U.S. veterans of 48 war recall their Zionist passion

One day, Ralph Anspach was a student at the University of Chicago. The next, he was steering a dilapidated river steamer from the shores of France to Haifa, sleeping among Holocaust refugees in a crowded tent city, and fighting in an anti-tank unit in Israel's War of Independence.

Anspach, a 72-year-old Redwood City resident, was among some 3,500 volunteers, Jews and non-Jews, who between late 1947 and mid-1948 left their lives and families behind to join Machal and battle for Israel's birth and survival.

Now, as the state turns 50 and the Bay Area celebrates that anniversary this weekend, the veterans look back at their role in Israel's creation with particular pride.

Some who joined Machal, an acronym for mitnadvei hutz la'aretz (foreign volunteers), were seasoned World War II veterans anxious to put their experience to use for a cause dear to their hearts. Prior to 1948, they joined Aliyah Bet, the effort to bring Holocaust survivors into Palestine illegally.

After the declaration of statehood on May 14, 1948, they formed the core of the new Israel Air Force, and manned tanks and heavy artillery largely unfamiliar to their locally-born comrades. In all, they served in 14 branches of the Israeli military during the war — side-by-side with Israelis.

Many traveled to Israel in the jammed, rusty hulks of unsanitary ships and put their lives on the line during risky military maneuvers — an estimated 118 lost their lives during the war. Yet most Machalniks regard their '48 service as nothing less than a pinnacle.

"I've never regretted it and I never will," says Anspach, one of some 40 Machal veterans living in Northern California. "I consider it one of the high points of my life."

Veteran Esther Friedman, president of Machal West, a West Coast veterans' organization, goes a step further.

"It was the greatest experience of my life, greater than being in the Navy, having a child, being married," says the 75-year-old resident of Reseda, near Los Angeles.

Friedman served as a medic in one of Israel's fighting brigades, the 8th Brigade, which was embroiled in a crucial, 10-day battle to capture Beersheva from the Egyptians. "I'd do it again," she says.

Half the Machalniks hailed from the United States and Canada, while others traveled to the nascent Jewish state from South Africa, England and elsewhere in Europe. Still others came from South America, Scandinavia, India, Australia, Russia and Cuba.

On occasion, the melange of languages led to misunderstandings, even fatal ones. But regardless of their country of origin, the Machalniks spoke the common language of commitment.

"[They] were generally people that had what I would describe as Zionist fervor," says Tsvi Meidav, an Israeli geophysicist now living in Berkeley who served alongside many Machalniks, often as a translator, during the War of Independence.

"Here they felt was an opportunity to help the Jewish people establish their homeland. They could participate in a meaningful way."

Anspach, who was raised in Zionist youth groups, had escaped from Germany in 1938 and established a life in the United States. When he learned of concentration camp survivors being shuttled from one displaced persons camp to another, and turned away from the shores of Palestine only to be sent to camps in Cyprus, he not only felt incensed. He felt compelled to act.

"I felt I owed them because I could have been in their place very easily," says the retired professor of economics at San Francisco State University.

This country officially opposed its citizens' involvement in the war, and those who did fight risked losing their citizenships. Nonetheless, Anspach made it known to pro-statehood activists in the United States he wanted to join the struggle.

The next thing Anspach knew, he was contacted by an organization called Land and Labor for Palestine, whose stated aim was sending volunteers to Israel to replace agriculturalists occupied with army duty.

"They let me know with a wink it wasn't really agricultural labor," he recalls.

The organization, which recruited volunteers in four American cities, sent Anspach to a series of medical examinations "to see whether I was capable of picking oranges." He passed the tests and got tickets to New York, where he met up with other volunteers and boarded a ship for southern France.

There, he was situated in a displaced persons camp before embarking on a nine-day journey to Haifa. He debarked and spent several days in a tent city, where military officials visited the site to recruit volunteers, often for poorly trained and equipped units.

"You had different people saying, `Join our unit. Join our unit,'" recalls Anspach, who in 1945-46 had served in an artillery observation unit in the U.S. Army and was stationed in the Philippines. "It was totally disorganized."

Still, he found a unit he liked.

"I was impressed by an American, a former major who was organizing an anti-tank unit and assured us he would not use spit and polish," he recalls. "It was very democratic. We would vote on everything."

The small unit consisted primarily of volunteers from America, England, Canada and South Africa, with a sprinkling of Machalniks from other countries as well. For a year, the unit crisscrossed the country from central Israel to Eilat as anti-tank and artillery support for infantry brigades.

The unit, fortunately, never had to use its anti-tank guns against tanks but as artillery against fortresses and fixed positions.

Still, Anspach remembers being afraid "all the time. You have to be crazy not to be afraid when people are trying to kill you."

What's more, he fell ill with a terrible case of dysentery. "At the end of the war, I looked like I was practically out of a camp myself."

Despite such hardships, Anspach looks back on his Machal days with deep fondness and nostalgia. "It was a great group of people," he says of his unit. "It was a very upbeat experience, a wonderful experience. There was this tremendous enthusiasm."

Hal Auerbach of Carmel, who flew as a U.S. Navy aviator before serving as a pilot in the War of Independence, still stays in close touch with his Machal comrades. More than one-third of the air force's 274 pilots during the War of Independence were from the United States.

"We formed a bond from the experiences we had," Auerbach says.

Every five years, Machal veterans meet for a world reunion in Israel. In November, Auerbach traveled to Jerusalem for a celebration of the Israel Air Force's 50th anniversary. President Ezer Weizman, a former fighter pilot of Auerbach's vintage, served as master of ceremonies.

"It was almost like an Oscar presentation," Auerbach says. "They had lighting, chorus music, a whole diplomatic corps. It was a great acknowledgment of the contribution of Machal, in this case of air force people."

In fact, much to the chagrin of some Machalniks, there was no formal recognition of Machal's contribution until 1993. That year, the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin dedicated a memorial to Machal veterans near Sha'ar Hagai, on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway.

"They came to us when we needed them most, during those hard and uncertain days of our War of Independence," Rabin said during a stirring eulogy.

Some had to sacrifice more than others.

Raised in an ardently Zionist home in Boston, Friedman literally gave up her identity to join Machal. At risk of losing her U.S. citizenship, she traveled to Israel under an assumed name, Chava Zerkowsky.

To make her new identity as believable as possible, officials of Haganah, Israel's pre-state army, shaved Friedman's head and removed moles from her cheek, shoulder and buttock using electric needles.

From France, she traveled to Israel on a packed ship with no water, no toilet facilities — passengers relieved themselves on the floor or over the side of the ship — and no menstrual supplies. Subsisting on a diet of canned peaches and hard biscuits, she dropped 40 pounds in two weeks.

"By the time I arrived, I looked like a displaced person," she recalls. For several months, she felt weak, "though under the urgency of the circumstances, you don't realize it."

As a medic with the 8th Brigade, Friedman tended to scratches and broken bones, and took out tonsils and appendices, often under the most primitive conditions. Trained to do such work in the U.S. Navy, "I didn't see anything really horrible, nothing I couldn't handle," she says. "That's because I had the training."

The Machalnik, who toted a rifle during her service in Israel, says she never felt singled out. "It was a different experience than being in the American Navy because it was comradeship," she says. "I never felt the difference being a woman."

Some Machalniks stayed in Israel following the war. Many went back to their native countries and returned to the Jewish state later in life.

Walter Firestone of San Anselmo, who served as an air force pilot during the War of Independence, returned home to pursue his college education after completing his Machal duty. But he has been back to Israel 25 to 30 times.

A 78-year-old retired agronomist, he has largely traveled there on business, meeting with purveyors of farm and irrigation equipment and agricultural technology.

"Over all the years, I've kept up a rapport with Israel," he says. "Every time we go there, there's a lot of pride in seeing what's been accomplished there and what's going on. The place is flourishing."

Like Auerbach, Firestone returned to Israel for the Israel Air Force's 50th anniversary.

"There was a camaraderie built up among the air force personnel over the years," he says. "I can pick up the phone and call Ezer Weizman and he'll talk to me. I have a lot of affection for him today and the other chaps who did their share."

Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is a former J. staff writer.