At the end of February 1945, two and a half months before the end of the war, Haaretz journalist Israel Finkelstein donned a British Army uniform and set out on an important and dangerous mission. “I know that this day, as you put on this uniform, is an important day for Haaretz and the entire Hebrew press. I wish you success on your mission . I hope you return to us safe and sound. Bon voyage!” wrote his employer, Haaretz editor Gershom Schocken.
Finkelstein, a lawyer by trade, was editorial secretary at Haaretz and 42 at the time. He started working at Haaretz in 1925, a few years after immigrating from Ukraine. “He had never held a weapon before, and all of a sudden he was sent to cover a war, with all its wounded and dead,” remembers his son Haim Filon, who lives in Kiryat Tivon.
Before heading out, Finkelstein invited photo-journalist Paul Goldman to his house to document his last moments in Tel Aviv. Goldman won fame 12 years later when he photographed Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion standing on his head. After a farewell ceremony, Finkelstein left for Europe, where he joined the Jewish Fighting Unit, better known as “The Jewish Brigade,” which was part of the British army. These were 5,000 volunteers from Palestine, who left in 1944 to fight the Germans under a Hebrew flag.
In 1944, Haaretz journalist Israel Finkelstein donned a British Army uniform and set out to cover the Jewish Brigade's WWII efforts. Reproduction photo by Rami Shllush.
Between the end of March and end of April he transmitted reports from the front in Italy, which he signed: “Haaretz correspondent with the Brigade, I. Finkelstein”. His headlines were dramatic: “The Star of David is fluttering in view of the hated foe;” “Pour out thy wrath together with the Brigade’s cannons;” “The wounded didn’t cry out;” “You are prisoners of the Jewish Brigade! – its soldiers informed Nazi prisoners they captured” are some examples.
“I have just returned from the front lines, as the first Hebrew correspondent who reached the Brigade and traveled to all its forward positions. It’s hard to describe what I saw in these last few days” he reported. “In these positions, at different regimental and company headquarters, in camps and on roads leading to the front I saw Jewish soldiers from all corners of Eretz Yisrael, from towns and villages, from Hanita in the north to Be’er Sheva in the south, from Jerusalem to the Jezreel Valley, from Haifa to Gedera, from Tel Aviv to Kfar Giladi – all of them are faithfully performing their duties,” he wrote. “The men’s fighting spirit is fiercer than one could have hoped for, braver than it has been for many years. They all wish to do battle with great enthusiasm.”
Reports sent to Haaretz Finkelstein while he was covering the Jewish Brigade's WWII efforts against the Germans in 1944. (Reproduction photo by Rami Shllush)
Finkelstein admitted to having difficulty describing the emotions that swept over him as a Jewish journalist from Palestine, accompanying soldiers from the yishuv (pre-state Jewish community). “I’ve just returned from visiting forward positions, even the remotest ones held by the Brigade, and it’s hard to fully describe what I witnessed. It’s even harder to describe my emotions as I saw Israel’s soldiers fighting in the forward ranks,” he reported. “They are fighting perhaps for the first time since the Bar Kochba rebellion as a recognized military force representing their people, aware of their own value as such representatives.”
Finkelstein was present at several exceptional events such as the visit of the popular actress Hanna Robina, who performed before the Jewish soldiers from Palestine. “All sorts of cars arrived, bringing soldiers from the front lines who managed to grab some free time, people from a nearby town, from workshops and from all nearby units” he reported. “All of a sudden Hanna Rovina was seen approaching and everyone stood up and welcomed her with a song – she looked them over, recognizing and waving to many of them, even bringing regards from parents, wives and friends. ‘I’ve brought many, many regards,’ she said,” wrote Finkelstein.
Haaretz journalist Israel Finkelstein with his family. Reproduction photo by Rami Shllush.
Another event he participated in was a Passover seder with the soldiers of the Brigade. He described it thus: “A few hundred meters from the Nazis, Jewish soldiers recited the Haggadah’s injunction to ‘pour out thy wrath,’ and one artillery battery received special permission to fire a few salvos as these words were recited.”
Along with battle updates, Finkelstein reported on the condition of the wounded, as well as the names of the dead. He covered their funerals and conveyed regards from soldiers to families and vice versa. Finkelstein knew some of the soldiers he met personally, such as Danny Langer Gov, who later became the father of singer Gidi Gov.
Finkelstein’s reports were published alongside historic headlines that told readers, step by step, of the war’s ending. “Germany’s collapse is imminent,” Haaretz told its readers on March 28, 1945. “The capture of Berlin is almost complete,” came on April 25. “Berlin is taken, Hitler and Goebbels commit suicide,” was the main headline on May 3, and on May 9 came “The final surrender document was signed in Berlin” – which took place 70 years ago today.
Finkelstein stayed at Haaretz until his death in 1965. He reported on more historic events such as the Declaration of Independence’s signing, which he witnessed three years after returning with the soldiers of the Jewish Brigade.