The Three Musketeers
“The three musketeers” is the name given by Jenny Grossman’s youngest son, Norman, to three friends, European Jews who had immigrated to Palestine before WWII and who married two sisters and a cousin from the same family.
Edna, the eldest daughter of Dora Jacobs, was the first to marry, followed by Freda and Minnie Grossman in a double wedding on 14 October 1945.
Edna Jacobs and Israel Tillinger centre back
Edna married Israel Tillinger, originally from Rumania, Freda married David Rothman, born on 19 January 1917 in Uzhhorod, Zakarpattia Oblast, Ukraine, while Minnie married Jacob Klein born in Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia on 15 October 1918.
It appears that all three had joined the British Pioneer Corps in Palestine, although we only have documentary proof that Jacob did. There are a number of questions that remain unanswered, chief of which is when exactly did the three friends meet? Was it before the war or during the war? And where did they meet? Fortunately we have David Rothman’s harrowing account of his prisoner-of-war experiences to indicate possible meeting-up points between the three.
David entered Palestine illegally in 1940 on a ship that docked at Haifa. He was arrested on 8 January 1940 and confined to the Atlit Detention Camp. An application for his deportation was drawn up on 21 January 1940. His name appears on an undated list described by the Israel Genealogical Research Association as "Return of Illegal Immigrants who had been deported from Palestine". His name also appears in a Book of Army Volunteers 1939-1945. According to Freda and David Rothman’s daughter, after reaching Palestine her father joined a Jewish paramilitary organisation such as the Haganah (Defence) or the Irgun (Organisation) that operated in Mandate Palestine up till 1948, when they were incorporated into the Israel Defence Army. We know from his memoirs that David participated in the battle of Crete which was waged from 20 - 28 May 1941. This leaves us with three questions regarding the period between January 1940 when he entered Palestine illegally and May 1941 when he participated in the battle of Crete:
- Was David Rothman actually deported?
- If not, how did he avoid deportation?
- If he was deported, when (and where) did he volunteer to join the British Army?
On 1 August 1940 Jacob Klein enlisted in Company 606 of the British Pioneer Corps, the only British military unit that accepted aliens. Jacob completed his basic training at Sarafand (present-day Tzrifin in central Israel), site of the largest British military base in the Middle East in the 1930s and 1940s. We do not know whether David and Israel Tillinger enlisted at the same time.
On 28 November 1940, Company 606 was transported to Egypt to carry out engineering works on the Egyptian-Libyan border, amongst other duties.
On 8 March 1941, the company sailed to Greece, which was attacked by the Germans on 6 April 1941, and where the company was put to work keeping the port open. The evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Greece to Crete commenced on 21 April 1941.
The battle of Crete was waged from 20 - 28 May 1941, resulting in the defeat of the allied forces. Between 28 May and 1 June allied troops were evacuated to Egypt. Unfortunately David Rothman was one of those injured and captured by the Germans, while Abe Grossman’s brother-in-law, Philip Cohen, who served as a sailor, was killed in the naval battle. David Rothman:
At Crete I have been in a provisional Hospital. Knocked about while I have been captured at Crete 1941 by paratroops, forced me to march from one end the Island at Crete almost to the other end of it without drinks and food. Just before captured I have been wounded on my left ankle and become an invalid, and in such a state they forced me to march with swollen and fractured legs.
Throughout the whole of June the Palestinians remained in a German POW camp in Crete in terrible conditions. Finally at the beginning of July 1941 they were transported by ship to Salonika in Greece. David describes the conditions aboard ship:
After I arrived in a camp at Crete we had to wait for embarkation to Saloniky Greece where we had to wait for a large transport. We have been transported as an animal at the bottom of the ship, without air, food and drink.
At Salonika things were no better:
After arriving at Saloniky a few of us has been shot at and killed by the Germans.
The Palestinians were among the first to be sent in sealed cattle cars to Germany:
From there they have taken us by train in animal wagons 60-80 prisoners in one wagon without any sanitary conditions.
Their journey ended on the Yugoslav-Austrian border on 3 July 1941, where they were divided between two temporary camps, Wolfsberg and Marburg:
We arrived at Austria in a camp called Wolfsberg Italy No XVIII.A. where I got a prisoner number 5355. For a time I had to go out to work on different jobs.
It was at this camp that the Jews were segregated from the other prisoners.
At the end of July 1941 David and his 1,160 fellow Palestinians were transferred to a permanent camp at Lamsdorf or Łambinowice in Silesia, Poland:
From there I have been moved to Oberschlesien into a camp called Stalag VIII Lamsdorf. At the camp I had to work different jobs.
The Lamsdorf camp was a large base camp. It is estimated that 100,000 Allied POWs passed though it during the war years.
Whilst at Lamsdorf, in 1942 David was sent with a working party to the Polish town of Krappitz or Krapkowice, a centre of light industry.
From there I have been send to a town or farm in a big paper factory called Krapin. There they have forced me to work the hardest work to unload wood from train, coal from trains glaber salt, celluloid and the hardest work & transport I had to carry heavy machineries on my shoulders and back, where I couldn’t stand it anymore,
It was here that he decided to stand up for his rights as a non-commissioned officer (he was a corporal) which, according to the Geneva Convention, excluded NCOs from having to work.
After 8 months hard work I found out that N.C.O’s hasn’t got to work according to the General Convention of the Red Cross. But they still forced me to work, so I have decided to refuse to work anymore there and have asked for a transfer back to the Stalag and have also asked for a Red X member Mr. Berg from Sweden and a German General should be present by questioning me for my refusal to work for the Nazis,
His protest came at great personal cost.
They wouldn’t listen me anymore. In the morning they put me to the wall with hands up with two other prisoners just like a sentenced of death with all the regulations, and tried to frighten me. I of course refused to return to work so they have put me in a dark cellar. In another cellar without light at all without any air, 1 meter the size of cellar was, 1 meter 70 cm of wide very cold and wet. I had no place even where to sit down. I have been kept all over night there no blankets at all, no food no drinks. I shivered and have almost died from fever and cold & hunger
At the middle of the night the Unter Oficer Feldvebel and 2 of the managers of the factory, one of them a big Nazi folks Deutsch whose name was Gargon, came in. I couldn’t see them almost after the darkness of about 24 hours. They had a torch in hands guns and sticks & pistol. They asked me if I am willing to go back to work. I refused. They have beaten me out with gun and kicked me out almost all my teeth, kicked me in my stomach and head, and all over where they could find me. Only they wanted to fire on me and kill me, but as I remember one of them said they shouldn’t kill me because our Camp leader’s prisoners already knew about it. So they were afraid to do it of their own accord. They left me alone until the morning and gave me some small slice of bread and water. I couldn’t then have it anymore. Since then I am suffering stomach and other troubles.
The result of his protest came the next morning when he was taken to Opole or Oppeln, also in Silesia, Poland, and put to work.
Next morning I have been taken out from the cellar and taken away to a prison in a town called “Opelm” There I had to work near the station on unloading iron and coal from wagons. I worked a time there.
After this David returned to the Lamsdorf main camp,
One day my guard came in to my cellar early in the morning, and told me that he is taking me away to another prison, but on the road he changed his mind and told me that I am going back to STALAG VIII Lamsdorf.
where he was imprisoned instead of being able to move about freely.
At Lamsdorf I have been put into prison in camp, where I have been kept for a time,
In August 1942 a British POW camp was set up at Latrun in Palestine. Its German inmates complained of ill-treatment by their British captors. In retaliation the Germans set up a penal camp at Chelm or Cholm near Lublin in Poland, to which David and another seventy four Palestinian non-commissioned officers were transferred, together with a similar number of British prisoners:
From there they have taken me to a reprisal camp at Poland into a town called “Edelm” where I have been kept with 75 Palestinians and 75 Allied Forces, under strict control. The Germans sadists wouldn’t allow us to put on shoes nor great coats. We had to walk around in wooden “clogs” and were forced to go out for hours to the compound in the biggest snow and cold for Apel, called English Rolco (roll call).
The Red Cross brokered an agreement between the two sides according to which both camps were shut down. When the Cholm camp closed down at the end of May 1943 David and his fellow Palestinians returned to the Lamsdorf base camp for a short time:
After 8 months being there they send us back to STALAG VIII.B. Lamsdorf.
Some of the Lamsdorf POWs helped to build a concentration camp at Jaworzno, which opened on 15 Jun 1943. This camp provided forced labour for the Jaworzno coal mines, in which the Palestinian POWs also worked. They would pass Auschwitz on their way to work. Towards the end of their time in the mines, they met up with a group of Jewish prisoners from Auschwitz, to whom they managed to smuggle food and with whom they even exchanged information.
The last camp in which David was imprisoned was at Hohenfels, a POW camp in Bavaria, Austria.
Being there a short time, we have been shifted again to Bayern a place called Hohenfels a large N.C.Os camp and been kept. At the camp I had to work in the forest cutting wood and to bring for the camp. At that camp we have been kept chained for months and punished.
We know for certain that he was at this camp from November 1943 to March 1944, because of the dating of some oil paintings that he executed during his stay there. In spite of David’s claim that he was forced to work, Hohenfels was considered a non-working camp and its inmates were free to pursue whatever interests they chose. This explains the existence of David’s paintings.
Shows New Zealand Troops
The end of the war was fast approaching but not the end of David’s suffering.
From that camp the Germans forced us to march for a few weeks to the other end of Germany without food and drink, and slept outside at the snow, bitten (beating) us on the road for not being able to march. I have been very sick. They wouldn’t give me any medical treatment. After a time we have been liberated by the Americans.
The march, in which David and his fellow Palestinians were forced to participate, was one of a series of forced marches that took place over a four-month period, from January to April 1945, in freezing conditions. Almost a third of the 257,000 Allied POWS imprisoned in Europe were forced to march westwards into the heart of Germany, to prevent their liberation by advancing Russian troops from the east. These marches were called by various names, one of which was 'The Long March'.
On 22 January 1945, when it seemed likely that the Russians would soon reach Hohenfels, the Germans started evacuating the inmates to a camp south of the town of Görlitz, in Lower Silesia. This camp was located 240 kilometers from Lamsdorf, a distance that took twelve days on foot. Four hundred out of the hundreds of Palestine POWs in the camp left with the third group. Another group of seventy left on 15 February.
On 10 February 1945 the POWs at Görlitz began to be evacuated further west. The evacuation lasted until May 1945.
During the period of 'The Long March' (January till April), the Palestinian prisoners were dispersed throughout Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. Some, like David, were marched from one end of Germany to the other, under the most horrific of conditions. Many did not survive. David was probably liberated by the American army near Regensburg.
The liberated Palestinians, like David Rothman, Jacob Klein and Israel Tillinger, were taken to the UK. Nine hundred of them were placed in a transfer camp at Newcastle. We do not know if ‘the three musketeers’ were among them or if they were stationed in a similar camp in Birmingham. We also do not know how much of David Rothman’s harrowing ordeal was shared by his two friends, Jacob and Israel.
At some point the three were in Birmingham where they met three young Jewish women from the same family. These were Freda and Minnie, daughters of Jenny Grossman, and Edna, daughter of Dora Jacobs. Edna and Israel were the first to marry, followed soon after by Freda and David, and Minnie and Jacob, in a double wedding that took place on 14 October 1945.
On 5 November 1945 David was returned to army service after liberation from captivity, and entered Palestine as a discharged member of His Majesty’s Forces who had been registered as an immigrant. The three friends may have been repatriated together, for by 30 December 1945 Jacob was also registered as a Palestinian immigrant.
David was discharged from service on 2 March 1946. Between 1945 and 1948 he served in the Palestine Police.
Jacob was discharged the same month as his friend, David, on 29 March 1946. His military conduct was described as “very good”. On 30 April 1946 a passport was issued at London to Jacob’s wife, Minnie, for the purpose of immigrating to Palestine. She was accompanied by Israel’s wife, her cousin, Edna. They travelled first by ship to Kantara in Egypt, an important hospital centre in World War II, where Minnie and perhaps also Edna registered as Palestinian immigrants on 15 May 1946. From there they continued on a train belonging to the Palestine Railways to Tel Aviv - Jaffa.
Because of difficulties with her papers, Minnie’s sister, Freda, was able to join them only later. Her husband, David, had been discharged from the army on 2 March 1946. At the time he was a lodger in the house of B. Gross at 151 Nahlat Benjamin Street, Tel-Aviv. Five days later, on 7 March 1946 he received approval for his wife to be repatriated to Palestine. Her move to Palestine was arranged by the War Office. It took another seven months for her to arrive. She too sailed from the UK to Egypt, where she was placed in the Ismailia Transit Camp. On 10 September 1946 she was issued with a movement order which was not to "be handed over or shown to any authorized person during the journey", ordering her to travel by train from the Ismailia Transit Camp to Tel Aviv.
Whereas Edna and Israel lived in Holon, the two Grossman sisters and their husbands shared a small apartment in Tel Aviv. Minnie and Jacob’s first child, a daughter named Hannah, was born 31 January 1947. Edna and Israel’s only son, Nisan (Hebrew) or Nissim (Yiddish), was also born in 1947, while Freda and David’s only daughter, Tova, was born on 21 July 1948.
In 1948 Edna was diagnosed with cancer. Her brother, Gerald Jacobs, who was a doctor, travelled out to Israel to bring her and her infant son back to the UK for treatment. The family paid for their tickets. Her husband, Israel, was unable to pay his passage and remained in Israel. Edna died in February 1950. Apparently her dying wish was that her son be looked after by her youngest uncle, Moishe Rose and his wife, Ellen Addlestone, who were childless.
In 1958 Freda and David Rothman immigrated to the States where David's brother, who had somehow survived the war, had settled. Minnie and Jacob remained in Israel, where their small apartment in Tel Aviv became the first port of call for almost every Rose family member who visited the country.
Based on a personal memoir by David Rothman written on 21 September 1954.
The wartime experiences of David Rothman have been placed in historical context by reference to the source mentioned below.
Source: Yoav Gelber, "Palestinian POWs In German Captivity", Yad Vashem Studies, Vol. XIV, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem, 1981 pp. 89-137.