The brief text devoted to Mordechai Meltzer on Yizkor, the national memorial website for those who were killed in Israel’s wars, doesn’t capture the tragic drama of his story. But the full story is still remembered by the last of those who knew him.
“He was an adventurous type who sought out challenges and danger; the possibility of dying didn’t scare him,” said his nephew, translator and literary editor Prof. Moshe Ron. “I don’t say this to praise him, but it was apparently something in his character.”
“For me, he was a role model, as someone who was always the first to volunteer,” said another nephew, Israel Milrod.
Ultimately, this trait cost him his life.
Meltzer was born in 1917, one of Hinda and David Meltzer’s six children. The family moved to pre-state Israel while he was still a child and lived in Tel Aviv. His father owned a hardware store in Tel Aviv and a lime kiln in Hartuv. He was also the sexton of his local synagogue.
In 1935, Mordechai Meltzer joined the Haganah, a pre-state militia, and served as a guard in the lower Galilee during the Arab Revolt of 1936-39. According to the Yizkor site, “He stood out for his courage” during the violence of those years.
After being demobilized from the Haganah, he worked as a sailor at the new Tel Aviv Port, which was set up as an alternative to Jaffa Port because the latter was on strike during the Arab Revolt. “He would go out into the open sea in a motorboat to bring merchandise from the big ships to the quay,” Milrod said.
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But in 1940, he reentered military service. He was one of the first Jews in pre-state Israel to volunteer for the British army during World War II, years before that army’s Jewish Brigade was established. He started in the infantry, but due to his naval experience was soon transferred into the Royal Engineers’ dock operating company, which was set up to manage ports along the Allies’ line of advance.
Terrible news from the Red Cross
In March 1941, he was sent to Egypt and from there to Greece. The next month, the British forces in Greece surrendered. He became a German prisoner of war and was sent to a prison camp in occupied Poland.
His being a soldier in the British army spared him the fate of many other Jews captured by the Nazis. He was even able to send postcards and pictures to his family in Tel Aviv via the Red Cross during his captivity.
But then the Red Cross informed his family that he had been killed while trying to escape. Milrod, who was a child at the time, remembers that day well. There could be no funeral, but the family sat shiva.
And then another message came from the Red Cross: Meltzer was alive. Behind this strange story lay a dramatic episode. An Australian pilot captured by the Germans wanted to try to escape the prison camp. He asked Meltzer, who was supposed to go out into the forest to cut down trees, to switch identity cards with him and let him go into the forest instead. In exchange, Meltzer got his pilot’s ID, which entitled him to better prison conditions.
The pilot was killed during his escape attempt with Meltzer’s ID in his pocket, leading to the erroneous announcement of Meltzer’s death. Once the mistake was discovered, Meltzer was sent to solitary confinement.
In 1945, he was demobilized and sent to Britain, from where he sailed to Port Said, Egypt and then took a train back home. Milrod’s family met the train at the Rehovot station.
“The soldiers started disembarking,” he recalled. “I ran to look for him and was the first to spot him. I jumped several meters in the air, and he caught me. I brought him to my parents.”
For the next three years, Meltzer’s life remained peaceful. “He apparently got a little bored between his release from German captivity and the War of Independence,” Ron commented wryly.
But even during those years, his family couldn’t stop worrying. “He had a motorcycle, and his mother used to say that when Moti went out on his motorcycle, she considered him dead until he returned,” Ron recalled.
A battle at the Castel
Meltzer shouldn’t have been in combat during the War of Independence at all, both because he was already 31 and because of his time in German captivity. But nobody was surprised when, in February 1948, he decided to join the fray around Jerusalem anyway.
“I heard there’s a big fight at Castel; I’m going,” he told a relative whom he met on the street when he went to join the convoy to Jerusalem. Castel, an Arab village located atop a high hill, was a source of nonstop fire on convoys bringing goods and people to besieged Jerusalem.
Meltzer’s mother had nightmares about him lying wounded in the hills, Ron recalled.
“We lost contact with him; we didn’t know where he was,” Milrod added.
On April 7, 1948, Meltzer was shot in the shoulder at Castel. But after his wound was bandaged, he returned to his position and resumed shooting.
That night, the leader of the Arab forces in Jerusalem, Abd al-Qadir al-Husseini, was killed. The next morning, Arab fighters attacked Castel to take revenge. Meltzer was wounded again, this time in the thigh.
In an order that later became famous in Israel, company commander Shimon Alfasi ordered rank-and-file soldiers to retreat while the officers stayed to cover them. Alfasi was killed during this battle.
But Pvt. Meltzer, due to his wounds, was unable to retreat. Instead, he hid. When Jewish forces recaptured Castel, Metzer’s body wasn’t found among the dozens that were strewn there, so he was listed as missing in action. Only later were his bones identified among the dozens of unknown soldiers buried in a temporary grave at Ma’aleh Hahamisha.
In 1953, his remains and those of all the others who fell at Castel were reburied at Mount Herzl military cemetery in Jerusalem. Rachel Yanait Ben-Zvi, wife of President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, attended the ceremony.
“She went from family to family, caressing each one, and comforted us as if she were everyone’s mother,” Milrod recalled. “Our family was really torn up. It was a terrible funeral. My grandmother collapsed.”
“Moti, who was 31, was buried together with boys of 17 and 18,” he added. “He didn’t have to join the War of Independence at all. For me, he was God.”
Ron, who was just three years old when his uncle died, still remembers the teddy bear Meltzer gave him as a gift. “He remained with me for years and was my most precious possession for a long time.”
Meltzer never started a family of his own. “How did they put it then? He didn’t have time to get married,” Milrod said.
As he has every year for the past 70, Milrod will light a memorial candle for his beloved uncle. Because of the coronavirus lockdown, he’ll do it at his home in Kfar Bilu rather than paying his usual visit to the cemetery in Jerusalem, but he isn’t unduly bothered.
“It’s been getting too crowded” in recent years, he explained. “I’d sit by the grave and feel like an exhibit at a show, with all the people walking by me. This year, I’ll watch the memorial ceremonies on television and light the memorial candle at home.”