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Purity of Arms

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Ellis (Buddy) Robbins  E-mail

I was born in Baltimore, Maryland on 17th July 1923, and was brought up in a strongly Zionist-oriented background. My parents were very active in the Zionist movement, my father with Hashomer and Poalei Tzion and my mother was president of the Pioneer Women group for many years. Her brother, my uncle Joseph Meyerhoff, was very active on behalf of Israel, giving a great deal of time, effort and money, and served for many years as national chairman of Israel Bonds in America. I grew up in the Zionist Youth Group Gordonia, and later they merged with Habonim. While I was growing up many of the emissaries from the Yishuv in Palestine, including Golda Meir, were hosted in our home.

When the U.S.A. entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, I was studying at George Washington University in Washington, DC. I left school and enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where I served from May 1942 to February 1946. I was assigned to the 12th Amphibious Fleet, based at Exeter in England for three years, and saw action on D-Day. While I was stationed in England I met up with Elliot Kaufman, an old friend from Baltimore and the Zionist youth movement, who was in the army and also stationed in England.

When I got back from England to await my discharge from the Navy, Elliot and I got together again. He told me he had heard of Aliyah Bet, and that they were looking for volunteers to man the ships. We talked about it, and decided that would be a great way to "put our money where our mouth was" after all the years of talking Zionism. So we went to New York to volunteer for Aliyah Bet and were sworn into the Haganah.

Two weeks after my discharge from the Navy, I was aboard one of the two Canadian corvettes obtained by Aliyah Bet, helping to prepare it for the duties ahead. This ship was later renamed "Haganah," and I was with her for both her historic runs to Palestine. The first time she left from France and the second, more dramatic run, was from Yugoslavia. When we left France we had 1,100 refugees aboard as well as one other passenger, I. F. Stone, a well-known columnist and author. It was on that trip that he wrote his book, "Underground to Palestine," in which I was the crew member he described as "Fireman X." Among the refugees we had a large number of ultra-orthodox members of Agudat Yisrael. I remember some of them approaching us on Erev Shabbat and saying that since we were working to save all those lives, it was permitted to work, and that they wanted to volunteer to help us.

The many historic firsts that occurred on that first run of the "Haganah" are surely documented elsewhere, but a couple of comments on the dramatic run from Yugoslavia might be in place. We were supposed to take some 1,200 refugees, and hopefully return for more later on. But once in Yugoslavia, we were told that this would be the last Aliyah Bet ship allowed there, but we could take as many refugees as we could get aboard. We managed to get 2,600 aboard, with about half below-deck and half on deck. It was so crowded that the ones above could not get below, and the ones below could not get topside. It was a very difficult and dangerous trip for all, passengers and crew alike, but we did get all the refugees into Palestine.

Some of the crew with whom I shared the experiences and satisfactions of Aliyah Bet that I remember well were Hal (Ranger) Monash, who was later killed at Latrun; Sam Weiss, a taxi driver from Washington, DC; Yis Bernstein from a Zionist training farm in New Jersey; Moishe Sokolov, from Canada; Milton (Limey) Miller, from England via the U.S.A.; Yehuda (Avraham) Halevi, from Hashomer Hatzair, and the ship's cook; and Yaakov Frank, son of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who had just been discharged from the U.S. Army.

But the ones who impressed me the most were the Palestinians from the Yishuv who made all the arrangements that made everything happen, and later helped us to escape the British. Among them, the one I remember most clearly was Aryeh Friedman. I met him again a few years after returning to the States when he visited Baltimore aboard our ship, the "Haganah" (this ship had formerly been the Wedgwood, but they were identical twins.) which had become the flagship of the fledgling Israel Navy. After we were caught by the British Navy at sea, and rammed, boarded and towed to Haifa harbor, I met up with some of those same representatives of the Yishuv and got to know them more personally than before. They came aboard our ship for relief work with the refugee passengers, and were able to combine that work with getting us off the ship and out of the harbor ahead of the British police. I remember sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Carmelia and reading in the Palestine Post that the British police reported that they had identified the crew of the "Haganah" and were going aboard to arrest them.

After a few days I was able to leave Haifa and I went to Jerusalem, where I was introduced to the management of the Palestine Post and immediately went to work there. Occasionally I was advised to take off a couple of days and go visit a kibbutz when some intensive police activity was anticipated. Soon after arriving in Jerusalem I met a beautiful young Sabra who had just been discharged after four years of service in the British Army. The attraction was mutual and a few months later we were married through the office of the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, all arranged by his son, our good friend Yaakov Frank.

We planned to stay on and live in Palestine, but I wanted my bride to meet my family, and I wanted my parents to get to know her. We planned a trip to the States that was to last no longer than one year. But the best-intentioned plans don't always work out, and because of family matters we were not able to return as planned. And soon the years stretched out and the State of Israel was declared and we were still in the States. We became active in local Zionist affairs, we recruited volunteers, including doctors and nurses, to help in the Israeli war effort. We helped locate munitions and equipment that could be purchased for Israel. And we helped plan and establish a successful weekly pro-Israel radio program. At the same time we were able to interfere with similar pro-Arab activities in the area.

I feel privileged to have been part of Aliyah Bet, and consider it to be a highlight in my life.