The communists who saved the Jewish state

By Aryeh Dayan

Haaretz

Iyyar 11, 5766

A colorful flyer, prominently displaying the name and flag of the State of Israel in the middle, is now being handed out all over the Czech capital. It announces the opening of an exhibit at the Military Museum in Prague, which is under the auspices of the Czech ministry of defense. Anyone reading the Czech text on the flyer will discover that the exhibit, which opens at the end of this week, is about one of the most fascinating events in the history of relations between communist Eastern Europe and the State of Israel. Using old photos, copies of yellowing documents and worn models of weapons and uniforms, it will document the military assistance provided by Czechoslovakia in 1948 to the State of Israel, during the toughest stages of the war of independence that was being fought by the newborn state.

It was a brief, but very important episode in the history of that war. It lasted no more than a year, but David Ben-Gurion once stated that thanks to this assistance, which also included the famous Czech rifles as well as ten fighter planes, the IDF was able to win the war. Despite its considerable importance, it has still never received the public recognition it warrants, not in Israel or communist Czechoslovakia and not even in the post-communist Czech Republic. Only now, more than a decade and a half after the fall of Communism, has it started to spark some interest.

80-year-old pilots reminisce

The downplaying of this episode and the conscious ignoring of it for over half a century in both countries is a result of clear and understandable political reasons. The communist government in Prague had no reason to highlight the military assistance it provided the state that would later become what it saw as the undisputed agent of American imperialism in the Middle East. The pro-Western government established after the fall of Communism also had no reason to highlight this episode: Anyone looking into it will immediately discover that Czechoslovakia provided the assistance to Israel in the name of the Soviet Union and under its instruction. In Israel too, the episode caused political discomfort: Israeli administrations were uncomfortable recalling the fact that the weapons that saved the IDF in 1948 actually came from the Communist bloc and it was even more uncomfortable to acknowledge that the appeal to the Communist bloc came as a result of the arms embargo the United States imposed on Israel. "Even though I grew up in an air force family, until a few years ago I hardly knew anything about this chapter," says Shosh Dagan, the Israeli curator of the exhibit at the Czech Army Museum. "I remember only that people talked a little, vaguely, about some assistance that came from Czechoslovakia and about some flight training course that took place there once. It was not among the subjects that the air force was in the habit of highlighting." Dagan is the wife of Maj. Gen. (res.) Nehemiah Dagan, who was one of the leaders of the air force and served also as chief education officer. In her visits to the Czech Republic ahead of the exhibit, she found that such forgetfulness also characterized attitudes there regarding the assistance that had been provided.

During one visit, she met a group of former pilots in the Czechoslovakian air force, who in 1948 were instructors in a flight-training course that their air force organized for the Israeli cadets. The meeting with these people, all of them in their eighties, started off very hesitatingly. "I felt they were still afraid to talk," relates Dagan, "they were constantly looking off to the sides, checking if someone else was listening to the conversation. Only after some time, when they began recalling anecdotes from the course, did they loosen up a bit. Then it suddenly turned out that they remembered each and every detail, including the names of their Israeli trainees. I had the impression that they really admired, and still admire to this day, the Israeli air force. And nevertheless, I felt that they had some sort of hold on them, that they were not speaking freely." Dagan sensed that the elderly Czech pilots had a hard time talking about the episode, which for decades was deemed confidential in Czechoslovakia and of the kind that endangered anyone who talked about it.

The first arms deal with Czechoslovakia was signed in January 1948 - less than two months after the UN resolution creating Israel and four months before the state was actually established. Immediately after the Partition Plan was passed, Ben-Gurion began searching for sources to supply arms to the Israeli defense forces, but found that the legal sources in the United States and most European countries were closed off to the institutions of the Jewish state in formation. The only alternative seemed to be illegal arms acquisitions and an appeal to the Soviet bloc.

Representatives of the Jewish Agency signed the deal on behalf of the Israelis, with the approval of David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Sharet; and on the Czechoslovakian side, army leaders signed with the approval of Prime Minister Klement Gottwald and Defense Minister General Ludovic Swoboda, representatives of the Communist regime that had just been installed in their country. They, for their part, were acting with the knowledge of the Soviet Union, which supported the UN Partition Plan and continued to stand behind it, unlike the U.S. and Britain, even after it led to the start of armed conflict. Against this backdrop, Stalin's government tried to use the arms embargo imposed by the U.S. on the Middle East (but in effect, only on Israel) to bring the new Jewish state closer to him.

German planes and uniforms

As part of the deal signed in January, Czechoslovakia supplied some 50,000 rifles (that remained in use in the IDF for around 30 years), some 6,000 machine guns and around 90 million bullets. But the most important contracts were signed in late April and early May. They promised to supply 25 Messerschmitt fighter planes and arranged for the training - on Czech soil and in Czech military facilities - of Israeli pilots and technicians who would fly and maintain them. The planes, which were disassembled and flown to Israel on large transport planes, after their reassembly played a very important role in halting the Egypt Army's advance south of Ashdod, at a place now called the Ad Halom Junction.

The assistance to the air force continued to flow in during the second half of 1948 - when it consisted of 56 Spitfire fighter planes. These were flown to Israel, some of them by Israeli pilots. Among them were Mordechai Hod, who would become commander of the Israel Air Force, and Danny Shapira, who later became the Aviation Industries' first test pilot. One of these planes crashed in Yugoslavia en route to Israel and the Israeli pilot, Sam Pomeranz, was killed.

Other Israeli pilots, including also Ezer Weizman, did a training course in Czechoslovakia to learn how to fly the Messerschmitts. Most of the air force's first pilots, including Weizman, were veterans of the British Army and only knew how to fly planes used by the British air force during World War II; the Messerschmitt was actually used by the German army in that war. This may be another reason, albeit a psychological one and not a political one, for erasing the Czech assistance to Israel from memory: most of the military equipment provided through it was German made and manufactured in military industrial plants established by the Nazis on occupied Czech territory. Even the uniforms supplied to the Israelis during the training in Czechoslovakia were previously used by soldiers in the Nazi army. These uniforms are also featured in the exhibit opening this week in Prague.

The origin of this exhibit is a modest exhibit that took place four years ago in New York. Peter Gandelowitz, the Czech consul in New York, choose to deepen his country's ties with the Jewish community in the U.S. by means of a small exhibit documenting the military assistance it provided Israel. He approached Dr. Rafi Gimzu, who was the cultural attache at the Israeli consulate in New York, who referred the Czech consul to Shosh Dagan, who had worked for many years as a curator of exhibits at the Diaspora Museum and who was then in New York with her husband, who was working there for the United Jewish Appeal. Dagan curated an exhibit at the Czech consulate, which featured mostly pictures - that she had found in archives in Israel or received from air force veterans who had taken the courses in Czechoslovakia.

Around two years ago, after coming back to Israel, she heard that Ales Knizek, the director of the three museums operating under the auspices of the Czech defense ministry, was visiting Israel as a guest of the air force. Dagan met with him, showed him the pictures she had exhibited in the Czech consulate in New York and suggested organizing a similar exhibit in one of the museums he was in charge of. Six months ago, she was invited to come to Prague to curate the exhibit at the Czech Army Museum.

Downplaying the facts

The Czech exhibit in Prague will be larger and much more comprehensive than the one in New York. In addition to the photos Dagan collected in Israel, there will also be photos and copies of documents she located in Czech archives with the help of a Czech historian employed at the Military Museum. The photos show, among other things, the bases where the Israeli soldiers were trained, the building where the Israeli delegation stayed in Prague, out of which Israeli representatives oversaw the entire operation and also the Czech instructors who commanded the courses. Among the documents to be displayed (some in the Czech original and some translated into English) are versions of the agreements signed by the representatives of the two countries (Chief of Staff Bohumir Buzik and Consul Ehud Avriel), internal correspondence of the Czechoslovakian government relating to the logistic aspects of the aid and also a letter sent by the foreign ministry in Prague to the Ethiopian embassy in Paris.

It turns out that some of the arms shipments sent from Czechoslovakia to Israel were camouflaged as shipments destined for Ethiopia. In addition to the uniforms (formerly used by the Germans) worn by the Israelis, there will also be a sample of the famous Czech rifle. At one point, the organizers considered displaying an old Spitfire plane that is on display at the Czech air force museum, but later on this idea was dropped.

Dagan says the directors of the museum in Prague, who are all from the Czech defense ministry, gave her license to curate the exhibit as she wished and refrained from giving her instructions with regard to the political content. She adds, however, that they did make it clear to her that they planned to add a section to the exhibit that would be curated by museum employees and would focus on the period between the end of World War II and the signing of the deal with Israel. It will document Czechoslovakia's favorable treatment of Jewish Holocaust survivors who returned to live there.

It is obvious to Dagan that Czechoslovakia's decision to publicly display the military assistance it provided to Israel politically motivated, to nurture the pro-Western image it wants to project to the world. However, promoting this image required downplaying certain historical facts. And indeed, Dagan decided to downplay them, even though none of the exhibit's organizers asked her too. So, for example, the exhibit does not highlight the fact that the assistance to Israel came at the Soviet Union's behest, in an attempt to bypass the American embargo.

Soviet hopes and aspirations

"The Soviet Union hoped that the military assistance to Israel would promote its transformation into a pro-Soviet state," explains Dagan. "It's no wonder that in January 1949, immediately after the elections for the first Knesset, which Mapai won and the pro-Soviet parties lost, the Czechoslovakian assistance stopped completely." This fact will also not be mentioned in the exhibit along with the fact that among the Israelis involved in establishing contacts between the Jewish Agency and the Communist authorities in Eastern Europe there were also some of the leaders of the Israeli communist party. One of them, Eliahu Gojansky (whose son, Yoram, is married to former MK Tamar Gojansky), was killed in 1948 in a plane crash on the way back from Prague to Israel. According to the prevailing view in the Israel Communist Party in the 1950s, Gojansky's trip to Prague was part of the contacts to arrange the military assistance.

Dagan believes there is no need to mention all these facts in the exhibit because it is an exhibit that is intended, as far as she is concerned "primarily to do historical justice with the Czech people and express the state of Israel's appreciation for the support it gave to it on a personal and human level and not necessarily in the diplomatic sphere." She says it is most important for her "to express appreciation for the people, such as those elderly flight instructors I met in Czechoslovakia. The support they show to this day for Israel is in no way due to the order they received in 1948."