An early group of Youth Aliyah refugees arrive in Israel through the Port of Haifa. (Photo/Israel Government Press Office CC BY-SA 3.0)
An early group of Youth Aliyah refugees arrive in Israel through the Port of Haifa. (Photo/Israel Government Press Office CC BY-SA 3.0)

Safe rooms and powdered eggs in the shadow of independence

My family’s history is intertwined with the traumas of 1930s German-Jewish history and Israel’s turbulent birth. My parents escaped Nazi Germany for British Mandatory Palestine before the Holocaust and lived through the violent period just before and after Israel’s creation. My own perception of Israel has been deeply affected by this history.

My mother left Germany in 1934 on Youth Aliyah and became a kibbutznik, then volunteered for the British army during World War II.

My father received a law degree in Germany, was arrested by the Gestapo in 1936 for writing anti-Nazi pamphlets, and was sentenced to three years of hard labor for “high treason.” His prison memoir describes the harsh conditions he and his fellow political prisoners endured along with murderers, rapists and other common criminals.

Incredibly, while still in prison, his resourceful mother secured for him both German and British papers allowing him to leave Germany for Palestine after his release. He left in October 1939 — just after the outbreak of World War II — and caught the very last flight from Rome to Haifa. He wrote in his memoir: “At last, I escaped the clutches of the Gestapo.” My four grandparents did not. They all perished in the Holocaust.

Life in Mandatory Palestine was hard. My father, who arrived penniless from Germany, had to abandon his dream of becoming a judge or law professor because his German law degree was useless in a country practicing British law. To feed his family, he reluctantly started a small business.

I was born in Haifa in 1944 and issued a birth certificate defining my nationality as “Palestinian” — as were all 2 million residents of the Mandate, Jews and Arabs alike. The Jerusalem Post was then called the Palestine Post and Israel Philharmonic was Palestine Philharmonic.

At last, I escaped the clutches of the Gestapo.

I have no memories from the twilight of the Mandate, but my father told me many stories. For example, he had to dodge Arab snipers’ bullets while walking to his office in downtown Haifa; sometimes he was driven there in a British armored car. That was between Nov. 29, 1947, when the U.N. called for the establishment of a Jewish state, and May 14, 1948, when the British Mandate expired and Israel declared independence. The Palestinian Arabs rejected the U.N. resolution and attacked their Jewish neighbors.

Within hours after Israel’s Declaration of Independence, five Arab armies invaded Israel with the explicit goal of destroying it. My first memory is staying in a safe room in our apartment in Haifa whenever the air-raid siren went off.

I will forever be indebted to the Yishuv — the tiny Jewish community of 650,000 in Mandatory Palestine — which against all odds and at the sacrifice of 6,000 lives won Israel’s War of Independence, first against the Palestinian Arab attackers and then against the far larger invading Arab armies. Thanks to this heroic community, I grew up in a free country.

The Israel of my childhood was a poor country that absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees in short order. It was a time of austerity — milk and egg powder instead of milk and eggs. I saw tent encampments emerging near Haifa for Jewish refugees before permanent dwellings could be built for them.

After finishing high school and college in Israel and serving in the IDF, I did my graduate studies in the United States. As a longtime researcher for AIPAC, which is dedicated to enhancing the relationship between the two countries I love — Israel and the U.S. — my work is also my passion. Israel, which I visit every year with AIPAC colleagues and to see family and friends, will always be in my DNA.

Raphael Danziger
Raphael Danziger

Raphael Danziger, Ph.D., a research consultant to AIPAC, was for two decades AIPAC’s research director and editor of its newsletter, Near East Report. He recently moved from Washington to the East Bay.