Military Resources in Eretz Israel for the Genealogical Sleuth, by Rose Avigael Feldman

For thousands of years Eretz Israel has been the crossroads of invasions and an arena for wars, but documentation of individual Jewish soldiers and their exploits for those years is almost non-existent. Documents that can help with genealogical research began just a century ago—seven years prior to World War I. With the growth of the Jewish settlement and its identity as a new independent entity in the region, the Jewish population organized for its own defense and volunteered for the British Army until the recognition of Israel as an independent state in 1948.

Four major archives in Israel hold military records relevant to this 100-year period: the archives of the Haganah; the Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel); Zahal (the Israel Defense Forces); and the Jabotinsky Institute Archives, which include documentation of various paramilitary groups connected with the Revisionist movement.1 In addition to these four archives, military materials may be found in a number of general archives, including the Central Zionist Archives, and the many museums dedicated to the memories of volunteers and soldiers who served over the past century.

Not all the museums have extensive collections of personal and personnel documents, but they can fill in the background of the period and events through their displays of artefacts and maps and reconstruction of scenes. The Internet URL for each museum and archive will be listed after the mention of the institution, followed by the language of the website in brackets. Searching these websites and retrieving information from most of them requires knowledge of Hebrew and the capacity to type in Hebrew in the search engine fields.

The table below lists the various military and paramilitary organizations that included Jewish soldiers/defenders of and from Eretz Israel and places them in their corresponding historical period.

Turkish Rule through World War I

Most Jews who lived in Eretz Israel during the period of the Ottoman Empire (13th century through World War I) did not hold Turkish citizenship. As the Jewish population increased and set up fanning settlements outside of the urban settlements, the need to defend them arose. Members of the first and second aliyah (waves of immigration 1882-1904, 1904-1914) mainly from Russia to Eretz Israel, made a number of efforts to organize themselves into defense groups for the communities. Two of the groups were the Shomer and Bar Giora (Hebrew website of the Hashomer Museum).The museum, located in Kefar Giladi in the Upper Galilee holds documents, photographs, artefacts, an audio video display and a memorial room with the history of each Hashomer member.

Timetable of Military Organizations

Period Start End Name of Group
Turkish Rule 1907 1909 Bar Giora
World War I 1914 Commonwealth War Graves Comm.
1915 1919 Jewish Legions in the British Forces
British Mandate 1920 1948 Hahaganah
1926 Jewish Settlement Police
1936 Notrim
1937 1948 Etzel (split from the Haganah)
1936 1939 Civil War in Spain
World War II 1940 1948 Lehi
1941 1948 Hapalmach
1939 Volunteers from Eretz Israel
1942 Eretz Israel Regiment in British Forces
Statehood 1948 Zahal – Israel Defense Forces

World War I

More than 11,000 Jews went to live in Alexandria, Egypt, between the start of World War I and September 13, 1915. Some were refugees who fled from the battlefront in Eretz Israel; others were expelled from there by the Ottoman government. The Ottomans continued to expel additional civilians from cities in Eretz Israel as the battle lines with the British moved across the land. Some of those expelled volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces.

During World War I
10,000 Jewish volunteers from the United Kingdom, Canada, the United States and
Eretz Israel served in the British Army, which formed five Jewish battalions
that accounted for 1,714 soldiers. The battalions were:

  • The Zion Mule Corps (1915-16), (140 soldiers), comprised of Jewish volunteers who had been deported by the Turks from Palestine to Egypt. They participated in the fighting at Gallipoli.
  • The 38th Battalion of Royal Fusiliers (1917), (383 soldiers), English volunteers known as the “Tailors Battalion,” comprised of volunteers from England
  • The 39th Battalion (1918), (683 soldiers), known as the “American Battalion”
  • The 40th Royal Fusiliers Battalion (1918), (372 soldiers), known as the “Palestinian Battalion, made up of Jewish volunteers from Palestine
  • The First Judeans (1919), (136 soldiers), carried the menorah symbol on its flag. The battalion’s soldiers and officers who communicated in Hebrew participated in the defense of Tel Aviv.

Moshav Avihail (1.5 miles north of Netanya) was established in 1932 by some former soldiers of the five battalions. The members of this settlement also established the museum Beit HaGdudim (House of the Brigades) [Hebrew], in memory of the soldiers who fought in these units.

From the initial conception of the museum, founders made an effort to collect information on all 1,714 soldiers by sending a questionnaire to each one. The museum has biographies for 1,636 of the soldiers, with photographs of all but 155 of them. An especially useful bit of genealogical information is found on the questionnaires for 128 of the men: their original names before they adopted Hebrew names. An index of these biographies has been included in the All Israel Database [AID] collection on the Israel Genealogy Research Association [IGRA] website. The search is by name only. It has now been expanded to include those who served in the British Army in World War II.

One clandestine group formed within Eretz Israel was NILI, which collaborated with the British Armed Forces. The group’s museum website may be found at https://www.nili-museum.org.il/ [Hebrew & English]. NILI existed during World War I and is an acronym for a biblical quote: נצח ישראל לא ישקר “The (Eternal) Glory of Israel will not fail,” (I Sam. 15,29). NILI, as a girl’s name, first appeared in 1936; through 1979, the name was given to 2,889 girls.2

Names of Jewish soldiers who fell during World War I and during the period through World War II appear on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, [English]. This website, called the “COMMEMORATING THE FALLEN,” lists the names of 1.7 million men and women of the Commonwealth forces who died during the two world wars, as well as the 23,000 cemeteries, memorials and other locations worldwide where they are commemorated. The list also may be searched for details of the 67,000 Commonwealth civilians who died as a result of enemy action in World War II. The register includes 2,995 soldiers and civilians buried in cemeteries in Israel.

British Mandate Era

While Eretz Israel was under the British Mandate (from the end of World War I to 1948), a number of legal and illegal underground groups both protected the citizens and fought the British during Israel’s fight for independence.

The Jewish Settlement Police was created under the framework of the British Mandate. By a 1926 order of the police, recruitment was approved for two types of officers: those allowed to carry arms (supplemental police) and guards hired by institutions and private individuals. With the outbreak of the Arab revolt in 1936, settlements were allowed to hire guards equipped with guns. In 1939, the Notrim were established as the Jewish Settlement Police. Additional branches guarded the railway, the airfield, the northern border and other places. Various lists of Jewish Settlement Police and Notrim are in the All Israel Database [AID] collection on the Israel Genealogy Research Association [IGRA] website. The search is by name only.

Numerous museums around Israel memorialize those paramilitary units active during the British Mandate period: the Haganah, Palmach, Etzel and Lehi. Only the Haganah, and the Lehi have archives where extensive research can be conducted. The Haganah archive includes 21,542 files, 1,507 member cards, 3,429 private archives (including 1,000 personal archives), 2,603 files of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) from the Mandatory period, 7,488 interviews, 16,586 pictures, 816 posters, 1,645 maps, 8,208 books (including 896 memorial books and 26 biographies) and 16,348 active membership information files. Perhaps the most unusual collection in the Haganah archives is the CID archive of the British Secret Service for the Mandate period in Palestine. The records did not return to Britain when the British left the area in 1948.

Several of the websites listed below represent private initiatives undertaken to collect and preserve documentation that deals with various paramilitary units. Their efforts are independent of the government archives. Those Internet sites that include “gov” in their addresses are government sites
• The Eliahu Golomb Hagana Museum, [Hebrew]
The Haganah, [Hebrew & English]
Archives for the History of the Hagana, [Hebrew]
Etzel Museum Tasha”ch. [Hebrew] (Acronym for 5708, the Jewish year of Israel’s independence)—this museum specifically covers the period from November 29, 1947, thorough) September 22, 1948, when the Etzel was disbanded and incorporated into the Israel Defense Forces (Zahal). This website has a database including pictures, maps, posters, documents, newspaper clippings and songs.
Some additional websites which deal with other paramilitary groups and various Zionist activities may be found as follows:
Jabotinsky Institute in Israel, [Hebrew & English]
Irgun Site, [Hebrew & English]
Lehi Museum [Hebrew]
Museum – Prison for Members of the Underground in Acco, [Hebrew]
Museum – Prison for Members of the Underground in Jerusalem, [Hebrew]
Museum of Illegal Immigration and the Navy (1934-48), [Hebrew]

The International Brigade in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) included volunteers from Eretz Israel among the Jewish volunteers. Martin Sugarman, BA (Hons.), Cert. Ed. (Assistant Archivist AJEX Jewish Military Museum) has diligently collected the names of the Jewish volunteers and kindly agreed for it to be part of the AID collection.

World War II

In the period leading up to and during World War II, many people from the Yishuv (Jewish settlement in Palestine) volunteered to serve in the British Armed Forces. Starting in 1939, they volunteered to serve in whatever way they were allowed, which usually was as a non-combatant. Only in 1942 was the Eretz Israel Regiment formed, followed by the Jewish Brigade Group in 1944. In 1941, the Palmach, an acronym for plugot mahatz (striking force), was formed. The Haganah, together with the British supervision, formed these units of the Palmach when a Nazi invasion from North Africa threatened Eretz Israel.

A new source recently added to IGRA’s collection are two ledgers published by the Histadrut after WWII of all the members who served in the British Armed Forces. This is a list of 15,235 names and personal information on almost each soldier. But till this date IGRA has not been able to compile a complete list of all those who served. There are some weekly reports for some of the units in the United Kingdom’s National Archives. More than 3,000 women from the Yishuv volunteered for the British Auxiliary Territorial Services (ATS); nearly 600 women joined the Royal Air Force. Three women were among the three dozen Yishuv volunteers who parachuted into Europe from 1943 to 1945. Seven volunteers were captured and killed, two of them women.

The Central Zionist Archives (CZA) [Hebrew & English] is computerizing its collections that deal with World War II. CZA has Hebrew-language files of volunteers into the British Forces in World War II. Not all materials can be searched in English. These files include:S37—Induction & Discharge; SC37—Cards from Induction and Discharge Center; S25—Personal Files of Candidates and Enlisters; S12—Discharged Soldiers;J38—Association of Discharged Hebrew Soldiers;J10—National Committee for Jewish Soldiers;Jll—National Committee for Jewish Soldiers, Central Committee for the Families of Soldiers and Notrim Tel Aviv.

Other museums and websites that cover the World War II period include:
Abraham Stem Yair Lehi Museum, [Hebrew & English]
Lehi Amuta, [English and Hebrew] Amuta -Non-profit organization, as distinguished from official governmental or army sites, usually are formed by groups of soldiers and families
Palmach Museum, [Hebrew & English]
Palmach (non-profit organization), [Hebrew & English]
The Jewish Combatant Collection, [English]

State of Israel

With the founding of the State of Israel in May 1948, most of the paramilitary units combined to form the Israel Defense Forces. For this period, Israeli government websites contain the available information about the various battles and wars and the soldiers who fell in defense of Israel’s independence. A separate website—Fallen Citizens in the State of Israel—has been established that lists the citizens who were killed in various attacks against the Israeli citizens. [Hebrew]

• Beit Haosef Museum (History of Zahal)
• Campaign Ribbons for Combat [Hebrew]
• Campaign Ribbons for Combat before the State of Israel [Hebrew]
• Decorations [Hebrew]
• Fallen Soldiers in the Service of the Israel Armed Forces, [Hebrew & English].
• Heritage of the Navy [Hebrew]
• Heroism
• IDF Paratrooper’s History Site, first 10 years. [Hebrew]
• Israel Defense Forces Archives, Ministry of Defense, [Hebrew] Requests may be made in English for information not found on the IDF website.
• Israel Navy Veterans Association [Hebrew & English]
• Israeli Military decorations [English]
• Yitzhak Rabin Center [Hebrew & English] Comprised of nearly 200 short documentary films, visitors explore the history and makings of the State via exhibit halls, each focused on historical turning points in the country’s development.

Summary

As stated above, a working knowledge of Hebrew and a capability to type in Hebrew will be needed to explore most of these websites. Note also that not all of the materials held by archives appear on their websites. Recently, short movies in Hebrew have been added to the various websites under the auspices of the Israel Ministry of Defense.

Thorough researchers should always compare information found in the various archives, museums and websites. Sometimes, but not always, information on one website has been copied from another. With the archives, museums and websites covering different periods of these past 100 years, it is possible to gather information about different addresses and the positions held by a person of interest at various times. On websites such as Palmach‘s and Haganah‘s, additional background information on the various battles and events in which the person participated is linked to each member, and sometimes even a collection of pictures of the Palmach member donated by his family can be accessed.

The author was able to trace her cousin from his course in the Notrim in 1942 through his membership in the Haganah, his platoon training in class number 17 and his service in the Palmach until he was killed on April 20, 1948, in the assault on Nebi Yushah. In the museum dedicated to the Jewish soldiers who served in the British Brigade, she found information about her uncle. In the Haganah archives, she found her uncle mentioned in the reports of the Haganah in Haifa in the 1920s, some eight years after he served in one of the British battalions.

Thanks to Ilan Shtayer, formerly of the Haganah Archives, and Rochelle Rubinstein and Simone Schliachter of the Central Zionist Archives.

Notes

  1. Headed by Vladimir Jabotinsky and consisting of a group of militants who broke with the Haganah and formed the Irgun (Etzel).
  2. Billie Melman, “Death of an Agent: Gender, Remembrance and Commemoration, Jewish Women in the Yishuv and Zionism [Hebrew]. Jerusalem, Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2001.

Rose Feldman is the database coordinator of the Israel Genealogy Research Association, and lectures on subjects dealing with genealogy research in Eretz Israel. She is one of the coordinators of the Montefiore Censuses Project and has four KehilaLinks sites on the JewishGen website. She lives in Tel Aviv.

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