STARTUPS: BREAKING THROUGH THREE CULTURES, BY ALEXANDER KAUFMAN

Part Two

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From MANDATORY PALESTINE

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When he picked us up at the port upon our arrival, my uncle Max brought his daughter Ruth along, and she became my first playmate. She was my cousin, born in Mannheim too, but her family had moved to Stuttgart where I once visited and where we rode donkeys in the park. It was wonderful to have Ruth with me in Palestine, and we hit it off.

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Now that we were in Palestine, my mother’s top priority was to make sure that her son, despite being in “Asia,” should begin school at once. This turned out to be easier said than done. In the oppressive heat, we trudged from one school to another, knocking on every Principals door and presenting me as if offering a prize. The trouble was that to a person, the principals we spoke with would not place me until I demonstrated an acceptable command of the language. “He does not look stupid,” they would assure my mother.  “He’ll catch on quickly.  Once he does, bring him back.” Indeed, I heard this sort of thing so often that when looking at myself in the bathroom mirror, I would wonder what a stupid person looks like.

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The 1933 immigration wave from Germany contained prominent businessmen and intellectuals aiming to pursue their talents and highly trained skills in a new land. But, for many it was a losing struggle. How many conductors are needed for a fledgling orchestra? Writers, mathematicians, philosophers, and highly trained technicians for industries that did not exist in Palestine at the time; executives who ran large organizations; they all were forced to change gears, some of them close to or beyond retirement age. Suicide via the Mediterranean was an escape hatch for some and especially in the years prior to the Second World War, when the saying “l’alechet l’yam” [“Going to the sea”] became part of ordinary conversation.

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We lived in Tel Aviv, and my father, with neither experience in nor the physique for physical labor, was compelled to enter the unskilled labor force in construction after a lifetime as a businessman. The city and the country were in the midst of a building boom, and this is the only kind of work that was in demand. Out and about, where my friends and I roamed and played, the times were a joy, but at home, things was dire. There was no work and thus, no money. This made me painfully aware, from a young age, of the necessity of money for any and every manner of human well-being, and I found myself impatient; wishing that I could grow faster, so I could bring money home and help my parents. My life may have been a happy one, but my parents were fighting for basic sustenance. Medical insurance was superb, if you had a job and belonged to the left-wing, Mapai party controlled Kupat Cholim. Absent that, you were on your own, as my parents were. Eventually, the main right-wing party created its own health collective, Maccabi, which my parents signed up for as soon as they could.

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Walking back from school one day, I stopped at a ground floor apartment where my mother told me that she and my father would be working. It was sometime in 1937 during a global depression, and in Palestine it was particularly difficult to find work that was not either agricultural or related to construction. My parents had taken on the job of cleaning up the paint remnants left over by wall and ceiling painters, in preparing the apartment for the next tenant. Seeing my mother on her knees scrubbing and my dad with a bucket of water and rags was quite devastating. The image of it was burned, permanently into my mind’s eye and I vowed to myself to make enough money that neither my parents nor I would ever have to work like that again.

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The British enlarged and enforced the Palestine base to a point where it accommodated over 100,000 R&R facilities for troops from the Libyan desert and Ethiopia, flanked the Suez Canal and assisted the organization of the Eight Army, and absorbed troops from Australia and New Zealand, India, Africa, Britain, as well as the remnants of Free French, Polish, Czech, Yugoslav and Greek armies.

The French in Syria/Lebanon sided with Vichy and the Germans. The Luftwaffe air force base was established in Aleppo and sat on the doorstep of Palestine, threatening Suez Canal traffic to Africa and the East, especially India. Under Orde Wingate, the eccentric Bible-loving, night-fighting, special training expert, the British evicted the French after several skirmishes.  Earlier, Wingate had trained a cadre of Jewish farm boys and kibbutzniks in guerrilla warfare and irregular tactics, which was called the Palmach. Moshe Dayan, who was a part of Wingate’s group, lost an eye resulting in his distinctive, iconic eye patch. Dayan was part of the Mapai, Ben Gurion’s social democrats who practically owned the labor unions in Palestine. Politically, the social Democrats and all of their satellite parties protected their turf, but Ben Gurion’s Mapai party held the keys and controlled economic life: the labor unions and their employers and employees; the factories, transportation, shipping, and tourism; and the health business, the essential Kupat Cholim and the major hospitals. From cradle to grave, the Mapai was in everything. The monopolies, fostered access through connections, were  the coin of the realm, and lacking such connections marked one as a non-person.

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The full picture of the genocide and disaster that befell the Jews in Europe having now come to light, efforts to bring Jews to Palestine accelerated. The old British White Paper, which limited Jewish immigration into Palestine was tossed aside and disregarded. Millions of DP’s [Displaced Persons] lingered in camps around Europe with Jews who had been torn away from their homes constituting the majority. Tens of thousands of Jews volunteered for the British army, some eventually forming the Jewish Brigade, which operated as part of the Eighth army in Italy. Among the liberators of some of the Nazi concentration camps, they saw the ongoing calamity firsthand and devoted themselves to expediting as many refugees as possible to Palestine. Now that the country had become the designated homeland of the Jews, there would be fierce resistance to the unbridled immigration of refugees that followed from both the local Arabs and the British.

Every kid belonged to a youth organization affiliated with the party of his school. I joined Bnei- Akiva and became active in stage plays, writing stories, publishing newspapers and daily late afternoon bull sessions, in which we would discuss the events of the day. As we grew in size and age, this led to the military entity of our choice: the Haganah on the political Left; the Irgun on the political Right; and the Lehi/Stern gang, which one might describe as representing a politics of extremism, rather than one, strictly speaking, of the Left or Right. The Haganah belonged to the party of David Ben-Gurion, and I found my place there. The Irgun was led by Menachem Begin and the Lehi was under the notorious Abraham Stern.

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In 1936, what was called the “Arab Revolt” began in Palestine, which consisted mainly of Arab attacks on Jewish villages, towns, farms and transportation. To travel from place to place without armed protection was dangerous, and the British provided it only sporadically and with great reluctance. Cities, like Jerusalem and Haifa which had substantial, mixed Arab-Jewish populations were especially vulnerable. Thus began the use of Haganah cadres for protective services everywhere and their integration in the daily life of the Jewish populace.

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And then there were the British. Though it was clear that in trying to manage the Mandate over Jews and Arabs alike, their attitude was one of “A plague on both your houses,” but they clearly leaned towards the Arab side. Under the influence of the Grand Mufti – the political leader of the Palestinian Arabs and an ally of Hitler – the British had issued a White Paper in 1939, forbidding Jews to buy land and restricting the inflow of Jewish immigrants to Palestine at precisely the time when  Nazi persecutions in Europe were rising and very soon would turn into outright global genocide.

Our job and that of the older youth was to receive the newcomers, prevent the British from seizing them and blending them into the general population. As an owner of a bicycle, I belonged to a group of other cyclists employed as messengers and runners. Except for the pharmacies there generally were no pay phones in the area, which made these assignments particularly important.

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One of the new trades that the wave of immigration from Germany in the 1930’s brought was advertising and the artful presentation of merchandise and marketing in shop windows. Suddenly, a group of about twenty such schaufenster dekorataere turned Tel Aviv’s, Jerusalem’s and Haifa’s commercial streets into world-class avenues and boulevards, matching Paris, Berlin, Vienna and Rome. My cousin’s Ruth father, Uncle Max Solberg, was a founder of the group and through his good offices I was hired as a lehrling – an apprentice – to the group. Daily, after school and through the long summer vacations, I was there.

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As I hit fourteen, I learned that there was a job-offering in one of the two major department stores, owned by another German immigrant named Eckmann. I signed on, but school was in the way. We desperately needed the money, and I saw no room for compromise. I had just completed the seventh grade as an outstanding student and asked the Principal how I might shorten the rest. What we agreed on was that I would use the summer vacation to bone up on all of the coming year’s material and take all of the exams up front. I did so and received the highest grade the school could award a drop-out. The next morning, I started to earn my salary at Eckmann’s Department Store.

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As the Second World War drew to a close, the war in Palestine expanded. The country was divided into Jewish and Arab zones and travel through the country became a perilous affair. Major arteries were blocked. Jerusalem, a city with a mixed Arab-Jewish population, came under siege. The road leading up to it was closed by Arab irregulars and armed bands that occupied the ridges of the mountains along the road. Food and medicine had to be brought up while the British still enforced the curfew on weapons on the Jewish population. Anyone caught with a gun or even a single bullet was at risk of a mandatory seven-year prison term for illegal possession of a weapon.

The south of Tel Aviv now became the point of assembly for the Haganah cadres accompanying the truck convoys. Small arms, from handguns to Sten guns – the lightweight British paratrooper weapon which could be disassembled into small, concealable parts – were allocated by the Haganah armorer, and overnight, we graduated from pasting flyers and smuggling refugees to full combat duty, on the sixty-kilometer road to Jerusalem. A convoy would begin its trek in Abu Kabir from which it passed Arab, gang infested Ya’azur and Beit Dagon, after which it would pass the fortified Mikve agricultural school. The British put up their roadblocks in the so-called interest of separating the parties and so as to search the convoys for weapons. We had an almost equal number of girls accompanying the convoy, whose job it was to hide the parts of disassembled weapons in their undergarments so as to fool these searches.

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1947 neared its end, and in November the UN was ready to accept a new Jewish state in Palestine. Israel was founded the following May 1948. No more Palestine, it all became Israel and the masses of refugees consigned in the past to wait and sail on makeshift passenger ships to Israel now became legal immigrants into their own land.

I was in the north of Tel Aviv when I saw two Egyptian Spitfires circle the sky. The attack on the freshly minted Jewish state by seven Arab armies had begun.  I went straight to Latrun where the Tel Aviv Haganah contingent assembled and a major battle was brewing. It was the first attempt by Ben Gurion and the leadership to fight a conventional war.

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We were in the army before there was an army, as it was a time of transition. The convoys to Jerusalem went on, and in the rest of the country – like Negba in the south and the Galilee in the East – we were fighting against marauders and regular army units from Syria, Egypt and Trans-Jordan. We irregulars were called upon to formally enlist in the army. Back from Latrun and the Jerusalem convoys, my assignment was to report to the Kiryat-Meir camps in Tel Aviv, which were where recruitment and selection took place. Hanging around there for a number of days, I finally got my assignment to an infantry unit (my requests to join the Air Force having been ignored). I hopped on the next truck and landed outside Kibbutz Ein-Shemer, halfway between Tel Aviv and Haifa, but east of the highway, close to what we called the “Triangle,” referring to  three major Arab cities of Tul-Karem, Jenin, and Nablus. Today it is called the “West Bank.” We were pitted against an Iraqi unit. A contingent of this force was arrayed in Tul-Karem facing Netanya where eventually we found the Iraqi soldiers chained to their posts by their officers.

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One day, as I was standing around with my squad in the Sarafend camp, a husky guy walked up to me and asked whether I was in charge. “I am Naftali,” he said with a big smile on his face, “and I am joining your squad.” I asked who had sent him, and he replied that it had been his commander. After a lengthy discussion, I discovered that he had been a member of the Irgun (Etzel) and more than that, the commander of all the Etzel units in the Tel Aviv/Jaffa area. “I’m only a humble squad commander,” I told him. “This must be a mistake.” “No,” he said, “Ben Gurion ordered the dismantling of all the irregular and paramilitary units. One country, one army.” We became friends and I never let him out of my sight.

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This was around the time when I made my first cartoons. I loved cartooning, as it gave me a chance to express my opinions and demonstrate much of the futility of war and especially of war leaders. I began with caricatures of my fellow soldiers, and once I had substantial batch of finished work, I sent all of it to my cousin Ruth for safekeeping, but she went ahead and took them to a number of newsrooms. Before long, they were being published in papers like Ashmoret, and Haolam Haze, and the guys in my unit were all amazed. I couldn’t believe it myself.

I went to see Ben-Elul, who published a weekly magazine D’var Hashavua, the lead daily for the Ben Gurion party. (The fledgling country’s papers were all politically affiliated.) As I was waiting, a giant of a man entered the waiting room, sat down, and quietly asked me what I was doing there. I tried to tell him that it was no one’s business but my own, but he wasn’t having it. “Nonsense,” he said. “You must be selling a story or artwork of some kind, and I’m sure you aren’t getting paid enough for it.” Reluctantly, I agreed, and he said, “You need me to be your agent.” His name was Tom Friedman. The day would come when he would try his luck in the United States.

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Once out of the army, I decided to open my own studio. With all of my display and exhibit experience, ZIM Lines became one of my first clients. El Al the Israeli airline joined soon afterward, and then, once my work became known, Swissair, Lufthansa, Qantas, and Iran Air became important clients too. I made money and could now plan to leave for Europe and the United States while providing the funds necessary to support my parents while I was gone. I bought an apartment for them in a park setting on the banks of the Yarkon river in north Tel Aviv.

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My participation in Israel’s War of Independence will remain the most significant part of my life. Millenia of persecution finally coming to an end, a people standing up and saying enough and hitting back, and finally having a place to go to live as they wished. I was fortunate to be there, to contribute what little I could and be a witness to an incredible moment.

*Startups can be purchased here.

8 comments

  1. Very well written. In what year was your father born? From time to time the text tells us his age, but since it doesn’t always state the year, it’s difficult to figure out exactly how old he is when his age is not explicitly made clear.

      1. Thanks.

        That was a generation which had to grow up fast. My father (10 years older) had to begin working at age 13 when his father died.

  2. Your father demonstrated great ability and initiative in these years and clearly was a great observer. Some striking images (his parents doing menial work; despairing older men “going to the sea”; the convoys, and girls carrying disassembled weapons in their underwear).

    I see that this piece is not about politics per se. It presents a definite point of view but along the lines of: “I found my place there [with the Haganah].”

    Now is not the time, but I hope that some time in the future we can have some discussions about Zionism and related topics from an historical/intellectual historical perspective.

    1. Mark: Your take is spot on. And some of the images you highlight are ones that strike me as well. I suspect you will find the book fascinating.

      As for your suggestion, I’m all for it. We could do it on your podcast if you like. Or mine.

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