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From the Seder to Jaffa
By Joseph A. Poisson
It was the eve of Pesach, the Seder. Our family was seated around the table, on the Seder-night of 1948, the Festival of unleavened bread and of freedom. We recited Kiddush; we thanked the Lord who has chosen us from all peoples and has raised us high above all nations and has made us holy by His commandments…and has brought us to this appointed time of gladness, this Festival of unleavened bread, which is the season of our freedom...in memory of the departure from Egypt. This reminded all of us, seated around this table, that we are waiting for the time of our freedom in Israel, to our freedom from foreign rule. When we symbolically raised the Matzah and read in the Haggadah: "This is the poor bread which our forefathers ate in the land of Egypt," it reminded us of our poor bread, yet promised us: "Next year we pray to be a free and happy people."
I, the youngest in the family asked: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" and did not know during those moments when I asked this question that in a couple of hours so much would change for me and for us in what was still to come. When we continued reading the Haggadah, telling the story of our departure from Egypt, we mentioned the days of the Messiah, and that God kept His promise to Israel. In other words: He would bring us from slavery to freedom, from the Diaspora to redemption, and would take us to the land of Israel and build the Temple for us.
It was a historic moment, which I will never forget as long as I live. We remembered, with awe and reverence, the six million of our brothers killed in Europe, by a dictator twice as bad as Pharaoh, King of Egypt. With his Nazi partners, and their accomplices, they killed our innocent and pure brothers. Men, women, and children were shot, hanged, gassed, and burnt.
Our people in the Ghettos and in the concentration camps sacrificed their lives for sanctification of the Holy name. Some of them were courageous, revolted against the wicked and even killed these evildoers. In this night of Pesach, during World War II in 1942, survivors of the Warsaw Ghetto fought against the Nazis just as the Maccabees did; inseparable, in life or death. They extolled the honor of Israel, may God avenge their blood.
It was quiet outside while my father started reading the Haggadah with the traditional tune. From time to time we would join him in the reading and the songs. He would elaborate on the story of the exodus from Egypt.
In this historic night, where the spark of hope was ignited in the hearts of the survivors of the people of Israel in their homeland, the Irgun was not satisfied solely with the reading of the Haggadah, but went on to act and fulfill its message.
The underground wanted to ensure the Jewish way of life for those who lived there, and the survivors who joined them. Therefore, people were summoned to revolt, to hold the iron and crush the Arab sniper's nests in Jaffa, which were a threat to the citizens in Tel-Aviv. They called to put an end to the British siege as well as the Arab menace, and use firearms to break the enemies. This call initiated a new spirit in the hearts of those who believed in our independence, in the tradition of our forefathers, and in our trust in God.
Just before we began our festive meal that evening, there was a knock on the door. A messenger asked to talk to me. I was told to be at Dov base in Ramat-Gan before 11.00 p.m. This place was the designated meeting point for all of the battle corps units to get organized, receive supplies and equipment before we went out to combat in Jaffa, for the liberation of Tel-Aviv.
I was surprised to get the call during the Seder, but I was glad to be part of this important mission. Menachem, my brother, puzzled why he was not called despite being the elder and having greater combat experience, sat, somewhat disappointed, but kept the festive spirit.
I completed my meal quickly and was reminded of the exodus from Egypt in which our fathers left Egypt during their flight from slavery, and had no time to prepare any provisions for the way. Seated around the Seder table, I glanced at the Haggadah and saw the following words rising: "Let us consider what Laban, the Syrian, tried to do to our father Jacob. That Pharaoh only wanted to drown the boys that were born in the homes of Israel, but Laban wanted to destroy everything…"
I thought to myself: Try, Joseph, to learn from the long history of our people, that fierce foes have fought against us in every age, but the Holy One of Israel has saved us from their hand. And now we are a few in number, a couple hundred members of the Irgun are called to go out to battle against our many enemies, British and Arab, who wish to sweep our folk away, and throw us into the sea. And the British rulers did evil to us after the Holocaust in Europe, and they made us suffer terribly through tough orders and harsh restrictive laws, and we cried out to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and our cry came up unto God in heaven. And we, the members of the Ma'amad heard the voice of the messenger, and were ready to go to Jaffa, to free the inhabitants of the city of Tel-Aviv.
My parents were very nervous when they realized I was called to fight. They asked me to slow down; their faces expressed their concern behind the happy facade and the light in their eyes during the traditional ceremony of the Seder.
The same picture must have occurred in hundreds of other homes of my friends from the combat corps, those who were summoned to their units, who were called to action again.
We were an army in the underground, in hiding. We lived at home and went out to battle when summoned, or when it became necessary.
I rushed to my room to change from my holiday outfit into the everyday khaki, and put on my army boots. We had no special gear at home except for our clothes, but we were ready to go to the front.
After a short walk I arrived at the Dov base. On the way, I met a few other people whom I had known before and some that I did not, but it was clear that we were all anonymous soldiers, getting to know each other after years of secrecy in the underground. As you may well imagine no one was walking outside on this day of the Seder, not even non-religious Jews. Everyone was celebrating with friends or family. We were the only ones who were out during those late hours of the eve of Pesach.
It was a very special feeling, warm and wonderful, to see those hundreds of young faces, members of the battle corps, all going in one direction, to our meeting point at Dov base. When we got there, we reported to our specific units, then waited a few sleepless hours. We chatted with friends in the dark. First we talked about our Seders, and then we went on to talk about what we believed was to occur. Our conversations flowed pleasantly, helping to connect us to one another, encouraging us. We ceased to tell the story of the exodus of Egypt, and began to tell the stories of the fighters of the underground while we waited for the sign.
The signal to go out to battle did not come that morning. Although there was no kitchen to cook for all of us, no one complained. We had no provisions with us, no Matzahs, and of course no bread. Someone brought some Kosher chocolates, and it satisfied our hunger, and water was abundant.
After hours of waiting the signal was given. After dark we would go to the front, on the border of Tel-Aviv and Jaffa. We were handed out some light and rather poor military equipment but for us, it was "heavy and rich", since we did not have much in the past, and we never expected anything more than what we had been given. We were poor in terms of our military equipment and arms and ammunition, but definitely rich in battle spirit.
In Jaffa, the Arabs organized military gangs with the help of the British infantry and armored corps, who stood by their side during their last couple of weeks in Israel. Yes, the British soldiers fought side by side with the Arabs, against us. Together they were many against a few. Many well armed, with the best weapons, plenty of ammunition, and we had only afraction of what they had. Yet we had to protect ourselves against those who planned to throw us out of our homes, to wipe out our people and our possessions. And we were all very determined to attack the Arab enemy, because an attack was our best defense. And then it began.
Despite the darkness and the limited sight, I was very impressed by the chief commanders abilities. We were standing in units and groups, attentively trying to listen to the first speech of the head of the Irgun: Menachem Begin. It was the first time that I heard his voice, and the first time that he stood in front of us, among us.
Begin spoke briefly and to the point, about striking the enemy and about mercy for the captured. He talked about the conquest of Jaffa in order to free Tel-Aviv. His words lit a fire in our hearts, and we were ready to go to battle. Unit after unit, we advanced and boarded the buses. When we were all ready to leave at the crack of dawn, this row of vehicles moved forward on the way to Tel-Aviv, with hundreds of young soldiers singing loudly. We sang songs of the underground as well as our national songs. After a short drive we reached the small alleys of the Yemenite quarter near the border of Jaffa.
The Ramat-Gan unit was put in a number of deserted buildings near the Arab neighborhood called Manshia. As the sun rose we could see the famous mosque of Hasan Bek, and some of the Arab strongholds. It was the first Sunday of the days of the festival, Pesach 1948.
We waited again a few more hours, and after two sleepless nights we fell asleep on the floors of the house, guards standing watch in case of an attack.
Almost two thousand Arab fighters were put into action. They came from out of town and out of Country: from Syria, Iraq and Yugoslavia. In addition, British soldiers came to support the Arabs adding thousands more to their numbers. We were about 600 soldiers with no uniforms, and with a small number of sub-machine guns, rifles and handguns, with explosives, and a few thousand mortar shells. On top of the large number of soldiers, our enemy had a great deal of armor, motorized guns and airplanes.
We were all impatiently waiting for the signal. The shooting continued and we continued waiting. We began asking questions: "When will we receive the signal for attack?" The hours went by and the tension rose. From time to time we saw figures going up and down in the buffer zone between us, among the deserted houses and the ruins.
Late at night on our first day in Manshia, we finally got the order to start out from house to house. One went out while two others covered him. We were told to watch one another and be very prudent, to advance simultaneously or to advance crawling. We were informed that the Arabs have plenty of snipers, and in the street nearby we already heard of a few injured and one casualty. So this is the way we left, under the dark, into Manshia. Our unit did not suffer any casualties that night because we avoided a direct attack against strong holds and fortified lines. Instead, we advanced and took hold of some weak points in the Arab line, among the deserted houses of the Arabs, and waited for what was next, on the break of a new day.
The next morning, we suffered a number of casualties in the neighboring streets, where some other units of the battle corps tried unsuccessfully to break into the Arab strongholds. I believe that our lack of experience in urban fighting, worked against us. We needed to learn and acquire experience while our friends were bleeding. Nevertheless, our commander, who was well versed in urban combat acted with common sense, since he himself, had no actual experience. He drew some conclusions from his studies, and was not quick to attack under fire. He learned the conditions, the power of the enemy, and any other data that we possessed. He weighed our lack of experience against our ability as underground soldiers, used to either swift actions or "hit and run" actions, or storm attacks and then a quick withdrawal. He was definitely a born commander, responsible, clever, with a sharp eye and superb performance.
On the second day of fighting, we were told by our commander to wait. We checked the battlefield. That very day, I saw our first fallen in battle. One of the Irgun's commanders who came to visit from our general headquarters, climbed on the fence of one of the houses, to assess the situation in the front. He was hit in his head by a sniper bullet, and instantly killed. A young man, who was alive and very vital just moments ago, was lying dead in front of me. We recuperated after a couple of minutes and returned fire trying to be accurate and not waste our limited ammunition.
At the end of the second day, in the evening, our commander gathered all of us around and instructed an important and essential lesson in urban fighting. Some of us had questions about the limited ammunition, questions about the changing password, about the communication between the positions and between ourselves and the other units acting in the area. Every question got the right answer excluding one: additional equipment. There was no additional military equipment. Our only hope was to acquire by force any military equipment, from the British or the Arabs once they are defeated.