“Black Propaganda” during WW II

I used to think that “black propaganda” was something like “propaganda pushing a black legend” or “libelous propaganda”. But like so often, there is a difference between (often vaguely define) usage of a phrase in ordinary conversation, and its precise definition as a “term of art”.

This paper on propaganda during WW II was highly informative. Briefly, in the “business”, “white propaganda” is defined as propaganda “under true flag”: it reveals its origin and does not purport to come from a neutral or opposing side. Examples on the Axis side are the Tokyo Rose and Axis Sally radio broadcasts, as well as the “Germany Calling” broadcasts of the pseudonymous Lord Haw-Haw.

In contrast, “Black Propaganda” is defined as propaganda under false flag: originating from the opponent’s side but disguising itself as friendly, for the purpose of sowing misinformation, confusion, demoralization, or all of the above. The term “Grey Propaganda” is used for cases where allegiance of the propagandist is deliberately made vague or ambiguous.

The uncontested masters of the art of black propaganda/”false flag” propaganda in WW II were Sefton Delmer and his PWE (Political Warfare Executive). Delmer was born and mostly raised in Berlin: his Australian father had been a professor of English literature there until he and his parents were interned as enemy aliens during WW I, then released to England in a prisoner exchange. After getting a degree in modern languages at Oxford and working as a freelance journalist, he was recruited as the Berlin bureau chief for the Daily Express (1990-1933). There, he befriended top nazis (particularly SA leader Ernst Röhm) and in fact became the first British journalist to be allowed to interview Hitler (y”sh). He was also present at the scene of the Reichstag Fire (and kept arguing all his life that it was a Nazi “false flag attack”): shortly after, he was reposted to Paris, and later reported on the Spanish civil war as well as on the invasions of Poland and France. In the nick of time, he and his wife made it to England, where he briefly worked as an announcer for the BBC German-language service.

Delmer spoke flawless German, both formal and colloquial, and was intimately familiar with German mores. These qualities came to serve him well when he was recruited by the PWE to run psychological warfare broadcasts.

After a few false starts, GS-1 or (in the German radio alphabet of the day) Gustav Siegfried Eins emerged. In modern net-speak, it was what we would nowadays call a massive “concern trolling” operation. GS-1 was a shortwave station on which “Der Chef” supposedly reached out to his network of “patriotic opposition”. Supposedly, Der Chef was an old-school senior army officer who was loyal to Germany and even to the Führer, but disgusted with the corruption and perversion of party and SS officials, which he collectively referred to as the Parteikommune. From his perch, he told tales of nest-feathering, pocket-lining, living high on the hog while troops and regular citizens suffered, as well as of sexual licentiousness, orgies. and “Violations of Paragraph 175” (i.e., homosexuality). (While a fair amount of this was written by amateur and professional pornographers, not all of this was fictional: Sefton Delmer was privy to many a dirty secret the Nazis wished he wasn’t.)

Eventually, when GS-1 had outlived its usefulness, “Der Chef”s lair was supposedly overrun, live on the air, by the Gestapo, with the broadcasts ending in bursts of sub-machinegun fire.[**]

GS-1 made way for Delmer’s greatest achievement: the creation and operation of two subtle “false flag” radio stations working in tandem: the high-powered Soldatensender Calais on the AM band, and its shortwave companion station Deutscher Kurzwellensender Atlantik (targeted primarily at German naval personnel, which by that stage primarily meant U-boot crews.)

Soldatensender Calais purported to be a German military entertainment broadcaster operating from Calais in occupied Northern France: in fact, it was being broadcast from a 500 kW (!!) station Aspidistra [*] in Southern England. Its programming consisted of what Sefton Delmer would later describe as “cover, cover, cover, dirt, dirt, cover”: a mixture of music popular with the German troops, sports coverage, and — for additional cover — speeches by Hitler and other top Nazi officials, the better to make the listeners receptive to disinformation and demoralizing propaganda items. For example, a broadcaster posting as a soldier would give tips on how to be declared unfit for onerous duty, how to avoid being transferred to the Eastern Front, etc., while others would detail scams Wehrmacht men might fall prey to, or arouse the age-old anxiety of the deployed soldier about his wife’s fidelity, his family’s welfare, or both.
The station made its last broadcast on April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide.

After the war, Delmer served as chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Daily Express for fifteen years, until forced into retirement over an expenses dispute. He would go on to write several volumes of memoirs, an archive of which can be found here.

I cannot resist mentioning that when Labour MP (and British ambassador to Moscow) Stafford Cripps found out about Delmer’s operations, he was so scandalized that he wrote to Anthony Eden (Foreign Secretary and de facto Churchill’s deputy) that “If this is the sort of thing that is needed to win the war, why, I’d rather lose it.” This is of course precisely the sort of thing that inspired Churchill’s famous quip about the ascetic Cripps: “He has all the virtues I dislike and none of the vices I admire.”




[*] This has originally been built for WJZ radio in Newark, NJ — yes, Steely Dan fans, the station namechecked in “The Nightfly” — until an FCC regulation limited individual stations’ broadcasting power to 50kw. RCA was only too happy to resell it to the British government.

[**] Unfortunately, the broadcast technician, who did not understand German, ran the segment twice.

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100 years ago: Armistice Day, end of WW I

nytimes-page1-11-11-1918

100 years ago to the day, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, an armistice went into effect that ended The Great War. Its reverberations are many to this day: I will just mention a few below. ( The Rearview Mirror has some further reflections. )

The people of the time did not call it (yet) World War One, as they thought the Great War would be the war to end all other wars. Sadly, its ambiguous ending sewed the seeds of another war, to be more terrible still. The myth spread that the losing side had not really lost on the battlefield, but had been “stabbed in the back” on the home front (the so-called Dolchstosslegende). The Versailles Treaty, and the crippling and frankly unrealistic reparations payments it imposed, did the rest: in the resulting instability, a demobilized, shiftless lance corporal who’d been sent to eavesdrop on a newly formed “German Workers Party” ended up its leader instead, and his case officer (Capt. Ernst Röhm) the commander of its party militia. The rest is (grisly) history.

In general, out of a quite human, understandable desire to never see such a large-scale conflict again, pacifist and appeasement sentiments ruled that actually emboldened such as had learned a very different lesson from the conflict — said corporal [y”sh] and his future partners in crime.

Not every invention brought to bear on WW I was just meant to kill people and break things. The Bosch-Haber ammonia synthesis, for instance, saved millions from starvation then and has been a life-giver ever since, even as its existence probably extended the war by another two years.

Another legacy of the war has been the attempts to create international organizations which were to prevent war — the League of Nations then, the United Nations after WW II. Lofty as the aims in their creation were, the UN, in particular, would degenerate into a sickening parody of itself, where “human rights commissions” can be chaired by bloody dictatorships, and an organization meant to assist one group of refugees from one conflict ended up perpetuating its own existence through the expedient of extending refugee status to all descendants of the original group in perpetuity — a definition not used for any other group of refugees.

Yet another, very different, legacy was in poetry. Fifteen of the best-known war poems are gathered here: let me quote just three.

In Flanders Fields, by John McRae

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

The Soldier, by Rupert Brooke

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Perhaps, by Vera Brittain

(Dedicated to her fiance Roland Aubrey Leighton, who was killed at the age of 20 by a sniper in 1915, four months after she had accepted his marriage proposal)

Perhaps some day the sun will shine again,
And I shall see that still the skies are blue,
And feel once more I do not live in vain,
Although bereft of You.

Perhaps the golden meadows at my feet
Will make the sunny hours of spring seem gay,
And I shall find the white May-blossoms sweet,
Though You have passed away.

Perhaps the summer woods will shimmer bright,
And crimson roses once again be fair,
And autumn harvest fields a rich delight,
Although You are not there.

Perhaps some day I shall not shrink in pain
To see the passing of the dying year,
And listen to Christmas songs again,
Although You cannot hear.

But though kind Time may many joys renew,
There is one greatest joy I shall not know
Again, because my heart for loss of You
Was broken, long ago.

 

 

Saturday the 13th: Tale of another failed Hitler assassination

If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard the question: “why didn’t anybody try to kill Hitler” (y”sh), I’d have a tidy sum of money. In truth, depending on how you define an attempt, there have been over forty events that may qualify, over a dozen of which became serious. Four of the latter came within a hairbreadth of succeeding. In reverse chronological order, they are:

  • the July 20, 1944 plot (a.k.a. Operation Valkyrie)
  • Rudolf Freiherr von Gersdorff’s attempted suicide bombing on March 21, 1943, which I have blogged about here and fictionalized here. This one would have been a decapitation strike on the regime top, rather than a one-target assassination
  • Henning von Tresckow and Fabian von Schlabrendorff’s attempted bombing of the Führer’s plane on March 13, 1943, about which today’s blog post
  • Georg Elser‘s time bomb at the Bürgerbraukeller, November 8, 1939 — about which a future blog post

All would-be assassins had to find ways to circumvent elaborate security measures, that only got more stringent with every known attempt. By the time of the war, there were three concentric protection circles — not counting ad hoc deployment of Gestapo, SS, and SD:

  • outer perimeter security of the Wolfsschanze/Wolf’s Lair and other forward headquarters was assured by a battalion from the elite Grossdeutschland motorized infantry division: this Führerbegleitbatallion (Leader escort battalion) grew into a regiment with tanks, armored carriers, and anti-aircraft guns, and eventually (after Hitler holed up for the last time in his Berlin bunker) was sent to the front as a division.
  • inner security was provided the Reichssicherheitsdienst  (RSD) of up to a few hundred trained police and security personnel (not to be confused with the Sicherheitsdienst or SD, which was the SS’s domestic and foreign intelligence apparatus), which protected not just Hitler but other top Nazi functionaries. Its commander  Hans Rattenhuber was also the overall security chief.
  • finally, 8-12 trusted bodyguards recruited from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler (the 1st Waffen SS regiment, later a division) provided the closest-in security, and did double duty as valets and messengers. This Führerbegleitkommando answered to the Führer directly, in practice to his chief adjutant Julius Schaub. A number of those stayed with their master in the bunker to the last.

Gersdorff recalls in his memoirs, Soldat im Untergang/Soldier In The Downfall, that, when a senior officer pulled out his handkerchief as he had a cold, an RSD agent grasped his hand while it was in his pocket and brought it up very slowly, then only let go when he was certain it only contained an innocuous object.

Col. (GS) [**] Henning von Tresckow, the Ia Staff Officer (Operations) of Army Group Center, and his adjutant, Lt. Fabian von Schlabrendorff (who happened to be Tresckow’s cousin), had been convinced since the autumn of 1941 that Hitler had to be removed, if need be by assassination. While they were unabashed German nationalists and outright anticommunists, the mass murder of Jews and other civilians by SS “task forces” (Einsatzkommandos) had been a bridge too far — especially once Tresckow and his aide discovered that these were not isolated war crimes by rogue units, but part and parcel of a systematic policy handed down from the top itself. Gradually and carefully, Tresckow and Schlabrendorff gathered a group of conspirators around them, with the Ic Staff Officer (Intelligence) Col. (GS) von Gersdorff as an early recruit.

When the Führer was to fly to Army Group Center (Heeresgruppe Mitte) headquarters near Smolensk, a plan formed in the conspirators’ minds. If only they could smuggle a bomb with a time fuse on board of the Führer’s personal FW 200 “Condor” before it flew back, that could circumvent many of the problems with a shooting or grenade attack.

Gersdorff, via his contacts in the Abwehr (military intelligence) headquarters (where another group of conspirators went all the way to the top), had managed to get hold of a stock of captured British “Nobel 808” plastic explosives — more powerful and reliable than anything in their own arsenal — and of so-called “time pencil” detonators, which make no sizzling or ticking noise. The available time pencils came in 10 minute, 30 minutes, and 2 hours variants. The image below, from the US National Archives, illustrates their mechanism:

bombe-s-zuenderk

Briefly: on the inside of a soft metal housing was a glass vial with a strong acid. The pencil was primed by bending or applying strong pressure, which crushed the vial. The acid would burn through a thin metal wire that held back a spring, to which a striker pin was attached. The striker pin would hit a detonator cap, which finally would set off the explosive. The duration of the process will be determined by the concentration of the acid and the thickness (and composition) of the wire. In cold weather, of course, the chemical reaction will be slowed down…

Tresckow and Schlabrendorff did do their homework: in between their extensive staff officer duties, they managed to carry out thorough experiments with the explosives and fuses. They discovered that cold weather could extend the stated time of the time pencils by over 100%, but that they were otherwise quite reliable, and that about a kilogram of explosive should be adequate to blow the Condor’s fuselage to bits.

They prepared an explosive parcel disguised as two bottles of Cointreau liqueur, which contained about 2 kg of Nobel 808.

At any rate—while Hitler (and/or Rattenhuber?) were notorious for changing movement plans at the last minute, two planes carrying Hitler, his entourage, and his close-in protection detail did duly land on Saturday, March 13, 1943. (One was the dictator’s personal Focke-Wulf 200 Condor illustrated below — not the Junkers 52 shown in the opening scenes of the movie “Valkyrie”. [*])

FW 200

Schlabrendorff, in his memoirs Offizieren gegen Hitler (see also here in English), recounts  that during the dinner following the briefing, the dictator would only eat food prepared by his own cook, then taste-tested before his eyes by his personal physician Theodor Morell. “The proceedings reminded one of an oriental despot of bygone ages.” (F. v. S.)

Tresckow approached one of Hitler’s closest aides, Col. Heinz Brandt, if he could do him a favor: he owed his friend Gen. Hellmuth Stieff two bottles of liquor because he had lost a bet with him, and if Col. Brandt would be so kind as to deliver it to him? This being a not uncommon request among staff officers, Brandt agreed. Schlabrendorff, being Tresckow’s aide, was asked to bring the liquor to the plane.

Once Schlabrendorff saw Hitler board the plane, he surreptitiously primed the 30-minute time pencil he had earlier selected, and handed the package over to Brandt — who boarded the same plane as Hitler (otherwise Schlabrendorff would have had to come up with a last-minute excuse that it wasn’t the right parcel, or something).

The plane took off for Rastenburg, East Prussia (presently Ketrzyn, Poland) — the location of the Wolf’s Lair — and the conspirators gave a coded heads-up to their co-conspirators in Berlin. The next code word would follow once a signal had come to the HQ’s communications room that the plane had crashed.

The pair waited anxiously — then a signal came in that the plane had duly arrived at Rastenburg.

Gen. Stieff would later join the conspirators, but was not (yet) in on the plan, so if he started opening the bottles, he would be in for quite a ‘spirited’ surprise. So Schlabrendorff traveled to Rastenburg himself and told Col. Brandt that there had been a mixup: he had been given the wrong bottles (Cointreau), so if he wouldn’t mind giving them back and trading them for the right bottles (Cognac)?

Brandt suspected nothing, and the substitution was made with a smile. Schlabrendorff made his way to the nearby railroad exchange, and there caught a night train to Berlin.

Once in his sleeper compartment, he locked the door and very cautiously, with a razor blade, excised the failed detonator from the explosive charge and started disassembling it.

As it turned out, the glass was broken, the wire had been eaten through despite the cold, and the striker had been released.

Only the percussion cap, for the first time ever in all their experience, had failed to fire.

The English school children’s rhyme of old comes to mind:

For want of a nail a horseshoe was lost,
for want of a horseshoe a horse went lame,
for want of a horse a rider never got through,
for want of a rider a message never arrived,
for want of a message an army was never sent,
for want of an army a battle was lost,
for want of a battle a war was lost,
for want of a war a kingdom fell,
and all for want of a nail.

Or “all for the want of a percussion cap”, the war dragged on for two more years and many millions more were slain.

[*] Update: according to “Guarding Hitler” by Mark Felton, the second plane was also a Condor, but without the armored compartment (12mm steel, 50mm bulletproof glass) and parachute seat for the Führer.

Apparently, the first plane was taken up for a 10- or 15-minute test flight before every trip with the Führer. This would also have set off any bomb with a barometric fuse, had one been smuggled aboard.

[**] Note about ranks: Both Tresckow and Gersdorff’s formal ranks were Oberst i. G., in full Oberst im Generalstabsdienst: Colonel in General Staff service. I have rendered this as Col. (GS). Permanent assignment to the general staff was indicated by red vertical trouser stripes (“Lampassen”) in the uniform.

Hiroshima Day post: Rush, “Manhattan Project” and Iron Maiden, “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns”

This powerful Rush song about the Manhattan Project begs to be shared on this day.

Imagine a time
when it all began
In the dying days of a war
A weapon that would settle the score
Whoever found it first
would be sure to do their worst
They always had before…

Imagine a man
where it all began
A scientist pacing the floor
In each nation
always eager to explore
To build the best big stick
To turn the winning trick
But this was something more…

[…]

Imagine a man when it all began
The pilot of “Enola Gay”
Flying out of the shockwave
on that August day
All the powers that be, and the course of history
Would be changed forevermore​…

As a bonus, here is a video of another, heavier song about the same subject, named after the first published account of the project: Robert Jungk’s “Brighter Than A Thousand Suns” (original German title: Heller als tausend Sonnen)

Valkyrie Day post: “The Tenth Righteous Man”

Sixty-four years ago to this day, a German general staff officer named Claus Schenk, Count von Stauffenberg led an attempt to assassinate the Führer (y”sh) and effect regime change. His attempt was the last of many, and failed through a minor coincidence. The former Bendler Street in downtown Berlin, where once the plotters worked, is today known as Stauffenberg Street: a memorial to the German anti-nazi resistance stands there now. The biography by McGill U. historian Peter Hoffmann makes for fascinating reading.

Many had tried and failed before Stauffenberg: three came within a hairbreadth of succeeding, as he himself would.

The “lone wolf” carpenter and master clockmaker Georg Elser managed to install a powerful time bomb behind the speaker’s rostrum at the hall where his target was scheduled to give an annual memorial speech for the ‘old comrades’ who fell in the attempted 1923 “Beer Hall Putsch”. (Elser had gone to work at a quarry so he could gradually purloin the required dynamite.) Only a last-minute  schedule change because of predicted foul weather thwarted the attempt: the bomb went off twelve minutes after the speaker had left, and killed at least a dozen people.

Later, two general staff officers succeeded in smuggling a time bomb aboard the Führer’s personal plane, disguised as a gift of liqueur from one general staff officer to his colleague in Berlin. The detonator failed, presumably because of the cold weather: the plotters were able to extricate their own bomb and go undetected.

The third, the attempted suicide bombing by Col. Rudolf Freiherr [=Baron] von Gersdorff, was unique in that, if it had succeeded, it would have been a ‘decapitation strike’ against nearly the entire apex of the Nazi state. I wrote a fictionalized version of this incredible tale as the first story in this anthology:

(the entire story appears in the preview). It is a classic illustration of the adage that history can be stranger than fiction. In brief: an exhibit of captured Soviet armaments had been organized in Berlin (at the building that today houses the German Historica Museum). As an additional morale booster, the grand opening was to be attended not just by the Führer himself but by Goering, Navy commander Adm. Doenitz, and SS-chief Himmler. Gersdorff (the intelligence officer of Army Group Center) managed to get himself assigned as the senior guide to the exhibition, and carried two captured British time bombs in his pocket. He set off the fuses and started guiding the VIPs on their tour, expecting the fuses to go off, killing his guests and himself. However, whether from boredom or through a long-standing habit of throwing wild-cards into his schedule and movements, Hitler left the exhibit after a few minutes. Gersdorff was quite willing to die but not to throw away his life for nothing, and thus excused himself to a bathroom where he managed to defuse his two bombs just in time. Unbetrayed by his comrades even under the vilest tortures, Gersdorff survived the war and lived to tell the tale, and to become the founder of Germany’s largest volunteer ambulance service.

[He had actually] offered his services to the Bundeswehrafter the war, but was blackballed as a ‘traitor’, being as he had sworn personal allegiance to the man-monster he had tried to murder. By our lights, he had merely tried to defend ‘against all enemies, foreign and domestic’.

[…]Gersdorff was no plaster saint: he loved the good life, particularly horseback riding, and appears to have taken the trappings of his aristocratic background for granted. On the other hand, noblesse obligewas clearly no mere phrase for him, but an ideal for which he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.

He was not merely a nobleman in title. More importantly, he was a man noble in spirit.

Cast a Giant Shadow: David “Mickey” Marcus (1901-1948), the IDF’s first general

Continuing in a Remembrance Day vein, a few words about the American Jewish army officer who ended up being the first aluf (“general”, in modern use Maj.-Gen.) of the IDF.

col_marcus_in_israel_1948

David Daniel Marcus, known to all as “Mickey” Marcus, was born on the Lower East Side in 1901. Bright as well as athletic, he acquired his higher education in what then (as now) was an unusual fashion for an American Jewish boy: he applied to the US Military Academy at West Point and was accepted in 1920, graduating with the Class of 1924.

After completing his active duty requirement, he went to law school and spent most of the 1930s fighting organized crime as an Assistant US Attorney in New York. In 1940, mayor Fiorello La Guardia appointed him Corrections Commissioner, thus placing him in charge of the city’s prisons. Simultaneously, he served in the Army National Guard as the Judge Advocate of the 27th Infantry Division, by now at the rank of Lt. Colonel.

Pearl Harbor and the US entry in World War II made him rethink his judicial career path, and he organized a ranger combat training school on Hawaii. Despite his hopes for a field command, however, he ended up being assigned to the Civil Affairs Division. (The assignment came with a promotion to full colonel.) Among other things, Col. Marcus was involved in drafting the 1943 surrender terms of Italy and the organization of the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam conferences.

Despite having no paratrooper training, on D-Day he jumped with the 101st Airborne Division (he had pulled in a favor from its commander, his onetime classmate Gen. Maxwell Taylor) and informally commanded a battle group made up of stragglers.

After VE Day he was placed in charge of the DP camps in the US occupation zone of Germany. A tour of the Dachau concentration camp shocked him to the core: subsequently, he would head the Pentagon’s War Crimes Division and select prosecutors and lawyers for the major war crimes trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo.

On six different occasions he was nominated for promotion to Brigadier General, the last time together with the position of military attaché at the US Embassy in Moscow. He declined the appointment and promotion and returned to civilian practice in 1947.

Shortly after, Maj. Shlomo Shamir of the Haganah approached him to help him find a military expert to assist in organizing and training what was to become the IDF. Soon, it emerged that Marcus himself was the prime candidate. Marcus flew to the Land of Israel under the cover name ‘Mickey Stone’, where he was the first Jew in 2,000 years to bear the rank of aluf (general).[*] His exploits in organizing the Haganah guerilla fighters into an army, and in lifting the siege of Jerusalem through an improvised ‘Burma Road’, are recounted in great detail here.

On June 10, 1948, the night before the cease-fire in Israel’s War of Independence was to end, this “reverse Lafayette” met his end — through friendly fire. Being unable to sleep, he had gone for a walk, covered in his blanket against the cold. When the sentry saw the ‘Arab in a cloak’ approach, he challenged him in Hebrew. Marcus answered in English and kept coming despite a warning shot. The sentry fired again and killed Marcus. Once he realized what he had done, the sentry tried to take his own life, but his comrades stopped him —  it would not bring their commander back.

Colonel / Aluf Marcus’s remains were shipped to the USA and buried in the West Point military cemetery, as many Academy graduates are. He is, to my knowledge, the only person buried there who fell in a foreign uniform.

marcusdavid

His story was turned into a Hollywood movie Cast A Giant Shadow starring Isser Danielovich — better known by his stage name Kirk Douglas, and still alive and kicking at age 101!

The Silver Platter (Natan Alterman)

And the land grows still,
the red eye of the sky
slowly dimming over smoking frontiers

As the nation arises,
Torn at heart but breathing,
To receive its miracle, the only miracle

As the ceremony draws near,  it will rise,
standing erect in the moonlight in terror and joy
When across from it will step out a youth and a lass
and slowly march toward the nation

Dressed in battle gear,
dirty, shoes heavy with grime,
they ascend the path quietly
To change garb, to wipe their brow

They have not yet found time.
Still bone-weary from days and from nights in the field
Full of endless fatigue and unrested,
Yet the dew of their youth is still seen on their head

Thus they stand at attention, giving no sign of life or death
Then a nation in tears and amazement
will ask: “Who are you?”

And they will answer quietly,
“We are the silver platter
on which the Jewish state was given.”

Thus they will say and fall back in shadows
And the rest will be told in the chronicles of Israel

 

[*] in the modern IDF table of ranks, aluf corresponds to Major-General. The highest rank, rav-aluf (corresponding to Lieutenant-General) is reserved for the Chief of Staff (rosh mate ha-clali, or ramatca”l for short), who is the IDF’s overall military commander.

Mordechai Frizis, the “Greek Lion of Judah”

Today is Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) in Israel, which we mark the day before Yom HaAtzma’ut (Independence Day). Somebody with a better way with words than me quipped that there is a reason Israel has two memorial days: one to remind us of the cost of having a state, the other to remind us of the truly terrible price of not having one.

Yet there are also the Jewish military heroes in uniforms other than our own. One amazing story I learned during a recent visit to Greece is that of colonel Mordechai Frizis (Greek: Μαρδοχαίος Φριζής).

Frizis was born in 1893 to a large Jewish family in the Greek city of Chalkis (a.k.a. Negroponte), which sits at the bridge between the large island of Euboea and the Boeotia region of the Greek mainland. The town’s Jewish community were Romaniotes,[*]  Greek-speaking Jews whose ancestors had come to Greece in pre-Christian days.

From childhood, his dream was to become an army officer. He applied to the military academy  but did not pass the entrance exam — some sources claim his Jewishness was a factor in that. At any rate, he started studying law school as Plan B. When the Balkan Wars broke out, he was drafted and admitted to NCO training. There, because he also had gone to college, he was made a 2nd Lt. in the reserves.

During the Russian Civil War (where he was part of the Allied troops fighting on the side of the Whites) and the Greek-Turkish War, he distinguished himself on the battlefield through bravery as well as ingenuity.[**] When taken prisoner by the Turks in 1922, he was offered his freedom as the only non-Christian among the captive Greeks, but refused, saying his place was with his men. He shared their privations for 11 months until they were released and repatriated when the Lausanne Treaty ended the Greek-Turkish War.

Upon his return, his reserve commission was ‘regularized’ and he himself was sent to France to go study at the Ecole Militaire in St.Cyr (the West Point of France). After graduating with high honors, he was posted to Thessaloniki. He rose gradually through the ranks: the outbreak of WW II found him a Lt. Col. with the 8th Division in Ioannina, the largest town in the northwestern region of Epirus.

At this point Mussolini, displaying his typical level of contact with reality, issued a 3-hour ultimatum to the Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas.[***] According to Greek popular legend, Metaxas just answered “Ochi!” (“No!”), but his actual words, the French “alors, c’est la guerre!” (“well, that means war!”) boil down to the same thing.

The Italian army had bitten off more than it could chew, and got its nose bloodied severely by the Greeks. At one particular battle, Lt. Col. Frizis and his battlegroup of two battalions and an artillery company blocked the Italian advance by denying them the bridge across the Kalama.

The Greeks not only threw the Italians out but counterattacked into Italian-held Albania. It was then that an aerial strafing attack took place on Frizis’s regiment. Seated on horseback, he kept on pressing his men to seek cover, while galloping all over to make sure they did. The planes’ machine guns hit home, and Frizis was mortally wounded. Legend has it that the Greek Orthodox army chaplain said the Shema Yisrael over his dead body.

Both the Greek king and dictator Metaxas eulogized Frizis (posthumously promoted to full colonel) and personally condoled his widow.

Sadly, Mussolini’s senior ally decided he needed to pull his chestnuts out of the fire, and while most of the Greek army was tied up in Epirus, the Wehrmacht invaded from Bulgaria, with tragic consequences for Greek Jews and non-Jews alike.

The Swedish power metal band Sabaton writes most of its songs about war heroes of renown. They never wrote one about Frizis, but they do have one about the Greek resistance to the Italians.

[*] The name comes from their association with the [East]-Roman Empire. They are neither Ashkenazi nor Sephardi, as the community predates that split. The oldest verifiable sign of their presence is a gravestone from 300-250 BCE to a “son of Moschion the Jew”. The community in Chalcis had a tradition of having arrived even earlier: in the 6th Century BCE, after the victory of the Persians over the Babylonians put an end to the Babylonian Exile.

[**] One anecdote has is that, while fighting with the Whites near Kishinev/Chisinau, the Greek troops were in need of supplies. Frizis sought out his coreligionists in their stores and addressed them in Hebrew (being Romaniote, he did not speak Yiddish nor Russian): reportedly they were so amazed to see a fellow Jew as a Greek officer that they gave him everything he asked for and refused payment.

[***] Metaxas was a royalist, monarchist, and antiparliamentarian Greek nationalist, but (like most Greeks) saw Greekness in cultural rather than genetic terms. He saw the Greek Jews, particularly the Romaniotes, as partners in the “Third Greek Civilization” he sought to foster, and had a close personal relationship with the Chief Rabbi of Thessaloniki.