In 1941, before he proudly sewed onto his sleeve the insignia of the Jewish Brigade of the British army, with the Hebrew acronym for Jewish fighting forces, Chanan Arnold Levinsky had been a halutz, a pioneer in Palestine. But the story begins earlier, in a Europe lurching toward war.
In 1935, sixteen-year -old Hans Arnold Levinsky was abruptly called out of his classroom and into the office of the director of his high school in Bad Polzin, Germany. Arnold was a good student; he had done nothing wrong, and he was deeply disturbed to hear the news presented to him. He was informed that his fellow students refused to continue learning as long as there were Jews in the classroom. He was ordered to leave immediately.
This event shocked Levinsky and drove him even closer into his family’s long-standing involvement in local Zionist youth movements. Arnold’s older brother was already participating in He-Halutz, a Zionist youth movement founded in Germany in 1918. Their aim was to train members to settle in Palestine. However, since the British, who controlled the country, were severely restricting immigration to Palestine, He-Halutz shifted the focus of its work from immigration to hakhsharah, preparation for eventual immigration through training in agricultural and vocational education.
Levinsky joined his brother on a hakhsharah farm in Grusen, Germany. However, in 1938, when it became increasingly difficult to operate in Nazi Germany, the movement went underground, and its members dispersed. Arnold went to a hakhsharah farm in Holland, not far from Amsterdam. Within a year, he received a telegram advising him to leave shortly for Palestine. The ship (the Dora) would be illegal, but war was looming, and settlement in Palestine was the ultimate goal of Levinsky’s training.
Four weeks later, packed with one thousand five hundred people, the Dora departed Amsterdam. After a voyage of four weeks, she approached the coast of Palestine. It was hardly a coincidence that shortly before the ship’s arrival the British coast guard facility had been bombed by the Haganah, the underground Jewish defense force. Under cover of night, Levinsky and the other halutzim swam ashore, and walked miles to a kibbutz, where they spent their first night in “Eretz Israel.”
The next morning, Zionist dream met the tough reality of primitive living conditions and severe food shortages on the kibbutz where Levinsky began to work. Still, he was where he wanted to be, and war had broken out in Europe two weeks after his arrival. For the foreseeable future, there would be few new arrivals, so each halutz took on a heavy load of work responsibilities. Eventually, Levinsky moved to kibbutz Ash dot Ya’ akov, where be learned the baker ‘s trade.
Chaim Weizmann, president of the World Zionist Organization, had attempted to create a Palestinian Jewish fighting force in the British army in 1940, but discussions went nowhere. But during the course of the war, two developments occurred that led to the creation of a brigade group, formed of volunteers from Palestine within the British army. For one, the British military position in
Egypt and the Middle East was deteriorating under attacks of German general Erwin Rommel. The British asked for Arab and Jewish volunteers for the British army. In August 1942, thousands of Palestinian Jews volunteered to join the Palestine Regiment, originally planned as a unit of three Jewish battalions and one of Arabs. Second, news of the murder of the Jews of Europe reached Palestine by November 1942.
As the extent and degree of Nazi atrocities became clearer, soldiers in the Jewish battalions, including Levinsky, demanded that a distinct Jewish fighting force be created. Jews had been agitating for a Jewish unit since the outbreak of the war. They now also put pressure on the British War Office to shift the force from the support duties they were performing in Palestine and Egypt to combat-related duties, so they could now more directly fight the Nazis. Many dreamed of also helping to rescue Jews in Europe.
In part because of the press of public opinion and also because it now seemed morally untenable to prevent Jewish soldiers from fighting the Nazis, one of the sections within the Palestine Regiment was finally transformed: by order of the British War Office, in September 1944, it became the Jewish brigade group. Its commander was Brigadier Ernst Benjamin, and the Zionist flag was officially approved as its standard.
Three infantry battalions of the Jewish Brigade were assembled in Egypt in early 1945 , and Levinsky was with one in Alexandria, where he worked as a dispatch rider on a motorcycle. Then the brigade took part in the early stages of the final Allied offensive in Italy in April 1945 . There, on the front line, the brigade was finally fighting the Nazis.
Soldiers like Levinsky were role models—even heroes—to many of the young Jewish men and women who had survived the concentration camps. He and other brigade members helped to smuggle some of them from the Displaced Persons camps in Italy into Palestine. Brigade members made special efforts to get into the liberated areas—often disobeying army orders—to help the survivors.
In Brussels to visit family after the war, Levinsky met his future wife, Mary Offentier, also originally from Germany. She had spent years in hiding in Holland and was liberated in Brussels in 1944. Levinsky was discharged from the British army and returned to Palestine, where he saw service in the Israeli War of Independence. The couple eventually immigrated to America in 1957.
Of the 5,000 soldiers who had served in the Jewish Brigade, Chanan Arnold Levinsky was one of 323 members to be decorated. The Jewish Brigade was the first and only Jewish unit to fight in World War II under its own flag, recognized as representing the Jewish people.