A saga of ships and the men who ‘sailed’ into modern day Israeli history
By David E. Kaplan
I sat enthralled listening to a recent webinar on the globally popular “Lockdown University” – born out of the Covid-19 pandemic – on Ben Hecht, the famed Jewish American screenwriter, director, producer, playwright, journalist, and novelist.
It was interesting to learn that his indifference to Jewish issues changed when he met Hillel Kook, also known as Peter Bergson, who was drumming up American assistance for the Zionist group, Irgun. Hecht wrote in his book, Perfidy, that he used to be a scriptwriter until his meeting with Bergson, when “I accidentally bumped into history” – that is, the burning need to do anything possible to save the doomed Jews of Europe.
When our superb lecturer Trudy Gold mentioned that following Hecht’s support for a Jewish State through his writing, noting that the proceeds of his successful play “A Flag is Born” – dealing with the subject of illegal immigration and the fight against the British – were used to help purchase a ship to support that cause and was named the S.S. Ben Hecht, I suddenly recollected a South African connection.
Back in 1996, I interviewed a former South African in Israel who served on that vessel during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. His name was Charlie Mandelstam.
On deck of the SS Ben Hecht was a world away both geographically and atmospherically from Charlie’s small agricultural hometown of Standerton on the Vaal River, east of Johannesburg. He came from neither a Zionist nor a religious background, but Charlie too was about to “bump into history” when “my older brother and I started reading in the press about the Jewish struggle in Palestine – it fascinated us. We both felt that the creation of a State of Israel was vital and that our family should be represented in the struggle. We had both served in WWII, me in the navy but this was now personal. Only one of us could go as someone had to stay with our widowed mother and run the family furniture business. At that time, all I was interested in was golf and girls and I certainly didn’t want the responsibility of running a business, so I volunteered.”
If Charlie had seen little action on his convoy runs between Mombasa, Madagascar and the Seychelles during WWII, that would not be the case in his next war. It was the end of June 1948, and Charlie had only been in Israel for ten days when below deck on his first ship – the Eilat – an ex-American ice-breaker that had been converted to bring across illegal immigrants – Holocaust survivors from Europe – and then turned into a patrol boat, he suddenly heard the rat-a-tat-tat of gunfire above as three Egyptian spitfires staffed the upper deck and the bridge.
“Here I was, my first day in the Israeli navy, and a fellow shipmate lay dead on the deck!”
A short while later, Charlie was transferred to a sub-chaser – the S.S. Ben Hecht. “It was only called a subchaser because it was the only ship with radar” explained Charlie, “but it didn’t have any anti-submarine equipment.”
It has an interesting and intriguing history before Charlie graced its deck.
Built originally as a private yacht by the German firm Krupp, it changed hands and was used, at one time, to smuggle the gold of the Republican Government from Spain to Mexico, shortly before its fall in the Spanish Civil War. Later, it was acquired by the US Navy and used as a coastal patrol vessel until 1946 when it was purchased by a company serving as a façade for the “American League for a Free Palestine”, an organization that was connected to the Revisionist Movement. It was then that the ship was re-named for the author and screenwriter Ben Hecht who was active in Revisionist circles and financed the purchase of the ship from the proceeds of “A Flag is Born”.
Ben Hecht vs Emir Farouk
On March 1st, 1948, the Ben Hecht sailed from Port de Bouc, France, carrying 626 Ma’apilim (Jews who illegally immigrated to British controlled Palestine in the 1930s and 1940s – known as Aliyah Bet)·. The crew of 18 was made up – for the most part – of American volunteers and when the vessel was close to Palestine, it was intercepted by two British destroyers, towed to Haifa, and the Ma’apilim transferred to an internment camp in Cyprus.
The S.S. Ben Hecht would know greater success in the next chapter of its history with the young South African on board although Charlie relates the famed incident that followed with humour in keeping with his colourful personality.
“An American friend of mine aboard the ship got the address of some girls from Ma’agan Michael who were stationed in Rehovot. We got to know them and they used to tease us, “You guys came all the way from the States and South Africa to have a good time sailing between Haifa and Gaza! Why don’t you join a fighting unit?” Soon after there was the famous incident where four speedboats, three of them homemade kamikaze torpedo boats, were launched from our ship – the Ben Hecht. When they got close to the Emir Farouk the Egyptian flagship and an accompanying minesweeper anchored outside Tel Aviv harbor trying to prevent Israel from rearming by sea, our guys jumped safely into the water, and the torpedo boats exploded on impact, sinking both enemy ships. Although the sinking of the Farouk was Israel’s most dramatic naval victory in the War of Independence, all I really saw of the whole thing was the explosion in the distance from on board our ship. However we couldn’t rush fast enough to tell the girls of how we sank the enemy ships. Well, how they laughed at us. It turned out that the guys who had actually been on the torpedo speedboats were friends of theirs from their Kibbutz – Ma’agan Michael.”
Charlie would find his “girl” after the war on moshav Habonim where many his shipmates and other South Africans had settled. “I used to work in the fields and brought feed for the dairy. Lucy used to milk the cows early in the morning. She wore shorts and I couldn’t help notice her legs. They were beautiful; they still are,” he said chuckling. Charlie married Lucy and eventually left the Moshav in 1960 and taking a job as the coach of the newly opened Caesarea golf course, despite his mother’s reservations:
‘Fun golf ken men machen a leben ?’ (From golf can you make a living?”)
Charlie remained there for the next 35 years.
Over those years, many of the golfers, Charlie rubbed shoulders with either on the course or on the ‘19th hole’ included Danny Kaye, Kirk Douglas, Frank Sinatra, Sean Connery, Micky Rooney, Peter Lawford and Zubin Mehta. Charlie related a game he played with US diplomats, Asst. Secretary of State Joseph J. Sisco, whose career in the State Department spanned five presidential administrations and who played a major role in Secretary of State Henry Kissinger‘s shuttle diplomacy in the Middle East and Alfred Atherton, who helped in the negotiations that led to the 1978 Camp David peace accords between Israel and Egypt.
Astute diplomats, they could plot the course of the political destiny of nations but on a golf course, Charlie was frank:
“they were poor golfers!”
The night following the game, “I got a phone call from Ted Lurie the then editor of The Jerusalem Post asking what the scores were. I politely skirted the question. That Sunday, the paper ran a piece about Sisco and Atherton playing the local pro, Charlie Mandelstam who wouldn’t divulge the scores. On Monday, I received a call from Joseph Sisco telling me he had just called Abba Eban suggesting he recruit me into the diplomatic corps.”
Charlie Mandelstam from Standerton, South Africa came to patrol Israel’s shores, but stayed captivated by the land and its people, and of course, “a fine pair of legs!”
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