When Asher Dishon and his fellow soldiers captured 20 German troopers on the Italian front in the last days of World War II, the prisoners quickly started pleading for their lives. They had reason to fear their captors, for they had spotted the unit insignia on their British uniforms: a golden Star of David and the words “Jewish Brigade Group.”
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“They said they had been forced to join up, they were afraid we would kill them, but we took them in alive,” recalls Dishon, a Vienna-born Jew who had fled to Palestine with his family when Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
The 94-year-old Dishon was part of a group of veterans who met Italian officials in Tel Aviv on Tuesday following last week’s unanimous decision by the parliament in Rome to award Italy’s highest military honor to the Jewish Brigade for helping liberate the country from Nazi forces.
“It took a lot of courage to volunteer to come to fight in a country where they didn’t just risk being killed in battle, but they could also be deported if captured,” said Lia Quartapelle, a lawmaker in the center-left Democratic Party who spearheaded the initiative. “It is a story of bravery that has struggled to become known and part of Italy’s collective memory.”
Quartapelle, who met with the delegation of veterans at the Italian Embassy in Tel Aviv, told Haaretz that Italy’s president must now approve the granting of the medal – a formal step she believes will happen early next year.
The decision to award the Gold Medal of Military Valour comes amid a longstanding controversy over the role of the Jewish Brigade in the liberation of Italy and in present-day commemorations. For the past years, veterans and Jewish community members have been heckled and harassed by pro-Palestinian and far-left activists when marching with the symbols of the brigade during the annual April 25 parades celebrating Italy’s liberation.
This year, the Jewish Community in Rome boycotted the march in the capital after the local partisans’ association refused to include the Jewish Brigade in the event and invited pro-Palestinian groups to participate.
“It is very rare that in our Parliament we approve something unanimously,” said Quartapelle. “The broad support for this recognition sends a very strong signal that those who every year attack the Jewish Brigade are an extremist minority.”
As part of the British army, the brigade was the first officially recognized all-Jewish unit from the Yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine), fighting under the flag that would later become Israel’s.
“We were very proud to be part of this triumphant Judaism that was fighting against the regimes that had done us so much harm,” said 91-year-old veteran Piero Cividalli, whose family had left his native Florence in 1938 and sought refuge in Palestine. Cividalli said Italians were surprised to encounter Jewish soldiers, but were very welcoming and grateful when the troops would hand out food and other necessities to the war-ravaged population.
Although Palestinian Jews joined the British army early in the war, they were spread across many units and it took years to overcome objections by the British government, which feared that creating a recognizably Jewish fighting force would encourage Zionist national aspirations.
Established in late 1944, the brigade enrolled more than 5,000 volunteers who were trained in Egypt and then joined the British 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 around the river Senio, near the city of Ravenna, smashing through the “Gothic Line” – a series of fortifications where German forces made their last major stand in Italy. More than 30 soldiers from the brigade were killed in action and dozens wounded.
“It was a very difficult battle, the Germans fought desperately, they threw everything they had at us,” recalls another veteran, 96-year-old Ioske Zelzer. “On my first patrol a friend was killed, and another had his leg blown off.”
When the war ended a few weeks later, the brigade was stationed on the Austrian-Italian border, where they first encountered survivors of the Holocaust.
“We didn’t know the magnitude of the tragedy that had occurred,” Zelzer said. “We knew there were camps and ghettos, but we were shocked to learn of the systematic killing of an entire people.”
The brigade focused on helping the refugees, particularly orphaned children, for whom they 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 Palestine.
Many of the soldiers who had served in the brigade went on to fight in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, using the knowledge and experience gained on the battlefields of Italy to help form the core of the Jewish state’s army.