Veteran Stories:
Emery Michael Kestenbaum

Army

  • Mr. Kestenbaum with a friend in Venice, Italy, at the Piazza San Marco while on leave in 1945.

    Emery Kestenbaum
  • Mr. Kestenbaum's British Army Service Book, 1941.

    Emery Kestenbaum
  • Newspaper article written about Mr. Kestenbaum's return to the University of Toronto at the age of 82 to get his BA.

    Emery Kestenbaum
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"we were instrumental to, in Hebrew you call it, Aliyah Bet [Jewish immigration], the illegal Aliyah to Palestine, so that we shipped refugees in Europe from one place to another, eventually to the boat."

Transcript

We stayed in Tripoli in Libya, as opposed to Tripoli in Lebanon. This is a different Tripoli. We stayed until 1943. I think it was September when we invaded Italy, landed in Salerno. We were attached to the American First Army and we started moving forward slowly. And, eventually, we managed to stop once for a longer period in Arezzo, which is south of Florence, and then we carried on. I belonged to a unit which was so-called a general transport company, but we did front line transport as well, not only general transport. I don’t know whether I should mention it or not, my unit contributed to Israel quite a bit because we managed to get hold of armaments when we were in the western desert, meaning in Libya. Managed to get hold of armaments and we shipped them to Palestine, to the various spots where the Haganah [Jewish paramilitary organization] was active, which helped probably at the time when the war came about in 1948, when Israel was established. It helped quite a bit because these were very useful things, so some of us who belonged to the Haganah contributed in that respect. The average personnel in the unit did not know about these things. These were sort of not necessarily disclosed to everybody. As such, the whole unit, meaning the transport equipment, was prepared to land in the invasion to Italy, or to wherever, to land in water. Meaning that every car, every motorcycle, every truck, was prepared to suck in instead of air into the carburetor, to suck in air into the carburetor with a pipe. Otherwise, it would have sucked in water because if we land in water and it sucks in, water comes in. So that every item, every truck, as I said, car, motorcycle, was prepared to land in the water, yet function. Now, this was very important. The fact is that we couldn’t land for three days, we were at Salerno, which is south of Naples. And I think it was Rosh Hashanah when we were on the boat and we couldn’t land because the Germans were still pretty active; and actively bombing the landing spots, so that we spent about three days on the boat. Eventually, we ended up in water, but not deep. So that this preventive sort of precaution which was taken as far as the air, sucking in the air, it was not made use of because it was not that deep. And this is a very important event because at least it remained in my memory as a very important event. From then on, what is worth mentioning, as a Jewish unit, in 1945, we were instrumental to, in Hebrew you call it, Aliyah Bet [Jewish immigration], the illegal Aliyah to Palestine, so that we shipped refugees in Europe from one place to another, eventually to the boat. In Northern Italy, where they got on the boat and many of these boats arrived; and the moment they arrived to Palestine, they were dispersed, so that the British army couldn’t get hold of them because you’ve got to remember that this is all before the creation of 1948 Israeli state. This is all Palestine and Palestine was not necessarily ruled by the Jews, it was ruled by the British and by the Arabs in a way, and so on and so forth. Jordan had a very important position in that part of, and Egypt. All of them were against us, so when I say that it was very important to be instrumental in helping the illegal immigrants. I mean, they’re called illegal; I think it was all very legal. That is something which is worth mentioning in my opinion. I was driving somewhere through the desert and I don’t remember where it was, with a friend of mine, who is actually here on the picture. This picture. I was driving in a pickup truck or whatever we called it. And we were driving I think faster than the speed limit allowed us and we were stopped by the military police, British military police. We stopped and he saw here, Palestine, because all of us had on the sleeve, it said Palestine, that we are a Palestinian unit within the British army. And this fellow saw Palestine and says, and he spoke to my friend, and he says, do you speak English? And he looks at him and he says, do you? That fellow thought he will just drop dead. I mean, he didn’t expect an answer like that. As it happens, he spoke perfect English because he was from Prague and in Prague, his parents sent him to an English gymnasium, as the high school was called in Europe, gymnasium. And he spoke perfect English, fluent English. As it happens, he became the ambassador of Israel later on to the Far East. He changed his name and so on. But this is only as a joke. I told you that only as a joke. When he told that fellow, when he asked him, do you speak English, he says, do you? He didn’t know what to say, I mean, he was completely flabbergasted. [laughs]
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