History in Review
The Brigade. An Epic Story of Vengeance, Salvation, and WWII. By Howard Blum.
(Harper Perennial: 2002. Pg. 352.)
Reviewed by Rochelle Caviness - November 10, 2003
On September 19, 1944, the British War Office finally gave their approval for the formation of a Jewish Brigade. For years, the men and women of the Yishuv (Jewish Community in Palestine) had advocated for the commission of a Jewish Brigade to fight against the Nazis. Due to political concerns, the British were reluctant to allow the Jews to fight as a military unit. Nonetheless, many men from the Yishuv joined the British military. Few however, were allowed to fight against the Nazis. Instead they were relegated to serving as police functionaries or purposely sent to fight outside Europe.
In The Brigade, Howard Blum recounts the formation of the Jewish Brigade and the political machinations that prevented its formation for so long. He also details the military exploits of the Brigade during the latter days of the war. Most intriguing, Blum details the actions that members of the Brigade took after the war had ended - both in the realm of seeking revenge and in helping Jewish refuges reach Israel.
Rather than writing a straight history, Blum has taken the more intriguing track of telling the story of the Brigade through the experiences of three men, Israel Carmi, Johana Peltz, and Arie Pinchuk, and via the experiences of Arie's sister, Leah who found refuge with a group of Russian partisans after escaping from the Nazis. This tack helps the reader empathize with the members of the Brigade, and to understand the impact that they had on the Jews that survived the Nazi killing machine. Blum's narrative is based upon personal interviews with surviving members of the Brigade and those that had contact with the Brigade, biographies of Brigade members, historical achieves, and existing historical narratives.
About 5,000 men served in the Jewish Brigade Group. Together they served with the British Eighth Army in Italy where they saw combat - and where they displayed the valor and military prowess that the Israeli military would later become well known for. While a goodly portion of this book is devoted the events leading up to the formation of the Brigade, and the Brigades activities once they were sent into combat, I found the most compelling aspects of this book to be the events that occurred after the war technically ended. Through the actions of Carmi, Peltz, and Pinchuk, Blum explores the formation of the Huliyot.
The Huliyot were Jewish execution squads that were led by Carmi. Their mission was to hunt down and eliminate Nazis and other collaborators that had a personal hand in the murder of Jews. In short, their mission was vengeance. Amazingly, the Huliyot metamorphosed into the Bricha, a.k.a. the Escape. Blum chronicles how the mission of the execution squads changed into a mission to get as many Jews to Palestine as they could. This was easier said than done as the British were, at the end of the war, expending enormous efforts to prevent Jewish refugees from reaching Palestine. The methods used by the Brigade to aid the Bricha are amazing. They went to the extent of inventing an entire British Army Unit called the TTG who's only mission was to expedite the transfer of Jews to Yishuv. The Brigade also spent a great deal of time stealing weapons and material from the British in order enable the Yishuv to defend itself from ongoing attacks.
Blum details how the British became aware of the Brigades activities and quickly disbanded the Brigade, ordering its men to return 'home' in June of 1946. In a last 'tweak' of the Britain's nose, many of the men who returned home were actually Jewish refuges who happened to look like members of the Brigades. While these 'illegal' doubles were transported to Israel by the British, the real members of the Brigade that they replaced remained in Europe so that they could continue their clandestine activities helping refugees reach the burgeoning state of Israel and in securing essential materials.
The Brigade details an important, and under-reported aspect of Jewish and Israeli history. This book also chronicles the role that the Haganah played in formation and actitives of the Jewish Brigade. The Jewish Brigade not only served as the foundation for the development of the Israeli army, but it also served as a much needed ray of hope for the survivors of the Holocaust. After years of being victimized, the sight of a soldier proudly wearing a Star of David helped to reinvigorate the survivors of the Nazi terror. Authoritative and compelling, this book will fascinate anyone interested in Jewish or Israeli history, as well as guerilla and military tactics, and the British Mandate in Palestine.
The Brigade is also an outstanding adventure story that is even more amazing for being true!
Israel: A History, by Martin Gilbert.
This book primarily concentrates on the first fifty years of Israeli statehood, Gilbert also details the events and figures that contributed to the formation of the state, including the pogroms in Russia that helped to foster the growth of Zionism, and the Holocaust which made the establishment of the state so vital as a safe harbor for the survivors.
All Or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust, 1941-43, By Jonathan Steinberg.
An astute overview of how Nazi German and Fascist Italy differed in their treatment toward the Jews. Steinberg also examines what motivated some Italians to protect the Jews, while their German colleagues actively participated in the murders of the Jews.
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