A Forest for Jewish Pre-State British Army Volunteers Taken as POW in WWII

Wednesday, May 06, 2015 12:55 PM

“We are speaking of the greatest number of Jewish soldiers taken into captivity in Israeli military history...today we have very few places where their story is told."

KKL-JNF recognizes the heroism of 1,500 Jewish soldiers from Mandatory Palestine,who volunteered in the British Army and were taken as prisoners of war in Greece by the Nazis in 1941,in a ceremony in Aminadav Forest outside Jerusalem.

Unveiling the dedicatory sign for the POW forest, with TV personality Motti Eden, British Military attaché Col. Nigel Jefferson, veteran and former POW Zachariya Botel, veteran and former POW Ben Zion Solomin, and Director of Prisoners of War Families Forum Talya Klayner-Dayagi.

Seventy years after the liberation of their fathers and grandfathers from Nazi captivity as German prisoners of war while serving as volunteers in the British Army, a group of some 300 family members gathered at the entrance to Aminadav Forest outside of Jerusalem in an emotional ceremony recognizing their contribution to the establishment of the State of Israel and their contribution to KKL-JNF. 

Photographs from the POW camps on the unveiled dedicatory sign. Photo: KKL-JNF

KKL-JNF Public Relations Executive Elisha Mizrahi said: “This ceremony is in recognition of a group of people who fought with the British army in World War II before the Jewish Brigade. They were the first to volunteer and convinced the British to let them fight against the Nazis. This is a way to thank these people who sat in captivity in prison camps right next to the Nazi death camps and gave their salaries for the redemption of the Land of Israel.”

In 1941, the  group of 1,500 Jewish pre-State volunteers, many of them new immigrants to the fledgling Jewish state from Poland, Ukraine, Hungary, Latvia, Yemen and other countries, served in supporting roles for British soldiers in logistic units, known in Hebrew as “hafarim” or “diggers.” During the battle for the Greek city of Kalamata - in which the British forces were defeated by the Nazi army - they were taken captive when the British failed to evacuate them in time along with the other fighters.

They were taken as prisoners of war to Nazi prisoner camps next to Auschwitz, were they were held in captivity until April 29, 1945. During their captivity they were exposed to some of the cruelest treatment meted out by the Nazis because they were Jews. Only the intervention of British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill warning the Nazis that no harm should come to them as British Army POWs prevented them from being taken to the Nazi concentration camps.

During their captivity they continued to receive their British army salary and together decided to donate it for the redemption of land and the creation of a forest in the Jewish homeland through KKL-JNF. The donation was recorded in KKL-JNF’s Golden Book.

After their liberation and return to the soon-to-be-created State of Israel, they once again served as soldiers in the 1948 War of Independence. 

Talya Klayner-Dayagi with her daughter. Photo: KKL-JNF

The idea of the dedication of a forest was lost during the ensuing struggles in building the nascent State of Israel, and the returning POWs' new lives with family, children and work.

Their contribution came to light three years ago when Talya Klayner-Dayagi, granddaughter of POW veteran Avraham Dayagi, created the Forum for Prisoners of War Families to unite the veteran’s descendants.

Klayner-Dayagi said: “We are speaking of the greatest number of Jewish soldiers taken into captivity in Israeli military history. For us this is very important personally. Their story disappeared and today we have very few places where their story is told. They were Jews who fought like lions until the last minute. Their greatness did not end even until the day of their deaths.

Zeev Kedem, director of KKL-JNF resource development. Photo: KKL-JNF

When my grandfather put his hand in his pocket to contribute his part to the creation of a forest, he certainly did not imagine that someday his granddaughter would finish this trajectory and create this forest in this place and not do it alone.” 

Ze'ev Kedem, Director of KKL-JNF Resource Development, recounted that “One year ago we received a letter from Talya and heard an unbelievable story of the prisoners of war in Greece. It was clear we had to do something. KKL-JNF does a lot in the development of forests and land. This recognition site was built here, right next to the Israel trail, with plaques displaying pictures and stories of the prisoners of war, so that everybody hiking the trail will learn this story of Israel. Every nation needs their national legends, and this is a story Israel needs.”

Regarding the dedication, Zeev Kedem said: “We are honored to repay what these people did for us with their contribution to Israel, and I am glad that I had a part in doing this.”

British Military attache Col. Nigel Jefferson. Photo: KKL-JNF

A section of the Aminadav Forest, which had been destroyed in a forest fire and is now being restored, was dedicated in honor of these fighters. 

Television personality Motti Eden, who is the son of prisoner of war veteran Natan Ostreicher, led the ceremony. A commemorative plaque and recognition sign were unveiled during the ceremony and certificates of appreciation were presented to the veterans and to those who made the ceremony possible.

Others who attended the ceremony included Brigadier General (ret) Ishai Dotan, former commander of the Israel Defense Force Corps of Engineers, who represented the retired engineering corps organization; Brigadier General (ret) Irmi Olmert, chairman of the international relations committee of TZEVET, the IDF veterans organization; Zvika Kan-Tor, director of the museum for fallen soldiers; and British Military attaché Col. Nigel Jefferson.

“We see it our mission to connect with this group of veterans", said Irmi Olmert. "They are an important part of our heritage. I have worked on many projects with KKL-JNF and I know that they continue to do good works that almost nobody else has the energy to do.”

Veterans and former POWs Zachariya Botel (95) and Benzion Solomin (102) sing the Israeli anthem Hatikva. Photo: KKL-JNF

Prisoner of war veterans Benzion Solomin, who will soon celebrate his 102
nd birthday, and Zachariya Botel, aged 95, were also present with their families and were warmly lauded for their service. Solomin, who has difficulty standing, nevertheless sang the Israeli anthem Hatikva wholeheartedly at the culmination of the ceremony.

“It gives me a lot of pleasure to be here", said Zachariya Botel. "At last they are remembering that we did something.”

“It is always important to remember the contribution given by the engineers in World War II, especially on the 70th anniversary of the end of that war", said Col. Jerfferson.  "They suffered highly by being captured. It is an honor for me that you invited me to this event. I feel the emotions of the families and the veterans when I am in their presence. I understand the need to recognize their service and contribution in fighting against Nazi Germany.”

Iris HaLevy, daughter of war veteran Yehuda HaLevy; Irit Shitri, daughter of war veteran Shlomo Abramov; Moshe Glanz, son of war veteran Alexander Glanz and Nir Harburger, grandson of war veteran Gavriel Peto, read witness testimonies of their fathers’ and grandfathers' experiences during captivity.

Members of the IDF Nahal choir were also on hand to sing during the ceremony.

Hedva Levy, daughter of war veteran Meir Levy, was very moved by the event, and said: “When I was very small, my father spoke about his captivity, but when you are young you don’t always listen and when I grew up and wanted to hear and listen, he was not here anymore. This is like holding on to my father.”

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