WWII refugees borrowed identities from Jewish Brigade

When the real Uriel Yisraeli disappeared, no one noticed. The Jewish Brigade soldier deserted from the British Army in 1946, just prior to his return to Palestine. But Yisraeli left someone in his place; a walking, talking double — a man who looked like him, knew what he knew and carried his ID.

While Yisraeli ghosted through Europe using a series of false identities, the double was sent to Palestine and demobilized from the army.

Despite the prevailing anti-British feeling among the Jewish population in Palestine during World War II, many men such as Yisraeli joined the British Army. But when Yisraeli and some of his comrades finished fighting the Nazis, they began fighting the British restrictions on aliyah. They took part in one of the least-known and yet most daring chapters in pre-state history. They were "doubles" — brigade members who gave their identities to young DPs (displaced persons).

"Not only did the Palestinian Jews prove to the world that Jewish boys could fight, but we also had a tremendous psychological effect on the Jewish refugees we met in Europe, those who somehow survived the concentration camps, and those who had been in hiding," says Avraham Tor, a Jerusalem attorney and one of the organizers of the doubles.

"These remnants of Jewish communities we encountered, broken physically and emotionally, saw us as messiahs as we herded a group of Nazi captives or simply carried our weapons. Our uniforms with the Magen David insignia became something of a beacon."

Even before the war was over, the Jewish soldiers saw it as part of their mission to assist those Jews. They confiscated and gave out food, blankets, clothes and medicine, and once even "borrowed" 34 British Army trucks to move refugees to safer parts of the continent. They found Jewish children hidden in monasteries and convents and brought them back to their heritage. When special DP camps were established for Jews, the Jewish Brigade soldiers began organizing classes in Hebrew, Jewish history, Land of Israel geography and even army maneuvers. They gradually organized a mass movement of these refugees to Mediterranean ports and shipped them to Palestine right under the noses of their British officers, despite the British blockade. This action was dubbed the "Briha" ("Escape") or Aliya Bet.

For a long time the actions of these "doubles" remained a little-known footnote in history. Former president Yitzhak Navon, upon viewing a film on the Jewish Brigade — In Our Own Hands — that mentioned the "doubles" in passing complained: "Why didn't I ever hear about this undertaking? The story has to be given greater exposure."

How could so many clandestine activities be carried out in broad daylight and under constant military surveillance? After all, these Zionist activities were conducted in between the soldiers' military duties.

Tor explains: "Remember that there was complete chaos in Europe — 12 million refugees were migrating all over Europe. That helped us to steal, buy, barter and transfer whatever could eventually help the Hagana and to bring as many Jewish survivors to Israel as possible. These are the orders we got from the Diaspora Center [a department of the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem] and that's what we did."

In time, the British Army did get suspicious of the brigade's spare-time activities. Moreover, the anti-British resistance movement in the Yishuv was gaining momentum. So in June 1946 the brigade received orders to return home and disband.

"This endangered all our underground activities," explains Tor. "The Diaspora Center decided on a daring plan: 130 of us would stay in Europe secretly, to continue the refugee network. They would be replaced by young DPs who would adopt our identities and pretend to be soldiers about to be demobilized."

Micha Paz, a former member of the military and now a senior Bank Hapoalim employee, was one of the youngest soldiers to stay on.

"I didn't jump at the opportunity," admits Paz. "I didn't want to be tried as a deserter. But when they explained to me that I would be replaced by another Jew whom I would train to be my double, and that they needed me to continue with my work with the refugee youngsters, I agreed reluctantly."

Paz chose a young refugee from a camp in Belgium and taught him all about his kibbutz, his family and himself. He also taught him basic British Army tactics, insignias and ranks, and most importantly, imbued him with confidence.

Tor's double, whom he met in the same Belgian camp, had an especially hard time. "His name was Shlomo Deutsch. He looked a little like me. The poor guy had to learn all the names of my eight brothers and sisters, all about my family in Jerusalem, as well as how to salute, how to use a rifle, how we got our paycheck and even a few common Arab curse words," Tor recalls.

Each "double" was given a "buddy" from the returning troops to back him up. The buddy was to stand next to the double at all times during the demobilizing process. "If a problem should arise, it was decided to blame it on difficulties in understanding English, and the buddy would then translate for him and feed him the correct answers."

Meanwhile the replaced soldiers, like Tor and Paz, retained their uniforms but in fact had no identity. Most of them received false papers, which enabled them to travel around Europe and work with the DPs in the same positions they had filled while members of the Jewish Brigade.

Yisraeli, from Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, says: "I had false papers which enabled me to get into an American army depot center. Using a disguise of a 'top secret' mission, my friend and I received a vehicle which took us from Belgium to France and then to Italy where we worked with the Briha."

In Poland, Yisraeli finally took off his uniform and became just another refugee, with a new identity, Eliahu Rabinov of Riga. He taught the survivors military exercises, how to use weapons and all about Israel.

Using yet another identity, Yisraeli was to operate a children's camp in Germany. This was one of the highlights of his extended stay in Europe.

"It was marvelous to see the changes that we achieved within weeks. We received a camp full of frightened, closed and disturbed orphans and turned them into a seemingly normal group of fun-loving kids who could sing Hebrew songs and dance like sabras."

When the time came for him to be replaced, Yisraeli adopted still a third identity. He became a Palestinian returning from a trip abroad who had been stuck in Europe because of "the situation."

Many of the doubles are blase about their activities. "We did what had to be done," says Paz. "I've told my immediate family about some of our undertakings, but I don't go around emphasizing them."

Neither did many of his fellow replaced doubles. Sometimes their own children have never heard the whole story.

"If you ask me what our contribution was," says Paz, "I believe we helped rehabilitate those refugees we worked with, especially the children. Life goes on, and we showed them that there are normal people in the world. We gave them faith in life, a goal towards which to direct themselves. Out of the darkness of the Holocaust we were able to show them the way back to joy and normality."

"It was an unforgettable and enriching experience," says Tor, still very involved after 55 years. "All of us feel privileged to have been part of the doubles."