It is no secret that the eyewitnesses to the Nazi death camps — the liberators from the U.S. and Allied armies — are quickly dying off. They did their duty, most having no clue that the devastation and utter horror they would witness would linger with them permanently.
The mahalniks, the 4,000 volunteers from all over the world who helped Israel fight for its independence a few years later in 1948-49, are similarly dying off. Most were World War II veterans from British and U.S. armed forces who heard about the Jewish state’s struggle for independence and volunteered or were recruited. Many piloted and flew rickety old fighter and cargo planes in dangerous conditions. Much of their work was underground, even illegal, like those who worked for the Haganah, the pre-state army. More than 120 were killed in battle.
Now, as we prepare to observe both Veterans Day on Nov. 11 and Kristallnacht — the Nov. 9-10, 1938 pogroms against the Jews in Germany that became a precursor to the Holocaust — the time has come to honor these individuals whose services have yet to be fully realized and recognized.
Despite some small, sporadic efforts to honor them, there has been no full-fledged program to acknowledge what these groups have done for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. We must do so before it is too late.
Several years ago, my synagogue, Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El in Wynnewood, held special services during Veterans Day to honor liberators, veterans and prisoners of war. It was a resounding success. That was followed up with a Veterans Day program with a local black Baptist church to honor the Red Ball Express, black American soldiers in the transportation army units who liberated camps. We also brought liberators together with students for programs at schools and civic associations, and we documented and filmed their stories. As important as these programs were, they are not enough.
We realized we needed a bigger vision — a full-blown holiday to recognize these heroes. Inquiries led to contact with officials at Yad Vashem, the Israeli-based Holocaust museum and educational center that appeared to be the most likely to lead or host such official recognition, programming and documenting, such as taking testimony from the liberators.
Nothing good comes easy, especially when Israeli bureaucracy is involved. The response was a mixture of suggestions and inquiries, including: whether there exists any umbrella organization that could help identify surviving liberators and mahalniks; how to access their family members for second-hand reports, family members’ diaries, photographs and other memorabilia; how to enlist the support of other institutions, including the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, the Jewish War Veterans, Department of Veterans Affairs, and churches; and who would cover the costs.
This is an exhaustive list, which bureaucratically could slow progress to a halt. The devil is clearly in the details. Tremendous work needs to be done to get this off the ground; many of these questions need to be answered and researched.
The takeaway: If it is indeed an important mission to remember the special service of the mahalniks, liberators and others who have helped defend and save the Jewish people and give birth to the State of Israel, we must act before it is too late. As a start, enlist the support of any Israeli official or agents you know, including any connection to American Friends of Yad Vashem, and Yad Vashem itself. If you can help, contact us at the Zionist Organization of America office (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Lee S. Bender, co-president of the ZOA Greater Philadelphia District, is the co-author, with Jerome Verlin of the book, Pressing Israel: Media Bias Exposed From A-Z.