Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Book R & R: The Brigade


I had bought a copy of The Brigade a couple of years ago, and there it was on the shelf, sleeping away while others came into the house and jumped ahead of it in the queue. Between purchasing and reading the book, I had read one of Blum’s other works, The Floor of Heaven, a nonfiction story that occurred during the Yukon Gold Rush, (which was outstanding, btw) without realizing that it was written by the same author. As these things happen, the other day I was looking for a new book to start and I noticed The Brigade. Something that rates books very high for me is learning about events I was not already aware of. This book was a pleasant surprise. I wish I had read it sooner.

 The end of the nineteenth century brought the rise of the Zionist movement that inspired Jews from Europe to immigrate to Palestine. This did not sit well with the Ottoman Turks who controlled the area, but it was supported by Great Britain, who would push the Ottoman Empire out of Palestine during the First World War. After WWI, the League of Nations awarded Britain a formal mandate to administer the region. This “British Mandate” was in effect from 1922 until the state of Israel declared independence in 1948.

Due to a lot of political pressure and a measure of military necessity, Great Britain formed the Jewish Infantry Brigade Group during the last year of WWII, most of the members of which were from Palestine. The unit trained and was deployed to northern Italy where they were in combat from March to May of 1945. After the war, the Jewish Brigade was kept in Italy, and later in Belgium to serve as part of the Army of Occupation. One suspected reason for maintaining the Brigade in Europe was that the British government did not want to add fuel to the fire in the volatile Middle East by returning several thousand trained Jewish soldiers to Palestine. However, a number of the Brigade’s soldiers were members of the Haganah and had an agenda of their own. The Haganah was the main underground Jewish militia in Palestine who defended Jewish communities against violent Arab incursions, and fought a campaign for independence against the British Mandate. First, members of the Brigade formed assassination squads that scoured post war Europe terminating former low level war criminals. Later, with coordination and guidance from superiors in Jewish Palestine, the Brigade systematically helped thousands of displaced Jewish refugees, the majority concentration camp survivors, illegally immigrate to Palestine. They also worked at smuggling weapons to Palestine to prepare for their war of independence they all knew was coming. Finally, unable to control their activities, the British government disbanded the Jewish Brigade and sent the soldiers home. These Jewish soldiers became the foundation of the Israeli Defense Forces.

In The Brigade, author Howard Blum tells the story of the Jewish Brigade through the narrative of three soldiers who were involved with both the termination of Nazi war criminals and the smuggling of people and weapons to Palestine. This not only a story of fighting unit during World War II, but also a story of the Holocaust and its aftermath. While one of the soldiers searches for his sister left behind in Poland, Blum tells of the sisters struggles for survival. At times the narrative takes on the pace and excitement of a spy story, while the reader is on the edge of their seat hoping that the soldiers do not get caught on their clandestine missions.

I cannot imagine what it would be like to have been a member of this Brigade. With Arabs trying to kill you at home, going to war to fight Germans, and then dodging the British and Russian military forces to help your people reach freedom, knowing that if you are caught you will be treated like a criminal and a traitor. It must have seemed like they were fighting a war that would never end. Their sense of duty was incredible. We’ll never know what it was like to be them, but their story does provide insight to what they were fighting for and the impetus for the modern state of Israel. The Brigade is fast paced and an entertaining read. I highly recommend it, not just for military history buffs.

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