76 Years Later, Stories of Jewish Soldiers Killed in Nazi Bombing Can Finally Be Told

The SS Erinpura was bombed by the Germans off the Libyan coast, killing 943 British soldiers and sailors, 140 of whom were Jewish volunteers from pre-state Israel

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Soldiers from the British army transport unit whose members perished in the sinking of the SS Erinpura.
Soldiers from the British army transport unit whose members perished in the sinking of the SS Erinpura. Credit: Zoltan Kluger / State Archive
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Yosef Friedler, who immigrated to pre-state Israel after Kristallnacht in 1938, had hoped to avoid the fate of the rest of his family – almost all of whom perished in the Holocaust. But Friedler died when the British troop transport ship SS Erinpura was bombed and sunk by the Germans on May 1, 1943 in the Mediterranean Sea 30 miles north of Benghazi, Libya.

Until today, 76 years after the maritime disaster in which 664 British troops died, Friedler remained unknown. Fiedler, who was one of the approximately 40,000 Jews from pre-state Israel who volunteered for the British army during World War II, has no grave to lay flowers on and remains a “fallen soldier whose place of burial is unknown.”

Haaretz Weekly Episode 18Credit: Haaretz

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A new research project is bringing the name of Friedler and a few of his comrades to the public eye. Volunteers from the nonprofit organization Giving a Face to the Fallen managed to uncover photos and new details about the lives of the soldiers.

The Erinpura, named after a small town in India, was party of a convoy on its way to Malta when it sank, killing 943. Of those who perished, 633 were African soldiers from Lesotho (then Basutoland).

140 volunteers from the pre-state Jewish community, the Yishuv, who served in Transport Company 462 of the British army were also killed in the sinking. One of the Jewish soldiers wounded in the incident later died from injuries he had sustained, and was buried. The bodies of three more Jewish soldiers were found later. The bodies of 136 soldiers, including Friedler, were never found and those men are considered fallen soldiers whose place of burial is unknown.

“This is the largest number of [soldiers] who fell on a single day, whose burial place is unknown,” Dorit Perry, the director of Giving a Face to the Fallen, told Haaretz. Until now, 76 years later, 40 of those who died on the Erinpura were missing “faces and a story,” she added.

The SS Erinpura, which was sunk by the Germans on May 1, 1943. Credit: British India Co.

Thursday, the 7th of the Jewish month of Adar Bet, marks the annual official memorial day for those who fell in Israel’s wars whose burial place is unknown. The day was chosen because according to tradition it was the day of both the birth and death of Moses – whose place of burial is also unknown.

To mark the memorial day, Giving a Face to the Fallen has released new information about the life stories of 20 unkown soldiers who died on the Erinpura.

Most of the fallen came to Israel from Europe and were the last remnants of their families who were murdered in the Holocaust. “At the time they fought against Rommel’s armies in the Arab desert, some already knew that their parents, who remained in Europe, were deported and died and that they were the only ones left in their families,” Perry said. “In the end their parents were sent to the crematoria, with the knowledge that at least they managed to save one child. Because of that, some enlisted in the British army with the clear goal of taking revenge on the Nazis,” Perry added.

Friedler was born in Hamburg in 1922 and was the oldest of four children. In 1938 he immigrated to Israel alone as part of the Youth Aliyah, a few days after the Kristallnacht pogrom. A year after the beginning of World War II, Friedler enlisted in the British army transport corps and in April 1943 he, and Transport Company 462, took part in the preparations for the Allied invasion of Italy. The company sailed from Egypt on the Erinpura and the convoy was discovered and bombed by the Germans.

Friedler’s mother and three siblings were killed in Auschwitz and Dachau. His father, who survived the camps, hoped to reunite with his son, made Aliyah in 1945 and began his search. Unfortunately his search was unsuccessful. He turned to the Jewish Agency for assistance and in the end received a handwritten letter from the British army saying “that a report has been received to the effect that [private] Fiedler J. RASC is missing since 1st May 1943, believed to be drowned at sea. Any further information received will be communicated to you immediately.” The documents were preserved in the Central Zionist Archives, saying the son who “he had hoped would be the last survivor of his family had fallen too.”

A monument for the fallen soldiers of the SS Erinpura on Mount Herzl, Jerusalem. Credit: Farouk

Eryk Bachrach was another fallen soldier whose story was recently brought to light. Born in Czechoslovakia in 1916, he arrived in Tel Aviv alone in 1939 and enlisted in the British army before perishing on the Erinpura. Bachrach's mother, who followed him to Israel, died shortly after, it seems out of heartbreak.

Nachum Polkes, born in Poland in 1925, met the same fate. Polkes made Aliyah with his parents in 1931 and lived in the northern city of Kiryat Motzkin. On April 22, 1944 his father received news of his death in a letter from the chief secretary of the British High Commissioner in Palestine.

Volunteers from Giving a Face to the Fallen found their information on the soldiers in a collection of archives, including the Zionist Archive, the Israel State Archives and the Haganah Archives. They also used digital data sources such as the MyHeritage genealogy website and interviewed family members.

Two of those who died on the Erinpura, Gad Gunther Schwarzer and Mordechai (Martin) Drucker – who both made Aliyah from Germany – were good friends and often sent joint letters home to their families. In March 1943, two months before their deaths, they wrote their families that they hoped they would be forgiven for not writing for a long time. They told their families they were in good health – and wished their families well. “We are located near the big city. There are a lot of Jews here. Every Shabbat we visit them, go to the synagogue, sit in the Tel Aviv café, meet a lot of members of the group and hear news from home from them.” The two said they were preparing for a large party for Purim of all the “Hebrew units” in the area. Schwarzer and Drucker said it was possible they would receive leave soon and may have been able to see their families then. “This is our only hope. And until then shalom.”

Giving a Face to the Fallen has lists of over 500 of those who fell in Israel’s wars whose place of burial is not known. The IDF says 107 of them are from the War of Independence.

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