Born to Jewish immigrants from Romania in 1901, David Daniel “Mickey” Marcus grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He studied at West Point, served as an assistant U.S. attorney and led the New York City Department of Corrections.
Until World War II, Marcus was not particularly Zionistic. However, his experiences during and after the war would permanently change his opinions about the pressing need for a Jewish state.
In addition to voluntarily parachuting into Normandy as part of the D-Day invasion and accompanying delegations to the major conferences of the war, Marcus also held a key post-war position in occupied Germany. Helping to rehabilitate the millions of displaced persons—most of whom were Jewish refugees from the Holocaust—Marcus also stared the horrific Nazi atrocities in the face in visiting the Dachau concentration camp as chief of the U.S. Army’s war-crimes division.
Meanwhile, as the Jewish struggle with the British in Palestine intensified, David Ben-Gurion realized that war with the Arabs was inevitable. He also understood that the Haganah, which had become skilled at maneuver and guerilla operations, was unprepared for conflict against regular armies. He therefore sent emissaries to America to find officers willing to train future soldiers of what would soon be an independent Jewish state. Marcus agreed to help. He was given the title of Aluf, making him Israel’s first “general,” and perhaps the first general of a Jewish army in almost 2,000 years.
Marcus’s frank demeanor and tendency towards humor meshed well with the Haganah leadership, and he was able to effectively manage and unite the fighting forces under a single organizational structure. He helped develop a field manual, mostly based on his memorization of much of the U.S. Army’s manuals, and identified the critical weak points in the Jewish army’s defenses and logistics. Marcus was deeply impressed with the commitment, grit and inspired nature of those fighting for Jewish independence.
During the War of Independence in 1948, Marcus helped organize and command critical operations such as the building of the famous Burma Road as an alternative route to Jerusalem. Tragically, Marcus was killed on a fateful night near the end of the war by a guard who mistook him for an enemy soldier.
Buried at West Point, his story would eventually reach millions of Americans through the movie Cast a Giant Shadow, starring Kirk Douglas as Marcus.
To his widow Emma, David Ben-Gurion summed up what so many felt about Mickey Marcus: “He was the best man we had.”