By Sam Muller, August 2002
The contingent of volunteers from China who joined the IDF and the struggle for statehood consisted of two groups, totalling 13 men, in their early twenties, who arrived in Israel towards the end of 1948. However, their story begins much earlier than that.
The majority of the Jews in China were divided into two categories: some were stateless, while others received Soviet (U.S.S.R.) citizenship after WW II ended. These documents were valid for remaining in China, or for traveling to the Soviet Union. Their situation differed from the status of most of the Jews living in the western Diaspora, who were citizens of the countries they lived in. Therefore, it was a simple matter for Jewish youth from, say, the U.S.A., Europe, South America and South Africa to travel. They could use the regular means of transportation available in those days, whereas for us in China, it was nearly impossible to do so in the pre-state period and in the early days of statehood.
The Jewish youth in China, as well as the first groups of volunteers, were organized mainly by the Betar (Brit Trumpeldor) Youth Movement; there were, however, a few exceptions. Early in 1947, when it became evident that inevitably a military struggle would lead to the formation of a state, and that international Jewry would be called upon to help their kin in Eretz Israel, two youngsters from Tianjin in North China: Harry (Arie) Marinsky, of blessed memory, and Samby (Shmuel) Muller, who were an exception to the rule and held valid Polish passports, decided to attempt to reach Eretz Israel on their own. They left China in mid-1947, sailing via the Suez Canal to Europe, where they joined the Irgun Zvai Leumi, Etzel, and participated in a number of military and political training courses in Italy, Germany and Czechoslovakia. Both fluent English-speakers, they were able to obtain visas to Palestine from the British Embassy in Rome, to the amazement of the Irgun leadership in Europe. They sailed to Eretz Israel and arrived there in early February, 1948.
But their joy in reaching Eretz Israel was short-lived. After further military training courses in the Irgun camp at Shuni, near Binyamina, and some military action in Arab-occupied Jaffa, they received specific orders from Menachem Begin and Haim Landau: they were ordered to return to China to initiate an Etzel cell there, and to mobilize and train youth of “Chinese” origin to join the imminent battle. This took place at Pesach time in 1948.
The original concept was devised by Eliahu Lankin, the military commander of the Altalena, Eytan Livni, Etzel operations chief and Arie Ben Eliezer, as well as others of the Irgun high command. The plan was to transport the volunteers from China and from surrounding areas, as well as some volunteers from the West Coast of the U.S.A., from a Chinese port. For this purpose, they were to purchase a Landing Craft Tank (LCT) or similar vessel in Shanghai, and obtain arms, readily available from American WW II surplus equipment stockpiled in the region. The plan included the enlistment of another ex-China hand, who had served in the U.S. Navy, and was by then a captain with American President Lines. With the assistance of other American and local Chinese sailors and military volunteers, the ship was to sail with about a battalion strength of fully-armed and well-prepared troops. They were to land in Aqaba and join up with IDF forces from the north. The operation was headed by a young woman who was China’s delegate to the Zionist congress of 1946 in Basle, and head of the Betar movement in China, Judy Hasser, who later became Mrs. Ben Eliezer. This idea was in an advanced stage of planning, but collapsed for a number of political reasons, and needs to be told in detail elsewhere.
The problem now facing the volunteers from China was to obtain appropriate travel documents. Initially, we forged authentic looking European passports, and I do not want to mention the name of the country, for obvious reasons. However, since any itinerary from China to Europe and then to Israel -- this was long before the Jet Age -- required passage through Arab-controlled territories, it was considered too risky, so alternative means were devised, and finally the two groups were ready to leave.
The first group of five young men left Shanghai by plane in October 1948, and traveled on a laissez-passer issued by a clerk from the French Embassy in Tianjin, a Jewish boy from France who was courting one of the local girls, whom he later married. Jean Pierre was eventually fired from the French Foreign Service for this episode, and always thanked us, as after leaving the French Foreign Service he became a successful businessman and fared very well. The laissez-passer indicated that the traveler was going to join the French Foreign Legion, and the authorities en route were asked to provide assistance.
One of the group’s stops was in Basra in Iraq, where the boys spent four hours in which time they had lunch and haircuts. Two of the boys in the first group were of Iraqi origin, and spoke Arabic; they had a hard time concealing this.
The second group of eight men traveled on Soviet papers, except for Harry Marinsky who still had his Polish passport. They flew via Damascus in Syria in mid-December of 1948, and decided to leave some sign of their transit; it seems that haircuts were in style as they also visited a barber. It was dangerous to travel through Arab countries, at war with Israel, but there was no other alternative in order to reach the war in progress in Israel.
The first group consisted of:
Samby (Shmuel) Muller, group leader, now in Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel
Al Jacobs, now in Australia
Johnny Jacobs z”l (Israel)
Joe Pittel, now in Netanya, Israel
Sammy Poliak, now in Neve Monosson (Efraim) (?), Israel
The second group consisted of:
Harry Marinsky z”l (Israel) – group leader*
Bobby Bershadsky, now in Jerusalem
Vova Dichne, now in Zurich
George Kapel (Kanzepolsky), now in Savyon, Israel
David Kopievker, now in Jerusalem
Emmanuel Pratt (Pirutinsky), now in Jerusalem
Aaron Rothfeld, now in Australia
Boris Silbert, now in Ramat Chen, Isrrael
* Marinsky published a book “B’ or ve B’seter”, describing some of the exploits en route to Eretz Israel.
Both groups landed in Paris on their way to Israel; the members of the first group were arrested and held at the airport overnight, meeting the next day with Jules Moch, Minister of the Interior, who wanted to see for himself how five young men could have traveled halfway around the world with only sheets of paper, without pictures, as travel documents. The boys were released because the Irgun had good connections in France, and they were given temporary French papers. The volunteers arrived in Haifa via the Marseilles staging area, and were inducted into the army at Tel Litwinsky. The first group arrived in early December of 1948, and the second group arrived about three weeks later.
Since the men were all fully-drilled and combat-trained, they were sent directly to the southern front, and participated in the liberation of the Negev. They were stationed for some time in Ein Husseb, which was the farthest outpost of the IDF in the western Negev; this was in December 1948. The two groups, together with mainly South African Machalniks and a spattering of Americans and French volunteers, formed a company which was commanded by Captain Grisha Vernikoff, who had made aliyah from China in the early thirties. We were a happy and highly-professional bunch.
The whole "Chinese" detachment was later incorporated in the 8th Gedud (Battalion) of the Negev Brigade (Palmach). Towards the end of the War of Independence in April 1949, and the disbanding of the Palmach, some stayed on in the army in different units, others demobilized and went their way in civilian life.
It is important to point out that most of the first volunteers from China made aliyah and remained in Israel, assuming various positions in Israel society. Members of the group still meet from time to time and have remained good friends, telling tall stories of the times that were.
Author: Sam Muller, August 2002