Jonathan Balter's Diary
Jonathan Balter, a medical student from London and the son of a prominent Jewish surgeon, chose to be an infantryman instead of serving in the Medical Corps.
At midnight between Friday 13th and Saturday 14th August, water was issued. The 14th is my birthday and I started it by handing out water to thirsty people. Then I went to my bunk and slept until 4.30 a.m. After I woke up I came out on deck and saw dawn breaking out over Eretz Yisrael. I was just 20-years-old and by 10 o’clock that morning I was standing on Israel's shore – the finest possible birthday present.
At 7.30 a.m. we dropped anchor just outside Haifa, while the quarantine officer came on board. Meanwhile everyone was on deck, looking eagerly at Haifa. The city looked very beautiful, shining in that early morning sunlight against the background of Mount Carmel. No one said very much, they were content to stand and look. At 8 a.m. the ship “Pan York” moved into the port and tied up alongside the dock. At the same time, a tug drew alongside us and we, the English-speaking volunteers, threw our luggage down onto its deck, and we followed close behind. The tug straight away moved to another part of the harbor and we landed without being troubled by U.N. officials who were waiting for the “Pan York” on the dockside.
On landing we piled into lorries which took us to a transit camp not far from the city. As we moved rapidly through Haifa, we waved and shouted to everyone we passed. Mostly they waved back, either knowing, or guessing, our identity.
In camp, after a good meal, as I lay down contentedly to rest, I realized that my aliyah was complete. It was 14th August, I was just 20-years-old and life was good.
Prelude to Safed
We had completed the course and we, who had qualified as snipers, were desperately eager for a chance for glory. Like knights of old, we were keen to win our spurs. Our pride was enhanced by the way in which our friends in the company looked up to us, and this esteem owed itself to our previous battle experience.
In this action, which had occurred on a mountain above Tamra, we had suffered a relatively large number of casualties, most of them felled by Arab snipers. It had been our experience to suffer casualties at a range to which we were unable to reply effectively. The reason for this lay in part in the inferior quality of the rifles we possessed, but mostly in the poorness of our shooting. It was realized that the only answer to the Arab snipers was to train a number of our own men as snipers, and we were the result.
In any army, the usual arrangement is for snipers to come under the direct command of the battalion, and as such to be attached to the H.Q. Company. In action they became attached to different companies for the period of the action, as may be required. However, we had our friends in the company in which we had been initially trained and as members of which we had our first taste of action. In addition, the company commander was loath to part with us and accordingly, prior to the course, had obtained an undertaking from the battalion commander that after the course we should return to the company. This had been his and our own desire at the time.
However, immediately following the course we three snipers from “B” Company, with a group from No. 1 Platoon, were detailed to proceed to Safed This suited us very well for we had every promise of action. The order came direct from the battalion commander unknown to the company commander, and since the length of our stay in Safed was unspecified, it meant our virtual transfer to H.Q. Company.
As soon as the company commander heard of this, he went to the battalion commander and reminded him of his promise to return three snipers to “B” Company after the course, and had the order cancelled. The three of us were very disappointed, as we had been looking forward to the chance of action. We went straight away and spoke to the Company Commander Norman Schutzman, telling him how much we wished to go to Safed. I think I shall always admire Norman [an American volunteer] who having spent half-an-hour arguing with the colonel on our behalf to have us returned back to “B” Company, went back to the colonel to retract all he had said, and enabled us to proceed, and with a smile and a handshake from Norman, and we were on route to Safed.
En route for Safed
We were a mixed crowd going to Safed. The group was made up of four recce men, four snipers, four members of No. 1 platoon and a section from “A” Company.
On reaching the track which was taking us up to Safed, I had my first meeting with the young French captain who was in command. Captain “K,” referred to by all of us as Ray [full name Raymond Kwort] was a young man, perhaps five-feet-eight tall, with black curly hair, who spoke English with a pronounced French accent, especially noticeable by the emphasis on the first syllable of words containing more than one syllable.
At the moment when I was introduced to him, he was engaged in vicious cursing, the prospect of having to take with him to Safed the section from “A” Company, made up of Etzelniks [an infantry company composed almost entirely of followers of Jabotinsky] who for eight days had been in holding positions at the front near Birwa.
Up to that time all had been quiet on the front owing to the fact that the U.N.O. officials were present in some strength. For the first seven of those eight days all was quiet. On the eighth day, disliking the prospect of carrying all their ammunition back to base with them, they opened fire in the direction of the Arab lines. So seven days had been spent without a shot being fired, but on the eighth, war broke out and did not cease until the company had been withdrawn. It can be understood that their reputation for a liability to slight trigger-happiness was not unfounded.
At that moment of introduction, I was in sympathy with Ray’s swearing. Some weeks had to pass before I came to realize that with anyone else the expletives would have been justified, but for Ray to be swearing at trigger-happiness was just one more case of the pot calling the kettle black; at any rate it was the first time that I had heard strong English cursing accompanied by an equally strong French accent.
The men from Plugah Aleph (“A” Company) were all Yiddish-speaking and had come principally from Poland and other Eastern European countries. Of my section, four were all from England but we shared four dialects between us. One man was from Yorkshire and spoke with a distinct Yorkshire accent; two were from Lancashire, there was no mistaking that, and finally me, from London. Two of the snipers were a Canadian lumberjack, Jack Belkin, and an American, David Nadel. Then there were two South Africans: Leslie Miller, a reconnaissance man, and Goodman Bloch of Intelligence; and there was another intelligence man who had come originally from Germany, but had lived for about 12 years in Palestine. It was certainly a mixed bag on that lorry en route to Safed.
We reached our destination late in the evening and the next day was the eve of the Jewish New Year.
COMMENTS BY THE COMPANY COMMANDER AT THE TIME OF JONATHAN BALTER'S DEATH, 25TH DECEMBER, 1948
NON-JEWISH THOMAS DEREK BOWDEN (NOM-DE-GUERRE DAVID APPEL
Jonathan could not have had much time for reflection during these momentous days when he could see before his eyes the fulfillment of a long-cherished dream. Training was brief, for Israel was short of all essentials needed for warfare – men, guns, rifles, and ammunition. Nevertheless, Jonathan became an expert shot even during that short period of training, with the result that he was given a rifle of superior quality and detailed to do duty as a sniper. Later on the medical orderlies and doctors whom he occasionally helped would have liked him to join them, but he kept to his words: “Israel needs fighters, not doctors.”
The diary breaks off suddenly on the day Jonathan was posted to Safed. The vicissitudes of action and falling ill with jaundice barely left time for letters home and to his friends. But his officers and others have told of his unflagging enthusiasm, his readiness and willingness for sacrifice, which set an example to all with whom he came in contact.
He left hospital to come back to his company because in his own words, “I heard that you were having a bad time.” If I had told him, “Jonathan, there are 500 Arabs up there - go and take that hill,” he would have gone. Completely romantic and yet of a character of which greatness comes.
It was only many months later that it became clear what sort of “job” Jonathan had been doing. Together with a comrade, Hank Meyerowitz of Canada, he had been detailed to take a message to another company, and cresting a hill, they called out to a figure stationed there whom they thought to be one of their own men. The response was swift: under a hail of bullets they flung themselves to the ground, shaken but unhurt. Jonathan managed to get back to headquarters in the dark, but his companion was missing. So he went out again soon after with some others, and to everyone’s great relief found that the other man was neither wounded nor killed, but in falling had broken his glasses and being myopic, was unable to see.
Jonathan had hoped that he would never have to repeat the experience he had gone through, but four days later he was detailed to take an urgent message to another platoon. He took his way through a minefield, and from that mission on Christmas Day 1948, he never returned. With the help of Syrians directing us from their positions, his body was retrieved the next day.
Finally, I must say, that as a soldier since the time of the Spanish Civil War, he was a man I am the better for having met. Recently, one of my men said, “He never thought anything but good.”
Captain Appel, C.O. “B” Company
The following obituary was translated from the Yizkor website by Joe Woolf.
The son of David-Natanel and Jessie-Evelyna, Jonathan Balter was born in London, England, on 14th August 1928. He completed his studies at elementary and high schools, and then began studying medicine at the University of London. As a youth he joined the Habonim Zionist youth movement and organized a group called Kadima of some 25 young people with the aim of studying the problems of Eretz Yisrael. His interests were singing and literature, and he excelled in writing expressively and with imagination. When Jewish refugee children began to arrive in the UK, he helped them and was concerned about their fate.
Before he completed his medical studies he was mobilized into the service of the Haganah, despite the fact that his parents and friends tried to prevent him from doing so, or at least to defer his service until he had completed his studies.
He arrived in Palestine on the “Pan York” on his birthday, 14th August 1948, and commenced his training in the 72nd Infantry Battalion, excelling in marksmanship. He participated in a number of actions and operations in the Galilee and Lebanon, and was promoted to corporal. Having been hospitalized because of a wound in an action, he left hospital before his injury had fully healed and said to his comrades, “I heard you’ve had a long and tough time, so I discharged myself and here I am.” One of his friends said of him, “He only saw the good, and had noble goals.”
He was killed on 25th December 1948 when he stepped on a mine while taking a short-cut to deliver an urgent message to one of the company outposts. He was buried the next day at the Rosh Pina military cemetery.
He left behind his soulful and expressive writings as well as poetry written in the English language.