My father’s war

This is one in a series of articles on myriad topics related to Israel that will run weekly as we approach the Jewish State’s 60th anniversary on Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in May.

It was Friday afternoon, May 14, 1948. Eighteen-year-old Nessim Bouskila, a recent immigrant from Marrakech, was riding the Paris metro. Across the way sat a man reading a special afternoon edition of “France Soir.” Nessim read the newspaper’s headline: “L’etat d’Israel est ne” — “The State of Israel is Born.” Amazed and overjoyed, Nessim rushed off the metro at the next stop, hurrying to the nearest newsstand to buy the paper. Reading past the headline, Nessim’s joy turned to anxiety as he learned of the Arab threat to invade the newly born Jewish state. He also read the Jewish Agency’s plea calling on young Jews to come to Israel’s defense.

“This is what we grew up praying for and dreaming of,” my father told me in a recent conversation, “so I did not need to read any further.” Nessim made his way to the headquarters of the Jewish Agency in Paris, where he found more than 400 young men and women already lined up, eagerly awaiting the “privilege,” as Papa worded it, to help defend Israel.

Raised in Marrakech, Nessim’s Jewish education was the same as that of his ancestors, with one major exception: Nessim also studied Bialik and Tchernichowsky.

“Our rabbis in Morocco never once condemned secular Zionism!” he exclaimed.

After initial medical exams in Paris, Nessim was sent to the Jewish Agency’s “Arenas Camp” in Marseille, where, for one month, he and hundreds of others were given paramilitary training by members of the newly founded Israel Defense Forces. At 4 a.m. one day, they finally boarded a rickety boat at the port of Marseille.

The journey to Israel took longer than expected. The first truce had been declared, and the United Nations delayed the ship, questioning the necessity of Israel bringing in boatloads of young volunteers. For 12 tortuous days at sea, Nessim and the others barely saw daylight, living on sardines, crackers, jam and water.

The ship docked in Haifa, and the volunteers were detained for four days by the United Nations. “

We had no idea where we were,” Papa told me. “These first days were hardly the Israel we dreamt of.”

It was 1 a.m., and the confused new arrivals were awakened and hurried off to Beit Lid.

“This was the military induction center,” Papa recalled. “We were photographed, given ID cards and uniforms.”

The new recruits were then taken to Tel Mond, where they spent the next month in boot camp. One of the few already fluent in Hebrew, Nessim and two of his childhood friends were eventually separated from their French-speaking comrades. They were assigned to a Palmach Battalion in the Yiftach Brigade, where they received advanced training. In October 1948, Nessim and his friends participated in the famous Operation Yoav in the Negev, commanded by Yigal Allon. They saw heavy combat action, and Nessim returned from the battlefield having lost his two childhood friends.

“I now understood the heavy price of independence,” he recounted, somewhat choked up.

I asked Papa if he had any contact with his parents back in Morocco: “I received a letter from them in our native Judeo-Arabic, transliterated into Hebrew characters.”

This confused the military censor, who called Nessim in and had him swear over a Bible that the letter was not some secret code from Arab spies.

“The censor was Polish,” Papa said with a smile.

An unexpected illness weakened Nessim, and he was transferred from the Palmach to the air force, where he was assigned the task of securing high-ranking officers and pilots. This job gave him a front-row seat to Israel’s political scene. He accompanied officers to the Knesset in Tel Aviv, where he heard David Ben-Gurion address the parliament; the Hatikvah neighborhood, where he heard Menachem Begin speak in a public rally; and the Hadar Hotel, where he saw U.N. mediator Ralph Bunche. An assignment to Armon Ha-Natsiv in Talpiot gave Nessim his first trip to Jerusalem, where he caught his first glimpse — albeit from a distance — of Jerusalem’s Old City.

In 1949, Nessim spent the first Passover of modern-day Israel in Jerusalem. He stayed with his mother’s cousin, who had lived in Jerusalem’s Old City until she was forced out just a few months earlier.

“I finally said ‘This year in Jerusalem,'” he recalled with great emotion.

On his first flight out of Israel, Nessim sat on the same plane as Moshe Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister. Symbolic, perhaps, because growing up in Los Angeles, I saw my father as my own personal Israeli foreign diplomat.

Asked how he sees Israel today, he said “I am proud to see a strong and beautifully developed country whose brightest days are still ahead of her.”

Papa couldn’t resist sharing how proud he is that his granddaughter Shira was invited by the Israeli Consulate to sing “Hatikvah” at Los Angeles’ recent “Live for Sderot” event. Sixty years later, this was Papa’s ultimate personal reward for his service to Israel.

From red alerts to the red carpet — a teen from Sderot speaks

Vitolda Nahshonov, 15, is one of 10 teens brought to Los Angeles from Sderot by the Israeli Leadership Club and the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles to share her story of what it’s like to live under constant attack from Qassam rockets. Nahshonov has lived in Sderot, near the border of Gaza, since the age of 2, and was chosen to be part of the group’s weeklong visit by the Israeli Leadership Club on the basis of her academic record and her ability to speak English. Nahshonov’s dream vacation/humanitarian tour was her first visit to the United States, and she took time to talk during a dinner at Universal CityWalk’s Hard Rock Cafe on the night before she and her group returned home to Sderot. What follows is an edited version of our conversation.

Jewish Journal: Why did you want to become a part of the “Live For Sderot” project?

Vitolda Nahshonov: To raise awareness. To tell people what is going on in our town. When I go out in Israel, outside of Sderot, people ask me where I’m from, and when I tell them Sderot, they ask, what’s Sderot? That’s where the Qassams fall. Oh, really? Yes. So if people in Israel don’t know what Sderot is, then what goes on outside of Israel?

Firsthand accounts bring WWII London ‘Blitz’ to life

There is no shortage of books, historical and fictional, on the bombing of London during World War II. Peter Stansky’s new book, “The First Day of the Blitz,” combines history, political commentary and firsthand testimony in a compelling account.

The “Blitz,” misnamed for its expected quick knockout blow to Britain, officially started at 5 p.m. on Sept. 7, 1940. The bombing was extensive and lasted for 56 of the next 57 days. Over the course of the war, 40 percent of London’s housing stock was made uninhabitable.

Stansky’s book focuses on the first day, when the complacency of the Phony War (a preceding time of relative calm and frequently ignored air raid sirens) was replaced by shock, then terror, then resolve.

One of the first accounts details a recurring theme, the importance of afternoon tea:

“It must have been about 4 o’clock, because my mother had made afternoon tea … in the little silver-edged tray, complete with cups and saucers, a small matching china jug with milk and a teapot under its cosy.”

When the bombing started, they took refuge in a cupboard under the stairs.

“The air of the parlour condensed and became opaque as if turned instantaneously to a red-brown fog, the floor heaved unbelievably, the [wall] leaned and rocked as though it had become flexible and … the slates from the roof came pouring down, crashing through the roof of the glass conservatory with huge clatter, smashing all the glass and piling brokenly into the room….

“[As the bombing subsided], everything was covered with a heavy brown dust, which lay so thickly on the floor that it concealed the carpet. The little china milk jug was lying on its side, and the spilt milk lay in a rivulet dripping over the edge of the table to a white pool in that thick layer of dust below.

“My mother made an instinctive movement to pick up the jug and staunch the flow of milk, but realised how useless it was. What normally would have been a serious accident spoiling the carpet, was tiny in this new scale of destruction.”

At the Anti-Defamation League, we have many programs designed to teach about the Holocaust, and we know how well personal testimony and artifacts — a survivor’s story, an excerpted diary, a single shoe — attest to the human condition and bring history lessons to life. For me, Stansky’s book was especially close to home, as my mother and father lived through the Blitz, and their stories were part of the fabric of my childhood.

Reading Stansky’s book brought back memories of my mother’s experiences, both sad and funny — seeing a postman blown into the air; spending an air raid crouched under the heavy dining room table, where her older relatives sat telling jokes and playing cards, and just getting on with everyday life. I pored through the stories of this book as I would read my mother’s own diary. I was so eager to get to the next firsthand account, I often had to stop and re-read Stansky’s historic conclusions.

Stansky gives conflicting evidence of Britain’s preparedness, noting on one hand, the remarkable volunteer efforts of the air raid wardens, and on the other, the misplaced micromanagement of the British government (distributing postcards so people could write relatives of their safety and free up telephone lines, yet withholding blankets so people would not be “tempted to stay too long” in the shelters).

Stansky addresses the “myth of the Blitz” — that the British people behaved calmly, the country was unified by patriotism, and the experience led to a vast expansion of social services from “cradle to grave” in post-war times. There was truth to the myth, but it was an oversimplification.

The British resolved not to dwell on the situation (those who did were called “bomb bores”), but there was a nationalist strain to their patriotism. “[T]hey had little interest in including all who might claim to be British. This was most notable, ironically, in the case of Jews, some of whom were as badly blitzed as anyone.”

Stansky makes note of the presence of anti-Semitism, quoting rumors that Jews were hoarding prime space in the shelters, and including a report that anti-Semitism arose “not so much on account of a marked difference between Jews and Cockneys, but because the latter, seeking a scapegoat as an outlet for emotional disturbances, pick on the traditional and nearest one.”

Finally, Stansky draws parallels to modern terrorism, equating the qualities of Londoners in the days following Sept. 7, 1940, to those of New Yorkers in the days following Sept. 11, 2001. “Both days, 61 years apart, were marked by death and destruction, but they also provided evidence of our ability to survive as human beings.”

Not everyone will have the personal draw to the material that I did, but any student of history will enjoy “The First Day of the Blitz” as much for its social and political commentary as its compilation of great stories. I recommend it with a cup of afternoon tea.

Amanda Susskind is regional director of the Pacific Southwest Region of the Anti-Defamation League.

Holocaust remembrance — Exodus redux

Sitting by an open screen door, Tante Surcha switches off the television when I walk in. I lean into her recliner to kiss her cheek, and ask how she is feeling after her hip surgery. She gives a shrug and an OK, and eyes the notebook and digital voice recorder I’ve just pulled from my bag and set on the coffee table in the den of her elegantly decorated Beverly Hills home.

Sarah Jacobs (Surcha is the Polish version of Sarah) was married to my grandfather’s first cousin Max, who, along with my great uncle and grandfather, were the only ones from their family to survive the Holocaust.

And while we don’t see each other often, I was surprised to learn from her daughter recently that Tante Surcha was once a passenger aboard the Exodus.
Along with more than 4,500 other Holocaust survivors, Jacobs saw Israel from the deck of the Exodus in July 1947. But she couldn’t disembark, because the British, trying to enforce a strict quota in the Mandate of Palestine, rammed and boarded the rickety ship, killing three passengers and wounding 30. After a long standoff, the passengers were sent back to Germany.

The world uproar that followed is credited with leading to the creation of a sovereign Jewish homeland.

Jacobs’ daughter, Helen Lepor, set up this interview for us so I could learn more about her voyage, and while Jacobs, 82, agreed to let me come, now that I’m here she seems reticent. She doesn’t quite avoid my questions, but her answers are minimalist, and often accompanied by a shrug or a tilt of the head, as if the information is so obvious — or perhaps so painful — as to make the exercise unnecessary.

How were conditions on the ship?

“The facilities were not so good,” she understates in a thick Yiddish accent. “There wasn’t enough water.”

Weren’t you angry that after surviving concentration camp, you were once again being so mistreated?

“Yeah, so nu, that’s life.”

Jacobs isn’t the only survivor having memories plied from her.

Over the last several years, in anticipation of the voyage’s 60th anniversary, survivors of the Exodus have been asked to share their stories in an effort to solidify Exodus’ place in history, before all that is left are the fictionalized and romanticized versions of the 1958 Leon Uris novel or the 1960 Otto Preminger film (and even those are already being forgotten). Among the recent projects are “Exodus 1947,” a 1997 documentary film by Venice resident Elizabeth Rodgers, and a new release of journalist Ruth Gruber’s account of the voyage, “Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation” (October 2007, Union Square Press).

Last week, 300 French Jews re-enacted the voyage, setting sail from Exodus’ original port in the South of France and arriving in Haifa. Unlike Exodus’ real passengers, they disembarked.

The largest of the commemorative events took place on Aug. 1 in Tel Aviv, when 1,500 Exodus passengers and descendants of passengers gathered for a reunion, initiated and organized by Meier Schwarz, a Haganah commander aboard the ship.

Schwarz, an 81-year-old botany professor who pioneered Israel’s hydroponics crop system, enlisted the help of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to put together a complete list of passengers. A manifest for the ship never existed, since the passengers were trying to smuggle into Israel illegally.

Around 2,100 names have been gathered so far. Many people also submitted memoirs or interviews, and Schwarz published these in Hebrew in “Maapilei Exodus 1947.” (“Maapilim” derives from the Hebrew word for “daring,” and refers to the Jews who ran the British blockade to get into pre-state Israel.)

Schwarz also officially presented to the Knesset “The Scroll of Exodus,” a document of the Exodus survivors.

Schwarz is hoping these events will raise interest among a generation that seems to have forgotten the vital role the ship played in the founding of the state.
“If you go on the street in Israel and ask somebody what happened on the Exodus, most of them say they don’t know what happened,” Schwarz said by phone from his Jerusalem home. “They know the Leon Uris book, and they know the movie, and they all have in mind that was the real story, but the real story was something quite different and more interesting.”

While he is proud that 1,500 people showed up for the reunion — double what organizers expected — he is disappointed that he’s received scant funding for his efforts. Only the Tel Aviv Municipality chipped in for the event.

Jacobs couldn’t make the reunion. Still, she is aware of her journey’s significance, not only in the role it played in creating the state, but in how it determined the course of her life: She landed in Los Angeles in 1950 and didn’t step foot in Israel until 1964.

And even if she is reluctant to let her mind go back in time, her nonchalance disappears and her fuzzy memory clears up when she remembers what happened after the British rammed the ship.

“We went outside, we went up to see Haifa. Everyone was there, and we started to sing ‘Hatikvah,'” Jacobs remembered, her eyes growing intense. “But unfortunately, they didn’t let us off.”

‘I Wanted to Go to Israel’

Like most of the 4,515 passengers, Sarah Jacobs (née Surcha Feder) was a young Holocaust survivor. Before the war, Jacobs had lost both her mother and the grandmother who raised her, and in 1943, when she was 19, she was taken from Sosnowicz, Poland, to a German labor camp. In 1944 she was transferred to a concentration camp, from which she was liberated in 1945. At the age of 21, with all of her immediate family dead, she went to live with her uncle in Germany.

“My uncle said to me and my cousin that we are young girls, we should go to Israel. He gave us the address of my cousin there,” Jacobs says.