Seeking firsthand memories from those present at Israel’s founding

Aryeh Halivni (Weisberg) reviews video clips from a recent interview he conducted for his memories project, Toldot Yisrael.

What Steven Spielberg did for Holocaust survivors, Aryeh Halivni (Weisberg) hopes to do for the men and women who helped found the state of Israel. Halivni, born Eric Weisberg 35 years ago in Cleveland (he changed his name when he made aliyah in 2002), has an ambitious plan: He wants to conduct video interviews of individuals who can describe their experiences in pre-state Palestine leading up to and including the 1948 war of independence.

Halivni was in Cleveland prior to the High Holidays, visiting family (his parents are Helaine and Martin Weisberg) and conducting interviews. He enthusiastically described his project Toldot Yisrael (Chronicles of Israel) and its origins.

The Hebrew Academy and Yeshiva University grad was always passionately interested in Israel. “If I could have been born some other time,” he reflects, “it would have been the era leading up to the founding of the state.”

With that option not available, Halivni did the next best thing: He began talking to people who were involved at the time. As an 18-year-old studying in Israel in 1991, for example, Halivni tracked down the phone number of Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s personal secretary, Shmuel Katz, and asked him what it was like to be a player in the founding of the fledgling state.

That conversation stayed with him, and years later, when Spielberg’s Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation was inaugurated, Halivni decided a “parallel project” was needed for Palestine/Israel.

But education, marriage, children, aliyah and livelihood intervened. It was not until this year that Halivni, the father of four, gave up his job at Gesher, a bridge between religious and secular Jews, to devote full time to Toldot Yisrael. In addition to conducting interviews, he has developed a six-minute promotional tape and is raising money for the project.

Each interview is estimated to cost about $2,000, which includes travel, taping and creating a database of key words enabling research.

Halivni mentions some of the interviews he’s already done. They include Aryeh Handler, 93, who was actually in the room when the Declaration of Independence was signed; St. Louis resident I.E. Millstone, now 101, who was brought over by David Ben-Gurion to build houses for new immigrants; and a couple of women in Lehi (the Stern Gang) who were “involved in all kinds of nefarious undertakings.”

New York native Zipporah Porat, another of his interviewees, was a student at Hebrew University in the fall of 1947. She ended up joining the Haganah and was involved in the fighting during the siege of Jerusalem. Through it all, she wrote letters to her family, describing everything that was happening.

Forty years later, when her mother died, Porat returned to New York to clean up her mother’s effects. Among them were all the letters Porat had written from Israel … which were ultimately published as a book.

The interview that resonated the most with Halivni was with Terre Haute, Ind., native Harold Katz. While he was a student at Harvard Law School following WW II, Katz read an article in TIME magazine about a man who had escaped from the Warsaw Ghetto and tried to tell American leaders about the atrocities taking place there. Frustrated by the lack of response, he committed suicide.

That article, says Halivni, became Katz’s “moral compass.” He felt “you can’t sit back when there is this call from history.”

Harvard, Katz reasoned, “will always be here. The chance to make history will not.” So Katz left Harvard to go to Palestine, where he and a non-Jewish buddy “helped out” with illegal ships bringing Holocaust survivors to the not-yet-declared Jewish state. Katz, who now resides in Israel, still carries the clipping of that TIME article, marvels Halivni.

The format of the two-hour Toldot interviews is based on the model used by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum and memorial. The first half hour involves background information: where the person grew up or first learned about Palestine. The next hour involves questions such as where that person was on Nov. 29, 1947, when the UN declared Israel a state, or what famous figures he or she might have met during that period.

A nurse working on Mt. Scopus describes how she dealt with casualties when a convoy was attacked. Others recall the severe rations during the siege of Jerusalem.

The concluding half hour is devoted to reflection: How that period in history affected their lives and the legacy they want to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

 To expand his project, Halivni hopes to work with the oral history department of Hebrew University to train more interviewers. The National Library of Israel, he adds, has expressed interest in housing the Toldot interviews.

I ask if anyone comments on Jews’ alleged poor or illegal treatment of Arabs during the early state period. “I haven’t heard much about that,” he admits, “but I am sure that will come.”

Although time is of the essence (no interviewee is under age 75), Halivni has no shortage of people to call upon. He estimates that 120,000 are still alive, of which 20,000 are Sabras and 100,000, immigrants.

As part of Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations, for example, an event in Tel Aviv was held for all those who fought in the ’48 war. Twelve thousand people showed up, and Halivni videotaped the event. “It was amazing,” he says. People who hadn’t seen each other for decades got together and reminisced.

The Toldot interviews, maintains an optimistic Halivni, will:

“reinforce the positive role Israel plays in contemporary Jewish identity; reconnect young Israelis to their past; and remind the world-at-large of the context of 1948, the Jewish people’s legitimate struggle for independence in the shadow of the Holocaust.”

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