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Purity of Arms

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Dr. Leo (Aryeh) Bornstein  E-mail

Head of medical services in the Upper Galilee.

Leo Bornstein“But in my heart I know that I shall not desert these boys even if I have to use canvas as bandages, nails as needles, and a hammer as an anesthetic.”

Leo Bornstein was born in Poland. His family emigrated to the United States when he was eight and settled in Jersey City, N.J., where he was raised and educated. He did his premedical training at the University of Alabama and continued his studies at the School of Medicine of the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Scotland, graduating in 1937. For the next six years, after specializing in surgical training he worked as a surgeon in England where he saw himself continuing his life.
In1943 he joined the United States Army overseas, and during the next 3 years served as Captain, first at the 110th Station Hospital and later at the 6th Field Hospital and 1st Army. As a field surgeon he took part in the Battle of the Bulge and in the liberation of Dachau. It was this encounter with the Holocaust which led him to Zionism.  After returning to the US for discharge, he started to make arrangements to join Machal and arrived in Palestine in January 1948, where he was met by Dr. Chaim Sheba

Bornstein  was the first volunteer surgeon with combat experience to arrive in pre-state Israel. His first assignment  was to set up surgical services in the northern Galilee. He reported to Mula Cohen, commander of Palmach-Yiftach Brigade in Ayelet Hashachar,  who described his meeting with Leo Bornstein in his biography  "To Give and Receive" (Hakkibutz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv 2000):
" … A solidly built energetic young man reported to me and introduced himself in English as Dr. Bornstein. He was clearly dissatisfied with the conditions and disciplinary atmosphere he found around us. I kept a straight face and answered:
‘I did not ask you to come here. You are free to stay or leave, if you wish.’ I learnt that Dr. Bornstein had served as a surgeon in the US Army and had acquired a great deal of experience in combat medicine. Despite his dissatisfaction with the conditions and the people he had encountered, he stayed on, luckily for us.

In preparation for the battle of Nebi Yusha, Dr. Bornstein set up a casualty collection station and field operating theatre. When the casualties started arriving, the man worked around the clock – treating and nursing the wounded, closing the eyes of the dead, and operating on those on whom he could, all with endless devotion. He managed to draw with him the less experienced medical staff who were overwhelmed by the large number of wounded and dead, shocked by the blood, tears and amputated limbs of their best of friends.
24 hours later, when he allowed himself a short respite and an exchange of a few words with the commander, he said to me: “I should apologize about the time I "cursed" you. Believe me, I've seen American soldiers in similar situations and there is no comparison. There are no soldiers such as yours in the whole world”.

In the battle for Nebi Yusha, and in the following battle for Malkiya, Dr Bornstein saved scores of wounded men."

Bornstein was assigned to set up a field hospital in Kfar Giladi. With meagre resources, long and interrupted lines of supply and evacuation, hampered by the British, and with only partial cooperation from the civilian kibbutzim, he wrote to Dr. Sheba in GHQ on 17th April, 1948:
"The road to Tiberias is closed and it is unknown when we will be able to use it again. I have 11 wounded soldiers on whom I operated, four of them in critical condition. One patient has a hemothorax, one has multiple small bowel ruptures, one has a severe head injury and one has a shattered knee. The aircraft bringing supplies cannot carry a stretcher. I do not have an X-ray machine and we have only two bottles of saline solution left. The construction of the field hospital is stuck. I have argued, shouted and threatened, and I am now sick and tired of it and I don't even want to raise the issue of completion of the hospital. I am informed that I am to expect an influx of more casualties in the coming days."

Despite these conditions, and "aided" by some casualties amongst the civilians in the kibbutz, who now required treatment, Dr. Bornstein managed to complete the No. 2 Field Hospital in Kfar Giladi and make it operational.

The atmosphere at that time and his experiences are well described in a letter he wrote to his family back home.

Northern Galilee
12th March, 1948
Dear Carl,
It is now almost midnight and from superficial appearances all seems quiet but I am on edge and I am not the only one in this “meshek” [settlement] who is feeling that way. This morning our bus hit a mine and two of our boys were killed. We know an expert from a neighboring Arab village planted the mine so tonight, at 2 a.m., we are attacking this small village, which is only about two miles away. Our boys left over two hours ago and I am ready to receive casualties. Two miles may seem a short distance to you, but here it means, if traveling by road, that we are continually under the eyes of snipers and we must travel in an armored bus. One does not take a trip outside the "meshek" unless there is a good reason. If you go by way of the fields and swamps it means about four hours of hard going. Since I have mentioned armored buses, I might as well tell you what we mean by an armored vehicle. It is an ordinary truck with steel plates around the sides and the cabin closed in with steel so that there are only two slits for the driver and peepholes for our boys to fire from. This armor gives good protection from small arms but these trucks were never meant to carry this weight (armor around a truck weighs over two tons, and therefore it slows them up markedly). Now we are running short of armor or steel plates and the U.S. Government has put a shipping embargo on them. They think of all sorts of ways to “help” us.

I had a nasty experience last week when I had to go and help one of our settlements that had been attacked and they had some wounded. It is only a short distance “as the crow flies”, but by road it takes an hour. It is way up in the mountains. I left in one of these armored trucks with four men and rifles. We were having a difficult time climbing the hills as the road is extremely narrow and full of bends. Around each bend there might be an Arab roadblock and we could not possibly turn our vehicles around. Our only chance would be to fight it out. For this purpose I carry two grenades. One for the Arabs and one for myself - as a last resort, if I see that we are in a hopeless situation. Neither side takes prisoners, and the Arabs have a peculiar predilection to mutilate our dead and wounded. As we were in the middle of an Arab village very much on the alert for attack, our truck would not take the hill. For twenty minutes we persevered and I assure you that this was the longest twenty minutes that I have ever spent. Finally, we decided, since we had no alternative, to open the doors at the back so that we could see out, and thus back up and get a better run up the hill.

When the doors were opened I got my grenades ready, with my finger steady to pull out the safety pin. However God was watching us and nothing further happened. When I got to the settlement I found one dead and two seriously wounded. There are only about 60 men and women in this ‘meshek’ and about twelve children. The children are continually under a sandbag protection with one woman to guard them. Her orders are to kill all the children if the rest of the settlement is wiped out. There is no such thing as retreat. This is not an isolated case. They are all the same. After treating the wounded, another attack started but the enemy was repelled without us suffering any casualties. Then I had to bring the wounded back to my place. If I were to say that I was not frightened I would be telling a lie, but how could I show fear when these boys and girls were so brave?

By now you realize that I am no longer in Tel Aviv but have come up to the Northern Galilee to organize the surgical service for our army in this part of Eretz Yisrael. How different the situation here is to the way it was when I served in the American army in the War. I have to plan and work as if I am completely surrounded. I cannot evacuate wounded as we normally do, for it means risking the lives of more men who might have to take them back. Since we are in an extremely hot spot, with Syria about two miles to the east and Lebanon about six miles to the west, we expect to be completely cut off as soon as things really start to heat up. We shall then depend on supplies by air.

It is extremely cold here at night and from my hut I look upon the snow-covered mountains of Syria. The view looks so much like Switzerland that I forget that those snow covered mountains are not in a peace loving country. Up here, we have three enemies: the British, the Arabs and Malaria. I put them in that order because that is the order which is most harmful and dangerous to us. I have learned more about the British methods here than in the 16 years that I lived in the U.K. It is almost unbelievable how hard the British work to make things difficult for the Jews. They must have special men in London who do nothing else but think up ways and means to help the Arabs and hinder the Jews.

The Arabs are very frightened of close combat and therefore they always keep well away and snipe at us. They have had some difficulty in hitting our vehicles so the new British order which comes into effect on the 15th is that we must make a white border 15 cm. broad all around our vehicles to show where the armor finishes….
It is now 1:30 am, and I must get to the observation point next to the radio where we shall keep in contact with our “walkie-talkie” man.

16 hours later….
I am tired, since I have not gone to bed yet, but my blood is boiling and I could not possibly sleep so I might as well finish this letter to you. The attack started promptly as scheduled and in the dark I watched the flashes and listened to the progress of the battle. This village was evidently the stronghold of the local headquarters of the Arabs. It was extremely well protected and we met heavy opposition. When the battle was over I was told that there were seven causalities, four of which were serious. When those boys say that anyone is seriously injured you can be almost certain that he is practically dead; otherwise, as long as he is still breathing well they do not consider it a serious injury. I prepared accordingly. When they finally arrived, about two hours later, they had to carry the wounded through mud and swamp, I saw three were dead. When they came into the light, we noticed that they had carried a dead Arab all the way, thinking it was one of our own. They were extremely annoyed until we searched the Arab. Then we found out that he was from the regular Syrian army and was their expert on mines and was the commander of this area. This meant that we only had two dead.

However, another died on me before morning - he was too seriously wounded for me to do anything. In spite of all my efforts, he did not improve enough to be operated upon. I then operated on the other three boys and they are all doing nicely.
Incidentally, the average age of these soldiers is 18. In this case, there were no girls, but the girls here take part in combat on the same terms as boys. This was an expert raid by our commandos. We are avoiding the use of girls in these dangerous missions as much as possible, for we do not want them caught by the Arabs. The girls are very much opposed to this, for they feel that they must do their share as much as anyone else.

Although from this letter you may get the impression we like to fight, but I can assure you that is not the case, we want peace. It is a great strain on our manpower to have the same men who plough the fields fight the battles. Some of our fields are too far away and we can’t afford to have our men taking the cattle out to pasture, so we have to kill off some of the livestock.

Our supplies are very meager. If you saw the conditions under which I have to operate, you would be absolutely shocked. They are as primitive as can be. I continually say that I shall go to Tel Aviv and demand some more help, and if they tell me that they cannot supply it, I shall not return.

But, in my heart I know that I shall not desert these boys even if I have to use canvas as bandages, nails as needles, and a hammer as an anesthetic. I feel proud to be one of them and I only hope that God gives me the courage and strength to hold out and not collapse under the strain. I pray that I do not resort to drink to keep up my courage. This army of ours is without uniform, without arms, and without medals, but I am certain that we can beat any army in the world at least three times our size with three times the weapons. If I come out of this alive I shall know that I have accomplished something.

The British command has just informed us that because of the “barbarous act” of defending ourselves we shall be under complete curfew for seven days. When we asked them about murdered Jewish women and children, or the people that laid the mines, the British officer told us he was not here to discuss that. This curfew applies to the whole of Galilee, and of course it pertains to Jews only – another aid to the Arabs since they will be able to transport their arms without any hindrance on our part. The Command informed us that they will be carrying ‘food’ in British vehicles to the Arab villages and if one of these vehicles is mined or fired upon we shall be held responsible and the curfew will be extended for a longer period. Of course our running short of food does not matter.

Do not be under any misapprehension that we shall no longer be on the move. It only means that we shall not be able to use vehicles, but our men will be going over the hill to a place outside the curfew area and from there will be able to get to our headquarters in Tel Aviv. As a matter of fact, all my mail is posted in Tel Aviv after it has been taken there by messenger. My post is also picked up at a central depot where my friends leave it, and from there it is brought up here. Incidentally, when I left Tel Aviv, I left my identity card behind, because I now have a different name (`).   However, you can continue to write to the same place under the same conditions. My mail is not as regular as I should like it to be, because from Tel Aviv to here takes about ten days (and it is only about 80 miles “as the crow flies”).

Life up here is really rough and no previous army experience even compares with it. The only comparison that I can make is with the first settlers in America, who were continuously attacked by the Indians, who were supplied with guns by the French. However, in those days a wooden fence was safe enough, but now we have to plan to protect ourselves against the most modern British guns. As far as our appearances are concerned, I imagine that they are very much like those of the Greek partisans.

The British have named us an ‘illegal’ army and because of that we are having great difficulty in obtaining some medical supplies. For instance, we ordered morphine from the States (this is absolutely necessary in medicine or surgery), and we were informed that they cannot supply it to us because we are an illegal army. So, we have to steal most of our supplies.

God must have heard our prayers about sending us some rain. This had been an exceptional dry winter and we needed water badly. However, he has sent us far too much and now we are having worries about impassable flooded roads, and a bad malaria year.

If only the “Boss” would answer our prayers and send us a few tanks and some big guns we would then be very grateful. It is very difficult to get in touch with the boss since his outer office, Jerusalem, is in a bit of a mix-up. His secretary there is probably very much overworked and not having an easy time.

I am now sleepy enough to go to bed. It is a grand feeling when you get up in the morning and find out that you are still alive. I shall now get into my camp bed with all my clothes on, there are not enough blankets to go around, and have some sleep.

In spite of all the discomforts, no toilets, no hot water, and the tap about 100 yards away, I would not change all this for Buckingham Palace in England, nor any other mansion in the Diaspora. England is so far away from me that I can hardly believe that I have only left it six weeks ago.
Shalom, Leo

Dr. Bornstein served in the Galilee under the Yiftah Brigade and Oded Brigade, and then in the Military Hospital No. 10 in Haifa, and Military Hospital No. 5  (Tel Litwinsky)

In 1949, at the end of the war, feeling the need for additional training, he went back to the United States and worked as a Fellow in Plastic Surgery at Harlem Hospital and gained additional experience in plastic surgery services in other parts of the country. He returned to Israel a year later, together with his bride Vicky and settled in Zahala, the beginning of a lifetime commitment to Israel.

Bornstein pioneered the establishment of Plastic Surgery as a separate specialty in Israel, setting up the first department in the government hospital at Tel Hashomer. He spearheaded the establishment of the Israeli Plastic Surgery Society and served as its first president.

Prof. Leo Bornstein passed away in 1980 at the age of 69, after a year-long struggle with cancer, survived by his wife Vicky, and their three sons, who have continued in the family tradition and are physicians.  

Author:  Zipporah Porath with the assistance of Dr. Elhanan Bar-On (Dr. Leo Bornstein’s son)