‘It’s been an amazing life’

‘It’s been an amazing life’

Fair Lawn man reflects on being in Israel, America, and two armies

From left, Reuel Dankner is at ease during his training for D Day in England, 1943; the Silver Star General Patton gave the young solider in 1943; Dankner is still in uniform right after the war ended, 1945.
From left, Reuel Dankner is at ease during his training for D Day in England, 1943; the Silver Star General Patton gave the young solider in 1943; Dankner is still in uniform right after the war ended, 1945.

On their first day in the country that would become their new home, 10-year-old Reuel Dank-ner and his family took a bus that traveled the paved road from Haifa to Tel Aviv. They transferred to another bus to go to Netanya; after a couple of miles “the bus got stuck in sand. We all had to get out and push the bus. Our first day in Palestine!”

Dankner, who now lives in Fair Lawn, lived in Palestine for almost 10 years; he was a member of the Haganah. Later, he joined the American army and fought in Sicily, on Omaha Beach, and in the Battle of the Bulge. This week, he came to The Jewish Standard offices to tell us his story.

His adventurous life began in 1922 in Ardsley, N.Y. Dankner’s father, Joseph Danker, was a sabra born to parents who had left eastern Europe in the First Aliyah. He made his way to the United States in 1916, “when the Turks were conscripting Jewish fellas in the Turkish army,” his son said. Joseph Danker settled in Ardsley — “He had some friends in New Rochelle and they set him up with a milk route all through Westchester County,” Reuel Dankner said. “He eventually got enough money together to buy a business in Ardsley — you would call it a general store, with a little of everything. No food, but hardware, dry goods, just about everything else.”

Soon Joseph Danker married Brook-lyn-born Fannie Benson; the two had three children. “We were the only Jewish family in Ardsley until I was about 9 years old,” Reuel Dankner said. “It was not uncomfortable. My father was very well liked, and I had no problems in school. My mother was accepted in the church’s women’s club.” Oscar Hammerstein owned an estate close to Ardsley; Dankner and his brother sometimes swam in the composer’s pool.

In 1925, Danker, his mother, and his brother went to Palestine to visit family; they sailed on the Mauritania. “I picked up Yiddish there,” said Dankner. “All the old-timers spoke Yiddish in those days.” His Yiddish wasn’t good, but good enough so that later “I was able to tell off the Germans with it,” he said.

When the Depres-sion hit the United States, Joseph Dank-ner’s brothers in Pale-s-tine told him that the family would do better there. One of his brothers, Oved Ben-Ami, was a founder of Netanya — largely funded by New York philanthropist Nathan Straus, the town’s name, Natan ya, means Nathan gave — and served as its mayor until just before Israel became a state. So the Ardsley branch of the family, “packed up seven rooms of furniture and a brand-new car, and we sailed over to Palestine.” On the boat, which stopped in Naples, “I remember sitting in the lap of Zasu Pitts, the actress,” Dankner said.

The Dankners eventually settled in Petach Tikvah, and the children learned Hebrew. Until then, they punted. “My uncle had a daughter named Tamara,” Dankner said. “I asked her her name, and she told me. I said, ‘No, I want to know it today, not Tamara.’” But the brothers fit in, playing baseball with their new friends. “They called it hakafot when they ran around the bases. They used a broomstick and whatever kind of ball they could find. So I brought my gloves, my bat, and my baseball; we didn’t end up using the ball because it was hard, but we used the gloves and the bat. First, though, they just looked at them — the kids had never seen anything like it. That’s how I became home-run king of Petach Tikvah.”

In 1935, when he was 12, Dankner was recruited into the Haganah, the underground military Jewish organization in Palestine. “You don’t just ask to join; they recruit you,” he said. “I was asked to join.” At first, all he did was learn first aid and signaling. Then he did more. By then back in Netanya, when he was 15 he “learned to handle guns. You learned them blindfolded — how to take them apart, how to put them together. One of the first guns I learned to put together and take apart was a tommy gun, the gun the FBI used to use. The weapons the Haganah used were whatever weapons they could get their hands on from any country around the world. They didn’t buy them by the hundreds; whatever we could get, that’s what we trained on.”

The Haganah was organized for secrecy. “You were in squads, six or eight fellas — kids — and one instructor,” Dankner said. “You didn’t know anybody else in any other groups. Any training you did was strictly with that group, so nobody else knew anything except that group, so that if anything happened you couldn’t talk about it.”

When he was asked if his parents knew about his Haganah work, Dankner replied, “Nooooo!!! It was underground!” He told his parents that “I was going to some kind of Maccabi meeting, a sports meeting, something like that.” The Maccabi sports movement began during Dankner’s time in Israel; he competed in the javelin toss in the second games.

In 1936, Arabs began rioting against the Jews, instigated, said Dankner, by the grand mufti of Jerusalem upon his return from a trip to Germany. Rioting went on for years. In Netanya, Dankner said, “one of the first things the Arabs did was get hold of six people, men and boys, took them to Tulkarm, which is only 10 miles or less from Netanya, and put them in a pit with snakes and scorpions. In those days there were no bombs, no mortars, no hand grenades, so people used whatever they knew about from nature. We got to them a few days later — but they were all dead. I was about 17.”

By that time, Dankner had joined Plugot Ha’esh, the so-called Special Night Squad. British officials were not supposed to know that the group was made up mainly of Haganah members. His group, said Dankner, “was to protect the big pylons that carried the big electric lines from Haifa south to Beersheva, and everything in between.

“These groups were set up under the auspices of the Jewish National Fund,” continued Dankner. “There was no Jewish government per se, because the British were in charge. The Jewish National Committee, through the Haganah, picked the men, and the British supplied the officer. Our captain’s name was Gore; his father, Harold Gore, was a member of Parliament. They weren’t supposed to know that the Haganah had picked us, but they probably knew more that we thought they knew. After a while, we were called out for special guerrilla training to protect ourselves and do damage to the Arabs. We were given that training by another captain, who later became a general with the Burma Raiders. We called him the Lawrence of the Jews.” That captain was Charles Orde Wingate.

“Wingate trained us a couple of weeks; they wanted us to learn as much as we could. He taught me things I later taught guys in the American army — how to kill with your bare hands or with the butt of a rifle. Things like that. Some of the people with me went on to become the leaders after 1948.

“We sent messages, but there were no phones, and no one had radios. We used to go up on the top of water towers and signal from one tower to another. You never knew who was on the other end, receiving and sending. We would sometimes talk to the whole country in one night with lights in Morse code.”

Plugot Ha’esh is at work in Palestine, 1939.

After 1939, when the situation in Europe worsened, “the ships started coming in with refugees,” Dankner said. “My uncle, Mayor Ben Ami, would entertain the British officers from a camp outside Netanya. He would entertain them every time we knew a ship was coming in. They would be inside his house, drinking and having fun, when the ships arrived. They came in to a nice sandy beach at Netanya, right on the shore. There was a cliff at the top and the community hall was there, where we used to have movies and lectures. The Haganah would take the refugees right from the beach to the hall, the townspeople would be in the hall, and next to each one would be an empty seat for a refugees. That way, if the police or the English came in, they’d all be part of the community.

“The boats were small — they were shipping boats — and sometimes they’d be packed with people. I must have unloaded about six or seven of them. We used to stand in the water and the boats would come in as far as they could. We’d wade out and help people off the boats.

“When they got ashore, people used to get down on the sand and kiss the shore. They were hungry; there were times they would come in on Shabbat and the rabbi would give the baker special dispensation to bake bread for them.”

In 1940, the Dankner family’s life again changed radically. “There was a boat leaving from Egypt for the United States,” Dankner said; his father “finally managed to get tickets. It was leaving from Alexandria. He asked us if we all wanted to go. We all wanted to go. We traveled by train to Alexandria, took a lighter — a smaller boat — out to the boat in the harbor. It was Christmas Eve, 1940; the boat, the ZamZam, normally was used to take pilgrims on overnight trips from Alexandria on the way to Mecca for the pilgrimages.

The Dankner family in 1941, soon after they returned to the United States — Reuel is at top right.

“The Mediterranean was closed, because the Italians were crossing to go to Ethiopia and the Germans were fighting in Africa. So the boat sailed the next day with a group of Americans and a group of Jews, going to Brazil.” The Dankners had retained their American citizenships.

“We went across the Suez Canal, south across the west coast of Africa,” Dankner said. “The first stop was in Mombasa, Kenya; we spent three days there and went out on a couple of trips. Then we loaded up again, stopped in Rhodesia, went further down the coast to Cape Town, South Africa. When we came up on deck that night and saw Cape Town all lit up it was the first time we’d seen lights in three or four years. Palestine was blacked out; Egypt was blacked out. We were there for five days, got back on the boat, and started across the South Pacific. The boat traveled very slowly. Every time we’d see some smoke on the horizon, we’d turn around and go back until it disappeared. Finally we got to Recife, Brazil, stayed there overnight, stopped in Trinidad, and then got to New York.”

It was March 1941 when the family got off the boat for good. “We had been on the water, not counting the stops, for 60 days. A couple of days later we read in the paper that the ZamZam had loaded up with ambulances for the British army in Cairo and was sunk by a Germany submarine right outside New York.”

The family settled into New York; Dankner went to work in Stamford, Conn., first cutting diamond dies and then as a program manager for Yale, the lock company. Then, in June 1942, Dankner said, “I went home to New York one Saturday and told my mother and father that I was joining the American Army.”

After basic training, Dankner was sent to the Mojave Desert in California, then shipped back east. He left Hoboken for Casablanca in French Morocco, where he did intelligence work; he was based in the headquarters battery of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion. “Because I spoke Arabic, I was able to wander around the city and listen,” he said.

“One Friday night I said to the colonel that I’d like to go to Casablanca and find some Jewish services; there were about two or three of us Jewish boys in the whole battalion. He said good, take a Jeep, and I had a driver — I was a sergeant by that time. I was driven downtown; I found a synagogue but it was all boarded up. So my driver and I ripped off the boards, or as much as we could reach, and we ripped off the doors, and I was ready to go in when a whole crowd came up and they started howling, ‘You can’t go in there!’” And I said why, and they told me that it was a synagogue. And I said to them, in Hebrew and Arabic, ‘Ani yehud’ — I am a Jew. And they all understood, and they believed me, and we opened the door and they went in. There was no rabbi, but one of the old-timers conducted services. All of a sudden the books came out of nowhere, the Torahs also — they had them all hidden away somewhere — and the synagogue was opened. My driver was from South Carolina. We meet at reunions once a year, and he always reminds me of that crowd.”

From Casablanca, the battalion went to Rabat, where they camped in a cork forest and then through the Atlas Mountains to Libya and to the front, where the Allies were fighting the Germans. After the Germans surrendered there they went to Sicily; from there toward Messina on the Italian mainland, “but on the way we ran into some big problems,” said Dankner. “General Patton, who was in charge, decided to go around a line that we couldn’t break through. They put us in boats, we landed behind them, and they gave up. We started on a day or two later, we ran into another line we couldn’t break through, and he decided to do another leapfrog. This time we were 1,200, and only 200 or us came out. They were ready for us; they wiped us out.

“It was right after this that I got the Silver Star; it was given to me by General Patton.” The medal, a gold five-pointed star with a smaller thicker silver star embedded inside it, is inscribed with Dankner’s name and the words “For Gallantry in Action.” How did he feel when he got it? In Dankner’s words, “by then, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.”

Next, Dankner went to England. “We started training, which we knew was for the invasion, but we didn’t know when,” he said. “On H hour, I was on Omaha Beach in Normandy. I was one of the first ones ashore; I was a forward observer for the artillery.” His job was to look for possible targets; he would signal his finds by radio.

“I sat on the beach watching the slaughter below,” he said. “Any of the movies you saw — I was there. I saw it with my own eyes.”

On July 25, 1944, “I was hurt,” he said. “It was my knees; one was hit and the other I banged against a foxhole and tore some ligaments. I was flown out to England, to a hospital, where I stayed for a few weeks.” Much later, Dankner had knee replacement surgery on both legs; he is now on his second set of artificial knees.

He rejoined his unit and was with them for the Battle of the Bulge. “We were nearly wiped out there, we lost everything we had, and finally they told us to make our way back to our own lines,” he said. “We were not entrapped with the airborne division; we were outside their lines.”

Finally, Dankner, who had resisted being sent back home for a rotation furlough, did go back to the United States for that mandated vacation. He visited his parents — “I slept on the floor for a couple of nights, because I couldn’t take a bed. It was too soft” — and then, as he had been ordered to do, went back to camp in Fort Dix on Sunday, May 6, 1945. “The next day was unofficial V.E. day,” Dankner said. “The rumors had come over. May 8, Tuesday, was the end of the fighting in Europe. They canceled all our trips back. That Friday, I got out of the U. S. Army.”

Dankner adjusted to civilian life. He married, had two daughters, Helen and Lisa; then his wife died. He married Ros, who had three children, Janet, Joanne, and Nelson; the two had one more daughter, Rina. “We moved to Fair Lawn and I’ve been there ever since,” Dankner said. A few years ago, Ros Dankner died.

Dankner worked for the Emerson Radio Company as a sales manager; he’s involved with the Jewish War Veterans, Knights of Pythias, and Mended Hearts. He’s had lung cancer and now has only one lung; in 1982 he had quadruple bypass surgery. He speaks about his life to organizations of seniors and veterans, to Jewish groups, and to children with heart problems.

In 1948, Dankner helped get money and guns to Israel. “I was in Los Angeles,” he said. “I was working for a gentleman who was involved with raising money for Israel. I was in the Hollywood Bowl when Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, and Georgie Jessel gave an impromptu concert. I was there recording the program for the Jewish fund. I did take a load of guns and ammunition down to the Mexican border. I had to leave it there; others took it across the border to be loaded on ships for Israel. I couldn’t go across. They had my record — they knew I had been in the Palestine underground.”

He went back to Israel to visit in 1976 and loved it. Still, he did not regret spending most of his life in the United States. “I am American all the way,” he said. “I often thought about going back and helping them, but after World War II I couldn’t do very much. My legs were better by then, but still…. I never felt that I had anything I could help them with except to settle there and live there, but I still thought that America was the greatest place to be.”

All in all, Dankner said, “it’s been an amazing life — and I’m proud of it.”

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