Friday, June 10, 2005 | return to: seniors


Israeli heroines of WWII emerge from obscurity

by greer fay cashman, jerusalem post service

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jerusalem | "One of the best kept secrets in Israel" was revealed to President Moshe Katsav recently when a delegation of women war veterans from what was then Palestine presented him with a book outlining their exploits.

Former Knesset member Tamar Eshel — one of the 4,000 women residents of then-Palestine who volunteered to fight the Nazis — noted that Israeli women have been all but ignored in ceremonies commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of concentration camps and the end of World War II. Like Eshel, many volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Services and the Women's Auxiliary Air Force: A total of 3,200 women served in the ATS, and 789 in the WAAF.

"It was difficult," recalled Eshel. "On the one hand we were fighting the British, and on the other we joined them in fighting the Nazis."

Moshe Sharett, who became Israel's second prime minister after the establishment of the state, initiated pressure for Israeli Jews to join the war effort.

The prime movers behind the women joining the British forces were Hadassah Samuel from WIZO and Beba Idelson from the Labor Women's Council (Moetzet Hapoalot), now Naamat.

Dressed in the navy uniforms of the Jewish War Veterans and wearing their medals and ribbons, Eshel, fellow former Knesset member Esther Herlitz and Tamar Grizim, who all served in the ATS, plus Aviva Gil who served in the WAAF, came to Beit Hanassi to correct a 60-year sin of omission.

A little over a year ago, Ahuva Zilberstein, another ATS veteran, had come up with idea of a book about the women volunteers. At first the idea was received with skepticism, said Eshel, but gradually it gained popularity, and people were so enthusiastic that even widowers of ATS and WAAF veterans contributed material and money towards the publication costs.

The upshot is a delightful photo album plus text and caricatures entitled: "We Volunteered for the British Army: Jewish Women from Palestine in World War II."

Zivia Cohen edited the book, which took a year in to make; Cohen, who is slightly younger than the veterans, served in the Palmah. "But now she's one of us," said Eshel.

The first five commanders of Chen, the Israel Defense Force's women's corps, all served in the ATS. Other volunteers included Sonia Peres, the wife of Vice Premier Shimon Peres and the mother of former government minister Shulamit Aloni. In fact, Aloni's parents signed up together and went to separate units.

Another well-known personality that served in the ATS: Caricaturist Friedl Stern, whose talents were also used for camouflage; and Batya Lancet and Hannah Meron, who served in the army entertainment troupes.

Though trained for many fields of service, the women volunteers worked mainly as drivers and education officers, serving in Egypt, Italy, Austria, Lebanon and Palestine. Among those in the WAAF were technical crews who repaired airplanes, recalled Gil, who said that the WAAF veterans were still in touch with Joan Baker, the British officer who had been their commander in Italy.

After the creation of the state, Herlitz was one of the pioneers of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, serving as consul in New York and ambassador to Denmark. She noted that many of the ATS volunteers also worked with Holocaust refugees and arranged for them to join ships of illegal immigrants going to Palestine.


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