a Jewish Boy: Growing Up in British Mandate Palestine

    August 2009            
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Stories from my father: A Boy in the Jewish Underground

By Evan Gerstmann

    When I was young, my father would tell me stories of growing up in the British Mandate of Palestine, what is now, in part, Israel. He told these stories of narrow brushes with death, unlikely adventures behind enemy lines, and a remarkable rescue by a fast-thinking dog, with such verve and fondness that I couldn't help wondering if they were real or tales he invented for his own amusement as a bored farm boy. I wasn't sure that they could have really happened to the man I knew as the Chief of Pathology at a Brooklyn hospital in his white shirts and dull suits.
    But as my father grew older he repeated these stories many times. I was an attentive listener, and I noticed that the stories never changed, even when I was older myself and plied him bottles of Spatlese. Drunk or sober, the stories stayed exactly the same: the metaphorical fish never got bigger with retelling. Also, my father was never the hero in his own stories. The point was always about some lesson learned about life's ironies and its inherent humor even in difficult situations, and about his own good fortune in simply having made it past his boyhood in one piece. I began think about that these tales just might be true.
    The turning point for me was when I came upon an account of the life the little sex doctor, Ruth Westheimer, she of the 4'7" stature and unfailingly cheerful demeanor. I discovered that Dr. Ruth was a refugee whose parents were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Even more incredibly, little Dr. Ruth had been a warrior—a sharp shooter for the Jewish underground in Palestine and a soldier in the Israeli Army. She was badly wounded in a fire fight and, after months of recovery, went on to fame and fortune in America.
    Well, if little Dr. Ruth was a warrior then I figured my father's stories were not so fantastical after all. Speaking only for myself, I have come to believe them to be true. This is, I understand, an age where Olympic champions and other sports heroes have lied about steroids, presidents have lied about sex and war, and, of course, memoirs have been faked. So I have set down these stories as just that—stories from my father to be believed by some and enjoyed by all. I tell them to you as he told them to me, in first person with and the utterly unverifiable promise that this is the way it was.

I was born near Mainz, Germany, in the waning days of 1931 to an obstetrician father and a surprisingly modern mother. She was a graphologist, meaning that she was an early handwriting analyst, telling banks if they could trust their applicants' honesty and things like that. She also worked as a therapist. My father was a good man, but very distant. His mind was on his practice and on politics. He was a Zionist activist and foresaw the dangers to the Jews from the Nazis early on.

The Nazis must have seen the dangers from him early on as well, because not long after coming to power in early 1933 they sent some Brown Shirts to our apartment late at night to "ask him some questions." As it happened, he was at the hospital delivering a baby. My mother called him there and he never came home. I was one and a half years old.

My mother left Germany the next day, leaving me with some Catholic neighbors. They christened me and changed my name from 'Eliahu', to the more properly German-sounding 'Kurt'. Ironically, this was a big help to me when I wanted to immigrate to America in 1958. America had a lot more Israelis than it wanted, but there was plenty of room for Germans. The Germans are nothing if not excellent record keepers and they had a record of a German citizen named Kurt Gerstmann. So I, a Jewish Israeli, came to America as a German citizen with the Christian name given to me to hide me from the Nazis.

I don't have any memory of my parents leaving me behind or of being reunited with them the next year, but I'm told that I was smuggled to Rome by nuns and then shipped to Palestine. One of the few childhood pictures I have of myself is a photograph my mother took of me coming off a ship with a nun in a Habit and black robes holding my hand down the gang plank.

I grew up in Tel Aviv. It was wonderful. My parents were completely occupied with my father's practice. My mother was especially busy serving both as my father's assistant and as keeper of a household trying hard to uphold European standards in a decidedly un-European environment. She was a matter of fact woman who told me that she loved me but didn't have time to be with me.

So I lived a life of independence and freedom. School was easy (and my standards for myself were low) so I had plenty of spare time, mostly spent on the beach. I saw the lifeguards there as glamorous and I ensconced myself as their mascot. When they wanted a break, they let me go up into their tower, even when I was just about 10 years old, with a lifeguard whistle, and told me to blow it if I saw anyone in trouble. It made me feel important and I loved it. They taught me how to use their flat board boats—basically large surf boards that you stood or knelt on and controlled with a double paddled oar. A kneeling boy on these little boats was hard to see at night and couldn't be picked up by British radar, so this skill made me valuable to the Jewish underground a little later.

There were a lot of cute girls at the beach, and I very much wanted to talk with them, but I was hideously shy and incompetent with girls of any age. There was one girl though who had a quality so alluring that she was irresistible to me: her father owned the local ice cream shop. I was skinny but strong, and I offered to carry her books back from school every day to the ice cream shop. I always made sure her father saw me carrying those books as I walked her inside. I would stay in the shop expectantly and was always given a creamy, sweet, ice cold reward for my chivalry.

My life of freedom, sunshine, and ice cream did of course have a dark cloud. I was always aware that I was a Jew and that there were lots of people who wanted to kill me for that. There were the Nazis of course, and closer to home, I would hear about an important Arab religious leader called the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem. He was an ally of Hitler's and he orchestrated a massacre of Jews in Hebron that the British didn't do anything to stop. Tel Aviv was reasonably safe, but there were often attacks on smaller Jewish villages. Violence against Jews was just a fact of life both in Europe and in Palestine.

But at that time, these things still seemed disconnected from my day to day life. I had Arab school friends. In fact, I was quite popular with the Arab boys because we would trade lunches. My parents felt that it was their duty to send me to school with proper chicken sandwiches at great expense and effort (my mother had to pluck and boil the chickens herself). She was no cook though and these plain, rubbery sandwiches paled in comparison to the pungent, spicy smells from the Arab boys' falafel sandwiches. Every day they would vie to see who got to trade their penny sandwiches for my expensive, freshly plucked pieces of chicken. One day my mother discovered my secret. I thought she would be angry, but she just whispered "don't tell your father" and sent me off to school with a bit of change for the food carts and one less burden for herself.

One summer, when I was about 10 years old, my parents announced that they had arranged for me to spend my summers in the country. This meant that I would be living at a farm in a village about two hours from Tel Aviv. I would work, getting up at 4am to milk cows, clean out stables and harvest asparagus, and they would provide me with fresh air and fresh food.

I wasn't close to the farmer and his wife, but I worked hard and reliably, and we all got along. One night, when I was twelve, the farmer was sick. This was a problem because he was supposed to go on patrol that night. Our village was near another village populated by Arabs and sometimes there were armed attacks by them. Everyone in our village took turns patrolling the perimeter at night. When I realized that the farmer was too sick to take his turn on patrol, I offered over and over again to do it for him. There hadn't been any attacks for a while, so I guess he figured it was safe enough. He gave me his gun, a bulky old rifle that was longer than I was tall and probably heavier than I was as well.

Dogs always went on patrol as well and I was teamed up with a German Shepard. I felt important with my big rifle and my dog patrolling the village perimeter. It was a dark night and I wasn't allowed to use a flashlight because that would make me an easy target for snipers. In any event, I probably couldn't have handled the rifle, the dog, and the flashlight all at the same time. There was a strong wind blowing away from the village. I had no idea how much danger the combination of the strong eastward wind and pitch dark night put me in. It was, as now seems obvious, a perfect night for an attack. I couldn't see a thing, and the wind, blowing away from me, meant that even the sensitive canine nose of my companion couldn't detect the armed men slowly closing in on me.

Suddenly, the dog sprang up. He was trained to attack anybody who threatened the village patrollers, but instead he wheeled around and lunged on me with all his weight. He was a big dog and knocked me flat to the ground in a fraction of a second. I heard the thud of my own fall and the clatter of my rifle hitting the ground a few feet away and then I heard a bullet fly over me. The dog must have realized that it was too late to stop the armed men stalking me, and that I would have to be taken out of action instead.

I stayed close to the ground searching frantically for me rifle. The Jewish villagers came running out of their homes with rifles and sticks. I never got a shot off and I never saw the men who tried to kill me. But I knew that I'd survived an attack and maybe prevented some other people in the village from getting shot instead. Of course, I also knew that the real hero was the dog.

I was certain after that incident that I wanted to be part of the underground. Each year we felt a greater sense of danger and a greater sense that the British were our enemies rather than our friends or protectors. Sometimes the British used the Jews to help them fight the Arabs, which only increased Arab fears that the Jews were out to destroy them. Other times the British sought to appease the Arabs by restricting our access to arms and to other means of self-defense. In 1939, after using Jewish squads to help quell the 1936-1939 Arab riots, the British turned around and severely restricted Jewish immigration. It seemed to us that they were just as happy to leave us as an unarmed minority, ready to be slaughtered by the Arabs in Palestine, just as Hitler was slaughtering us in Europe.

When I was fourteen, I finally got to join the underground, as did almost all of my friends. We joined the Haganah, which was the major underground organization at the time. Its major purpose was to protect the Jews against Arab attacks and also to help evade the British blockade of Jewish refugees coming to Palestine.

Everyone in the underground got hand to hand combat training. I felt prepared because I was a pretty good boxer. I had been bullied as a boy, so when I was six years old my mother talked the local boxing champ, who initially rejected me as too puny, into giving me lessons. The lessons took, and I'd bloodied the noses of more than few would-be bullies. I figured I'd be good at hand to hand combat. The other boys, about a dozen or so, must have thought they'd be good too, because we all went swaggering into the dirty apartment building basement where the training was supposed to happen. Some of them were older teens, big and muscular already, and were an intimidating sight.

We mulled around the basement, full of anticipation. Finally some one walked in. She was a slender woman, not much over five feet tall, with a blond pony tail and a mousy little voice. I was worried that she was going to tell us the instructor couldn't make it. She squeaked at us, "form a line please boys," but no one paid much attention. She tried a few more times to get us to line up without much luck. Then she took a deep breath. I thought she was going to summon up whatever volume she could muster and yell at us. Instead, she walked towards us and said, very kindly, "Ok boys, are you ready for me?" I was standing toward the back of the group, but I saw the first boy, a big kid with a ruddy complexion and ears the size of my fists, go flying over her shoulder into the ground. Suddenly it seemed like a little hurricane of kicks and blows was whirling through the group of boys who looked like rows of corn being cut down by tractor. I can't remember if I was knocked down or was quick-witted enough to just throw myself to the ground before she got to me, but when I looked up every boy was either flat on his back or doubled over. The instructor had moved back to the front of the room and gave us a moment to collect ourselves. "Ok boys" she said softly, "line up please." I've never seen a line form so quickly.

I liked combat training, but as a fourteen year old I knew the underground wasn't going to send me into combat. I was a scout and a messenger. I was proud to do my bit, and I was proud to tell my father I was doing it. I thought he'd be proud of me too, but our conversation was a great disappointment. He was normally an even-tempered man, but when I told him about the underground he turned redder than I'd ever seen any person become. "That's illegal" he bellowed at me. "We don't do things like that." "You'll get yourself killed." "You aren't using your brain."

I knew there was no arguing with him, so I decided to do the honorable thing: I lied. (After all, it worked with the chicken sandwiches.) But I was terribly hurt that he wasn't proud of me and that I had to lie to him. I wanted him to think me brave and patriotic and all he could tell me was that I was acting the fool.

Most of my work for the underground was as a messenger. The Haganah's organization was diffuse, with messages getting passed down from the top people, whom I never met, and then down the chain to me. By the time instructions reached me, they were usually relayed by a boy only a few years older than I was. Nothing was ever in writing. I would be told a coded message, some nonsense like "the birds are flying straight," and list of addresses to memorize. I would ride through the streets of Tel Aviv on my bicycle repeating my message to the people at the homes whose addresses I'd been given.

It was fun to ride through the streets, knowing that I was an essential link in the defense of our people. There was little traffic on the street, Tel Aviv was very different then, and I would wind past the buses and donkey carts, and the Arab merchants leading camels loaded with merchandise to the markets. I sometimes even got to miss classes to deliver my messages. The teachers would often talk to us outside of class about the important work the underground was doing, and truancy wasn't something they worried about if they thought you were part of that. My only fear was that my father would find out that I was missing school, and, worse yet, figure out why.

One day there were rumors in the air that the underground was getting ready for something big. It was going to be dangerous and people were going to get hurt. I was told that I needed to deliver a message: "the moon is green." Then my contact recited a list of addresses. He went over them very slowly. He told me these were the addresses of doctors' offices, so I figured that my message meant that there were going to be casualties that night and the doctors needed to be ready for them.

I was excited to be part of an important operation, but nothing could have matched the thrill I felt when I was told the last address on the list. As I set off on my bicycle, any doubt that I may have had about my joining the underground vanished and I flew through the street from house to house.

When I came to the last address I could feel my heart begin to race and my breathing speed up. I walked into the last office from the list I'd memorized. The doctor was at his desk. He looked up at me casually. I looked at him, and I said, "Father, I have a message for you."

We never spoke about the underground again. I knew that he was in the underground and had lied to me, and he knew I was in the underground and had lied to him. I guess he decided that this was the best possible arrangement and never again attempted to make me quit.

I also worked as a scout. I was good at handling the flat boats and was still pretty small so I could paddle out to the ocean without being detected. We were bringing boatloads of refugees into Palestine, despite the British ban on Jewish immigration. My job was to watch out for British patrol boats.

One day I saw something that forever changed what it felt like for me to be a Jew. A big, old fishing boat was coming into harbor, the kind that was often used to carry refugees. A British cruiser was coming into intercept it. The cruiser was a heavily armed ship, not that much smaller than a destroyer, and it blared out the command to stop in English and in Hebrew. Then I saw the most amazing thing. The fishing boat seemed to rise up out of the water like a sea monster. Suddenly I could see that it wasn't a fishing boat at all, but a light façade built on top of a hydrofoil boat. The hydrofoil came bursting through the façade at tremendous speed toward the cruiser. It must have been converted so that it could fire a torpedo because I saw something moving very fast through the water and then there was an enormous explosion at the base of cruiser and a burst of fire, followed by billows of black smoke. The cruiser floated helplessly in the water as the hydrofoil speed away. From the size of the hole in its hull, it didn't look like it would be intercepting any Jewish refugees for a while.

Until then, I saw the underground as a daring but hopelessly outgunned little force. I never saw Jews as powerful enough to really take on a major European power. Seeing that cruiser in flames made me realize that the Jews could fight back for real.

As I got older, I got to do more than to serve as a messenger and scout. One night I was told to go to the beach. A ship was going to drop off a big cache of arms and we had to stop them. There wasn't a lot of organization. I showed up at the beach and saw other members of the underground. As we walked onto the beach, I saw an incredible sight. A freighter, a decrepit-looking bucket of bolts, was careening toward the shore at full speed. It never slowed down. Instead, it rammed the shore, belly flopping onto the beach like some misbegotten, metallic whale. The crew immediately started unloading its cargo onto the beach.

I heard a lot of shouting and a lot of shooting. To my surprise, both sets of combatants were shouting in Hebrew. I'd assumed we were fighting British or Arab forces. Then I realized that we fighting our fellow Jews. The freighter was carrying arms for a rival underground force called the Irgun. The Irgun didn't like the Haganah's creed of havlagah, which called for restraint. The Haganah would defend against Arab attacks but wouldn't initiate attacks against Arabs. The Irgun believed that we had to be more aggressive and were seeking all the arms they could get.

It was my first real taste of battle, but it didn't last long. Bullets were flying and everything was a blind and blurry cacophony. Before I got half way up the beach there was an explosion just to my left. A blast of wind and sand knocked me down. I got up, but I felt something on my wrist, first hot, then wet, then searing. Someone shouted to me that I was bleeding. I could see grenade shrapnel sticking out of my wrist and a lot of blood. I left the beach and got myself sewed up. I slept poorly that night. It wasn't the injury that bothered me. I was upset that Jews were throwing grenades at other Jews. It made me wonder if guns really were the answer to our problems or if guns just led to more guns and more violence. But Hitler had guns, lots of guns, and so did the Arabs. If they wanted to use them against us, what choice did we have?

I stayed in the underground for a long time. After World War II ended, the underground was busier than ever, attacking British rail tracks, radar stations and other targets. When David Ben-Gurion declared Israel to be an independent state in 1948, I felt that I had been part of a great movement and a turning point in Jewish History. We were no longer a weak and homeless people. We were a Nation. We were strong.

Once the State of Israel was officially created we had what passed for a real army. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion instituted universal military service and I was made an officer in an artillery unit. I didn't know anything about artillery but I spoke a lot of languages. My artillery unit was like the story of Babel. It had Jewish Yemenite soldiers who spoke mostly Hebrew and Arabic. Our senior officers were a Russian Jew who spoke Russian and Yiddish, a British mercenary and an American idealist from the Lincoln Brigades who both spoke only English. I could speak Hebrew, Yiddish, Arabic, and English, so I was made the "communications officer."

My lack of artillery training was pathetic. Instead of giving me a field manual, I was handed a carton of cigarettes and told to blow smoke rings at coordinates on a topographical map. Once they saw I could translate coordinates into four different languages my training was finished.

It didn't take long for our unit to be deployed. Immediately after Israeli independence was declared, the Arab nations announced that they did not accept the United Nations' partition of Palestine into two nations, and did not accept the Jewish State of Israel. Five Arab nations invaded, including Transjordan, which had an army that had been well trained by the British.

Fortunately for me, my unit didn't have to fight the Transjordan army. We were sent to fight against the much more poorly trained Egyptian army. These days we have an image of the Israeli army as a brave and competent fighting force emerging victorious against overwhelming forces. We may have been brave but we often weren't very competent. Sometimes we would get lost in the desert for so long we'd run out of gas or our trucks would break down and we'd have to abandon them.

We weren't very well armed either. Our artillery was mostly wooden wheeled canons from the Napoleonic Era that private American money bought for us from a Chechloslavokian museum. We had a jeep that was mounted with a machine gun that came from Stalin, who was eager to make trouble for the British. I'm not sure if the machine gun really worked, but I'll say this for the canons: they sure were loud. We'd fire them from one location, then hustle down old desert roads that the Romans had built, which the Egyptians didn't know about. (The maps that showed us these roads had also come from museums.) We'd fire them again from a new location so that the Egyptians would think they were under heavy fire from multiple sides. This let us provide cover for the Israeli infantry with very limited arms.

The American from the Lincoln Brigades was the commander of the unit, but my immediate commander was the British mercenary. I can only remember his first name, Jerry. He was a what we'd call a "high functioning alcoholic" these days, but he a reasonably nice guy as long as he had a steady supply of Scotch whisky. Unfortunately, our supply lines were erratic and eventually there was a long stretch during which there was not a drop of scotch to drink.

Jerry got more and more irascible as his deprivation stretched on. One night, after talking with our radio operator, he said to me, "Eli, get in the jeep. I know how we can get some scotch." He drove and I manned the machine gun mounted in the back. Alcoholic or not, he was a good soldier and knew the territory. He easily skirted around enemy lines and soon we were driving though the moon lit desert in Egyptian territory.

Suddenly Jerry stopped the jeep. Down in the canyon below us, I could see a convoy of Egyptian supply trucks slowly making its way through the sandy track. Without a word, Jerry drove the jeep down the steep slope of the canyon and right in front of the convoy. He told me to keep the machine gun trained on the lead truck and to translate for him. He told me to tell the Colonel in the lead truck that the convoy was surrounded by Israeli forces. I hoped that the Colonel couldn't see my shaking hands as I gripped the machine gun. To my amazement the Colonel gave the order to his men to put up their hands and surrender.

"Tell them to give us their whiskey." Jerry told me. I looked at him blankly. "They have Englishmen working for them too," he said, "I know they must have a case of scotch in there." Trying to maintain an authoritative voice, I ordered the Colonel to bring us a case of whiskey. The Colonel exchanged a few words with the driver who went back to one of the trucks towards the rear of the convoy. A few minutes later two soldiers approached us with a wooden case and placed it into the jeep.

Jerry put the jeep in first gear we flew up the steep side of the canyon. I don't know if the Egyptians were still fooled, but those trucks never could have followed us up that severe incline. We made it up the canyon with our lives and the scotch.

On the ride home, I still couldn't believe that two guys with nothing but a jeep and questionable machine gun could hijack an entire Egyptian convoy. It made me realize that despite what seemed like overwhelming odds, Israel was going to win this war. We were fighting for our lives, for our Nation, and for our People. What were the Egyptians fighting for? I figured most of them probably had been taught to hate the Jews for a long time, but hate is the kind of thing that can motivate a mob, not an army stationed in the harsh desert for months and years. The Egyptian soldiers must have been just as afraid as the Jews were, with a lot less to fight for.

The next morning though, I learned that there are rules even in warfare, although not the Geneva Convention sort of rules I'd heard about. We were eating our breakfast and Jerry was enjoying his newly liberated scotch. We looked up and we could see a car hurtling towards us from the south. As it grew closer we could see it was an Egyptian jeep.

The jeep pulled in front of us and out stepped three Englishmen. They must have been mercenaries working for the Egyptian army. The tallest one marched towards us and shouted, "Jerry, get the hell over here." He gave Jerry a thorough dressing down. "You just don't do that!" "It's just not cricket." "You never take an Englishman's scotch!" Shoulders slopping, Jerry went back into the tent. He emerged with the case of whiskey and meekly took out a single bottle for himself. The mercenaries looked at him the way my father looked at me when I'd done something wrong but had recognized the error of my ways. Then they drove off, whisky in rear of the jeep, a trail of dust behind them, with Jerry protectively holding his one salvaged bottle.

For the mercenaries, the war was just a payday. I didn't think much about what the war was like for the Egyptians. I was pretty sure I'd killed an Egyptian soldier once when he was climbing up a hill toward me. I felt just fine about it; if I hadn't shot him, he would have shot me.

One day, towards the end of the war, something happened that made me think more about what it must be like to be on the other side. Things were going well for us and we had an Egyptian regiment surrounded and cut off from their supply lines. All we had to do was wait for them to run out of food and water and surrender.

Our radio operator was a Yemenite Jew. He and the radio operator from the Egyptian regiment fended off their boredom by getting each other on the radio and lacing into each other with foulest curses I've ever heard, usually involving the supposedly immense sexual appetites of the other's closest female relatives.

We were about to go on a 24 hour leave, and the Yemenite decided this was the perfect opportunity to taunt his Egyptian counterpart. When the Egyptian heard that we were getting a leave, he went silent for a while. Then he said, "listen you f—king Jew, I've got a sister in Jaffa. I haven't heard from her since you f—king Jews bombed it. You go find her and tell me if she's alive."

I didn't know anybody who hated the Egyptians more than our radio operator, so I was amazed to find out they he had indeed gone to Jaffa to find out about the Egyptian's sister. He did not look like he'd had a very relaxing leave. About noon, the Egyptian radio operator came on the air. "Hey you f—king Jew, you'd better have found my sister." The Yemenite stayed silent. The longer he stayed silent, the more desperate the Egyptian's voice became. "What did you find out? You tell me you f—king Jew, you tell me!" I looked over. The Yemenite was just sitting by the radio, quietly sobbing.

I thought for a long time after that. About my mother, about the girl whose books I used to carry to her ice cream shop, about the small blond woman who taught us martial arts. All of them were somebody's sister or mother or daughter. I thought about what it would mean to lose them. I thought about the fact that every Arab was somebody's beloved too.

It didn't take long to win the war after that. The Arab supply lines were collapsing, there was a lot of infighting among the Arab leaders, and we were starting to get better weapons and we learned how to use them well. I know that if we hadn't fought and won, we would have lost our lives and our country. After surviving the Holocaust we had to survive this. I'm proud and I will always be proud of the role I played.

But I've never picked up a gun again.


from the August 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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