The Czech Brigade

The Czech Brigade

During World War II, a Czechoslovak unit was created as part of the Soviet Army, headed by Ludvík Svoboda (later President of Czechoslovakia from 1968-1975). The unit was composed of citizens of Czechoslovakia who were living in the Soviet Union, including many Jews, They participated in the battles of Sokolov and Kiev to liberate the Ukraine, and in the Carpathians. At the end of the war, they were among the liberators of Prague. The Jewish fighters integrated into Czech society and did not think about emigrating to Israel.

The establishment of the State of Israel and the War of Independence made them think again. Some of them, having military ranks and influence in the Communist Party, such as Major Samson Shechta, Arthur Hank, Willie Kahn and Carl Kurt Panther, came up with ideas to help the young state. They drew their inspiration from the "Svoboda Army", and initiated the organization of the "Czech Brigade". The idea was basically to establish a military force consisting of Jewish volunteers, to be to be trained in Czechoslovakia, would emigrate to Israel and help build the IDF and be a fighting force within it.

They contacted Israeli representatives. The Israeli envoy in Prague, Ehud Avriel, received the approval of the Provisional Government of Israel for this initiative, as well as the approval of the Czechoslovak government, which sympathized with Israel in those days and even assisted her with arms shipments.

In the background of the processes for the establishment of the brigade, was the political drift of the Czechoslovak government, which was getting closer to the Soviet Union, and was about to set up a communist regime. This fact also motivated left-wing public figures in the leadership of the Yishuv, to be involved in the formation of the brigade, and to bring its members to Israel, for fear that the "Iron Curtain" policy would also be implemented in Czechoslovakia.

In July 1948, after the approval of the Government of Israel on the one hand, and the Government of Czechoslovakia on the other, the initiative began to be implemented. With the consent of the Czech army, training camps were organised in Czechoslovakia, near the town of Velka Strelna. More than 1,100 volunteers, mostly Jews, came to them. They underwent military training with weapons and ammunition provided by the Czech army. Antonin Sochor, who had been an officer in the Svoboda Army, was chosen to be commander of the force. He was a national hero in Czechoslovakia and had been awarded the medal of "Hero of the Soviet Union".

Sochor, Shechta and Kahn visited Israel to coordinate the activity. They met with Ben-Gurion and the army chiefs and it was agreed that the "brigada" would join in the fighting as a brigade.

They met with the heads of the Yishuv, who offered them a place to live for those who would emigrate to Israel within the framework of the brigade - the abandoned village of Igzim on the slopes of the Carmel, which later became their home, and is called Kerem Maharal.

The first brigade volunteers left Czechoslovakia on December 22, 1948 and arrived in Israel in early 1949. Later, many of the brigade's training participants immigrated to Israel.

And yet, the idea of absorbing an organized military unit from a communist state was view with suspicion. While preparing for the establishment of the brigade, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion decided to dismantle the Palmach. He sought to create an army of the entire nation in Israel, disliked the recruitment of an organized force from a communist state and feared having elements of the army organized on different ideological trends. It was on the background of this Israeli opposition that Israeli and Czech aid to the brigade diminished, and the force disintegrated. Furthermore The Communist Party in Czechoslovakia also began to press for the dissolution of the Brigade. Finally their camp was dismantled, its members dispersed and left Czechoslovakia which had become a closed Communist country.