Memorial Day: He Survived the Rough Seas and Exile, but Died Fighting in Israel's First War

After being deported to Mauritius by the British in 1940, new immigrant Arie Keler made it to pre-state Israel five years later, but was killed in battle in 1948

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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One of the two diaries of Arie Keler.
Pages from one of the two diaries of Arie Keler now in the possession of the Ghetto Fighters' House Museum.Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The memorial page dedicated to Arie Keler on the Defense Ministry’s Yizkor memorial website provides very little information about his brief and traumatic life, which was cut short in 1948 during the War of Independence.

Only a few dry facts are known: Keler, the only child of Henrieta and Benyamin, was born in Danzig (now the Polish city of Gdansk) in December 1927. He left for British-ruled Palestine in 1940 on a ship carrying illegal Jewish immigrants who were seeking to get through the British blockade of the country. He was deported by the British to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, but returned to Mandatory Palestine five years later, only to be killed in 1948 in the War of Independence, at the age of 21.

Keler was one of 4,000 soldiers killed in Israel’s first war. A few months ago, 71 years after his death, the archive at the Kibbutz Lohamei Hageta’ot Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum in the north received the two diaries that he had kept, written in his native German. One was from the period of his detention in Mauritius and the other from the War of Independence.

The contents of the diaries, which are being reported here for the first time for Memorial Day and Independence Day, provide a glimpse of the personal tragedy of a young Jewish man who so excitedly anticipated his aliya and who heroically survived a long and trying journey by ship to reach the country. He devotedly studied Hebrew during his five years of forced exile in Mauritius before returning to the Land of Israel, but then fell in battle before being able have a family of his own in the country that he had so longed for.

Arie Keler
Arie KelerCredit: Ghetto Fighters' House archives

On June 6, 1948, a few days after the founding of the Israeli army, Keler wrote from the foxholes on the outskirts of the Arab village of Qaqun − east of Netanya − where he served in the Alexandroni infantry brigade. He described the capture of the village, whose residents, with support from Iraqi troops, had shot at nearby Kibbutz Hama’apil on a regular basis.

“We have been riding for about an hour, 28 people in one truck,” Keler wrote in a diary entry. “Every one of the passengers is trying to make some space for himself. It’s an especially dark night. We are no longer on the road but on a sandy trail. We are stopping. In front of us, we see an Egged bus. On the right side, we see the kibbutz. In the total darkness, we receive safety instructions: Don’t turn on lights, light cigarettes carefully.”

At 10:30 A.M. the following day, he wrote: “The grenades are now falling heavily in our midst, in terms of number and frequency, and, thank God, for the time being, no one in the trenches has been wounded.”

At 11 A.M., he added: “It appears that the grenades are now aimed at the trenches, because they are falling just to our right and to our left. ... When we see that they are all falling in a certain location, we move back about 50 meters (165 feet) to avoid unnecessary disaster. At that moment, a grenade falls a meter from us, next to a wall on the side of the trench. We are completely enveloped by dust, sand and ash. It burns the throat. It is impossible to breathe. [There are shouts] from every direction: ‘Is everyone okay? Anyone wounded?’ We breathe a sigh of relief when the dust clears and we are overjoyed to see everyone is fine, and that everyone has luckily come out of the battle safely.”

The first page of Keler's wartime diary.
The first page of Keler's wartime diary.Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House archives

Two hours later, there is an addition to the diary: “A grenade is falling about 150 meters from us,” Keler wrote. “Wheat fields in front of us are going up in flames and the fire is getting closer, with wind that it is right for it, closer and closer to us. Shouts: ‘There are Arabs in the sorghum field!’ 200 meters from us. An order to the machine gun on the western side: ‘Fire on the sorghum field!’ Because the machine gun is not aimed at the sorghum field, they ignore the order. The bullets are flying over the trench, but I run anyway to tell three people who are together. One of them in turn runs and passes along the order. For now, we, the three of us who are left, fire from our rifles. One of our machine guns falls to work, and for this type [of gun] we actually have an supply of 2,000 bullets, which now are useless. We hear cannon fire from both sides. Sometimes there is a brief pause, and then again a volley of grenades, and our cannons respond.”

Ships with strange cargo

Noam Rachmilevitch, a researcher from the Ghetto Fighters’ House Museum, handled the transfer of Keler’s diary to the archive and was the first to take a look at it. In addition to descriptions of attacks and counterattacks, he found that the diaries reflected Keler’s desire for a furlough.

A sketch in Arie Keler's diary from the War of Independence.
A sketch in Arie Keler's diary from the War of Independence. "In the dark, we receive instructions," he wrote, "not to turn on lights and to light cigarettes carefully."Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House archives

On June 7, at 10:30 P.M., Keler wrote: “They say they’ll replace us …. This message was wrong. They only want to change [things] a little, in other words, taking us out of the trenches and sending us as reserves into an [Arab] house so we can rest a bit. We don’t want to leave the trenches at all, because they are relatively much safer than the houses that have emptied out, and we know that if they are letting us rest now, later they will send us back to the trenches and not home. In the end, replacements came and we are going anyway. They are leading us to the Arab mosque, which is supposedly safe against falling bombs. One grenade hit, but did not penetrate the roof.”

On June 11, Keler was critically wounded at Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh, northeast of Tel Aviv, near Kfar Sava. Three days later, he died of his wounds. He was buried in the military section of the Kfar Sava cemetery. His parents held on to his diaries for their entire lives. The diaries were later given to Holocaust survivors who were the parents’ friends. The items passed through several more hands before arriving in Lochamei Hageta’ot – where they were translated from German into Hebrew.

In the first diary, written in Mauritius, Keler describes the journey to pre-state Israel – which he embarked upon in the summer of 1940, when he and his parents managed to leave Danzig. They traveled by train to Bratislava, where they joined 3,500 Jews waiting to board rickety passenger ships. “On September 4, 1940, ships with a strange cargo left the capital of Slovakia: Jews who were looking to make aliya to Palestine illegally, under swastika flags,” he wrote.

The first victim died while getting on the ship. One of the prospective immigrants slipped on the deck at night and fell into the water and drowned. When the group of ships reached the port of Tulcea in Romania, the illegal immigrants were transferred to three steamers: the S.S. Milos, the Pacific and the Atlantic. Keler and his parents were put on the Atlantic.

A sketch of fruit and flowers.
A sketch of fruit and flowers from one of Arie Keler's diaries.Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House archives

Three harsh months at sea

The trip involved three harsh months at sea, a journey marked by hunger, overcrowding and disease. The ship sailed via Crete and Cyprus, where the supply of wood for the steam engine ran out. From that point, the engines were stoked with furniture and sleeping pallets – as the ship continued on its way to the Land of Israel.

Keler’s diary also reveals less heroic aspects of the trip: “Most of the people suffered from hunger. There were negative phenomena on deck: money-dealing. The purported pioneers also participated in this nice ‘game,’” he wrote.

In another diary entry, Keler wrote about the ship’s captain, who tried to obtain money to bribe the authorities. “For a long time, [the passengers] refused to agree to this unjustified demand, but after that, we began selling cigarettes to collect the sum, because we have to get along with these criminals,” Keller stated. “Many really gave their last pennies to collect the sum. Pens, watches, even wedding rings.”

More than anything, the situation was dominated by the shortage of coal needed to sail the ship. “To save coal, we are beginning to take the ship apart in a way that in other circumstances would be called barbaric. Every piece of wood that was not essential needs to be used as fuel. The ship is turning into a skeleton, like a ‘death ship,’” Keler wrote. “The provisions are also beginning to shrink. We are sending SOS signals with rags and flags, sorry we don’t have a transmitter on the ship.”

Keler also wrote about the positive aspects of the voyage. “There were also matters of goodwill and sincerity: preparing for the Land of Israel. Many studied Hebrew and for many, Hebrew became their spoken language.”

Later he described the “Return to Zion” party held on deck. “We are longing for the Holy Land with milk and honey. There are prayers, talk about things that seem relevant to this moment: absorption in the Land [of Israel], the situation for women whose husbands need to enlist and other things.”

A map in Keler's diary tracking his family's expulsion to Mauritius.
A map in Keler's diary tracking his family's expulsion to Mauritius.Credit: Ghetto Fighters' House archives

Occasionally, the beauty of the route made them forget their suffering aboard ship: “The impression of the trip through the Bosporus was incredible: ruins everywhere, old castles and among them old and new fortifications. In the evening, we listened to jazz music coming from the restaurants and cafes: We are in the modern Turkey of [President Kemal] Ataturk.”

“The day we passed Istanbul was unforgettable,” he wrote. “For a day, the city looked like a fairy tale in the colors gold, white, blue. One could understand that people with an aesthetic outlook could create their ideal of beauty here,” wrote Keler.

A chilly reception

Finally they reached the port of Haifa, where their excitement was replaced by frustration – in part due to the chilly reception they received from the Jews in the country: “On November 24, at dawn, first we saw the mountains of [Lebanon] and after that the Carmel.”

Referring to the Zionist movement’s anthem that is now Israel’s national anthem, Keler wrote: “Everyone rushed to the deck and now we are hearing ‘Hatikva,’ which they are singing with great emotion. Everyone believes that the words ‘our hope is not yet lost’ are now being fulfilled for us too,” he wrote. “The entrance to Haifa Bay is amazingly beautiful.”

But Keler then went on to write about “bitter disappointment” when he realized they were not about to enter Mandatory Palestine but instead were being sent by the British to the ship S.S. Patria for deportation. They were due to be shipped to the island of Mauritius for compulsory detention. The Jews whom they met did not make it any easier for them to deal with their fate.

“The Jews we have come in contact with, and especially the officials, view this ship of illegal immigrants with apathy and cynicism. Their paperwork is more important to them than the fate of the people,” he wrote bitterly.

“Great disappointment over the approach of the people of the Yishuv [pre-state Jewish community] toward us, in our contacts with them. We don’t hear a single good word from the workers who pass by us, no friendly look for us. We feel that we are a painful incident for people, at most and in the best case,” he wrote.

“More than the actions of the English, who, after everything, we could understand, the attitude of the Yishuv depressed us. We gave the impression that we were helpless, but worse than that, no one cared about our fate. The police behaved very badly toward us and the officials were usually truly loathsome.”

Keler was particularly hurt by the clerks’ insistence on speaking to them in German, despite the fact that they were in the Land of Israel. “They take it for granted to speak to us in German, as if our knowledge of Hebrew was not taken into account. It’s grotesque, our people are constantly trying to speak English; the officials speak German and the Arabs [speak] Hebrew,” he wrote.

Nearly 300 drown

To head off the passengers’ deportation, the Haganah Jewish underground blew up the Patria, using an explosive device. Because of the poor condition of the ship, it sank and almost 300 people drowned, including 216 illegal immigrants.

At the time of the explosion, Keler and his parents were still on the Atlantic. They were sent to the Atlit detention camp, south of Haifa. Two weeks later, they were deported to Mauritius, to the Beau Bassin prison camp, where they spent five years. On the day of their expulsion from pre-state Israel, Keler described feeling a “horrible tragedy.”

“We were expelled from the land of our forefathers, and now they will bring us to a country whose name many did not even know.” During his years of detention, Keler made use of his free time to study and taught himself Hebrew and English. Among the entries in the personal dictionary that he created in a notebook, there was a Hebrew word essential to life in Israel at the time: “poel” – worker.

In April 1945, as the date of his release and aliya approached, Keler wrote: “Mauritius, our island of exile – a dark dream but far, far away, that becomes brighter in the face of the good fortune of the true homeland.” At the end of August 1945, five years after leaving Danzig, Keler and his parents arrived in British Mandatory Palestine and settled in Kfar Sava. Keler worked in a packing house and was active with the Hapoel sports club.

Three years later, as a combat soldier in the Alexandroni brigade, he was wounded in the battle for Kibbutz Ramat Hakovesh. He died on on June 14, 1948.

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