Ed. introduction: Elsewhere on this site we have the first part of a story (https://jewishpostandnews.ca/features/in-1948-20-young-jewish-men-from-winnipeg-went-to-palestine-to-fight-for-the-fledgling-jewish-state) that had been written by my late brother Matt in August 1989. In that first part Matt described going to a gathering of ten individuals from Winnipeg who had volunteered to serve in the Haganah when Israel found itself under attack by seven Arab armies in May 1948, upon Israel’s declaration of statehood. Machal was an acronym for the Hebrew “Mitnadvei Hutz La’aretz” (volunteers from outside the country). That gathering, at what was then the General Monash branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, was the first time that Winnipeg Machalniks had been honoured by any organization in Winnipeg.
Here is part 2 of that story:
Seventeen-year-old, Jack Hurtig served as chief tactical officer of the “Bomb Command” at Ramat David, near Nazareth.
Among other duties, Hurtig was in charge of equipping planes for bombing runs.
“It was like getting aircraft from a scrapyard,” he says. The men in charge of getting planes for Israel’s pledging air force bought whatever they could get all over the world. “We took rusted fence posts, and tied them to the underside of the wing. It was the only air force I know that used fence posts to hold bombs.”
“There were so many encounters,” Hurtig recalls “….Event after event. The air force started as a disorganized group of individuals under very poor direction. In two to three months, it became a first class fighting outfit.
“Anyone from air forces in Arab countries came from wealthy families. They had no desire to die. For the Jewish men and women, it was a matter of survival.”
Jack Olfman, another Winnipeg Machalnik, was 32 when he left for Israel in October 1948.
His younger brother, Mickey, had left Canada in May to join the Haganah.
Jack Olfman had served as a wireless operator and air gunner during World War II.
In Israel, he was based in Akir, south of Rehovot, on the northern edge of the Negev.
“They needed ground wireless men to pass on messages between military camps and take down weather forecasts. The forecasts were all in code.
“ I just passed it on to somebody in the code room and he would decipher it.”
One of Olfman’s most vivid memories is visiting his brother, stationed about 15 miles east of Safed.
To reach him, about 100 yards from the Syrian guns, Jack had to climb a steep hill.
“I got up about 40 feet, and couldn’t see a path any more. It was covered with weeds. The path was mined, but I kept on going. Right on top was my brother on a mule, carrying water. And there was this American kid sitting on a rock, reading a comic book, with a rifle across his knees.
“I said: ‘This is how you’re guarding against the Syrians!’ “ Olfman recalls. “I thought it was very comical.”
The other Machalniks have other colourful memories – like encounters with Ben-Gurion, and gathering in an office the Canadian Zionist Federation ran on the Tel Aviv beachfront to enjoy cans of Chicago Kosher corned beef and pick up mail from home.
But when they returned to Winnipeg after the war, they met with a subdued reaction from the Jewish community.
Olfman recalls gathering at the Peretz School, where he and a few other Machalniks showed off souvenirs they brought back from Israel. But few Winnipeg Jews showed up, apart from some friends and relatives.
Aside from last month’s dinner at the General Monash Branch, the Machalniks can’t recall anyone holding a ceremony to honour the approximately 20 Winnipeggers, including five gentiles who volunteered to fight for Israel in the War of Independence.
They note that several other Canadian Jewish communities have held such events. “The boys aren’t hostile,” but it’s a strange thing one local Machalnik says. “It has been sad that to be honoured by Winnipeg’s Jewish community you have to give some money.”
Bob Freedman, executive director of the Winnipeg Jewish Community Council says “if the community has never honored Mahcalniks, I would simply have to assume it was an oversight.”
Willie Fisher, Freedman’s wife’s first cousin, was one of 2 Winnipeg Machalniks who was killed fighting for Israel in its first war.
“It was nice that Jewish war veterans did something” to honor the Machalniks, Freedman continued.
But, he wonders, what would be the most proper way to recognize them further, four decades later without embarrassing them?
Still, Freedman concludes, “I think something should be done in a tasteful manner.”