Summer 1946. His high school days over, my father, Mordechai Schwartz, was faced with a decision that would affect not only his life but the lives of generations to come.
Struggling to make up his mind about whether to enroll in university or join the Palmach, the underground Jewish fighting force, my father spent three full weeks weighing the possible consequences of each course of action.
Created in 1941 to battle the Nazi army stationed in Africa, the Palmach (Palguot Machatz, spearhead of the underground Haganah) had developed into an elite commando force capable of extraordinary feats of daring, military genius and acts of self-sacrifice.
In five short years the Palmach fighter had become the ideal Jewish soldier – brilliant, athletic, able to improvise strategy and tactics on the spot, honest and humble – a fighting machine endowed with Jewish values.
Sixty-six years had passed since my family arrived in Eretz Yisrael. In 1880 Zionism was not yet a political movement. My great-grandmother could not have children and her girlfriends told her that if she lived in the Holy Land she would conceive. So she and her husband left Europe and returned home – home after 1,900 years of exile.
My family – religious yet worldly and very much involved in the issues of the day – was divided between the Palmach and the Irgun, the underground force that had broken with the Haganah. The Palmach stressed a covert approach to dislodging the British from Palestine and defending against Arab attacks; the Irgun emphasized an overt military effort to secure Jewish independence and security. They were bitter enemies at times, but heroes all.
My father had to choose between studying to be an engineer or putting personal ambition on the back burner and fighting for a Jewish state. The Palmach offered hope – a new day for the wandering, persecuted Children of Israel who were scattered to the ends of the earth but who daily reaffirmed the biblical vow, “If I forget thee O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its power ”
A sense of urgency was sweeping the Jewish world. Fully one-third of the Jewish nation had just been wiped off the face of the earth. My father made his decision. He would give his all to end the misery of his beloved people. He would join the heirs of the Maccabean and Bar Kochba warriors.
The day of his enlistment, my father sprang out of bed singing the words of the Palmach marching song:
All around us the storm rages But we will not lower our heads We are always ready to follow the commands We are the Palmach.
And then he was off to Kibbutz Bet HaArava, in the northern Dead Sea region. Within an hour of enlisting he began rifle training. The Palmach wasted no time.
“Rifles are not like an ear; they must be cleaned every day,” the young rifle instructor told the new volunteers. “Get to know each part of the rifle. The Winchester is designed to be fired from the shoulder.”
He then went into intricate detail concerning the engineering of the weapons they were holding. “By the way,” he said, “if you are wondering why I am explaining all of this to you is because in the Palmach we think – and we want to understand what we do. We don’t argue, but we want to understand.”
Moving from one recruit to the next the young instructor examined the barrels of their rifles, his sharp eye searching for any dust, dirt or sand. He would repeat the same three questions, followed by a command: “Is the gun clean?” “Are you sure?” “Is it empty?” “Fire.”
The click of the hammer sounded again and again. The recruits were becoming increasingly annoyed at the repetition. Everyone got the drill. Suddenly, a rifle fired, but it wasn’t empty. A bullet entered the young instructor’s right eye, killing him instantly. Shocked, wailing with guilt and remorse, the recruit who fired the shot was beside himself as the blood of the instructor flowed onto the ground.
Utterly shaken by the tragedy, my father remembered his mother’s words – “If God wants, even a broom can shoot.” Or even a supposedly empty rifle. And so on that first day of training my father learned his first Palmach lesson: Never take anything for granted.