Sunday, October 16, 2011

Two Reminisces from Steve Esrati

From Betari Stephen G. Esrati, Ken Boston and at present, Cleveland:


In 1946, when I was discharged from the United States Army, I joined Betar in Boston, eventually becoming its leader. One of the members was Hans Pechner, about 13 in 1946. Hans and his father and mother all attributed their survival to the Pope and to Benito Mussolini. Hans said he and his parents survived because they were hidden in church properties, which he believed would not have been possible without the approval of the pope and the regime.

Hans cited the conversion to Catholicism by the former chief rabbi of Rome as proof of the pope's benevolence toward Jews because the rabbi did so in supposed gratitude for the pope's help.

I was reminded of all this in 1974 when Mussolini's widow, Rachelle Mussolini, published her autobiography, "Mussolini sans masque" (New York, Morrow). Mrs. Mussolini, whose entire book is a defense of her husband, said Mussolini was not anti-Jewish. To prove it, she cited the establishment of the Betar naval academy at Civitavecchia.

Of course, Mussolini may have approved of the naval school, set up in 1934 with 162 uniformed Betar cadets proudly showing insignia that identified them as Jews, as a way of fighting British hegemony over what he called "Mare Nostrum," but the school did turn out the bare bones of a Jewish navy to run the British blockade of Palestine (at a time when official Jewish bodies disapproved of "illegal" immigration).

The school was shut down by the Italian government in 1938. By then, it had trained some 300 men who, in addition to having worked in "illegal" immigration ended up in the navies of the Allied powers. When the "Tel Aviv" started commercial service between Palestine and Europe in 1935 under the command of a non-Jewish captain, some of its crew had also been at Civitavecchia.


Thanks to the generosity of friends, I am reading Shmuel Katz's two-volume biography of Rosh Betar, but I take exception. According to Katz, Jabo was universally admired in Eretz Yisrael for his eloquence as an orator and as a writer. Not so! The first Hebrew song I learned in Tel Aviv in 1933 (sung to the melody of "David Melech Yisrael") was "Jabotinsky Rosh Betar," which portrayed him as a second Mussolini. When I attended Gymnasia Herzliyah a few years later, the kids organized themselves as playground gangs. The good guys were Maccabi. You had to be invited to this gang. Then there was Hapoel, which took everybody else. But if you got kicked out of Hapoel, you were sent to Betar. I asked to be in Betar, because my father was in it and was a friend of Dr. Reuben Hecht and, through him knew Jabotinsky.

I wonder about Katz's "universal acclaim" when even 8-year-old boys
insulted him.


No comments: