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Yassi Margalit is one of the pioneers who built Israel. But before the
young New Yorker immigrated to Israel in 1947, he had already landed
at the Normandy beach on D-Day and been one of the first to enter
Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Yassi and his pregnant wife were on the
last busload of civilians to enter Jerusalem before the siege began
there, whereupon Yassi was a soldier in Israel's War of Independence.
After his army service, he joined his comrades in the ultimate Zionist
undertaking: founding a kibbutz. Yassi was a member of our Masorti
(Conservative) congregation. A few years ago he wrote an
autobiography, from which this appreciative synopsis is taken. Yassi,
who died recently,will be deeply missed by all who knew him. He was
truly an unassuming patriarch.
Yassi's story began with his farewell to his then-girlfriend Chedva in Pennsylvania Station, New York. He had waited until age 18 to enlist in order to choose his branch of service: Ordnance (military equipment, weapons, and vehicles. He had chosen that because he knew the training would be invaluable for settling in Palestine. After a brief stay at Fort Dix, Yassi and his fellow soldiers were sent to Will Rodgers Field in Oklahoma for their basic training. It was September, 1942 and Yassi was barely old enough to enlist. In fact, he didn't even use a razor yet, which he said saved him a lot of discomfort at the front.
All of the non-commissioned officers were Southern, old army types, so the recruits had to get used to Southern cooking. Later the group was joined by recruits from Texas and Utah, a foul-mouthed, hard-drinking, rough bunch. Yassi, being one of the smallest in the outfit, suffered some trouble from them. That is, he was harassed until he became proficient at knife-throwing, which ended any bullying. Among the newcomers were some Mormons, who didn't touch liquor and had never seen a Jew. One of the Mormons remarked that Yassi couldn't be a Jew because he didn't have horns!
Yassi's stay in Oklahoma ended after his lieutenant told him: "Joe, you will never make corporal. because the words you use are too big and the men don't understand you." In October 1943, the company was sent to upstate NY in preparation to being sent overseas. The company soon shipped out on the S.S. Aquitania to Scotland, joining 20,000 others on the ship. After an arduous journey which included hours of watch duty clinging to an icy mast, Yassi landed in Scotland where their destination was an RAF air base in East Anglia.
On the base Yassi's company set up an automotive repair garage, a small arms repair section, and space for the bomb supply vehicles, which they were responsible for. The men were allowed occasional trips to London, where they would stock up on the necessities of a soldier's life, including gum, cigarettes, and condoms. On one of his trips to London, Yassi visited the Mizrachi Zionist Federation. "The main topic of conversation was concerning the death camps and the realization that the Germans intended to erase the Jews from Europe. No one seemed to know what to do about it." Yassi was chosen as one of only 28 soldiers to represent the various battalions at Buckingham Palace, where they were to be commended by the King of England. When it came time to bow to the king, Yassi remained erect. The king took note of his posture and said to Yassi, "You must be of the Hebrew persuasion." Despite Yassi's apprehension about being the only soldier not to bow, nothing came of it.
On D-Day, June 6, Yassi's company, with 97 trucks and less than a hundred men, crossed the English Channel at Bournemouth, part of the huge Normandy invasion force. They were on their way to France and the real war! Yassi had been given additional duty as company interpreter. "It was a joke, me, with my flunked high school French. But no one else knew a word, so I was it!" Surrounded by hundreds of other boats, they arrived on the beach at Normandy just a few hours after the brutal initial landings. Yassi said, "We could see piles of bodies and many first aid tents with stretchers lined up in front of them.The wafting stench of war was an element I could never forget." They made bivouac that night inland, in the direction of St. Mare Eglise, where many American paratroopers had been killed on the previous night.
After the Normandy landing, Yassi and his company had little to do until they moved on towards Chartres. His new assignment was mechanic/interpreter with a crew searching for downed aircraft and then removing the ordnance, a job which kept him busy for many weeks. In November, the battalion moved to the Ardennes Forest, where Yassi's company was transporting load after load of fuel and supplies to the front in preparation for a surge into Germany. One day they came under tank fire from a heavily equipped German column. Yassi took cover in the headquarters office behind a couch when a "potato masher" (German grenade) was thrown through the window. After regaining consciousness, Yassi found himself in a hospital outside of Paris, where he'd been for four weeks! No one knew how he had ended up there, who had brought him, or what had become of his buddies.
After further recuperation in the military hospital, Yassi's hearing gradually returned to normal and he resumed active duty. An officer in the Third Army Tank Corps heard about Yassi's ordnance experience and was happy to take him on board. Yassi began repairing jammed machine guns and soon after moved out with the fuel and support vehicles of the battalion. Not knowing exactly where they were going, the lead tank crew was surprised when they stumbled onto the fence and gates of what turned out to be Buchenwald: "The column stopped and we sat paralyzed by the sight before us. Half-human shapes were lying in the dirt. The dead and dying were sprawled everywhere. I was most struck by their unseeing eyes. We had chanced upon one of Hitler's death camps!
Surveying the horrific conditions in the Buchenwald Concentration
Camp, the shocked soldiers called for a field hospital and began
making a huge pot of soup laced with field rations, which they doled
out to the starving survivors. They kept this up for 24 hours until
the hospital orderlies took over. Yassi made himself busy by speaking
Yiddish with the former prisoners. One former inmate insisted on
showing him the inner workings of the camp. Yassi related how, "When
the enormity of this death machine dawned on the GIs and the evidence
stared them in the face, some ten men got in their weapons carriers,
drove into Kassel and shot and killed any German they saw. The news of
their vengeful expedition reached the Military Police and those
involved were sent back to France for a court-martial."
US Army Chaplain Schecter soon arrived at Buchenwald Concentration Camp and Yassi was able to assist him. They found about 300 Hungarian girls, aged 15-20, and other younger children who had only been in the camp for a few months. Of course, the survivors were totally traumatized and in shock, but at least they were alive. The chaplain was able to gather the 25-30 youngsters under ten and arranged for air transport for them from Kassel to Italy. From there, the Jewish Agency arranged for their emigration to Palestine.
Yassi's company moved towards Berlin. The war in Europe had ended and the widespread destruction and the sullen looks of the townspeople brought that home. Naturally the Americans were anxious to leave the war zone and get home in one piece. Without official paperwork since the Ardennes explosion, Yassi left the tank battalion to try to establish his identity and procure a berth on a ship home. He made his way to Marseilles, France, from there he eventually shipped home. Exactly three years after his enlistment, Yassi was discharged.
Yassi and Chedva were soon married and they set about preparing for their anticipated life on a kibbutz at the Hashomer Ha Dati Zionist training farm in Hightstown, NJ. The day the United Nations Partition Plan for a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine was affirmed, November 29, 1947, found them at sea on their way to Haifa port. They arrived there a few weeks later, accompanied by Yassi's parents. (It was thanks to the GI Bill that Yassi and Chedva were able to enter Palestine, under the pretext that Yassi would attend college there.) While spending a few days in Haifa getting to know some of their relatives, they realized the impact of the UN proclamation. Crossing a street in the lower part of the city, their cousin told them to run across the street to avoid shots from the Arab area nearby. Just then a small truck with a loudspeaker started blasting a message to the Arabs in the neighborhood in "Pinglish" (Palestinian-English) and Arabic, not to be afraid and not to flee the city. It was obvious that the November 29 decision had sown confusion and panic among the Arabs.
The next morning the Margalits boarded a bus for the trip to Tel Aviv, which they understood could be dangerous. They arrived after an uneventful ride, except for the stretch where the driver instructed them to lie on the floor. In Tel Aviv they made arrangements to take a bus to Jerusalem, with a Jewish Settlement Police (JSP) escort. They had no idea that the JSP would only accompany them part of the way to Jerusalem.
At Latrun, about two-thirds of the distance to Jerusalem, the JSP escort was replaced by a British one. As they slowly approached the Bab El Wad, the natural route up the Judean hills to Jerusalem (now called Sha'ar Ha Guy), two young Jews, a boy with a Luger pistol and a girl with a Sten gun, snuck onto their bus, each taking a pre-arranged seat on opposite sides. Just as the bus entered Bab El Wad, the two quickly secreted their weapons under the floorboards, in time to hide them from the British police, who boarded the bus to search for armaments.
As the convoy made the long drive up the steep Judean Mountains towards Jerusalem, shots began to ring out from the Arab villages situated above the road on both sides. Yassi's family saw that the British escort had disappeared! The boy, who was a Hagana (Jewish Army) soldier was killed while firing his pistol, but the girl managed to maintain her fire until she ran out of ammunition. The driver was wounded and was quickly replaced by the reserve driver who continued the ascent under fire. By then there were several wounded passengers and the engine had conked out. Luckily they had crested the hill and coasted down to the iron stairway leading to the settlement of Motza Illit. The villagers had heard the heavy firing and were waiting to assist the battered convoy.
Out of nowhere, the British police returned. Yassi wrote, "We were shocked when they asked, 'Did anything happen?' We were sure the British had signaled the Arabs to open fire before they fled. One of the dead [in the convoy] was sitting next to Golda Meir in a private car. We could see the absolute shock on her face as the dead man's head slumped on her shoulder. All told, there were three dead and seven wounded in the attack. This was the last unarmored convoy to Jerusalem [before the siege began]. From then on, the road to Jerusalem was closed to civilians."
Several weeks after arriving in Jerusalem, Yassi was told to report to Hagana headquarters in Jerusalem. As an experienced American soldier, he was a welcome addition to the Jewish army defending the city. By the end of March, 1948 Yassi was a full-time soldier. The situation was delicate, since the British were still nominally in charge and Jews were forbidden to possess weapons. This period ended on May 15, when the British officially ended the Mandate and withdrew. The Hagana was able to take over many of their positions.
Yassi's company was assigned to the Katamon, an Arab neighborhood
from which most of the residents had fled. Yassi wrote, "I saw homes
with the table set for dinner, the prepared food waiting in the
kitchen. The Arab radio had announced to the inhabitants that they
should leave temporarily and that they would be able to come back
after the Jews had been defeated." Yassi's company of 34 men had only
five weapons between them to police the "Christian Hospice", which was
crowded with hundreds of Arab refugees. A few days later the Arabs in
the Old City attacked the Jewish sector through Zion Gate and a brutal
battle ensued. After twenty minutes the Arabs were turned back, but
the Jews were left with little ammunition. Just as a second attack
began, Yassi relates, "Almost Biblically, a miracle happened! The fog
that had been hovering over us for the last few hours merged into a
thick gray figure-like mass. The attacking Arabs were astounded upon
seeing this ominous cloud. They turned tail and fled." Nevertheless,
Yassi was distraught that they had two very serious casualties.
Sporadic fighting between Jews and Arabs continued around Jerusalem, but conditions were worsening in the city, cut off from the rest of the country due to the siege. The soldiers were concerned about their families, whose food and fuel were in short supply. Ration cards had been issued for food and for water distributed by tanker trucks (about 8 quarts per person per day - for all purposes). Lots were drawn each day for two of the men to visit their families. Even so, Jewish Jerusalem was under bombardment day and night by the British-officered Arab Legion. However, news of military successes outside of Jerusalem encouraged the men, raising their spirits and their hopes. Yassi's company was due to be relieved shortly, but this was complicated by the necessity to leave all the weapons and ammo for the replacements. Yassi was stunned by the possible consequences for his men, left with no weapons: "I suddenly realized that this was not the US Army, with its endless supply of weapons!"
One day, Yassi turned a corner and unexpectedly confronted an Arab soldier. Yassi raised his gun and pulled the trigger, but it misfired! The Arab, as shocked as Yassi, dropped his backpack and ran. Examining the backpack, Yassi discovered that it was full of explosives. He realized that they both would have been blown to pieces except for the misfire! It turned out that frightened high school students with no military experience had spotted Arabs in the vicinity and had abandoned their post. It was clear to Yassi that the Jewish army was scraping the bottom of the barrel for manpower. In addition, two men failed to return from leave and were marked AWOL. Luckily, that didn't happen again.
Yassi was put in charge of a Davidka, one of the few heavy weapons the Hagana had. However, it was feared not because of its potency but for its stupendous roar. His company was given the mission to move the iron base of the weapon to another location. It took four men to carry the base and another ten to carry the heavy shells. They transported the weapon at night when the moon had waned, accompanied by an escort of chain-pullers and milk can-rollers. Their job was to make it look like they had armored half-track vehicles, which would discourage the Arabs from attacking. The men made the arduous journey without any weapons other than the Davidka itself, knowing that the enemy was nearby.
When Yassi had leave, he saw the difficult conditions the civilians had to contend with. The only water source were cisterns under old buildings, there was no fresh produce, and the food reserves were finished. The result was slow starvation for the Jewish populace. That, and the constant shelling and limited movement, depressed everyone's morale. As for Yassi's company, 40% of the soldiers were on sick call and unable to fulfill normal duties. Yassi wrote: "In the saga of the siege of Jerusalem, home and front were very close indeed."
Soon after May 15, Israel's Independence Day, a swearing-in ceremony for the newly-formed Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was held. The soldiers listened to the brigade commander as he commended them for their stalwart efforts and warned them of hard days ahead. Yassi wrote: "We soldiers, wary at first, listened and understood that this was a momentous occasion. The knowledge that we were among the first soldiers of a Jewish Army after 2000 years of exile was palpable and nothing was going to stop us. This was especially significant when each man received his army number and rank in a booklet with the stamp of the Israel Defense Forces and the emblem of the State of Israel!"
A UN-sponsored cease-fire began on June 11 which lasted nearly a month, despite scattered gunfire. Fresh supplies were brought into the city via the "Burma Road", an unbelievable engineering feat through the Judean Mountains, named for a famous road built during WWII. Yassi described how the Jerusalemites acted with great courage under fire. He called the water distributors, bakers, and kerosene vendors heroes for manning their stations at great personal risk to fulfill the needs of the populace.
On July 1, Yassi and Chedva's son Eli was born. By this time Yassi was so worn down that he weighed only 120 pounds. He was sent to Ziv Hospital for tests and observation. After returning to his company, Yassi was told that he would have to spend at least three weeks at the Army rest center at Katamon, due to malnutrition and dehydration. In November Yassi sought a discharge from the army to establish a new settlement in the south with the kibbutz group of which he and Chedva were members. This was a very acceptable way to be discharged from the army, but Yassi waited months for a response. In December 1948, Yassi was relieved of all operational duties, but not officially discharged. He took several leaves of absence to join the other kibbutzniks working with tractors and survey teams to map out their settlement. His work there removed him further and further from the army, as he awaited discharge papers. Yassi was beginning to see that their dream of settling the land would soon be realized. Finally, after the children's house had been built, Chedva and Eli joined him at their new home. Yassi concluded his memoirs with this: "The trials of the Jerusalem siege were fading into distant memory as the prospect of our new life in the kibbutz was [finally] being fulfilled."
Michal and I and all of Yassi's friends will miss him greatly, not the least for the wonderful kiddush chant that we were privileged to hear at services. A teacher, a builder, a mechanic, an artisan, a pioneer, Yassi was all of these things. He was truly an unassuming patriarch of Israel.Steve Kramer and his wife Michel live in Israel. He works in an English language publishing company in Israel and writes a weekly opinion piece for the Jewish Times of Southern New Jersey. The articles are archived at stevemichal.tripod.com. This article was to the Jewish Times November 26, 2007.
To read Yassi's 60-Year-Old Story and/or Aliyah 1947, email his wife Chedva at firstname.lastname@example.org
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