You never know what soldiers or sailors or fliers will be like when they come home from war. Any war.
Some ex-servicemen are very happy to get back to normal life, to relegate what they saw to the murky inner recesses of their minds, to hammer them in with long iron nails. Others, though, find regular life boring, constraining, pointless, soul-deadening. They are on the prowl for adventure.
If the war was World War II, and the ex-serviceman had seen the horrors of the Holocaust, or the extreme cruelties the Japanese perpetrated in the Pacific; and if the ex-serviceman was Jewish (or even in some cases simply a good friend of the Jews) and wanted to help create a state for those Jews who survived the war, and could also use the adrenaline rush that came with it — well, many of those ex-servicemen found their way to Palestine, where they helped give birth to the state of Israel, not to mention the new state’s air force.
The story of some of those World War II veterans, pilots who smuggled excess airplanes into Israel, and went there to fly them during its war of independence, is told in the film documentary “Above and Beyond.” (The Jewish Standard’s Eric Goldman reviewed it in our January 30 issue this year.) Sophie Sartain, who wrote the film, will talk about it on Sunday evening as she helps in the effort to raise funds for the Solomon Schechter School of Bergen County in New Milford. (For more information on the screening, see the box on this page.)
The idea for the movie began when producer Nancy Spielberg, Steven’s sister, saw an obituary for Al Schwimmer, the American-born Israeli engineer and entrepreneur who founded Israel’s aerospace industry. Mr. Schwimmer, like the other pilots, not only risked his life during his missions, he also risked his American citizenship, veterans benefits, and even his freedom when he returned to the United States. He had violated the U.S. Neutrality Acts. (Mr. Schwimmer was awarded the Israel Prize in 2006. Eventually, President Bill Clinton pardoned Mr. Schwimmer, who died at 94 in 2011.)
Once she learned about Mr. Schwimmer, Ms. Sartain said, Ms. Spielberg “became so passionate about it. It is an untold story; what those guys did was so secretive.” And it was so brave, and it mattered so much.
The pilots were recruited from across the English-speaking world by an unofficial underground network of Zionists. “A lot of them were heroes in World War II; they just answered the call,” Ms. Sartain said. “Some stayed in Israel, some came back, but they didn’t talk about it.
“Ben-Gurion had come to the United States to try to raise money, knowing that a war was coming,” Ms. Sartain said; Ben-Gurion was David Ben-Gurion, one of Israel’s founders, arguably its most important founder, and its first prime minister. “They knew a war was coming, so he came to get support from American Jews in whatever way they could help — monetary help, weapons, volunteers. A lot of people volunteered.” Many young people who were not tied down with commitments and had specific areas of expertise went to Palestine.
Sometimes, people were recruited because of their background or connections. Others were recruited through what basically were cold calls. The recruiters “went through rosters of Air National Guards, looking for Jewish-sounding names,” Ms. Sartain said.
“Israel had no air force, and they knew that they would be invaded from all directions, including from above,” she continued. “So when they declared the state, it was a mad scramble to get help. It was a desperate time.”
Altogether, about 3,500 volunteers from 43 countries fought for the nascent state of Israel. Of that number, about 190 were in the air force. “It was a tiny percentage of the volunteers, but they were critical, because they were skilled and experienced, and had flown so many missions in World War II. It gave Israel an advantage to have them,” Ms. Sartain said.
Many excess airplanes and other pieces of equipment were smuggled out. “There was a lot of intrigue,” Ms. Sartain said. “They couldn’t fly planes directly to Palestine. They had to fly them all over the world. Often they went through Panama,” in an oversized kind of plane-laundering operation. “They created a fake Panamanian airline,” she added. “It was a crazy story.
“Nancy was really on fire, wanting to tell the story, and she impressed on us” — “us” was Ms. Sartain and the director Roberta Grossman, whom Ms. Spielberg recruited for the film — “the urgency of telling it right away. These guys were getting on. They were in their late 80s, early 90s, and we were losing them.
“The first thing we did was interview them; we feature six in the film and we interviewed about twice that number.
“The volunteers came from all over. The six in the film all are Jewish. One of them was raised in a Zionist household. The others were not. They did not heavily identify as Jewish growing up, and a couple of them kept it at arm’s length.
“But the experiences they had in Israel transformed them.”
Two of them stayed in Israel for the rest of their lives; others moved back and forth.
Some of the air force volunteers died in 1948. Of the six in the film, which was released just last year, only two are still alive; one of them, Leo Frankel, died just last week.
Another of the fliers, Gideon Lichtman, who now lives in Florida, grew up in Newark. “He was our bad boy, he was the one whose family was Zionist, and he is hilarious,” Ms. Sartain said. “He talks about going to Newark Airport when he was a kid and seeing the guys flying the planes; that made him dream of being a pilot.
“He is superhandsome. He tells a lot of funny stories — a lot of the guys partied a lot when they were over there, especially when there was a cease-fire. Gidi tells a lot of stories about them being in their 20s, good-looking, swashbuckling. They had a good time over there.
“He loves going to screenings; he loves the reception that he gets. He’s a character.”
All this is to say that the heroic pilots and other servicemen and women and other volunteers who went to Palestine as it turned into the State of Israel were both heroes and normal people. We have much reason to be grateful to them, and we should pay attention to their stories.
See also: A model Zionist
Save the date
What: Screening of ‘Above and Beyond’ followed by Q&A with screenwriter Sophie Sartain
When: Sunday, October 25, 7 p.m.
Where: Solomon Schechter Day School o fBergen County, 275 McKinley Ave., New Milford