Tracking Down the Lineage of the Nazi-fighting Jews

The daughter of the Jewish Brigade's famed commander embarked on a journey to track down the families of the unit's fallen.

Family archive

Six months ago Yael Driver set out on an extraordinary historical detective mission. She searched through archives here and abroad, studied memorial tomes gathering dust in forgotten commemorative rooms, visited old-age homes, phoned dozens of people and plowed through the Internet. She was seeking 35 families whose sons had perished after they’d decided to become part of one of the most thrilling chapters in the history of the Jewish people.

Driver is the daughter of Maj. Gen. Shlomo Shamir, a member of the first Israel Defense Forces’ General Staff and the third commander of its navy and air force. Before the state was established, Shamir was named by the heads of the Haganah, the pre-state paramilitary organization, to command the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group, better known as simply the Jewish Brigade, which was set up 70 years ago last month. The brigade, which operated as part of the British military during World War II, numbered some 5,000 volunteers from Eretz Israel, who fought the Nazis towards the end of the war under a Jewish flag.

After Shamir’s death in 2009, his daughter decided to finish editing his memoirs. This past April she self-published them under the Hebrew title “Three Miracles and a Jewish Flag.” Driver wanted to give a copy to each of the 35 families who had lost loved ones during the battles fought by the brigade, but only then discovered that no one had ever kept proper records of the fallen, and their families’ details were nowhere to be found.

“It became clear that it wouldn’t be easy to achieve my goal,” Driver says. “The brigade volunteers who fell in battle were mostly young, single men whose parents are no longer with us; they either died in the Holocaust or died natural deaths. There was no source with a full list. I got involved with the material, inserted a foot and got sucked in.”

Buried in a mass grave

Every family of a fallen brigade soldier had its own story. Two of the fallen whose families she located – Moshe Waddell and Moshe Schiffer – had been best friends. Both had immigrated to what was then Palestine as teenagers and enlisted in the brigade before they turned 18; they fell in battle together and are buried in a mass grave not far from the battlefield in Italy. Their families live in the United States, but neither was aware of the other.

Waddell was born in 1925 in Vienna, while Schiffer, born in 1926, grew up in Berlin. They met in 1941 on the ship that took them to Palestine, and upon their arrival were enrolled in the agricultural school in Magdiel. On the eve of their enlistment in the brigade, Schiffer, whose father was murdered in the Holocaust, said, “I don’t know if I’ll come back [to Eretz Israel], but I do know that I will avenge my father’s blood.”

On April 6, 1945, the two fell in battle along the Senio River in Italy. After his death, someone wrote of Waddell that he was “a charming, honest young man,” and that “he had a graceful expression of youth in his lovely, innocent face and his good heart was reflected in his blue eyes.”

Driver was determined to find the families of the two fallen friends. She contacted the Magdiel Youth Village but came up with nothing. Afterward she found a family in Hadera named Waddell but that was no help, either. In the end, she found a clue with the help of Google, where a search of the name “Waddell” led her to a cemetery in California, where Isidore, Waddell’s father, and his second wife, Adele, were buried.

It emerged that after the war, the father had moved to the United States and remarried. The couple had a daughter, Moshe Waddell’s half sister, who is now around 60 years old. Driver located her, “but the sister was overcome with emotion and couldn’t speak,” she said. Another search led Driver to Schiffer’s niece, who also lives in the United States.

Driver also found the relatives of Yaakov Shulgasser, who fell on March 20, 1945. Shulgasser was born in Lithuania. His father died when he was a child, and his mother and brother were murdered in the Holocaust. In 1939 he came to Palestine on an illegal immigrant ship. When the ship was about to enter the territorial waters of Eretz Israel, he and a friend jumped off the ship and swam several kilometers to the shore, fearing that the British would intercept the vessel. Shulgasser made it to the shore at Kiryat Haim alone, and before dawn began walking towards one of the houses. He knew that he had a cousin, Shoshana Vishnovsky, in the area.

Driver located her daughter, Binyamina. “The first time I saw him was when he showed up on our sidewalk – a tall, dark man, wearing a cap, carrying a big suitcase and a nice smile on his face. He looked totally Diaspora-like,” Binyamina recalls. “He asked me about my mother, and I let him in. My mother was happy. She had no family at all in the country and had felt lonely for all those years. Yaakov was, for her, her whole family, and he was able to bring her direct regards from all the relatives, who were still alive. But not long after, they were all killed by the Nazis and only Mom and Yaakov were left.”

‘What any young man in Israel must do’

In Eretz Israel Shulgasser joined the Irgun paramilitary group, was a youth counselor, and worked in a quarry. “I did what any young man in Israel must do,” he wrote. In August 1942 he joined the British Army. Later, he sailed with the Jewish Brigade to Italy. “Did you hear what happened in Lithuania? Did you read the will of the Jew from the Kovno ghetto? Revenge, only revenge,” he wrote.

There are two versions of how he met his death. The brigade’s memorial volume states: “Yaakov took a position in one of the ditches to monitor the route through which the enemy could retreat, but when he realized that the ditch was too deep, he left his secure position and crawled with his machine gun out of the tunnel. From there he didn’t let a single enemy soldier retreat. His desire for revenge and the fire of grief burned within him. His whole family was murdered in exile. But suddenly a bullet was fired at him, hit him in the head and killed him on the spot. When the stretcher-bearers removed him from the field, they found him near his machine gun, his finger on the trigger and his head slumped over the magazine.”

Another version is told by his family, based on a letter they received from his commander. “At first they ran in front of the tanks to clear the path of mines. After that Yaakov broke into a German position and threw a grenade. Four Germans there were killed, and he was, too.”

Tracked down to old-age home

Another relative Driver located was a 95-year-old man whom none of the brigade veterans or their families had ever heard of. She found him in an old-age home after a long search that included going through numerous Yad Vashem Pages of Testimony and searching through old obituaries.

This man is the only brother of Isaac Sima, who fell on April 6, 1945. Sima, who was born in Volhynia in 1915, immigrated to Israel before the war and was among the founders of Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha. The kibbutz published a memorial booklet for him, but none of the kibbutz members knew he had a relative who is still alive.

Her search for the families of these fallen is a historical correction, she says. “Even the families don’t know enough about the brigade,” she notes. Many of the families she contacted responded similarly, saying, “Yes, we had a relative in the brigade who fell, but we never asked [about him] and when we remembered to ask, there was no longer anyone to ask.”

Driver has been able to locate 32 of the 35 families so far. She received considerable help from Izzy Mann, the editor of Israel Radio’s “Search for Missing Relatives” program. Most of the families live in Israel, while three live in the United States.

Some familiar names

Some of the fallen are linked to familiar names. Yosef Gustin is one of them. In September 1944, the day before British Prime Minister Winston Churchill announced the establishment of the Jewish Brigade, he married Yaffa, later to be known as Yaffa Yarkoni. The next day he joined the brigade and said it was the best present he had gotten for his wedding. He fought for 25 days before he was killed.

Another fallen brigade member with a famous relative was Haim Kurtzrock, who three weeks before he fell wrote to a friend, “There’s faint hope that we shall meet again.” His parents were murdered in the Holocaust, but his sister had immigrated to Eretz Israel before the Holocaust. One of her daughters, Havatzelet Drillman (Dror), was chosen Miss Israel in 1953. Driver spoke to her as well.

To complete the task, Driver is searching for relatives of the last three fallen on her list. The first is Michael Vizhbinsky or Izvitzky, who was born in Turek, Poland in 1911. Next is Shully (Solomon, Shlomo) Leizer, born in 1916 in Romania, who came here in 1941 on the ship Darien II. Two apparent acquaintances of his were R. Weinberg from 132 Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, and Naritza Burian of 34 Melchett Street in Tel Aviv. The last name is Menahem/Nahum Berger-Yaakobi, originally from Marghita, Romania.