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Purity of Arms

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Latin American Machal  E-mail


By Raphael Seroussi

The War of Independence started the day after David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the establishment of the State of Israel. However, even before that, Jews in the free world were mobilizing and recruiting volunteers for the Israeli army-to-be. Over 4,000 overseas volunteers served in Israel’s War of Independence, the majority of them WW II veterans from the USA. Canada, England, South Africa and France. They helped to found the Israel Air Force (IAF), which among its many achievements succeeded in stopping the Egyptian Army 40 kms. from Tel Aviv at a location today known as Ashdod. Ben-Gurion praised these volunteers, when he said: “They were few, but we owe them a great deal.”

Some 400 volunteers came from Latin America, with no previous military experience whatsoever. Nevertheless, they were highly motivated.  The Holocaust and the struggle against British immigration restrictions into Palestine strengthened the resolve of those in the Zionist movement. Most of the communities mobilized in support of the creation of a Jewish State. This was expressed on November 29, 1947, when the United Nations approved the partition of Palestine and voted in favor of the establishment of a Jewish State. The vote of the Latin American nations turned the balance in Israel's favor, thanks to the efforts of Moshe Tov, originally from Argentina, who was then the representative of the Political Department of the Jewish Agency in Latin America.(His role is cited in Abba Eban’s autobiography.) The Jewish masses took to the streets in support of the State. At a large gathering in the Community Center in Montevideo, Abraham Mibashan, representative of the Jewish National Fund (JNF) in Argentina, and Moshe Kostrinsky (Kitron), representing the World Zionist Organization, addressed the crowd. I was there with them, representing the Zionist Youth Federation of Uruguay. Before the meeting began, I informed the leadership that my speech would include a call to the Jewish youth to mobilize in view of the imminent war in Israel.  I was told that this was not politically sound and we should await directions from the Jewish Agency.

Within weeks a representative from the Jewish Agency, Zamosh, arrived to work with those who had volunteered to serve. The interviews were conducted at the Youth Federation and the medical check-ups were performed by Dr. Jacobo Hazan, public relations officer for Moshe Tov and the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, which later evolved into the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Zamosh set up two training camps, one in Uruguay and the other in Argentina, to instruct in fighting without  weapons. At the start, there was a minor conflict with the Argentinian  Hashomer Hatzair volunteers, who took the position that only members of the hachshara training program should be recruited as volunteers. Naturally, this was not acceptable to the Jewish Agency. 

On May 29, 1948, 27 young Argentinians  boarded the Campana, and the following day, 16 Uruguayan volunteers joined them in the port of Montevideo. The recruitment of the volunteers was conducted in secret, but the farewell was not. Thousands of relatives, friends and members of the community crowded into both ports and proudly joined in the send-off of this first group of volunteers on their way to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. In Rio de Janeiro, two young Brazilian volunteers joined us. Zamosh put me in charge of this first group, together with David Halpern (Hardan) of the Halutz movement.

We landed in Marseilles and assembled at a camp named Bnei Akiva, run for the Haganah by a young man and woman, 22 and 20 years old respectively. Later, we learned that she was the daughter of the president of the Citrus Association and he was the son of a physician. It was here that we received our first military training. We were then transferred to Grand Arenas, another camp, which also received hundreds of Holocaust survivors awaiting passage to Israel. This was our first encounter with Holocaust survivors, and we were moved by our meetings with them.

We left for Israel in small groups, by plane and by ship. Upon arrival, our Hashomer Hatzair comrades were sent to join the Givati Brigade, with headquarters at Kibbutz Negba, and they participated in the heroic defense of the region which stopped the Egyptian tanks in their advance on Tel Aviv. Many of the members of the Dror movement went to the Mansura camp, near Meggido, and the rest joined together to  form a Latin American unit under the command of Captain Pataqui, a Hungarian Jew who resided in Nicaragua and was a close friend of the Dominican President Trujillo. He convinced Trujillo to ship weapons to Israel and it was said that he asked for the command of the Latin American Company in recognition of his achievement.

Our basic training was “completed” in Tel Litvinsky, now Tel Hashomer, under the command of a sergeant major who gave orders in five languages, though Spanish was not one of them. The Latin American group became part of the 91st Battalion and saw action in the liberation of the Galilee. In its ranks were young volunteers from Peru, Columbia Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba and one “adopted” member from Turkey. We were issued mostly with rifles and occasionally with a light machine-gun. In spite of the lack of weapons, morale was very high and we all performed our duties faithfully. A Chilean group joined the 4th Company that had previously been part of the Palmach.

Our South American contingent suffered losses. Among the fallen were Dvora Epstein from Uruguay, 19 years old, and Yacov Kroch  from Argentina;  both were killed in the defense of Nitzanim. Abraham Gueler from Uruguay fell in the Negev. In memory of these three volunteers, a kibbutz in the area was named Ein Hashlosha. Enrique Rotschild from Chile also fell in the Negev; Mordechai Wainerman from Argentina, Iasha Guianesin and Ernst Muller, both from Chile, fell in the defense of Negba. It is also fitting to remember two young Cuban
volunteers, Daniel Levy and David Mitrani, who did not survive the journey and died on the ship that brought them to Israel, the “Altalena.”

In tribute to all the fallen Machal volunteers who came from all over the world, a World Machal  monument was erected at Sha’ar Hagai at the approach to Bab-el Wad, a cooperative effort between Machal and the JNF. The memorial site was inaugurated in 1993 by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (of blessed memory), to  honor the 119 Machal volunteers who gave their lives so that the State of Israel might survive.

50 years after the War of Independence, on April 30, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring the international groups of volunteers, known as Machal, who had served in Israel’s War of Independence. Also on Israel’s Jubilee Anniversary, President Ezer Weizman invited all Machal members to a reception in Jerusalem; 700 overseas veterans from all over the world attended this reunion held in May, 1998.

Author:  Raphael Seroussi

(English translation: Si Spiegelman 7/2002)