For Ira Feinberg, what he calls the “pinnacle of my life’s experiences” took place 63 years ago.
Feinberg was a 17-year-old New Yorker when he joined the elite troops of the Palmach force fighting in Israel’s War of Independence.
“No other experience in my life had such meaning as this period serving in the first army to fight for the Jewish people and for the independence of the State of Israel,” he said in an email correspondence. “Nothing comes close to it.”
For the foreign volunteers like Feinberg who left home to join in the battle, the remembrance of those historic days remains undimmed, even as Israel celebrates its 63rd year of independence.
Some 4,800 men and women from 58 countries put their lives on the line to help defend the newborn Jewish state, including about 900 to 1,000 Americans.
Feinberg has just released “My Brother’s Keeper,” a documentary about Machal, the Hebrew acronym for Volunteers from Abroad. In the 40-minute film, which he produced and directed, Feinberg re-creates a sense of those long-ago years by talking to some of the volunteers during a 2008 reunion in Israel.
The Machalniks join Feinberg in expressing a similar pride and sense of life-changing involvement.
Feinberg, born in Brooklyn and today living in Fort Lee, N.J., realized that the Israel reunion was likely to be the last gathering of the aging veterans, so he brought along a camera crew to preserve their reminiscences for posterity.
They recall fighting at the beginning with World War I rifles or dropping hand grenades from open cockpits. Feinberg enlivens the testimony with some historic newsreel footage and photos of bare-chested Machalniks posing fiercely with Browning automatic rifles. But, of necessity, the action is somewhat static.
The film is particularly useful in telling the story of the American participants, who by fighting in a “foreign” army broke U.S. laws and risked losing their citizenship. Yet surprisingly little is known of their deeds, either in their home country or in Israel.
Esther Shawmut Friedman joined the Israeli army as a combat medic, serving with the 8th Armored Brigade in the battle for Beersheva and other engagements.
“This was the greatest experience of my life,” she said. “Greater than being in the U.S. Navy during World War II, getting married or having a child.”
In the film, Canadian Joe Warner says he believes to this day that “if we failed to have a state, being a Jew anywhere in the world wouldn’t be worth a nickel.”
Jason Fenton was a 16-year-old in high school in Cambridge, England, when he followed in his older brother’s footsteps in 1948 by joining the 4th Anti-Tank unit, in which this reporter also served. Most of his comrades were veterans of World War II.
Fenton, a retired American university professor, holds the likely distinction of being the youngest volunteer. He has told the story of his unit and of Machal in his book “Strength and Courage.”
“Other than creating a family with 11 grandchildren, being part of the rebirth of the Jewish state after 2,000 years of exile was the most important thing I have ever done,” he said.
The foreign volunteers were predominantly Jewish but also included a good number of non-Jews.
Machalniks would go on to fight in all branches of the Israel Defense Forces, but their greatest impact was in applying their World War II training to build up the Israeli air force and navy.
“My Brother’s Keeper” is produced by Cinema Angels and can be ordered at www.irafeinberg.com.