Part I: Writing in My Father’s Footsteps


By Jonathan Kesselman

Published January 21, 2009, issue of January 30, 2009.
  • Print
  • Share Share

This is a story of loyalty and betrayal. It’s a story of bravery and subtlety, of mortal stakes on a global stage. It is also a thrilling story filled with “cloak-and-dagger elements,” featuring storied American men both famous and infamous: Harry Truman, Mickey Marcus, Hank Greenspun, Jimmy Hoffa and Charles Winters (the man who was recently posthumously pardoned by President Bush), just to name a few. It is a story of unknown heroes, as well: Norm Schutzman, Ralph Lowenstein, Si Spiegelman, Paul Kaye. And, as it turns out, it is also a story of my father.

HERE TO HELP:  Machalniks arriving in August 1948 on the ship known as the Pan York, aka Kibbutz Galuyot — the ingathering of the exiles.
HERE TO HELP: Machalniks arriving in August 1948 on the ship known as the Pan York, aka Kibbutz Galuyot — the ingathering of the exiles.

Films about the Holocaust remind us, while we sit in comfort, of past atrocities. They make us remember a little, and that pebble of discomfort helps them win awards — especially on January 27, International Holocaust Remembrance Day, when survivors and families of both the dying and the dead come together and remember what they can.

Although remembering the Holocaust and reminding others of it is crucial, growing up under the influence of these films can be damaging. Compared with the standard heroism of Westerns and war movies, 20th-century Holocaust films conveyed a mentality of victimhood. As a people, there is clearly no doubt that we have been victims in the past, and yes, sometimes we are still, but that is only one facet of who we are as Jews. Although we are relatively few, we have achieved, and continue to achieve, some of the world’s greatest accomplishments. We always persevere; we always fight.

Personally, I tell stories. Very recently, one of the most incredible stories unexpectedly revealed itself. Even more incredible, it was about my own father. Every story has a beginning, and my story began in Park City, Utah.

My eldest brother, David, an airline pilot, was watching “Saving Private Ryan,” with his son, Cole. It is a film that deals with themes of heroism and selflessness, and as such, it made my 10-year-old nephew recollect the heroic myths he had heard about his own family.

Although his grandfather passed away seven years before he was born, Cole had always been curious about, and somewhat obsessed with, the idea of his Grandpa Jack. I think most children are curious about the relationships their mothers and fathers had with their own parents. We are the products of our families, and so we crave any information that might tell us who we are and, even more important, whom we might become. We also crave a personal connection to what we admire in the world.

As for my father, Cole’s grandfather, I knew that he had, at the age of 17, lied so that he could enlist to fight in World War II. I also knew that he had fought in Israel’s War of Independence. I remember how, when I was a child, my dad had a predilection for biographies and films about war. But one thing he never spoke to any of my family about in any detail was his own biography: his experiences in the two wars he fought. And we never pressed him, as I always assumed that he saw many atrocities and he didn’t want to delve into that part of his life or, at the very least, pass on those unpleasantries to his family. Beyond that, we didn’t know where my father had been and what he had done or seen.

I got a breathless call from my brother in Park City that night. After being grilled by my nephew for more information, my brother had stumbled upon an online document about an organization of soldiers my father belonged to during his time in Israel. It was called Machal.

“That’s not all, Jonny,” my brother said, with a sense of urgency. “Turn to page 10!” And so I did.

There, in a blurry sepia photo, was an image of my father standing at the far left of the back row among a group of soldiers, his name captioned at the bottom. I don’t remember how long I stared at my father’s face. There are only a few pictures I’ve seen of my father as a young man. But there he was, the only man wearing glasses and standing tall at 6 feet 1 inch, staring back at me.

Soon I was getting similar breathless calls from the rest of my siblings. “This is incredible!?” “What and where the heck was this?!” It was at this point that I, being the writer in the family, took it upon myself to find out.

“Machal” is a Hebrew acronym for “Mitnadvay Chutz La’aretz,” translated into English as “Volunteers From Abroad.” In 1948, once the British Mandate was lifted and the State of Israel was declared, about 3,500 Jews (and some non-Jews) from all over the world were recruited by the underground organization the Haganah to protect and defend Israel from the seven Arab nations invading at the time. Of those 3,500, about 1,000 men were from North America. My father was one of them.

Without these men, Israel would not exist.

Last November, 15 years after my father’s death, it was a film about a war, and the curiosity of the 10-year-old grandson Jack Kesselman never met, that set me on a journey to find out what my father had done, where he had been and what he had seen. The story you will read involves 1,000 of the bravest and most selfless North American Jews. It rivals any story of Jewish heroism in this or any other century.

It’s a story not many Jews are aware of, and I’m proud to say that my father was an integral part of it. Although my father never shared his story with me, and many of the people from his company have passed, I have met and spoken with a man who knew my father, a man who led his company, and many other men who were there. Their stories are beyond captivating. I will piece together the stories of others to tell that of my father and of the 1,000 men who sailed from North America to build the Jewish state out of hope and fearlessness.

What follows is a video that includes interviews of soldiers who fought for Israel as part of Machal.

For part two, click here; for part three click here. Read part four in the May 8 issue.

Jonathan Kesselman is a screenwriter, film director (“The Hebrew Hammer”), and an adjunct professor at Yale University.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • The Jewish bachelorette has spoken.
  • "When it comes to Brenda Turtle, I ask you: What do you expect of a woman repressed all her life who suddenly finds herself free to explore? We can sit and pass judgment, especially when many of us just simply “got over” own sexual repression. But we are obliged to at least acknowledge that this problem is very, very real, and that complete gender segregation breeds sexual repression and unhealthy attitudes toward female sexuality."
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.