David Daniel (“Mickey”) Marcus (1901-1948) designed the command structure for Israel’s nascent Jewish army and played the definitive military role in saving the new Jewish State in the 1948 War of Independence. In gratitude, Ben-Gurion named him Lieutenant General, the first general in the army of Israel since Judah Maccabee (circa 160 B.C.E.).
In this historic November 1, 1963 handwritten correspondence from Sde Boker, Ben-Gurion writes to “Mr. Marcus” of the “Office of General David Marcus” in Jerusalem:
I was very pleased to hear that you are planning to memorialize the name of General David Marcus by establishing a branch in Ma’abarot called “General David Marcus.” It’s not a coincidence that his relatives came from Romania and filled an important role in the establishment of our new settlement in the homeland 81 years ago with the establishment of Zichron Yaakov and Rosh Pina.
I had the great honor to work with Marcus when he came the first time to Israel before the establishment of the State. Before his return home, he was afraid that the [U.S.] government would not permit him to return and he said that, if there were a need, he would come even if he had to swim. I thought that this was just a figure of speech and I doubted that he would ever return . . . and then he returned . . . as he promised me and he filled, in the short time that fate allowed him, critical command roles in protection of the borders and afterwards in (opening/paving/building) the road to Jerusalem [i.e., reference to the Burman Road]. He was robbed of missed opportunities in the War for Independence by the cruelty of fate, felled by an errant bullet.
He is worthy of eternal memorialization, not just on the part of the “organized Ma’abarot” [i.e., the Kibbutz], but by all who are in “ma’abarot” [a reference to the proverbial “wandering Jew”?], that is to say the entire Jewish people. And peace will come.
Blessings upon you that you are initiating the establishment/placement of the first memorial in memory of this great Jew who was crowned with heroism.
D. Ben Gurion
Ben-Gurion’s text appears to read “Mabarot,” which may be a reference to Kibbutz Ma’abarot, northeast of Netanya. While I cannot find a reference to a section on the kibbutz specifically commemorating Marcus, the kibbutz does feature several memorials to relatives who were Holocaust victims, and it might fit their general pattern to similarly memorialize Marcus. The fact that Ma’abarot in Hebrew is spelled with an “ayin” and the word used by Ben-Gurion does not only adds to the confusion, though Ben-Gurion may be engaging in a play on words, since “Ma’abarot” can also refer to refugee absorption camps in Israel. Moreover, members of Hashomer Hatzair from Romania laid the foundation of Kibbutz Maabarot (1925), and Ben-Gurion may be referencing the connection between Kibbutz Ma’abarot and David Marcus, whose parents, as discussed below, were Romanian-born. [The author extends his heartfelt thanks to Ms. Mindy Tolchinsky of Silver Spring Maryland for her assistance in translating this letter and for helping to research some of its background. Of course, any errors are mine and mine alone.]
The son of Mordechai and Leah (née Goldstein), who fled Romania to escape European anti-Semitism, Marcus spoke Yiddish at home and, despite being given only a very cursory Jewish education – his lack of knowledge of Hebrew would ultimately cost him his life, as we shall see – and living his life as a secular Jew, his Judaism was always a source of great pride to him. Ironically, he encountered anti-Semitism in his adopted New York as well, and he joined his older brother in developing boxing skills and forming a self-defense group to protect mostly elderly Jews from local street gangs. After graduating West Point (1924) and completing his required service, he graduated Brooklyn Law School and spent most of the 1930s as an Assistant United States Attorney in New York. After helping to bring mobster Lucky Luciano to justice, Mayor LaGuardia named him Commissioner of Corrections for New York City.
Marcus held a reserve commission as a field artillery officer, but because of his prominent legal career, he was persuaded to transfer to the JAG corps, where he became Judge Advocate of his Army National Guard unit (1940). After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, he served as executive officer to the military governor of Hawaii, where he organized and commanded the Ranger Combat Training School and pioneered troop training in techniques of unarmed defense and jungle combat to resist Japanese infiltration tactics. Instead of receiving a much-desired field command, however, he was assigned to the Civil Affairs Division at the Pentagon as chief of planning for the War Department’s Civil Affairs Division, in which capacity he was responsible for overseeing governmental control in liberated territories; served as adviser to President Roosevelt at the Yalta Conference and to President Truman at Potsdam; accompanied U.S. delegations to the conferences at Cairo and Teheran; and helped to draft the Italian Surrender Instrument and the Instrument of Unconditional Surrender of Germany.
Marcus likely learned details of the coming Normandy invasion from his West Point classmate, General Maxwell Taylor, and, despite having no parachute training and unknown to Taylor, he volunteered to parachute into Normandy on D-Day with Taylor’s 101st Airborne Division. At Normandy, he took informal command of scattered groups of paratroopers, led patrols, battled German units, and freed a group of captured U.S. soldiers. Over the course of his American military career, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, the Army Commendation Ribbon, and the O.B.E. (Order of the British Empire).
Sent to Germany, Marcus next served with internal affairs of the U.S. Group Control Council, first as chief of staff and then as the as U.S. Secretary-General in occupied Berlin, in which capacity he was responsible for providing for the needs of the millions of displaced Europeans, including starving Holocaust survivors liberated by the Allies. One of his fundamental responsibilities was clearing out the Nazi death camps, the result of which he encountered first-hand the victims of the Shoah during a visit to Dachau. His Jewish sensibilities were further heightened when he was called back to Washington to serve the Army’s War Crimes Division and to plan legal and security procedures for the Nuremberg trials (which he attended) and the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, including the selection of judges and prosecutors for the trials. He was instrumental in maintaining and preserving documentation of Nazi war crimes for future generations.
Marcus gained important insight into the awesome breadth of European anti-Semitism and, though having never before exhibited any support for Zionism, he became convinced that the only hope for European Jews was the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael. After the trials, he was offered promotion to Brigadier General and a plum assignment to Moscow, but he elected instead to return to civilian life and to his law practice.
When the UN authorized the partition of Eretz Yisrael, Ben Gurion understood the deep deficiencies inherent in his plan to have the Haganah assume the responsibilities of a national army. It had only very limited – and largely irrelevant – experience in defending small villages and organizing hit-and-run raids and it lacked entirely the tactical skills necessary to defend against organized armies. As such, he asked Marcus, who had then resumed civilian life, to find an American officer with significant military experience to serve as his military advisor. Distraught to find that American officers who might otherwise be interested in the position feared the loss of their army status – and perhaps even their American citizenship – Marcus, who had seen Dachau and much more with his own eyes and had become dedicated to a homeland for Holocaust survivors in Eretz Yisrael, volunteered himself. The War Department informally acquiesced to reservist Marcus accepting the offer, but only under an alias because the American government sought to avoid unnecessary problems with the British authorities then ruling Eretz Yisrael under the Mandate. Thus, “Michael Stone” arrived in Tel Aviv in January 1948 to confront a nearly impossible situation: in addition to a lack of military experience, Israel lacked defensible borders and had no air power and virtually no arms or ammunition.
In the face of one of the greatest challenges ever to face a military commander, “Stone” pushed a specifically offensive strategy; streamlined the chain of command; wrote special manuals to train Israel’s soldiers, after failing to smuggle U.S. Army field manuals to Eretz Yisrael (his manuals are still used by Israel today); and brilliantly customized his military knowledge and experience to promote the special needs and goals of the Haganah. He also was instrumental in recruiting for what became known as Machal, overseas volunteers, including WWII veterans with important military skills and experience, who came to Israel and made significant contributions to Israel’s victory in the War of Independence. (In 1993, Prime Minister Rabin, who had served under Marcus’ command, honored the more than 100 Machal volunteers who were killed fighting for Israel.)
Marcus quickly earned the admiration – indeed, the deep affection – not only of the military commanders, but also of the young soldiers, whom he called “a new breed of Jew” and whom he said exhibited the characteristics necessary to form a first-rate army. His standard response to anyone who asked him why he had put his life at risk by coming to Eretz Yisrael was to bare his wrists and say: “See these veins? The blood of Abraham flows through them. That’s what brought me here.” Yet, he always emphasized that, as an American patriot, he believed that his efforts on Israel’s behalf were entirely consistent with American interests.
By the time the British departed Eretz Yisrael and Israel declared independence, Marcus – who was appointed Aluf (“general”) and given command of the Jerusalem front on May 28, 1948 – had prepared the new Jewish State for war. His skillful and inspired strategies and maneuvers effectively held off the vastly superior Egyptian army in the Negev and he helped to plan operations against the Latrun fort held by the Arabs. When the besieged Jerusalem was about to be captured, he famously implemented the construction of the 16-mile “Burma Road” to bring additional men, supplies, and equipment that effectively broke the Arab siege only days before the UN-imposed cease fire. Ben-Gurion credited him with personally “saving Jerusalem.”
Tragically, mere hours before the cease-fire began, a Jewish guard in the village of Abu Ghosh failed to understand Marcus’ response to his challenge (Marcus did not know Hebrew) and fired a single, fatal shot. Hollywood would later immortalize Marcus in the film, Cast A Giant Shadow (1966). His body was returned to the United States for burial, escorted by Moshe Dayan and Yosef Hamburger (the Haganah commander of the Exodus). His is the only grave in West Point Cemetery at the United States Military Academy for an American killed fighting under the flag of another country. His tombstone reads “A Soldier for all Humanity.”
Ben-Gurion, suspecting that some in the Palmach may have conspired to kill Marcus because of their disagreement over strategy and tactics and because they aspired to his high position, summoned Yaakov Shimshon Shapira (who would later serve as Israel’s first Attorney General) and ordered him to investigate Marcus’ death. Despite conflicting accounts of several crucial facts, including how many shots were fired and how many wounds were sustained by Marcus, Shapira (in a report never made public) concluded that the shooting was a tragic accident involving no foul play.
On May 10, 1951, Ben-Gurion laid a wreath at Marcus’ grave, accompanied by Marcus’ widow, Emma. In a January 2015 visit by Reuven Rivlin to West Point, Israel’s then-president spoke at Marcus’ gravesite:
For me, he was the first general of the IDF in every sense of the word. He had a sense of purpose and mission, in the establishment of the Israel Defense Forces, he taught us how to act as an army in our early days, and was one of Ben-Gurion’s greatest military advisors. There is no one who better illustrates the strong bond between Israel and the United States.