Her rifle was Czech; her jacket was British; her cap, with its strange flap, was of unknown provenance; but her pants were from the Bronx. Fay Rechtman (also known as Zipora Yernini in Israel) wore a uniform that was indeed unorthodox, even ragtag. Yet her pride in it, as a member of the newly created Israel Defense Forces, fighting in the spring of 1948 for the establishment of the Jewish state, was enormous.
Fay Rechtman’s journey to the land that was about to become the State of Israel began not in the Bronx, where she was born and raised, but in Ukraine, where her father, Abraham Rechtman, growing up in the midst of intense antisemitism, first developed his Zionist ideals. Against the wishes of his Hasidic father, who counseled waiting for the Messiah, Abraham Rechtman followed his ardent Zionism to Palestine in 1910 to become an active participant in efforts to establish a Jewish state. After three years, he returned to Ukraine and was reconciled with his father. After his father’s death, from injuries sustained in a pogrom, and faced with conscription into the czar’s army, Abraham Rechtman chose, instead, to walk across Siberia to China, through Japan, and from there, ultimately, to travel to the United States. There he met and married Bronia Zwick, who shared his strong Zionist convictions.
Fay Rechtman, born in 1926, the first of three children, inherited her parents’ love of the Land of lsrael. After high school, she entered the City College of New York to study electrical engineering. Because she was one of a handful of women among some five thousand male engineering students, life was difficult.
When the opportunity arose, Fay applied to and was accepted by the Technion, the engineering university that had been established in Haifa in 1912, in part through the assistance of the American philanthropist Jacob Schiff. When she arrived in September 1947 to celebrate her twenty-first birthday in Haifa, she was also celebrating the fact that she had become the first American woman accepted for matriculation to this prestigious technical university.
Although she was doing well in school and enjoying her life, it was impossible to ignore the whirlwind of international politics and the immediate drama of the unfolding Zionist experience that had begun, specifically, three months before
Rechtman’s arrival. In May 1947, Great Britain was under intense pressure from all sides, particularly from the activities of the Haganah. The Haganah, the Jewish underground defense forces, had been struggling to bring in refugees, many of them concentration camp survivors, plus thousands of other Jewish immigrants, on illegal ships such as the Exodus 1947. The aim was to challenge British policy in Palestine and to galvanize the world’s attention to the Jewish people’s right to their own homeland.
Finally, on November 29, 1947, two thirds of the members of the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to adopt a plan that would partition Palestine and include the creation of a Jewish state. The Jews accepted the plan; the British said they would neither object to nor enforce it. However, surrounding Arab countries in effect declared war to destroy the Jewish state at birth. The War of Independence had begun.
The Technion was closed, and Fay Rechtman secretly joined the Haganah. Because she knew English, she found employment at British depots and offices. She helped to steal guns desperately needed by the Haganah, as the Jewish defense forces scrambled to defend all areas of the country against the Arab armies that were being assembled. With her American passport, Fay was able to pass through British checkpoints without being searched. She once actually hid a gun under her skirt as she went through a checkpoint. Trusted by the British, she was also able to steal letters containing intelligence, which she passed along to the Haganah.
During the first months of the War of Independence, the Haganah was forced into a defensive posture. In an Order of the Day issued by David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister of the Jewish provisional government, the Haganah became part of the Israel Defense Forces. On May 14, 1948, Ben-Gurion declared the creation of the State of Israel, and the United States gave de facto recognition. On the same day, Arab armies invaded, and heavy battles ensued.
Fay Rechtman now wore the uniform of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF).
“There was so little time between the declaration of the United Nations and the British leaving, there wasn’t time to equip an army,” she remembered. “So we just grabbed whatever was around, bits and pieces. British, American, French, Czech.” Pasted together as it was from various sources, her uniform was emblematic of the heroically improvised army that now faced large Arab forces. Fay worked in the intelligence department, developing photographs and also photographing and enlarging military documents brought in by agents. Fluent in four languages, she also helped in translation.
The fighting continued through the summer, as the army of the new state achieved many, if costly, military successes throughout the country. By January 1949, armistice agreements were being worked out, and a Jewish state was becoming a political reality.
In 1950, David Ben-Gurion and the new state’s parliament, the Knesset, passed the Law of Return, providing for free and automatic citizenship for all Jews. As a Jew in Palestine when independence had been declared, Fay Rechtman was automatically a citizen if she so chose. She, however, decided to return home to the United States because of her mother’s poor health. She settled back in the Bronx, married Milton Storch , and together they raised two children.
When the children were old enough, Fay Rechtman Storch enrolled part time in Columbia University as a linguistics major. In May of 1982, she graduated summa cum laude, Phi Beta Kappa.