Moshe Pearlstein of Boro Park, joined the army and lost his life in the battle for Gush Etzion. Ralph Lowenstein left his studies at Columbia University to join the army in the conquest of the Galilee. Six foot-three Dov "Tiny" Seligman, who reached Palestine on the S.S. Josiah Wedgwood, an "aliyah bet" ship, joined the forces defending the frontier settlement of Tira. His friends there later described how Seligman taught them "the glories of American swing music via records of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw." He was killed in an Arab assault on the town in early 1948.


The Israeli military effort required a wide range of contributions, and New Yorkers provided many of them. The Sonneborn group recruited Dan Fliderblum of Yonkers, who was teaching Army Signal Corps trainees at New York University, to develop a radio network to link isolated Jewish towns. Former OSS operative-turned Manhattan attorney Nahum Berustein trained future soldiers in intelligence work. In classrooms at the west 16th street headquarters of the National Council of Young Israel, Bernstein taught his young charges codes and ciphers, safecracking, and lock-picking, among other useful talents.

Cryptologist and former OSS man Geoffrey Mort-Smith, an Episcopalian from Schenectady, assisted Bernstein. He designed a code that Haganah agents in New York used to beam secret radio messages to Tel Aviv, from the house of a supporter in Staten Island who had a high-powered radio transmitter. Another Bernstein aide was Meyer Birnbaum, who later became famous in the kosher poultry business. He taught young recruits how to use piano wires, knives, and thumbs in hand-to-hand combat. Many of the students spent their weekends at an upstate farm owned by Wall Street broker Louis Rocker, learning how to use explosives.


The significant number of New Yorkers among the American volunteers in the Israeli fight for independence to some extent reflects nothing more than the fact that New York City at that rime was home to more Jews than any other city in the world. Naturally many idealists among them felt inspired to join what young Sidney Lumet--a cast member in the Bergson Group's "A Flag is Born"--called "the only romantic thing left in the world--the homecoming to Palestine, the conquest of a new frontier, against all obstacles."

But what to make of the many non-Jewish volunteers who risked their lives batting the British or the Arabs in Palestine, a fight that was not their own?

The experience of living in a city where Jews and Jewish concerns were a prominent part of the milieu--whether as neighbors and friends, or as creators of popular culture, or as objects of media attention--undoubtedly helped sensitize them to the justice of the Jewish cause. Combine that with the widespread postwar public sympathy for the Jews as underdogs and Holocaust victims, as well as traditional Christian religious affection for the idea of the wandering Jews finally returning to the Holy Land, and the result was sufficient motivation to draw many New Yorkers of different faiths to make that faraway fight their fight. For Jewish and non-Jewish New Yorkers alike, it was the good fight, and together they helped make possible a dream that most of the world had long doubted could ever come to pass.

RAFAEL MEDOFF is director of The David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies,
COPYRIGHT 2008 Theodor Herzl Foundation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Israel at Sixty: The War(s) of Independence
Author:Medoff, Rafael
Geographic Code:7ISRA
Date:May 1, 2008
Previous Article:The institution of president of the state of Israel.
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