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Boats and bullets – South African veterans remember 1948 war



For many Jews, it was but a dream to rebuild their nation after 2 000 years in exile. When the opportunity arose in 1948, the Jewish community in South Africa were swift to heed the call. Out of 4 000 foreign volunteers in Machal, South Africa sent one out of five fighters.

“I always loved adventure, that was a big part of why I went.” said Joe Woolf, a machalnik who passed away in February at the age of 95. He spoke to the SA Jewish Report shortly before his passing. Most surviving South African machalniks are now more than 90 years old.

South Africa proportionately contributed the largest group of machalniks, with a total of 806 South Africans giving service to Israel, including 133 women and 12 gentiles. Only the United States, with the world’s biggest Jewish population at the time, sent more fighters. The late American machalnik, Tom Tugend, said, “The whole diaspora was here, and South Africans were among the most dedicated soldiers we had.”

Because American, South African, and British Jews were highly represented in Machal, English became the main language of the division. Many didn’t speak Hebrew, “but as long as you could understand Yiddish, that was good enough to get by, and many of us in South Africa could at least understand some of it,” said Dr Hymie Goldblatt.

In an interview from Moshav Ilaniya, where he now lives, Woolf recounted his journey. He was born in Lithuania, and moved to South Africa as a child. Many of his relatives back in Europe perished in the Holocaust. In Lithuania, he said, 97.6% of Jews died in the Holocaust, the highest per capita of any country affected by Nazi atrocities.

“If we had stayed behind in Lithuania, we most certainly would have perished,” he said. Since many South African Jews had Litvak origins, many, like Woolf, had lost family members in the Shoah. Wolf had to forge his parent’s signature since they didn’t give him permission to leave and join the Israeli army as he wasn’t 21 or a South African citizen yet.

Woolf recounted the voyage to Israel, which took many weeks. “A journey from Africa to the Middle East wasn’t just one direct flight like it is today. Back then, planes stopped overnight for refuelling.” They left Palmietfontein Airport (south of Johannesburg) in the morning, with a breakfast stop in Bulawayo, Rhodesia. They also stopped in a few different countries en route before reaching Italy, where he spent some time and embarked on a boat to Israel. Israel had already declared independence by the time he arrived in Haifa on 24 August 1948.

Woolf said Israel urgently needed pilots, while infantry soldiers were obviously needed, but they didn’t need to be shipped in so quickly. “I was an infantryman, we were basically ‘cannon fodder’, that’s why our journey took longer. They sent the pilots by ship, on a quicker route.” Woolf joined the English-speaking Infantry “B” Company. There were fighters from all over the globe including India, Scotland, Canada, and Kenya.

He was in what was known as the training platoon, under Stanley Meddicks from Kenya. Woolf was surrounded by battle-hardened and experienced World War II veterans, which he said was a real morale booster. He recalls what he called “the battle of Tamra [an Arab city in the lower Galilee]” as his “most intense moment in the war”. They initially scaled a mountain near Kabul village (near Tamra) with no difficulty, but in no time, came under fire from Jordanian troops. “That’s when our squad saw the most action,” Woolf said. Many died or were wounded, and Woolf said it was overwhelming for a youngster like him.

Hyman Josman belonged to the Betar youth movement in South Africa and, like most South African Jews, he was a Zionist from a young age. He also took the route via Italy and, anticipating a “rough ride”, he brought chocolate from South Africa and survived off that, since the conditions on the boat from Italy were “awful”.

Josman’s most distinct memory is the heavy machine gun he had to carry, which “like everything, was Czechoslovakian-made”. Back then, “Israel didn’t have the advanced weapons that it does today.”

His most memorable moment was when a trigger-happy Irish machalnik named Jack Harris fired away when there was no enemy in sight. When Josman asked why he was doing it, the Irishman replied, “I don’t know. But you better keep your head down!”

Ruth Stern née Saretzky was a nurse in the war. Stern was the only woman among the 20 volunteers who left South Africa together. Before her departure, an elaborate cover story was concocted by the organisers complete with a fictitious airline, Universal Airways, as a cover to allow them to leave South Africa legally. Each one was assigned a different story. Her alibi was that she was a student going to study in England via Italy.

Just before leaving, as Saretzky sat sipping tea with her father on the veranda, he attempted a last-ditch effort to convince her. “It’s not too late to change your mind. Please consider the practical side and the dangers,” he said. “All the volunteers are war veterans or qualified doctors and nurses. You’re too young and inexperienced.”

Her mother added, “Causing others to worry about you, you might even be a hindrance, Ruth dear.”

But Saretzky was determined. Nothing would hold her back. “I have no regrets doing this,” she said “It’s not every 2 000 years that we get to fight for our country.” She treated patients of all ages. “Many survivors came with so much trauma already.”

Hymie Goldblatt, hailed from Reddersburg, a small farming town in the Free State, which when he was growing up, had two Jewish families. Goldblatt had been in the medical corps during World War II, and was able to visit the British Mandate of Palestine for the first time in 1946, where he thought to himself, “It’s nice to be among fellow Jews in a place where we won’t experience antisemitism. I will return here one day.”

And so, he returned two years later as a machalnik. Describing his work as a medic, he said, “Many of the wounded died losing blood, and it was our job to save them.” His unit saved many lives in the south around Beersheba, where they operated.

Today, all these former machalniks are in retirement, but they say their memories of those days are some of the best in their lives. “I have no regrets, Israel is our homeland,” Woolf said.

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