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1948: Not everyone was dancing

Akiva Kohane (front, wearing dark shirt) and a group of friends pose with a Zionist flag during a sports day in Tradate Italy. Kohane was a Haganah member during Israel's War of Independence. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Akiva Kohane (front, wearing dark shirt) and a group of friends pose with a Zionist flag during a sports day in Tradate Italy. Kohane was a Haganah member during Israel's War of Independence. Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Imagine: Friday, late afternoon, May 14, 1948. The country is transfixed, ears virtually attached to radios, listening for an announcement most already anticipated.

Some six months earlier, on Nov. 29, 33 members of the United Nations had voted for Resolution 181, approving the partition of the British mandate into a state for the Jews and a State for the Arabs. Thirteen members abstained. As the mandate was about to end, the members of the provisional government of what would be the State of Israel gathered at the Tel Aviv Museum on Rothschild Street to declare the establishment of the independent State of Israel.  Signatures had to be completed before the arrival of the Sabbath—representatives of the religious Zionists would not sign the document after sundown.

Soon, cheers could be heard in the streets of Tel Aviv. The crowd gathered in front of the museum swelled as citizens of the new state poured out of their homes throughout the infant nation. The emotional strains of “Hatikvah” were heard in city squares throughout the country. Circles on circles formed as the music and movement of horas swirled across the generations.

The United States, led by President Harry Truman, recognized the new state 11 minutes after it was declared.

After 2,000 years of longing, fervently wishing for “next year in Jerusalem,” the State of Israel was re-established, recognized as a member of the family of nations. In theaters around the world, newsreels pictured Israelis, young and old, as independence was proclaimedTheir moment of joy was witness by millions.

But not everyone was dancing in the streets on that first Israeli Independence Day. When the declaration of Israel’s independence was announced, the Haganah, the predecessor of the IDF, had already mobilized 18-year-old Auschwitz survivor Akiva Kohane.

“Voluntarily drafted,” Kohane tells JointMedia News Service, with a wry bit of humor—to be part of an army that, officially, did not exist.

Kohane’s unit was on alert in Nahariya, waiting for the war to be declared. The fledgling army had been engaged in an unofficial war for months. Kohane heard the news on radio, together with the other members of his unit. By then, he says, “We were already preparing for all kinds of things.”

When Israel’s independence was officially declared May 14, 1948, Kohane recalls that, “People were going out and dancing in the street, but I could not go out and dance.”

“We were isolated in Nahariya,” he says.

In good IDF form, Kohane declines—even 64 years later—to give specific details about his unit.  “We were more than 20, less than 100. I remember things very vividly. We were receiving arms through the sea. I remember they were bringing guns from the sea. We had to clean every one of them! We were training on a new weapon on that afternoon of independence. This was a war; in war you don’t really have time to enjoy.”

Kohane’s gidud (regiment) was part of the Carmeli Brigade (later absorbed into the Golani Brigade) in 1948; most of the troops were from Haifa and the surrounding area. Kohane served from 1948 through 1950, most of that time in the Signal Corps. “Part of the regiment’s responsibility,” recollects the spry octogenarian, “was to protect travelers going to Lehiyot Am, a settlement midway between Nahariya and Tzfat, near an old crusader ruin.”

“People going there from Nahariya had to go through Arab territory and were often attacked,” recalls Kohane. “Many were killed. Those who did get through to their final destination uninjured were very lucky.”

One year later, on the second anniversary of Israeli independence, Kohane was “on the street” and “marching in Haifa.” As a member of the signal corps, Kohane carried a walkie-talkie. “They put those of us with the walkie talkies in the front—this was no little cell phone in the pocket!” he says. “The batteries alone filled a backpack.”

Asked how soldiers had celebrated that second Independence Day, Kohane says, “In Israel they don’t get drunk, that’s a goyishe thing. There were hardly any bars in all of Haifa. All the goyim were going to a single place.”

“But,” he reminisces, “it’s not the same as what’s going on today.”

Akiva Kohane was 11 years old in 1940, living in Katowice, near the Polish German border. His father died in Belzec in 1942. His mother, Renia, and sister Anetta were murdered in Auschwitz, where mother and daughter were murdered. 

Akiva survived Auschwitz, the death march to Alt Hammer, incarceration in Mauthausen, and yet another march to Gunskirchen. Liberated there by the American army, he was placed in a DP camp in Wels, Austria. He later went to Italy where he joined a youth aliyah group, sailed to Palestine, was intercepted by the British, and sent to the Athlit camp.  Kohane spent a year at kibbutz Alonim, then served in the Haganah—later the Israel Defense Forces.

He lives in New York with his wife Paulette and has two sons, Gil and Ariel.

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