Ed. introduction: In 1989 my late brother Matt wrote a story about a gathering of 10 “Machalniks” in Winnipeg. Machal, as the story explains, was short for “Mitnadvei Hutz La’aretz,” volunteers from outside the country.
Machalniks were men who volunteered to make their way to Palestine and join the Haganah in Israel’s War of Independence.
By MATT BELLAN
August 2, 1989
When Al Chapnick visits Israel, he avoids Jerusalem.
The Winnipeg insurance salesman has visited the Jewish state three times in the past 40 years.
On one trip he spent a half hour in Israel’s capital and left… and that was it.
Chapnick has vivid, painful memories of fighting from house to house in Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence.
“It overhangs you for the rest of your life,” he explains, his voice trembling slightly. “The thing I remember is having to cover dead victims with lime because the smell was atrocious.”
Chapnick and seven other Winnipeg Jews are known as Mahalniks, an acronym for the Hebrew title the Israeli government assigned foreign volunteers who fought for Israel during the War of Independence.
The letters in Machal stand for “Mitnadvei Hutz La’aretz,” volunteers from outside the country.
The Jewish War Veterans of Canada, Winnipeg Post, in cooperation with the General Monash branch of the Royal Canadian Legion last month, held a dinner at the Legion’s Main Street, headquarters, partly to honour Winnipeg’s eight living Machalniks, and Eddie Kaplansky, a Machalnik from Winnipeg now living in Haifa.
It was the first time, the Machalniks claimed, that an organization in Winnipeg’s Jewish community had come forward to commemorate their sacrifices for Israel.
TOLD THEIR STORIES
The honorees took turns speaking briefly at the microphone set up at one end of the long banquet table, and in interviews later, several told their stories.
In early 1948, only a few months after the United Nations voted to establish a Jewish and an Arab state in Palestine, recruiters were fanning out around the world.
Their mission: to enlist volunteers to serve in the Haganah, Palestine’s Jewish Defence forces, when Israel came into being on May 15.
In Canada, Jewish businessmen, lawyers and war heroes spearheaded the recruitment effort.
Enlisting Canadian Jews to fight in Palestine wasn’t illegal, but the recruiters usually held their meetings quietly, to avoid attracting the Canadian government’s attention.
The British were still in charge in Palestine. Recruiters for various fighting groups in Palestine, including the Irgun, were passing through Winnipeg.
The Irgun was already famous for its attacks on British military targets. Tying to recruit Canadian Jewish boys for such efforts might force the Canadian government to clamp down, organizers of the recruitment drive feared.
Sid Winston, commander of the Jewish War Veterans’ Winnipeg Post, was the secretary for the General Monash branch in the late 1940s and witnessed the Haganah recruitment sessions in Winnipeg’s Hebrew Sick Benefit Association on Selkirk Avenue.
“These fellows came through, and we didn’t even know their names.” he recalls. “We never took minutes.”
The recruiters preferred single men with combat experience.
“A fellow named John Secter did the recruiting out west,” recalls Jack Hurtig, Winnipeg businessman, who grew up in Edmonton.
First, Secter made contact with heads of all Jewish communities across Western Canada.
“They called a meeting, but didn’t say what it was about,” Hurtig says. In Edmonton, Secter told us “what was happening in Palestine under the British. He asked us who was going to go and who wasn’t …”
Hurtig was only 17, but had studied to be an astronautical engineer, and served as a student navigator during the war.
Like many other Canadian Jews who signed up to fight for Israel, Hurtig hadn’t been an active Zionist, but “they felt they had a job to do and they went.”
Al Chapnick was 18 in 1948 and a member of Young Judaea in Winnipeg.
The British had placed a strict ban on Jewish immigration to Palestine. The British had also advised Canada, the U.S. and other countries to interrogate people at border crossings and turn them back if they were heading for Palestine,.
Chapnick, like other recruits, embarked on a long, harrowing, and complicated journey to get around the ban on immigration.
To reduce suspicion that they were heading for Palestine, Haganah agents sent recruits from eastern Canada to cross the border south of Vancouver, and western Canadians to Niagara Falls.
When Chapnick got off the train in Niagara Falls, he used his “cover story.” He informed customs officials he was going to visit relatives in New York City.
Someone contacted him at Grand Central Station and directed him to a hotel where he found 31 other young Canadian Haganah recruits sitting in a room.
The recruits headed two at a time to a boat that has served as a cargo carrier during the war.
Arriving in Le Havre, France they looked for the Haganah contact who would meet them.
“She did,” Chapnick remembers. “It was a 14-year-old girl. She had tickets for all 31 of us, took pictures of all of us, and had train tickets for Paris. Then, another contact picked us up, took us to a restaurant in the Jewish quarter and, from there, somebody took us by train to Marseilles.
“Then trucks took us to DP camps, and there, we were given false identities of people killed during the war.”
At a port outside Marseilles,, a fishing boat designed for a crew of four picked up Chapnick and 155 other recruits for the final leg of the journey.
“It took 16 days to cross the Mediterranean. We couldn’t go too far offshore. There were no lifejackets, no lifeboats.”
Two months after starting his trip in Winnipeg, Chapnick arrived in Palestine.
But as the illegal immigrants got off the boat the British authorities interned them in a camp, intending to ship them to Cyprus.
Chapnick and three others escaped the next day and one of the three, an American, escorted them to a kibbutz where he had contacts
“We stayed there till the British didn’t have any authority in the country,” Chapnick continues.
In June 1948 he joined the Haganah, signing up for the English-speaking Seventh Brigade under a commander from Toronto.
As Calgary historian David Bercuson recounts in “The Secret Army,” a book about the Machalniks, Israel’s War of Independence was a long, exhausting struggle for Jewish survival. It started in May 1948 and didn’t formally end until June 1949.
More than 5000 foreign volunteers signed up to fight for Israel alongside about 43,000 men and women in the Haganah’s commando unit, the Palmach.
Opposing Israel were about 100,000 Arab soldiers from Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Egypt and Palestinian Arabs.
The British equipped the Jordanians and Egyptians well, shipping them millions of dollars worth of weapons in early 1948 and the Iraqis were also well armed.
“The Egyptians came up from the south, as far as Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv,” Chapnick recalls. The Jordanians got as far west as Tulkarm, (about 10 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, north of Tel Aviv), and the Lebanese as far south as the Jezreel Valley in southern Galilee.
“We were infantry, we tried to liberate as much of the country as we could, defend kibbutzim, and so on…”
A month later Chapnick was transferred to an “antitank platoon.”
“I was on a half track,” he says.That group liberated the whole Gail, north of Haifa. “We were all over. We captured Beer Sheva on my birthday – I’ll never forget that day.”
(To be continued.)