Eyewitnesses to history
Profiles of residents in the Garden State who witnessed the formation of the Jewish state
The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel are two events that changed the course of Jewish history, noted Aryeh Halivni. Yet, little had been done to collect eye witness testimony of the 1948 era. Halivni, an Ohio native who made aliyah in 2002, founded Toldot Yisrael, or Chronicles of Israel, about 12 years ago. Its purpose is to record stories — which he referred to as “inspiring and heroic” — of anyone involved or who was a witness to the founding of the state.
Included in Toldot Yisrael’s collection of more than 1,200 video testimonies, archived in Israel’s National Library in Jerusalem, are 150 interviews with U.S. citizens and their descendants who remember the weapons smuggling, fund-raising, volunteerism, and more. In the aftermath of the Holocaust, “The American-Jewish community was able to do things and it did things that no other community could have done,” he told NJJN in a phone interview from Israel, crediting the size, affluence, political ties, and connections of U.S. Jews. “Americans were … a critical part in helping bring about the founding and the building of the state.”
These five profiles reflect the diverse swath of the 1948 generation living in the U.S. and pre-state Israel. Although now in their 70s, 80s, and 90s, the memories of that tumultuous time remain fresh for these individuals. Among them is a young weapons smuggler, several who volunteered for the Jewish underground, and one whose childhood was punctuated by bombs and weapons training. All five now live in New Jersey. Their initiatives and actions are part and parcel with the creation of a Jewish state, and their histories make the annals of the establishment of Israel an American story as well.
‘I learned how to fight back’
HIS SISTER’S BED was one of the places young Frederick Biermann hid a machine gun. The other was underneath a loose cement brick that was part of the 78 steps that led to the entrance of the Biermann home in Tel Amal, outside Haifa.
Joining the Haganah at age 15, he said, was the “first time I felt free.” To Biermann, freedom meant the end to a recurring nightmare from which he’d wake up in a sweat. In it he saw the Nazis march past his childhood home in Austria and a soldier would pick him and throw him off the veranda.
“I joined the underground and I learned how to fight back, and that’s when the dream stopped,” he said.
Originally from Vienna, Austria, the family sailed in 1939 to Palestine from France, a country they entered illegally after being denied admission into Switzerland. In British-Mandate Palestine the family lived near the docks of Haifa, and the young Biermann would watch helplessly as ships with European refugees were turned away.
Recruited into the Haganah by a neighbor who later became his commander in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), Biermann kept his weekend training and association with the underground fighting unit a secret from his parents. One time the British came to his apartment to ensure residents were obeying an evening curfew. As Biermann was in possession of a Haganah machine gun, he told his sister to hide it next to her in bed, assuming — correctly, as it turned out — that the British wouldn’t disturb a sleeping teenage girl.
“They came into the apartment, they looked around,” he said. “I got away with it.”
His parents learned of his involvement in the Haganah on Nov. 30, 1947, the day he defended Tal Amal, the first of many battles he would go on to fight in northern Israel. His mother heard from the woman who delivered milk that he was on Yarden Street defending the town.
“She slapped me pretty good,” he said of his mother’s reaction when he came home.
In 1947 the newly established IDF absorbed Haganah fighters, including Biermann, who fought in the Carmeli Brigade’s 22nd Battalion. Biermann’s army ID card, which he still has, lists him as soldier #408. He was discharged from active duty in November 1949.
On May 14, 1948, he was in a foxhole on Hill 230 in the Galilee listening on a two-way radio to the broadcast of the declaration of the State of Israel. “I felt proud,” he said. “I felt great.” But celebration for the new state was short-lived; he went on to fight many battles in northern Israel and sustained multiple bullet wounds in Mishmar Yarden. “You don’t know what tough is,” he said.
Biermann came to the U.S. for school in 1952 with $1.25 in his pocket. He parlayed his military experience in Israel into the U.S. Army, which he entered with the rank of captain. He served two years of active duty and 30 years in the reserves.
Now 88, Biermann is a retired dentist who had practices in Springfield and Newark. He lives in South Orange and is a member of Temple Har Shalom in Warren.
“I hope nothing stops me ever,” he said.
— SHIRA VICKAR-FOX
‘I’m a rural person’
MICHA LIVNE, 78 and a resident of East Windsor, has a fun memory of life in Mandatory Palestine before the State of Israel came into being in 1948. Livne, who was born at Kibbutz Ein-HaShofet, about 30 miles from Haifa, liked sweets.
“The British soldiers used to give us halva,” he remembers. His wife, Joanna, a Brooklyn native, said the Levantine dessert remains a staple of their Shabbat meals. The two first met at Ein-HaShofet after the end of the Six-Day War in 1967.
Livne was a witness to the changes as Palestine became Israel.
“When I was a youngster, we always saw and played with the children in the [Wadi Ara] villages in the area,” he said. “After the War for Independence, we took a walk to some of the villages near our kibbutz. The houses were there, but no people.”
The population of Ein-HaShofet grew between 1948 and the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. Out of that conflict Israel was assured its ships could pass through the Straits of Tiran at the southern end of the Red Sea, which Nasser had prevented Israel from doing since 1950.
“There was no fighting near us,” said Livne, who was in high school at the time. “But I did develop an appreciation for the IDF, both then and in 1967.”
He also developed even more of a love for kibbutz life, which includes communal values of cooperation and mutual respect.
“I didn’t want to live in any of the cities,” said Livne. “I just didn’t like the crowding and the lifestyle there. I’m a rural person.”
Livne reported for his required military service in the IDF in 1969, serving in the Israel Northern Command, located in Safed. It is responsible for securing the borders with Lebanon and Syria and the Golan Heights.
“I was in a unit that became the Golani Brigade,” said Livne. “We all had to serve, men and women. It was part of life. After high school, we all did what was required,” 36 months for men, 24 for women, he said.
In 1968-69 when he was 27 and prior to his IDF service, Livne traveled to the United States to visit family and to serve as shaliach, or emissary, to the Hechalutz Farm near Hightstown. The farm was established as a training ground for youth wanting to work on a kibbutz in Israel. It closed in 1974.
“The farm was in pretty bad shape by the time I got there,” said Livne, who settled in East Windsor, just outside Hightstown, because of his familiarity with the farm.
Livne moved to the United States permanently in 1975. He and Joanna made a life for themselves in East Windsor and raised a family, with a weekly taste of halva bringing back memories of the early days of Israel.
— JED WEISBERGER
‘Cops wouldn’t stop a kid with a package’
MAURICE MAHLER learned as a pre-teen that a tallit bag could hold things other than religious objects.
The Monroe resident, 83 and president of Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe, was 11 or 12 and living in a housing project in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His four uncles had served in World War II, and like other returning soldiers, came home with “souvenirs” in the form of enemy weapons.
“No one was checking what they brought back in their duffle bag,” said Mahler.
At the time the “freedom fighters,” the paramilitary groups in pre-state Israel known as the Irgun and Haganah, desperately needed weapons for their struggle to gain control of the land. Some of those souvenirs from local Jewish soldiers in Williamsburg and elsewhere ended up in their hands.
“There were about 150 kids collecting guns and some carried them in tallis bags,” said Mahler, who smuggled pistols in his. “All the neighborhood kids collected the guns.”
“The men didn’t want to be seen on the streets, but in those days the cops wouldn’t stop a kid with a package, so they sent the kids,” he noted, adding those guns were taken to the former Yeshiva Beit Talmud of Meserole Street in Brooklyn, where Mahler was a student.
The weapons were taken to the sanctuary of the school where a 4-foot-high pile of the weapons was placed on the shulchan, the table, in front of the ark. Men sat at a bridge table sorting collected bullets and matching them to the correct gun. Mahler said the guns were put into boxes used to store cheese and sent to the docks where they were loaded by members of the Teamsters Union — who were fully aware of what was in the boxes — onto ships bound for the Holy Land.
Mahler said the Teamsters’ iconic — and volatile — leader, Jimmy Hoffa, was “instrumental” in the smuggling of arms into pre-state Israel because the labor union felt a great affinity with the labor-Zionist movement as union members.
“We [young people] watched them wrap these bullets and guns,” said Mahler, who had a 40-year career as an artistic executive at several major Manhattan advertising firms.
— DEBRA RUBIN
‘I was a Zionist when I was 8 years old’
FROM A YOUNG AGE, Asher “Andy” Niederman, 92, of Springfield has had a strong connection to the Jewish homeland.
Niederman, who was born in 1926, grew up in a small city in Hungary and became active when he was young with Zionist groups such as Habonim Dror. “I was a Zionist when I was 8 years old,” he said.
In 1944, still a teenager and working as a baker, he was taken to a forced labor camp; by then German forces had occupied Hungary. A series of events found him evading the authorities in an underground bunker in Budapest, getting arrested and released, and then helping to bring other Jews to safety. In January 1945 he met his future wife, Naomi. After the war, he ended up in Austria in a displaced persons camp before escaping over the mountains with his peers to Italy, settling in another DP camp, before they were greeted by Jewish soldiers from the British army and placed on a ship bound for Palestine.
With British Mandate authorities clamping down on Jewish immigration, officers intercepted their ship in Haifa and sent the passengers to the Atlit detention camp on the northern coast. He then spent six months on a kibbutz, marrying Naomi in February 1946, before moving to Holon and then Tel Aviv, resuming his career working in bakeries.
But more drama was to come. In 1947, the Irgun, known for staging attacks against the Mandate authorities, dug a tunnel leading to Beit Hadar, the British headquarters in Tel Aviv, with the intention of blowing it up. The Haganah discovered the plan, but not before losing one of its own members, Zeev Werber, when the bomb exploded in the tunnel. While Niederman, then 21, had nothing to do with the Irgun, in the aftermath the young man, wearing military-style shorts and a belt, was arrested by the British authorities and sent to jail in Jaffa.
“I looked like a soldier,” he said. He was eventually released after the officer, impressed with Niederman’s ease in speaking Hebrew, said he couldn’t believe he had only been in Israel for a year. Niederman joined the Israel Defense Forces in 1948 and spent two years in the army.
Asher, Naomi, and their two sons moved to the United States in 1959 for better economic opportunities, living initially in Newark’s Weequahic section and then in Springfield. He first worked as a baker before buying a taxi cab and later owning a taxi company.
The Niedermans now have four grandchildren and four great-grandchildren, and prioritized Israel as their vacation spot after having lived there for 13 years. “It is a beautiful country,” he said, and despite its many challenges, “I still love it.”
— LORI SILBERMAN BRAUNER
‘The part that was scary was at night when they were bombing close and you’re in bed’
BAT-AMI LIWSHITZ, just 15 in 1948, was too young to fight in Israel’s War of Independence. Instead, she went to school in Tel Aviv. But getting there on her bicycle was not always easy. One day her path was blocked by a bombing.
“So I waited,” she recalled. Another student waited with her, and they could see machine guns firing at the airplane on either side of the road ahead of them. “Both sides are trying to shoot at the plane. The plane is throwing bombs, [and it] all happened within a half mile or less from us.” When the attack ended, “We had no choice, just to continue. That’s what I did,” she said, and added, “We had to live.”
Was she ever scared?
“The part that was scary was at night when they were bombing close and you’re in bed, and you have no control. So, you cover yourself with a blanket and you think you’re safe.”
Born in British Mandatory Palestine and raised in the Borochov quarter of what is now Givatayim, she sat in her living room in Union on a recent May morning, sharing memories from old photos in an album: Here she is during training for the Haganah, there are friends who were killed in the war, and here is a glamorous photo of her in a swimsuit on the beach in Tel Aviv shortly after the war.
Because Shchunat Borochov was basically a Labor Party town, she and her friends took for granted participation in the Labor youth movement known as HaNoar HaOved, or working youth, that would feed them straight into the Haganah. She recalls the day they did “KaPaP” training in 1947. KaPaP stands for Krav Panim el Panim, face-to-face battle. “There were sticks about a meter long, and we learned how to protect ourselves with it, or hit the head of somebody in case we are being attacked,” she said. In a photo, she points out four people with bandages on their heads, casualties of the day’s activities.
She points to one girl in the photo, Ayala Gilboa, and recalls her fate. Ayala and her boyfriend (“such a love, a really nice boy”) were traveling in a jeep with a third friend when they were about 16 or 17 years old. The jeep suffered a direct shot, Liwshitz said, and their remains had to be identified by dental records. “They didn’t know what happened,” she said. “They were babies.”
That same day, she stayed home from school, sick. Looking out the window, with a view that swept across Tel Aviv, Liwshitz saw a small airplane chasing a larger one. “I was watching the plane coming. I watched the plane that was shot down over Tel Aviv. I saw it, I saw the — I heard the bullet. I heard the explosion, kind of a boom. Suddenly there is smoke coming through … And I saw the big plane going down to the sand. This was a picture I’ll never forget.”
When the war ended, she said, “It was quiet, no more fighting, and I could travel in Israel. So, we traveled.”
In 1959, Liwshitz came to the United States with her husband. They settled in Berkeley Heights, raised three children, and joined Congregation Ohr Shalom: The Summit Jewish Community Center, where she is still a member.
— JOHANNA GINSBERG