“It felt like everyone was fighting the Nazis except for us,” says Zwi Nagel, 95, of his decision to leave British Mandatory Palestine at age 18 to join fellow Jews fighting the Germans in World War II.
Nagel, who found himself in combat a mere three years after moving to the Holy Land from Vienna, was not alone. And on Wednesday, he was joined by other former members of the Jewish Brigade for a ceremony in which the Israel Defense Forces received Italy’s highest military honor on their behalf, for their help in liberating Italy in 1945.
The Jewish Brigade, which was part of the British Army and the first and only all-Jewish fighting force to serve in World War II, had over 5,000 volunteers at its peak.
Some of the handful who remain attended the ceremony in Netanya, where the Gold Medal of Military Valor was bestowed on the IDF by Italy’s ambassador to Israel, Gianluigi Benedetti.
Nagel’s forehead still shows the mark from a war wound he suffered in the spring of 1945 along the Senio River, northern Italy, where the Jewish Brigade faced off against Nazi forces on one of the war’s final fronts.
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Like many of his comrades, Nagel searched for relatives in Europe after the fighting had ended. He found no one; his father had been killed in the Auschwitz death camp and his mother had immigrated earlier to British Mandatory Palestine.
Years after his acts of bravery with the Jewish Brigade, Nagel became a career soldier in the Israeli army, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, before starting a second career in industry and later becoming a tour guide.
After presenting the medal to the Israeli army, Benedetti said he wanted to thank the veterans directly for what they did for his country.
More than 30 brigade soldiers were killed in action and a further 70 wounded in Italy between March and May 1945.
Speaking at a military museum in Netanya, the ambassador said: “This honor, unanimously approved by our parliament, reminds us we should be extremely grateful to the Jewish Brigade. They died for our freedom, their blood is our brothers’ blood … their story of bravery struggled to become known, but it is now an essential part of our country’s collective memory.”
Piero Civadalli, 92, who was born in Florence, Italy, and fled to Mandatory Palestine in 1939, was among the veterans of the Jewish Brigade at Wednesday’s ceremony. “The award does not mean a lot, although recognition is important. What is really important is that we fought the Nazis,” he said.
Brigade members wore a golden Star of David against blue and white stripes on their uniform, a version of which later became the flag of Israel. Many of the veterans used the training they received as British Army soldiers when they returned home and fought in the 1948-49 War of Independence in Israel. Their knowledge and experience in Italy helped form the core of what would become the IDF.
Although Jews from British Mandatory Palestine joined the British Army early in the war, they were spread across many units. Representatives of the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine lobbied hard for the British to create a fighting force of only their men. In 1944, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill finally relented.
The British had feared that creating a recognizably Jewish fighting force would encourage Zionist national aspirations – and present a threat against their own forces in Mandatory Palestine.
By late 1944, the brigade enrolled more than 5,000 volunteers. They were trained in Egypt and then joined Britain’s Eighth Army, which was fighting its way up the Italian boot. In the spring of 1945, the unit took part in the final battles to liberate northern Italy, near the city of Ravenna, smashing through the “Gothic Line” – a series of fortifications where German forces made their last major stand in Italy.
When the war ended a few weeks later, the brigade was stationed on the Austrian-Italian border, where it first encountered Holocaust survivors.
The brigade focused on helping the refugees, particularly orphaned children, for whom it organized housing and Jewish schooling. The soldiers were also active in directing and organizing the flow of survivors toward southern Italy, from where thousands of Jews crossed the Mediterranean to Mandatory Palestine.
For Nagel, seeing those survivors was the hardest – but also most important – part of the mission. “I did not think of what I did as heroic … it was clear it’s what had to be done,” he said.
Postwar killing of Nazis?
A 1988 book by historian Morris Beckman, called “The Jewish Brigade: An Army with Two Masters 1944-45,” claimed that some Jewish Brigade soldiers searched for, located and then executed as many as 1,500 high-ranking Nazis just after the war ended. The book described “revenge squads” that traveled through Germany and Austria hunting down the Nazis.
Brigade veterans at Wednesday’s event did not deny the accounts, but were reluctant to speak about them.
“What can I tell you?” Nagel said, shrugging his shoulders. “We did lots of interesting things … but there are some things one just does not talk about.”
Besides, he added, they were on a mission to help survivors of the genocide. A Nazi-hunting operation would have detracted from that important work, Nagel said, leaving the question of his brigade’s more sensitive legacy unanswered.