Man Travels the World to Get the Truth on His ID Card

At the end of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic and legal struggle, Israel recently acknowledged that Joe Wolf was born on April 18, not April 28, as his ID card says.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Joe Wolf outside his home.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On April 18, Joe Wolf of Moshav Ilaniya in the lower Galilee can finally celebrate his birthday properly. At the end of a Kafkaesque bureaucratic and legal struggle, the state recently acknowledged that Wolf was born on April 18, not April 28, as his ID card says.

“It may only be a 10-day difference, but for me it’s important,” says Wolf, 87, in his home on the moshav, the first Jewish settlement in the lower Galilee. It was where the young David Ben-Gurion lived and worked.

“The clerks in the Interior Ministry called me crazy. The courthouse secretaries laughed at me. But in the end I won,” says Wolf.

In the mid-‘90s Wolf discovered he was 10 days older than he thought he was. On a trip to trace his roots in Lithuania he found his birth certificate from the town Seta. It said he was born on the 28th of Nissan, April 18, 1928.

When Wolf was 3 years old his parents moved to South Africa. His mother went to register her son in Johannesburg and, not speaking a word of English, told the translator her son had been born on the “28th of Nissan.” His birth date was registered as April 28 and the mistake was later copied by the Israeli Interior Ministry.

Wolf lived with the wrong date quite happily for most of his tumultuous life. After completing his studies he joined the Scottish Brigade in the South African army. A picture in his album shows him in an honor guard that received King George VI, who visited on April 1, 1947.

In the summer of 1948 he asked for leave in order to join another army — the Israel Defense Forces. He did this as part of the Mahal — volunteers from abroad — a group of some 4,500 Jews and non-Jews from 58 countries who came to help the IDF in the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

Wolf spent years documenting the history of Mahal volunteers and is seen as the group’s historian. He’s known as “Good Old Joe.”

In 1948 Wolf fought in the IDF’s armored corps in the Galilee. “We were all English-speakers. Half of us had a German or Polish accent. Those were the Holocaust survivors and Kindertransport children,” he recalls.

Joe Wolf serving in the Israeli army during the county's War of Independence. Photo by Courtesy Salman

In April 1949 Wolf returned to South Africa to complete his military service. He then took a trip around the world, working as a waiter on a British ship and as a sailor on cargo ships. He traveled all over the world and had wonderful adventures, he says.

“I have no money, but I had the time of my life,” he says.

In 1969 he immigrated to Israel with his wife and three children. A fourth son was born in Israel. In 1973 they moved to Ilaniya, where he became a farmer.

“I had 60 liters of milk daily from my cows,” he says. “I was the only one from the area who entered the company Tnuva’s herd book.”

After retiring, Wolf traveled the world in search of his family roots. In London he found his and his mother’s boarding card to the ship that took them to South Africa. In Lithuania he found his parents’ marriage license and in 1996 he found his birth certificate there too.

“I was the first Israeli and third English-speaking person to visit the Vilna archive after the collapse of Communism,” he says.

“In those days they still had time — they gave me their full attention and helped me look for papers of my roots,” he says. On his birth certificate he found the name of the man who circumcised him and his correct birth date — April 18, 1928.

After his wife’s death in 2001, equipped with the necessary documents, Wolf reported to the Tiberias branch of the Interior Ministry and asked that his birth date be corrected.

He was required to bring the original birth certificate from the Lithuania archive. His explanations that the original document was impossible to obtain failed to impress the clerks.

Joe Wolf serving in the Israeli army during the county's War of Independence. Photo by Ofer Aderet

“Clause 19 to the registration law stipulates that any change or correction in a person’s details is done only on presentation of a public, original and authorized certificate,” said Sabine Haddad, the spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority. “If such a document cannot be produced, a court ruling is required.”

The fact that Wolf came to Israel as a volunteer in the War of Independence gave him no credit points in the country he helped to establish. Nor did his age.

After visiting the clerks for several months, hoping they would tire of the crazy old man and register his correct age, Wolf went to court.

The Interior Ministry representative told the Tiberias Court for Family Affairs that perhaps Wolf wanted to change his age to qualify for benefits that Holocaust survivors are entitled to.

“They sent a lawyer from Acre to oppose my request. Who knows how much it cost them instead of simply adding 10 days to my age and finishing with it,” says Wolf.

But ultimately he won. Last summer, after declaring that his intention was no more than setting the record straight, the court granted his request. Now he is trying to persuade the authorities to add the name Cohen — which he found was part of his father’s full family name — to his identity card. “Can’t be done,” he says the clerks told him.

“Maybe before I die I can still change that,” he says. “I’m not religious, but I want them to know in the synagogue here that I had a Cohen in the family.”