There were stories about the founding of the State of Israel locked into the memories of people who lived locally as well.
I know that because I was honored to be able to tell a few of those stories.
Most but not all of the main characters in these stories have died, most of them after I talked to them, one long before I talked to his grandson. All the stories have been featured in the Jewish Standard.
On January 24, 2003, I wrote about Reuel Dankner, who lived in Fair Lawn then; the story was called “It’s been an amazing life.” Mr. Dankner was born in 1922, in Westchester County, but his father had been born in Palestine. The family moved to Netanya when Reuel was 10.
On their first day, he said, the family took a bus to their temporary new home. The bus went “from the paved road from Haifa to Tel Aviv. They transferred to another bus to go to Netanya, but after a few miles ‘the bus got stuck in the sand. We all had to get out and push the bus. Our first day in Palestine!’”
Mr. Dankner described playing baseball in the family’s eventually long-term home in Petach Tikvah — with a broomstick, and the gloves he’d brought from his old home. Just having them made him “the home-run king of Petach Tikvah.”
At 12, he was “recruited into the Haganah. ‘You don’t just ask to join. They recruit you,’ he said.” He soon learned how to put a gun together blindfolded. His parents never knew.
The family gave up on Palestine — life was hard there — and went back to New York. Mr. Dankner joined the American Army in 1942; he did intelligence there, and used the Arabic that he spoke to pick up information in Casablanca. He was on Normandy Beach on D Day, he was at the Battle of the Bulge, he came back home and had a regular life.
In 1948, among other adventures, “I was in Los Angeles… I did take a load of guns and ammunition down to the Mexican border.” He had to leave it there, though, as other people took it across the border and loaded it on ships for Israel. “They had my record — they knew I had been in the Palestinian underground.”
Reuel Dankner died in 2005
In 2003, three local people were among the 70 given awards by the American Veterans for Israel; the awards, celebrated after the Salute to Israel parade, were distributed on board the Intrepid. I wrote about them in the June 13th issue that year, in a story called “Steaming Toward Palestine:
Nathan Nadler of Rutherford, born in Brooklyn in 1927, was drafted into the U.S. Army when he turned 18; he was sent to Munich, where he put his training as an electrician to use. After the war’s end and his discharge, he saw newspaper ads for the Barney Ross Brigade of the American Free League for Palestine. He went to Union Square to find out about it, but left its office unimpressed. But, he said, “As I was leaving, a young boy ran over to me, put a piece of paper in my hand with a penciled telephone number scribbled on it. ‘If you’re really interested, call this number,’ he said. ‘The kid was about 14.’” He called, was asked to go to a townhouse on Fifth Avenue near the Metropolitan Museum of Art — “a mansion,” he called it, probably accurately — and was interviewed by someone who sat in the dark and aimed a flashlight at Mr. Nadler, so he was blinded by it. He never saw his interviewer, but the next day he got a call, telling him to go Pier 32 in Philadelphia. “They’ll be expecting you,” he was told. He went, boarded the President Warfield, and was gone. He was 20 years old.
The boat was renamed the Exodus.
After it got to the port of Sete, in France, 4,554 people, all survivors, boarded. The British dogged them for the entire journey to Palestine, refusing to let them off, fighting them when they tried to disembark. One of the crew, standing right next to Mr. Nadler, was killed. His name was Bill Bernstein. “They clubbed him and he died,” Mr. Nadler said.
He was injured, but he, like everyone else, kept fighting, but in the end they lost. The boat had to take its passengers back, and the only place that would take those passengers — all Shoah survivors — was a one-time German concentration camp.
Mr. Nadler, meanwhile, as a crew member, was on a prison ship in Marseilles; his leg had been badly wounded. “I never made it to Palestine then,” he said. Back in the States, he became an electrician.
Nathan Nadler died in 2012.
David Hanovice of Fort Lee was born in Tel Aviv, grew up in Houston, went back to Palestine, and then joined the U. S. Army and was based in the Middle East during World War II. After the war ended he went back to the United States, but in 1948, when Israel was attacked, he returned. He got on a ship in New Orleans, the Yucatan, destined for the Israeli navy. It was all illegal; he couldn’t get a passport to Israel, because the U. S. government wasn’t giving them, but as a sailor he didn’t need one. And no one on the Yucatan told the government that the ship was going to Israel. That wasn’t legal either. “It was a mishmash of all kinds of deception,” Mr. Hanovice said.
He stayed in the Israeli navy for many years, became a commander, moved back to the United States, and became a chief engineer in the American merchant marine; his wife, Rose, was a nurse in the Israeli army.
David Hanovice died in 2009.
Naomi Kantey of Hackensack was born in Philadelphia in 1925; she was a fervent Zionist and a nurse in the Cadet Nurse Corp. “Out of my class, two were selected by the Navy, and I was one of them,” she said. The other nurse got sent to California; she went to Queens. The war ended just before her training did. But she knew that there was trouble in Palestine, she said. “‘All of us of that generation were profoundly moved by the Holocaust. We thought about it all the time.’” That concern propelled her to Palestine — but getting there wasn’t easy.
She was able to get a passport, but she needed a visa from the British government, and it was denied. “I was so sure that I was going to get a visa, the consternation must have registered on my face,” she said. The British official took pity on her and suggested that she go to the Jewish Agency. “He even gave me their address.”
When she got there, she was sent away, but later she got a visa — or a vise — she later realized that it was a forgery, complete with misspellings. But it got her to Haifa. She was a nurse, and that made her valuable.
At one point, she said, her passport vanished; later it reappeared, courtesy of the Mossad. “That is why I’ve never been surprised by anything the Mossad has done,” she said.
She worked in many hospitals in Israel, and later came back to the United States, where she worked as a nurse in the Teaneck public school system for 21 years.
Naomi Kantey died in 2015.
In the January 9, 2015 issue, I wrote a story, “Scheherazade in Cresskill,” about Shlomo Lev.
Mr. Lev was born in Odessa in 1927; a natural storyteller and extraordinarily wild child. His adventures aren’t relevant here, and must have been horrific for his parents, but they’re great story fodder.
In 1933, he and his family moved to Palestine, and Mr. Lev grew up in Givat Yam. He wanted to fight the Germans and tried to join the British army when he was 16 — he was too young for that, but not for the British navy — but instead he was being secretly recruited into the Palmach. “It sounds like a good adventure,” he said. After his stint there ended, he joined the Palyam, Palestine’s new navy. They smuggled immigrants from Europe into Palestine. There were more adventures. He fought the British until the State of Israel was established, and then he joined the new country’s merchant marine.
In 1954, the Egyptians captured his ship in the Suez Canal — really, it is impossible to make Mr. Lev’s story short, its glory is in its meticulously delivered wild details — and he and his shipmates were imprisoned. It is at this point in his story that Mr. Lev brought out the underpants that he’d sewn for himself while he was in captivity, in possession of a needle, thread, and the remnants of a shirt made of fine Egyptian cotton, but underwear-less.
After some time he and his companions were released, he came back to the United States, had more adventures, and raised a family here.
I am thrilled to be able to report that Shlomo and Alma Lev are still living in Cresskill, and most likely Mr. Lev has even more stories to tell.
In our November 27, 2017 issue, Paul Caine of Tenafly told the story of his grandfather, Wolf Herman Silberstein, a New York City patrolman who was born in Brooklyn in 1906 and died in 1948.
Mr. Caine knew very little about his grandfather until recently — the story I wrote, “My grandfather did what?,” is about what he learned. The way he uncovered it bears re-reading, but this is the gist of it: His grandfather, working with another Jewish NYPD cop, Leon Katz, were helping the Jews in mandatory Palestine. As I put it in that story, quoting a story in the Jerusalem Post, “Mr. Katz, another former New York City policeman and a onetime inspector general of the city’s prisons, who made aliyah in 1981, talked about how he put together a group of other city cops who had, not to put too fine a point on it, smuggled guns to mandatory Palestine as it fought for freedom from the British.”
The story described not only how Mr. Silberstein and Mr. Katz stored the guns, but also how they sweet-talked the FBI into letting them go. Other NYC police brass knew about the gun-running, Mr. Caine said, but they liked Mr. Silberstein and Mr. Katz; moreover, because most of them were Irish and sympathetic to the struggles against the Brits, they had sympathy for the cause as well.
When Mr. Silberstein died, he was honored with a “blue funeral,” as an ocean of uniformed NYPD cops stood shoulder to shoulder at the Shomrim Society’s cemetery in Queens.
There probably are many other stories of local people who were involved in Palestine’s struggle to become Israel or in Israel’s first years. Some might come from the people who were there; by now probably many more would come from their children or grandchildren. We would love to hear those stories. If you have any to tell, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.