Al Twersky died in early February. Newspapers printed the small obituary, 16 short lines mentioning Edith, his beloved wife of 62 years, his two sons, Jack and Jeffrey, his two grandchildren, Emma and Gabe, his two siblings and adoring nieces, nephews and grandnieces and grandnephews. That was it; no fanfare, no recounting of what he had done, no hint of the man he was.
Yet Al Twersky was a hero, a man who had a tale to tell, a man who had given so much long ago to a cause he had so fervently espoused. As a young man, he had been part of that “greatest generation,” serving with the U.S. Merchant Marine Naval Reserve in the Pacific during World War II. But when he returned home, there was another battle that he wanted to fight. That battle was for the State of Israel.
Al had grown up a dedicated Zionist, believing that Jews must have their own state.
In 1947 as the struggle against the Arabs was reaching a climax, he did not want to be a bystander. He wanted to be there, to do his part to make that dream become a reality. So he signed up, arriving in Palestine after assorted delays and detours. His job was to be a jeep driver in a platoon in the Palmach’s Negev Brigade. Their mission was to protect isolated kibbutzim in the Negev from Egyptian assaults. The machine guns they carried had extra tubing on them to make them look like heavier cannon. He participated in attacks and counterattacks against Egyptian infantry forces.
One night his group was patrolling on a hill outside of El Arish prior to an attack on an airfield. They couldn’t see much in front of or behind them. Suddenly Twersky’s jeep hit a land mine. It blew up under his feet. He was thrown out of the jeep, but he never lost consciousness. His buddies radioed for help and Twersky was airlifted from the desert to the hospital at Beer Sheva. It didn’t look good.
Ironically, another Pittsburgher, a young nurse, Norma (Niki) Reidbord was working there. As she later recounted, “It was New Year’s Eve and they came to get me. … We could not do anything for Al. They put both his legs in plaster and gave him morphine.
That’s all we could do. I stayed with him until he fell asleep around 3 in the morning. They flew him out in the morning.”
Coincidently, another volunteer nurse, also from Pittsburgh, named Ruth Levine was working nearby when she heard that a group of jeeps had driven over land mines and that one of the injured soldiers was from Pittsburgh. She asked if it would be possible for her to go see him, and it was arranged right away.
“The jeep ride to meet Al Twersky was not very long and when he saw me and heard my American accent, his face, which had been drawn with pain, smoothed out into a beautiful smile of welcome. He had been in Israel about six months and was more upset about having to leave his unit of chaverim almost than losing one of his feet. When he heard that I had been born in Pittsburgh and had family there too, as well as having worked at Montefiore Hospital, I guess he really felt like he was having a visit from home. I was so glad that I had come.”
Twersky was flown in a cargo plane to a hospital in Tel Aviv where most of his damaged leg was amputated. As one buddy of Twersky’s later commented, Al “lost a leg for Israel.” As for Twersky himself, “nobody told me how hard it would be to adjust so I didn’t know.”
When he finally got back to Pittsburgh, leaning on two canes, it was a great shock to his mother and father who did not know of his injury. His father, Jack Twersky, died soon after his son returned, a death his son believed was brought on by the trauma he had suffered.
Pittsburgh was well represented among the volunteers who enlisted in the fight for the Jewish state. In addition to Twersky and nurses Reidbord and Levine, David Lowenthal was a member of the Haganah, as was Frank Perlman.
Lowenthal was actually on the Exodus, the famous ship carrying more than 4,000 Holocaust survivors illegally to Palestine, when the British attacked; Perlman was with the 79th Armored Regiment of the Jewish defense forces. These Pittsburgh men and women were part of the Machal, the Hebrew acronym for “volunteers from abroad.” There were about 3,000 to 4,000 of them, and more than half came from the United States.
There were also large contingents from South Africa (800) and England (600) with smaller groups from other nations. Their efforts have not been widely reported, not even in America. Yet the sacrifices they made were very real. They were important players in the war against the Arabs, who attacked even before David Ben-Gurion proclaimed the State of Israel in May 1948. Al Twersky was part of that special history. His was a unique service; he was a veteran of two conflicts that were defining moments in the history of the Jewish people. He was a quiet man, yet his early life was forged in the fires of war.
May his memory be a blessing and may he now rest in peace.