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Empty box in NJ basement held key to Israel’s founding
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Empty box in NJ basement held key to Israel’s founding

Irvington synagogue was storing ground for weapons smuggled to the nascent Jewish state

Albert Eichler kept a secret in his basement that was relevant to Israel’s military victory in 1948. Courtesy Barbara Nusbaum
Albert Eichler kept a secret in his basement that was relevant to Israel’s military victory in 1948. Courtesy Barbara Nusbaum

Barbara Eichler, now Barbara Nusbaum, then a student at Columbia High School, was in the basement of her family’s Maplewood home when something in a corner caught her eye.

Besides the heating system and all the usual items a family might store there, “I found an empty ammunition box,” said Nusbaum, 81, and a resident of Boynton Beach, Fla. “I was wondering what that was all about, because we had no guns in the house.”

She asked her father, A. Albert Eichler, a prominent attorney who died at 93 in 2002, and his response was shocking. In fact, it had to do with why we are celebrating Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, which falls this year on May 9.

Speaking in the third person, he told her, “Your father was a gun-runner in the days of Israel’s War of Independence. We actually hid guns under the bimah at the [B’nai Israel] Synagogue on Nye Avenue in Irvington.”

Eichler was a revered community leader, a president of B’nai Israel, counsel to the Irvington Board of Education, and general counsel to the Master Furriers of America. He also was chairman of the Social Actions Committee for the Northern New Jersey Region of the United Synagogue of America (precursor to the United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism), and a member of its executive board.

Until her father’s revelation, Barbara had no idea that he and others in their community had helped move guns to Palestine and the Haganah, the underground military organization, in the late 1940s, hiding the weapons in a Conservative sanctuary her mother, Dinah, told her to treat with respect.

That synagogue, now the site of the New Jerusalem Baptist Church, and B’nai Israel, which was eventually absorbed into Congregation Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange, is part of the memories of what transpired in those days.

“Many of the synagogues collected guns,” said Nusbaum. “A lot of businesses were involved in the whole thing. There were collections from scrap-metal dealers. Men came to pick up what was hidden under the bimah and the guns were then sent out on ships that came to Port Elizabeth.

“I knew nothing about any of this until I found that box.”

What Nusbaum uncovered was a small part of a large clandestine arms-purchasing and smuggling network. It involved millions of dollars and millions of weapons, as well as ammunition, being shipped to Mandatory Palestine, mainly through Nicaragua, Panama, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. B’nai Israel played a small role in the international operation.

Right after World War II ended, David Ben-Gurion realized the yishuv — the Jewish settlement — in Mandatory Palestine would need a lot more weaponry if a Jewish state was to be established there. But the British, given the volatile situation, put a clamp on weapons being shipped to the area.

Adding to the difficulty, in December 1947 President Harry Truman signed the Neutrality Act, forbidding any arms shipment to either of the fighting parties in Mandatory Palestine. As of that moment, exporting arms to the Haganah, or machinery to manufacture arms, became strictly illegal. Violating the Neutrality Act was a felony, punishable by a fine or prison time.

As a result of the restrictive laws, the underground operation shifted into high-gear. Among the key figures, in addition to Ben-Gurion and his contacts, were Teddy Kollek, who would serve as mayor of Jerusalem between 1965 and 1993, placed in a Manhattan hotel as Haganah’s representative in the United States; Al Schwimmer of New York, a flight engineer who helped procure planes for shipment of arms, who later became head of the Israel Aerospace Industries; and Elie Schalit of Palestine, who was in charge of getting the weapons to Mandatory Palestine and the Haganah by sea. Though his shipping career was mostly in Europe, Schalit is credited with helping start the Israeli shipping industry.

Schwimmer was able to buy war-surplus aircrafts, including four American B-17 heavy bombers that were modified in a Lockheed terminal, then flown by recruited pilots via Florida to Mandatory Palestine. Other aircraft sent to the Middle East originated in Czechoslovakia. A 2015 PBS documentary, “A Wing and a Prayer,” spotlighted Schwimmer’s role, and Ben-Gurion said his actions, which led to the creation of the Israeli Air Force, were key to the founding of the Jewish state.

After returning to the United States, Schwimmer, along with many others, was convicted of violating the Neutrality Act, fined $10,000, and lost his voting and other rights. He immigrated to Israel in 1951 and became an Israeli citizen, living in Ramat Gan until his death in 2001 at age 94. President Bill Clinton pardoned Schwimmer for his conviction shortly before his death.

Hundreds of Americans and Canadians, like Eichler and his B’nai Israel congregants, worked under the radar, so to speak, to provide arms for the Haganah. In addition to what came out of various American ports, weapons in crates marked as farm machinery were flown on cargo planes out of the United States and marked with Panamanian livery.

Also, the Ayalon Institute, a secret underground ammunition factory in Rechovot that was disguised as a kibbutz, produced two million bullets for the weapons that came from B’nai Israel and countless other similar sources.

For instance, after a circuitous journey to several ports, in September 1948, the ship Dromit, which was under Panamanian registry as the Kefalos, arrived in Tel Aviv with an arsenal from Mexico, including 38 M-5 tanks, 18,000 bazooka grenades, and other items, according to several historical narratives. The cargo was listed as sugar.

And, as Nusbaum remembers, the New Jersey Jewish mafia, then led by Abner Zwillman, may also have lent a hand. Both the Jewish mob, in addition to its Cosa Nostra compatriots, were in favor of a Jewish state being established in Mandatory Palestine, and they and their allies in those days controlled the shipping on both sides of the Hudson River.

“Everybody knew Zwillman,” said Nusbaum, who went to school with his daughter. Zwillman was killed in his West Orange home on Beverly Road in 1959. “There were always rumors, but I can’t say for sure.”

But she recalls just about everything her father told her about B’nai Israel’s piece in the puzzle that helped bring about the founding of Israel, and how all of their efforts helped lead the fledgling nation to unlikely military superiority in the War of Independence.

“I found an empty box and got an education,” Nusbaum said.

jweisberger@njjewishnews.com

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