Hartford Defends Israel

Arming Israel in the 1940s

People from Hartford worked in the clandestine and illegal task of finding the weapons that the new state needed to make a stand for independence. In the weeks following the U.N. vote for partition, the Hartford community began to organize itself to raise money to purchase arms for Israel.

In 1973 Harry Kleinman recalled, “It became obvious that guns and arms were needed by Israel and that they needed to be purchased in any way possible.” People with the rights connections “were going as far as they possibly could to every nook and cranny, into every junkyard, into every place where they thought there might be guns or material that could be used by Israel, and they were purchased. How they got to Israel we never asked.”

Hartford’s Irving Pregozen worked for his passage on a ship which carried Jewish refugees from France to Israel in 1948. (The ship changed its name to “Galila” and flew the Israel flag once on the high seas.) Upon arrival in Haifa, the refugees were detained and he joined Kibbutz Gesher Haziv, which was started by American and Canadian immigrants from the Labor Zionist youth movement, on the site of an Arab village.

Spare Parts from Bloomfield in the 1960s

At the outbreak of the Six-Day War in 1967, the French government blocked the delivery of Mirage jets which they had previously agreed to sell to Israel. The Mirage jets made up the backbone of Israel’s air force at the time. In 1968 the French also blocked the sale of spare parts for the Mirage.

Through Al Schwimmer who had been smuggling surplus aircraft to Israel to build up its air force since the 1940s, Louis Rogow – who had recently visited Israel and learned of its needs for equipment – stepped up to help solve the problem. Rogow was head of Bloomfield-based Birken Manufacturing, which made engine parts. Working from old parts, Birken Vice President and Chief Engineer Sidney Greenberg was able to reverse engineer new parts for the Mirage jet fighters. Replacement parts were manufactured out of the Bloomfield plant and a young Ariel Sharon carried them back in his luggage to Israel.

Sidney Greenberg of Birken Manufacturing with the Israel Defense Force’s Ariel Sharon, c. 1970.
Sidney Greenberg of Birken Manufacturing with the Israel Defense Force’s Ariel Sharon, c. 1970.

The French embargo ultimately spurred Israel to develop its own fighter jet, based on the Mirage. When the U.S. agreed to start selling Phantom jets to Israel in the late 1960s, the Mirage declined in importance although it remained part of the Israeli Air Force for several years.

Volunteering with the Jewish Legion

Louis Nirenstein and Frank Lieberman were among those volunteering for the Jewish Legion in 1917.
Louis Nirenstein and Frank Lieberman were among those volunteering for the Jewish Legion in 1917.

During World War I, Zionist beliefs inspired several young men from Hartford to volunteer for the Jewish Legion. As part of the British Army, these volunteers intended to fight with the Allies to liberate Palestine from the Ottoman Empire. A total of 2,700 volunteers from the U.S. were accepted, but their training in Canada, England, and Egypt lasted so long that they did not see action in Palestine during the war. Some earlier American volunteers did fight in an operation to capture a ford across the Jordan River in 1918.

Fighting for the New Nation

As Israel fought for its independence in the 1940s, several people with Hartford connections joined the cause directly.

Sara Marder Plen, whose family moved between Israel and Hartford in the 1930s and late 1940s, was a teenager when she joined the Israeli underground. As part of a unit guarding busses on the risky route between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, she carried a weapon under her clothes, to avoid detection by the British. Joining the new country’s army, she learned Morse code and became a wireless operator, serving with two different brigades for about two years. In 1950, she joined the Civilian Engineering Corps, continuing her work as a wireless operator with the engineering corps building a road in the Negev, from Beersheva to Eilat. She remembered being the only woman in a group of about 500 men on the project. She met her husband Reuben Plen, who worked as an engineer on that project after building the airfield in Eilat, and in 1951 they moved back to Hartford.

Sara Marder, working as a wireless operator in Haifa with the Carmeli Brigade, 1949.
Sara Marder, working as a wireless operator in Haifa with the Carmeli Brigade, 1949.

Right after the end of World War II, Irving Meltzer volunteered on a former Coast Guard ship renamed “the Jewish State” which was transporting illegal refugees to Palestine. He had not known much about Zionism growing up but as he was finishing his military service in Germany, he encountered Holocaust survivors in Bremen, Germany who were hoping to get to Palestine, and he joined the cause. He signed onto another clandestine immigration ship, and later joined the new Israeli navy, where he served as communications officer before returning to the U.S.

Meltzer on board the “Jewish State” in 1947.
Meltzer on board the “Jewish State” in 1947.
Rabbi Haskel Lindenthal, who would later become the leader of Hartford’s Teferes Israel congregation, was studying in Palestine in the 1930s and served in the Haganah for over three years. This photograph shows him on guard duty in 1936.
Rabbi Haskel Lindenthal, who would later become the leader of Hartford’s Teferes Israel congregation, was studying in Palestine in the 1930s and served in the Haganah for over three years. This photograph shows him on guard duty in 1936.