Heroes of the Haganah: These three soldiers left Pittsburgh to fight for Israel
Local soldiers heeded the call to help Israel in the 1940s

Heroes of the Haganah: These three soldiers left Pittsburgh to fight for Israel

In the 1940s, David Ben-Gurion called on Jewish soldiers to come fight for the fledging Jewish state. Hundreds of American soldiers, several from Pittsburgh, heeded the call.

Art Jaffe was one of several Pittsburgh soldiers who went to Israel in the 1940s to help in the event of an invasion by Arab armies. (Photo courtesy of Joel Jaffe)
Art Jaffe was one of several Pittsburgh soldiers who went to Israel in the 1940s to help in the event of an invasion by Arab armies. (Photo courtesy of Joel Jaffe)

Art Jaffe never thought of himself as a soldier, but as a patriot, recalled his son, Joel.

Jaffe, who grew up in Butler, Pa., and moved to Pittsburgh in his later years, served as an intelligence officer in World War II, was on the shores on Normandy on D-Day, and was one of only a few soldiers to survive all six campaigns in France.

But, in Jaffe’s own words — as captured in the 1998 documentary “Israel’s Forgotten Heroes” — the “one great thing [he] did was help found the State of Israel.”

Jaffe, who passed away in 2015, was one of several Pittsburghers — and hundreds of American Jews — who heeded the call of David Ben-Gurion in the mid-1940s, urging experienced Jewish soldiers in the Diaspora to come to the Jewish homeland in anticipation of an invasion by Arab armies.

Jaffe was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem on the G.I. Bill following his service in the Second World War, when he was tapped to join the Haganah, Israel’s Jewish underground military organization.

A scholar of classical languages, Jaffe found his niche in the Haganah as a translator of surreptitiously obtained Arab documents. He and his colleagues, said his son, would rummage through the trash at the Arab nations’ headquarters at night, where they would find crumpled up documents containing the questions and responses that the Arabs would be presenting at the United Nations in their arguments against Jewish statehood.

“Dad and his cohorts would un-crumple the notes and interpret them, and then they could be prepared as to what their questions and answers would be,” Joel Jaffe said.

But Jaffe’s unit also realized “that if they were going through the Arabs’ trash, the Arabs were probably going through their trash as well, so they crumpled up false questions and answers for the Arabs to find; they gave them misinformation.”

Following his return from Israel, Jaffe went back to Butler, where he was a partner in his family’s clothing business, I.M. Jaffe & Sons. He eventually left that business and moved to Pittsburgh, where he became the director of endowments for the Carnegie Museum of Art. Jaffe remained active in the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh, now the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. When he later moved to Boca Raton, Fla., he helped raise millions of dollars for the building of a large campus housing a variety of Jewish institutions.

“My father had many careers and many interests,” Joel Jaffe said. “But they were always founded in Judaism, and he was proud of his involvement with Israel.”

Jaffe was one of about 5,000 volunteers who came from more than 40 countries to fight for the fledgling Jewish state.

Al, a veteran of World War II who also joined the fight for Israel, with his wife Edith Twersky. Photo courtesy of Jack Twersky)
Pittsburgher Al Twersky, another veteran of World War II, was eager to join the fight for Israel, having been raised to be an “avid Zionist,” according to family members.

Twersky, who passed away in 2014, had served with the U.S. Merchant Marine Naval Reserve in the Pacific during the world war.

“My husband went to Israel in 1948 and joined the Haganah,” recalled his wife of 62 years, Edith Twersky. “He went to Israel because he was very devoted to Israel. He was brought up that way.”

Edith Twersky remembered that her husband “had a lot of trouble getting to Israel, but he did get there.”

Getting to Israel was a problem for many of the volunteers. Most had to travel secretly to France or Italy because military volunteers could be cited by the State Department for being in violation of passport regulations, or even lose their citizenship, according to the Jewish Virtual Library, a project of the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. After reaching Europe, the volunteers typically would have to exchange their passports for displaced person’s papers, blending with Holocaust survivors until they could be transported to Israel.

Once Twersky arrived in Israel, he served in the Armored Car and Jeep Company, 9th Battalion, Palmach, the elite unit of the Haganah. While driving a jeep in the Negev Desert to protect isolated kibbutzim, a mine blew up beneath him. He lost his leg and was hospitalized for a year.

“His parents wanted to come to Israel to see him, but they didn’t know he lost his leg, so he didn’t want them to come over and find him like that,” Edith Twersky said. They didn’t know he had been injured until he came home to Pittsburgh.

After returning home, Twersky worked at his mother’s family’s business, Benkovitz Seafoods, and nurtured an interest in art, spending much of his free time painting.

“He was raised a Zionist,” said his son, Jack Twersky. “His dad raised him to fight for Israel. He was proud of his service. He thought that was the most important thing he ever did.”

David Lowenthal, who also joined the Haganah, with David Ben-Gurion. (Photo courtesy of Barbara Bursting)
Pittsburgh was “one of the earliest and most enthusiastic bastions of Zionist support in America,” wrote historian Barbara Burstin in her book “Jewish Pittsburgh” (Arcadia Publishing, 2015). “It was a cause embraced by many Eastern European Jews, young and old, who had experienced the ravages of anti-Semitism in Europe and who were imbued with a Jewish nationalist spirit.”

Such was the case for David Lowenthal, who emigrated to the United States from a town on the border of Poland and Ukraine, according to his son, Mark Lowenthal.

“He tried to enlist in the U.S. Army [during World War II],” Mark Lowenthal recalled. “But he had arrived in the U.S. with tuberculosis. He tried to enlist in the army with tuberculosis and was denied.”

A strong Zionist, Lowenthal had been discussing the plight of the refugees in Europe post-Holocaust with some colleagues at a meeting, “and suggested, ‘Why don’t we get some ships and take them out of Europe?’”

Lowenthal joined the Haganah, and in 1947 was on the ship the Exodus, which was transporting 4,000 Holocaust survivors to pre-state Israel, but was turned back to Europe by the British after a battle on the ship.

After the Exodus was turned back, Lowenthal was taken prisoner by the British, but “he arranged to escape and got back to Israel,” his son said.

Later, Lowenthal was on the Pan York, one of the two largest ships transporting refugees to the newly formed State of Israel.

Once back in Pittsburgh, Lowenthal led the Zionist movement here for many years, continuing to maintain relationships with many Israeli leaders, said Mark Lowenthal, and continuing throughout his life to support the Jewish state. He died in 2006. PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at ttabachnick@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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