Mordechai Schachter didn’t know he soon would be a soldier when he traveled from his native Romania to pre-state Israel in 1948. He was a 17-year-old with a passion for Zionism, and he knew that he was leaving a country that was becoming increasingly anti-Semitic, just a few years after at least 270,000 Romanian Jews had died during the Holocaust.
At the end of 1947, Mr. Schachter had boarded one of two boats, each carrying about 7,500 Jews, bound for the promised land, despite a British ban on Jewish emigration to mandatory Palestine. Many of the passengers were lone children whose parents sent them on the boats to escape Romania. Mr. Schachter’s parents had planned to be on the boat, but his father fell ill before the trip, so they stayed behind.
The journey went as planned until the boats hit the Dardanelles, a narrow strait in northwestern Turkey. There they were met by seven British ships. Passengers — a significant number of whom were children or elderly — decided not to resist when the boats were rerouted to Cyprus. Three months later, the British agreed to allow the children to go on to Palestine.
Mordechai Schachter was one of those children.
Mr. Schachter remembers arriving in Ranaana, and eating hamentaschen and oranges on his first week there. In Ranaana he also met one of his three brothers, who had arrived in pre-state Israel four months earlier. Five weeks later he was ordered to join the army, where he was taught how to shoot a gun and given an Italian rifle from World War I and 25 bullets. Others got “whatever they could find,” Mr. Schachter recalled.
“Everybody had a different type of weapon at that time,” he said. “They had very little ammunition.”
Mr. Schachter remembers the exuberance people felt in Israel a few weeks later, on May 14, 1948, when the country declared its independence.
“Everybody was dancing in the streets, celebrating,” he said.
The next day, a coalition of neighboring Arab states — Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Iraq — invaded the new country. Israel’s War of Independence would end the next year with an Israeli victory. Seventy years later, as Israel prepares to mark the milestone anniversary, Mr. Schachter talked about his role in Jewish, and world, history.
Mr. Schachter was assigned to be a mortar commander, which meant that he did not have to be in the first line of fire, he said. However, he had to deal with incoming mortars fired at him from the enemy side.
“We were in a couple of cases in very dangerous situations, but you don’t think about it because you are too young to realize how dangerous it is,” he said.
Mr. Schachter fought alongside native Israelis and immigrants from Romania, Poland, Hungary, Iran, and Yemen, as well as volunteer fighters from the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.
“It wasn’t easy for a commander to give orders,” he said. “Sometimes he had to give orders and somebody else had to translate the orders.”
One of his units had a large contingent of Yemeni Jews, so Mr. Schachter quickly learned how to communicate in Hebrew.
“We got very friendly because we fought together, so you’re like brothers,” he said.
The war ended the next year. (Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan, and Syria each signed armistice agreements with Israel between February and July of 1949, but Iraq did not sign an agreement.), Mr. Schachter stayed in the army. More than 6,300 soldiers were killed just before or during the war; that number represented nearly 1 percent of Jewish settlers in Israel at the time. The Israeli army had more than 100,000 Israeli soldiers by the end of the war, including 12 brigades.
After serving in the army for two years, Mr. Schachter took a job at a yeast production factory in Tel Aviv. He later studied television and radio repair at a school in Milan set up by World ORT, a Jewish organization providing education and training around the world. After four years in Italy, he returned to Israel, finding a job at a chemistry lab in Haifa and later in a government computer center in Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is also where he met Fanny, the woman who would become his wife. At a party, the pair discovered that they both came from the same town in Romania, Botosani, in the northern part of the country.
Three months later, at Passover, Mr. Schachter went to visit his family, who by then had moved to America, settling in the Bronx. They had survived World War II because Russia occupied Botosani right before its Jewish residents were set to be deported to concentration camps.
A month after Mr. Schachter arrived in the United States, his father died, so he decided to stay in New York and found a job working for a computer servicing company. He kept in touch with Fanny via letters for a year before returning to marry her in Israel. The couple came back to the United States to live. The couple would have two children and two grandchildren, relocating to Teaneck and joining the local Conservative shul, Congregation Beth Sholom.
Mr. Schachter, who still works part time for the same computer servicing company, says that although he does not consider himself “a hero,” he looks back at his time fighting for Israel with pride.
“You are proud of it,” he said. “You think you were there when this came up, and that’s something that doesn’t happen to every generation. Being there as a soldier, you feel happy, you feel good about it.”
JTA Wire Service