The Haganah (“Defense”) was established in 1920 as an underground force in British Mandate Palestine. In 1941, facing a potential Axis takeover or a British pullout that would leave the Jewish population vulnerable, the Haganah established an elite guerrilla force called the Palmach (an abbreviation of “Plugot Mahatz,” loosely translated as “Strike Companies”). Both organizations eventually merged into the IDF. Four individuals who fought for Israel’s ultimate independence in the 1940s live in greater Seattle today. 

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Image: Joshua Huston

Dita Smets

Born Yehudit Goldstein in 1928, Dita grew up on a small moshav outside Petach Tikvah. Her parents served in the Haganah, and Dita remembers her father defending the moshav from Arab assailants during the 1935 uprising.

Dita joined the Palmach, the elite force in the Haganah and the Yishuv’s underground army, in 1945, and served in clandestine operations to smuggle Jewish refugees into Palestine. British authorities arrested and imprisoned her, along with some 2,700 underground fighters, for three weeks during the Black Sabbath raid in 1946. Dita was stationed in different places during Israel’s War of Independence, at one point serving as one of future prime minister David Ben Gurion’s personal guards.

During the war, Dita met and married fellow Palmachnik Yaakov Buskila. They divorced, and in 1961 Dita moved to Seattle, married Frank Friedlander, and opened a chain of clothing stores called Dita Boutique. Dita divorced and remarried again in 1987, and was widowed in 2007. Today Dita lives on Capitol Hill. She has four children: two in Seattle, one in Arizona, and one in Tel Aviv.

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Image: Joshua Huston

Naomi Cohen

Naomi was born to the Abadi family in Jerusalem’s Old City. Her father, an immigrant from Aleppo, was a scribe, and her mother was the scion of an old Sephardic Yerushalmi family. In the 1940s, her family relocated to a poor neighborhood in south Tel Aviv.

Naomi remembers the public rejoicing when the UN General Assembly passed the Palestine Partition Plan, which recommended establishing independent Jewish and Arab states in Palestine. But soon violence came to her family’s doorsteps, and she remembers having to flee her home “half naked” on at least one occasion.

Although it was deeply frowned upon for girls with religious upbringings to join youth movements or underground militias, Naomi joined the Haganah shortly before Israel declared its independence. After the state was established, the Haganah morphed into the Israel Defense Forces, and Naomi became one of the first women to wear an IDF uniform. She served throughout most of the war in the Haifa area working as a sentry and telephone operator.

After the war, Naomi got a job with the newly established American Embassy to Israel. She immigrated to the United States in the 1950s and settled at first in Oregon. Naomi now lives with her daughter in Seattle’s Seward Park neighborhood.

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Image: Joshua Huston

Syd Abrams

The grandson of homesteaders in Republic, Washington, Syd Abrams grew up in Seattle. After an unsuccessful attempt to join the Marines during World War II, at the end of the war Syd wanted to do something for the survivors of the Holocaust. In 1945 he attended a lecture at the University of Washington by a young woman who talked about “Aliya Bet,” the smuggling of Jewish refugees into Palestine.

The Haganah recruited Syd and a friend to join the crew of the Paducah, even though neither had any experience aboard an ocean-bound large vessel. On the way to Varna, Bulgaria, the ship encountered numerous hostile British forces that knew of its ultimate destination. 

At Varna, the Paducah loaded hundreds of Jewish refugees and set sail for Palestine under the name Haganah Ship Geulah. On October 2, 1947, within sight of Mount Carmel, the British boarded the Geulah and transported the crew to a prison camp in Cyprus. Although the American crew could probably have obtained release or better treatment, they chose to assume identities of refugees, including the non-Jewish captain, who managed to learn some Yiddish and deceive the British.

After several weeks in Cyprus, the British transferred the Geulah contingent to Palestine, where the Haganah helped them escape. After he returned home, Syd met his wife, Marika, an Auschwitz survivor. She went on to become a locally renowned artist.

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Image: Joshua Huston

Zvi Ron

Zvi was born in Hungary and escaped in 1940 at age 16 with 200 other youth. Without one of the coveted “certificates” necessary to enter Palestine legally, he managed to get as far as the Lebanese border crossing at Rosh HaNikra, where a group of Catholic priests allowed him to travel as a stowaway on their bus.

Zvi joined the Palmach and eventually became a founder of Kibbutz Ein Zeitim near the beleaguered Jewish community in Tzfat. Life was especially hard on the new kibbutz, surrounded by hostile villages and with nothing to eat on some days except stale bread. He left the kibbutz shortly after the state was founded and served in Israel’s navy before becoming a high-ranking officer in the IDF. Zvi transitioned to civilian life in the 1960s and eventually became a senior manager for the Jerusalem municipality, serving under the legendary Teddy Kollek. After the Six Day War, during which he lost a son in battle, he became responsible for uniting East and West Jerusalem and ensuring the former Jordanian neighborhoods received municipal services.

Now 92, Zvi has lived in the Seattle area since 1984. He stays busy with his children’s families in Bellevue and Los Angeles, as well as speaking about his experiences and the future of Jerusalem in today’s political climate.

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