Samuel Klausner’s lived a full life — and he’s working on a book at the age of 94 — but he’s still got stories to tell about his service during the 1948 War of Independence.
And Michael Herskowitz, who just celebrated his 90th birthday, not only can talk about his service during the war, but can relate harrowing details about having survived Auschwitz.
Klausner and Herskowitz are two of a rapidly dwindling contingent who helped Israel gain its independence 70 years ago.
American-born Klausner, now a sociology professor emeritus at the University of Pennsylvania, noted that of about 100,000 Jewish Americans who fought in World War II, only about 1,500 also fought in Israel.
Back in 1947, Klausner was active in Zionist youth groups in the United States, but wanted to attend graduate school at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that fall. Classes never started, however, and when Klausner visited a military recruitment office, he found himself in demand — he had been an Air Force navigator during World War II.
Klausner began working with the Haganah, the paramilitary organization that became the core of the modern-day Israel Defense Forces. One day, while living near a kibbutz, a group there was trying to arm itself and came in possession of a .50-caliber machine gun.
“We were called in to assemble it,” he said. “We finished it and the kibbutz members set out to attack a nearby Arab vehicle.”
Ultimately, Klausner was assigned to an air transport command unit, taking advantage of his navigator skills. In the face of a United Nations-led embargo, Klausner’s unit flew to Czechoslovakia to pick up arms and, later, Messerschmitt planes.
“We were used as necessary for other kinds of flying,” he said.
The nascent Israeli Air Force featured a motley variety of planes, which made things difficult because of a lack of uniformity. Klausner recalled manually dropping mortal shells out of planes that were the equivalent of Piper Cubs.
Another time, Klausner was aboard a C-46 Commando for a bombing mission of Damascus, Syria. The crew simply pushed 100-pound bombs and incendiary devices out the door.
After the war, Klausner returned to the United States, in part because his wife was pregnant, in part because conditions were difficult in Israel, with food being rationed.
“The Israelis didn’t understand the U.S. mentality [of not making Aliyah],” he said, noting that of those 1,500 U.S. soldiers who served in the War of Independence, 1,300 returned home.
Klausner contrasted World War II and the Israeli war.
“They were rather different experiences,” he said. “In World War II, I was part of a large machine. … This was a backyard war with very small distances.”
The character of the war was also different.
“There were rules, but not clear rules [in Israel],” he said, a marked change from the rigid U.S. military.
Seventy years later, Klausner is researching a book about War of Independence participation.
“One might have expected the recruits were primarily from the right-wing … but the data shows it was the Labour group that mostly responded,” he said.
Meantime, the war had less of an impact on Herskovitz, who came of age during World War II and in the notorious Auschwitz concentration camp.
“I didn’t shoot anyone, and I wasn’t shot at,” he said.
Herskowitz regularly tells his Holocaust story, a familiar tale you’ve likely heard variations of before, although that makes it no less chilling.
He grew up in a small Czechoslovokia town, where his parents owned a grocery store. Conditions gradually worsened.
“The kids in the village had no idea how I was different,” he said, indicating that things changed once he was forced to wear a yellow star and could no longer attend school. “I couldn’t explain why I wore the yellow star.”
Soldiers eventually forced Herskovitz’s family to leave in 1944 and, after a few days in a tent camp, they ended up in a cattle car bound for Auschwitz.
Herskovitz, then 13, managed to stay with his father through the selection process, but when the ill-fitting clothes were handed out, the prisoners were told they could swap them with their peers. Herskovitz did so.
“When I turned around, my father was gone,” he said. “That was the last time I saw him.”
After being liberated, Herskovitz returned to Czechoslovakia, but his Jewish heritage pulled him to Israel and he arrived there in 1948 for two years of service. Afterward, he stayed, running a trucking company until 1959. At that point, he immigrated to the United States, eventually owning a gas station in Bala Cynwyd that his son still runs.