Just one word appears on the file found recently in the Palmach Museum’s archive in Tel Aviv – “images.” It contains about 300 pictures. But nobody knows for sure who the people in the pictures are, how old they were, where they came from, whether they fell in battle or are still alive.
Some of the pictures, like one showing a female Palmach member eating a bunch of grapes, look as if they were posed for a promotional film. That’s also the feeling you get from the picture of another attractive Palmach member looking off to the side with a cigarette in his mouth.
Another male fighter is smoking a pipe, and yet another female fighter is shown combing her long black hair. There are quite a few mustaches in these pictures, along with perfect forelocks, in line with the fashion of the 1940s. In general, as the cliché goes, everyone looks young and beautiful.
The album was pulled off the shelves recently as part of preparations by Palmach veterans for a conference in Tel Aviv next week. The conference marking the 70th anniversary of the state’s establishment, is being organized by the Dor Hapalmach organization.
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It will feature several famous veterans of the pre-state underground militia, including Maj. Gen. (res.) Shaike Gavish, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amos Horev, former Mossad director Zvi Zamir and former cabinet minister Rafi Eitan, a commander of an operation that captured Nazi war criminal and “final solution” mastermind Adolf Eichmann in 1960.
The Palmach, the strike force of the Haganah pre-state militia, was established in 1941 and dismantled in the 1948 War of Independence. Some 3,100 men and women served in its ranks during British Mandatory times and that number doubled during the war. In all 1,168 Palmach members fell in battle during its brief years of existence.
In the 1980s, a national campaign was launched to collect photographs of this small, high-quality fighting force from citizens’ private homes. Dancer Dita Perach of Kibbutz Beit Hashita, the Palmach’s first female pilot, coordinated this effort. Perach, who died last year at 93, crisscrossed the country in search of these pictures.
The collection, now called the Palmach Photo Collection, “began as shoeboxes under Dita’s bed,” historian Dr. Nir Mann said.
“Heritage is an explosive word, and archives are closed files,” Perach once said in an interview with Tehila Ofer. “For me, this is a collection of pictures that tells the history of the Palmach, and it’s all open; anyone can leaf through the albums.”
Perach won the Yigal Allon Prize in 2007 for “an exemplary pioneering act” as an initiator of the photograph collection project.
“Dita asked people to identify the people photographed in the pictures and write about the history they tell,” Dr. Eldad Harouvi, who runs the Palmach archive, said.
But not everyone in the pictures could be identified.
“Some of the pictures were brought to us by grandchildren who found them in their house,” Harouvi said. Not all the veterans could identify their comrades 70 years later.
Subsequently, out of some 30,000 photographs that have been collected, the subjects of about 300 of them have yet to be identified.
All the pictures can be viewed at the Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv’s Ramat Aviv neighborhood or on its website.
Harouvi said he doesn’t know how many of the Palmach members in the pictures are still alive. “My rough estimate would be at least 4,000,” he said.
But he noted that even the number of people who actually served in the Palmach remains disputed.
Elderly veterans and heirs have faith that publication of the photos will lead to more of their subjects being identified. Conference organizer Esther Cohen hopes the labeling process will be helped by the fact that half of former Palmach members are believed still alive, plus memories they may have shared with descendants and friends.