Just two years after many of them finished fighting in World War II, thousands of volunteers from 47 nations — Jews and non-Jews —were back in combat, this time battling for an independent state in the British Mandate of Palestine.
They were called the Machalniks — from an acronym for “overseas volunteer fighters — and their actions included arms smuggling, blockade running, and even hand-to-hand combat on behalf of yishuv settlers and Holocaust survivors who were seeking new lives in a place where Jews were struggling to establish a homeland.
Some 1,300 of them were Americans, and although the hometowns of many are unknown, at least 11 of them lived in New Jersey.
On May 4, the 300 Machal men and women who are still living will be honored by the American Jewish Historical Society at its annual Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award Dinner in New York City. Former CBS anchorman Dan Rather will serve as master of ceremonies.
Nathan Nadler of Rutherford was an American soldier in occupied Germany when he met a group of concentration camp survivors on a street in Munich shortly after the end of World War II.
“A man asked me, ‘Are you one of us?’ and I answered him, ‘Of course,’ he said in a tearful phone interview with NJ Jewish News on April 13.
That meeting impelled him to “do something” after he returned home to Brooklyn. He made contact with the American Free League for Palestine, a group that lobbied the British and American governments to help the Jews of Europe and allow them to relocate to what would become a Jewish homeland.
A few days later, he was aboard a ferry boat named President Warfield that was remodeled to accommodate bunks for 4,500 Holocaust survivors — and was renamed “the Exodus.”
When they arrived in the French port of Sete, “we loaded 4,555 survivors of the concentration camps,” Nadler said, his voice cracking. “Then we started steaming toward Palestine.”
A week later, some 20 miles off-shore, its voyage was halted by Marines on the British cruiser Ajax. They boarded the Exodus, where, Nadler said, “they killed two people and caught me on the eye. I was bleeding profusely. One of the refugee doctors sewed up my eye.”
When the ship landed in Haifa, the British “didn’t know what to do with us. Prime Minister Ernest Bevin said, ‘Send them back where they came from,’ so they were sent to Hamburg, Germany.”
“It was a blessing in disguise,” said Nadler. “The United Nations and the news media were there,” which brought attention to the plight of the ship’s passengers. “So the UN voted to partition Palestine,” said Nadler, and Jewish Palestine became Israel. I did something good for the Jews.”
‘Keeping memory alive’
At age 17, Ira Feinberg enlisted in the struggle. “Raised in the Conservative religious tradition, I was at an early age exposed to the pioneering sprit of those living in Palestine,” he wrote in a memoir that he shared with NJJN.
Feinberg, now an 81-year-old resident of Fort Lee, went to France in 1948 and boarded a ship named the Kedmah that ran the British blockade.
After five days of what he called “rudimentary training,” Feinberg found himself on the frontlines with the underground Palmach military group.
A spy “had communicated with the Syrians that we were coming. A trap was set for us, and we stepped right into an ambush as the enemy allowed us to enter the town of Malkiah and then, when we were in the center of the town, opened fire on us.
“Over 300 of our best Palmachniks fell in the first few hours of battle,” he wrote.
In the course of later battles, Feinberg developed an infection in his arm and a sprained ankle that sidelined him from further combat.
“He was very lucky that he didn’t get his ass shot off,” his son Bryan told NJJN. “He was right there.”
In addition to paying tribute to all the Machalniks, the society will present honors to two men who made special contributions to the war effort.
One is Ralph Lowenstein, dean emeritus of the College of Journalism and Communications at the University of Florida. He will receive the Emma Lazarus Statue of Liberty Award for creating and compiling the Machal and Aliyah Bet archives. “We are honoring him for keeping alive the memory of Machal,” said AJHS executive director Jonathan Karp.
A second honoree is Al Schwimmer, who will receive the AJHS Legacy Award.
Schwimmer was an arms dealer who was convicted in 1950 of violating the Neutrality Act by smuggling planes to Israel during its War of Independence in 1948. Schwimmer was pardoned in 2001 by President Bill Clinton.
“He stands out as the person whose role was so critical to Israel’s success in its war of independence,” Karp told NJJN. “He was the most important person in creating the Israeli Air Force and, subsequently, the Israeli aerospace industry.”