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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2005
Number 62
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Jews Courageous

The Brigade: An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and WW II.
By Howard Blum.
Harper Collins.

A Review Essay by Matthew Schwartz

With all the intensity of a good novel, The Brigade, tells the story of the Jewish Brigade — a unit of 5,000 Palestinian Jews who fought in the British army in Italy during the closing months of World War II. It is well researched, based on many eyewitness accounts as well as government and military records and published works. This is not a systematic comprehensive history of the Jewish Brigade. Instead, Blum focuses on the stories of three officers — Israel Carmi, Johanan Peltz, and Arie Pinchuk. This proves an effective device for conveying not only facts but events in which emotions were very powerful. For there are moments in this story when a reader will feel impelled to make decisions about great historic dilemmas, and there are other moments when even the most objective of readers can hardly hold back tears. Carmi began life in Danzig, while Peltz and Pinchuk came from small towns in Eastern Europe. All three had fled Europe to Palestine in the late 1930s.

The British were reluctant to include a Jewish unit in their army for fear that Jewish boys trained in the skills of warfare could one day use those skills against the British occupation of Palestine. Indeed this was an important aim of the Jewish leaders, and many of the Brigade’s soldiers, in fact, did return to Palestine to fight against the British and later against the Arab invaders in 1948. It was with some reluctance then that the Brigade was finally shipped to Italy and sent to the front lines late in 1944. They fought well for some months in the area of Bologna, often suffering heavy casualties. There were noteworthy moments, such as the rise of a Jewish flag in battle, perhaps for the first time in centuries, and later the raising of the flag over a captured German command post. Fourteen German soldiers, caught sleeping in their bunks were awakened by Captain Joram Lewy shouting, "Heraus, ihr Schwein. Die Juden sind hier."

These young soldiers were very conscious of their Jewishness and of their place in the process of history. In 1943, when the first soldiers of the Jewish Brigade were training in Benghazi, they refused the order of a British colonel to remove their Magen David flag. The incident nearly led to a mutiny which would have seen Jewish and British soldiers shooting at each other, but the matter was finally compromised quietly.

The Passover of 1945 was memorable. Carmi led a seder with his men in a trench. After all the activities of the day, most of the supplies for the seder never arrived. The mules carrying the Passover items had bolted under a Nazi artillery barrage. It was late into the night before Carmi led the kiddush over a tin cup which held only a sip of wine. The seder was makeshift, and Carmi was lonesome for his wife and daughter back home. Yet he felt that this seder was making all future seders possible.

These were not ordinary times, and men like Carmi had strong sense of what they were fighting for. With the end of hostilities in May, the Jewish Brigade entered into a new phase. They were to be sent into Germany as part of the occupying force. However, an incident in which some Jewish soldiers threatened violence to Nazi prisoners led to a change of plan. They were stationed instead in Tarvisio, a town in Northern Italy near the borders of Austria and Yugoslavia. Tarvisio turned out to be a passage way for thousands of refugees, and it was from these people that the Brigade soldiers began to comprehend the full measure of what had been done to the Jews of Europe. Peltz and Carmi were able to visit Poland, where they saw the camps and visited Zabiec, Peltz’s hometown, only to learn that his family had been entirely wiped out. The two men returned much affected by their experience. Carmi joined British intelligence, planning to use his position to find and punish Nazi criminals. Execution squads organized by Brigade officers in fact assassinated 200 Gestapo or SS men in the months after the end of the war in Europe. Carmi and Peltz and another soldier, Oly Givon, became expert at luring Nazis into the woods alone where Carmi and Peltz would execute them "in the name of the Jewish people."

Yet, as full of righteous anger as these men were, they found their role as avengers troubling. Finally an incident took place which set Carmi and Peltz on another track. They learned through American intelligence about an SS officer hiding in a church in a small Polish town. Driving to the town, they entered the church fully armed in their Brigade uniforms with the Star of David on the shoulder. A group of young girls singing there disturbed them. They decided to wait until the girls left. After a bit, one of the girls ran shyly to Carmi and pointed to his Star of David. "Magen David," she said. "Are you Jewish," Carmi asked her in Yiddish. Indeed she was. Her family had been murdered, and she wanted to leave the nuns and to be with other Jews. The two soldiers forgot their original purpose and took the twelve year old Eve back to a barracks for Jewish children in Italy.

From that point, Carmi and Peltz along with others of the Brigade joined the secret network helping the bricha — the clandestine transfer of Jewish refugees from Europe to Palestine in the face of harsh British opposition. The story continues to read like a mystery thriller with forged documents, brilliant ruses, harrowing escapes — and some tragic failures.

So typical of Jews through history, Carmi also helped to establish schools for the children in the detention camps. The Jewish soldiers felt the intense human warmth and the sense of miracle in bringing new life and hope to the people who had survived so much. Brigade soldiers stationed in Holland and Belgium did important work in secretly collecting and shipping arms to Palestine for the Haganah. Carmi was involved in the amazing story of 1,014 refugees crowded on an Italian ship, the Fede, whose name they changed to the Tel Hai. When the British refused to let the ship sail from Italy to Palestine, the people went on a hunger strike and threatened to commit mass suicide. With international pressure growing, the British finally sent Harold Laski, the Labour Party leader, who negotiated a settlement, and the Tel Hai did sail.

A moving sub-plot interwoven with the Brigade’s activities is the story of Arie Pinchuk. Born and raised in Reflavik in the Ukraine, Pinchuk became increasingly worried about his family from whom he had had no word since early in the war. He spent many weeks searching DP camps all over for his young sister Leah, until finding her in a camp near Linz.

Some readers might be perplexed by the chapters describing Jewish soldiers hunting down and executing Gestapo and SS criminals. Can this be justified? Indeed, Carmi and the others felt little compelled to obey the the laws of nations, even Britain, that were unfair and harmful to Jews who had gone through so much. Author Blum recounts a discussion between Peltz and Pinchuk. Peltz felt that the executions were a duty to the memory of the slain. "Future generations need to know that Jews avenged the deaths of their brothers." Pinchuk agreed that it was right too take revenge on people who killed one’s own family but argued that wider revenge was too close to murder and was immoral. Carmi had been overwhelmed by his visit to Mauthausen and felt that it was necessary to pay back for centuries of cruel persecution. He became convinced that the passivity of the ghetto Jews had helped make the Holocaust possible and that the Jew-haters needed to learn that the Jews would strike back. Blum himself suggests that these men achieved a higher sort of vengeance — by building the State of Israel.

Matthew Schwartz is a Professor in the history department at Wayne State University, and is a contributing editor.

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