Close to one out of every 10 Jews who were alive in 1939 joined an Allied army to fight the Nazis. Their ranks spanned the entire military gamut, from lowly privates to exalted generals. Many of them were decorated for gallantry, including with their country’s highest medal.
“More than 1.5 million Jewish soldiers fought in the armies, in the underground, with the partisans,” said retired Brigadier-General Tzvika Kantor.
That’s about to change, with a new museum, dedicated to The Jewish Soldier in World War II. Located at Israel’s Armored Corps Museum at Latrun, halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, it’s set to open in May next year.
“What we are trying to do here,” explained Kantor, the museum’s director, “is tell a little bit about what happened, and change a little bit the knowledge of ourselves about ourselves.”
Kantor believes that every family can find a connection to the museum’s exhibits.
The stark fact is that none of Israel’s victories could have happened without those who fought in World War II and then volunteered to come and fight for Israel during its War of Independence.
These veterans fought in every branch of the nascent Israeli military (IDF), from the infantry to the air force, which was manned almost exclusively by foreign Jewish pilots, mainly American, Canadian and South African, who had combat experience in World War II.
Some of the IDF’s first tanks were actually stolen, or “donated” by British soldiers who deserted to come and fight with the Jews. They joined a polyglot army.
“In the first battalion of the IDF armor corps, people spoke Polish, Russian and Yiddish,” said retired Major General Chaim Erez, who heads the foundation building the museum. “None of them knew any Hebrew, but they knew how to fire and how to win.”
This combination, he said, “is important and was never properly taught until now.”
The museum is named after Chaim Herzog, the father of Israel’s current president, Isaac Herzog. The son of the chief rabbi of Ireland and then Mandatory Palestine, Chaim Herzog ended World War II as a major in the British army, and ended his IDF career as a major-general, having also served as head of military intelligence.
“Major Chaim Herzog was an intelligence officer in the British Army, and arrived at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. He did a lot of things in the British army and brought his knowledge to the young IDF,” Kantor noted.
The museum’s display center will have six wings, one of which will focus on the war in eastern Europe, and in particular the Red Army, and one will focus on the U.S. army. Other wings will deal with the early years of the war, Jews in the partisans and undergrounds, Jewish volunteers from the Mandatory Palestine, as well as a wing giving an introduction to the subject.
While the tragedy of the Holocaust will forever be the main focus of the story of the Jews in World War II, the museum shows that even in their darkest time there was still plenty Jewish heroism and bravery.
The museum is already available online, in Hebrew, English and Russian. The website includes a searchable database of names, with a facility to add to it.
The story is written by and reprinted with permission from i24NEWS.