When you ask Cobb County resident Chaim Avneri what he remembers about the Israeli War of Independence, he says he tries not to. But the sacrifices he and others made to ensure Israel’s birth can never be forgotten.
Born in Russia in 1927, he and his family fled in 1929 in a small boat to Marseille to escape communism. The family resettled in Tel Aviv in 1931.
He is the youngest of six children, all of whom served in the Israeli military, although the others are now dead.
Avneri was 16 when he decided to enlist in a special Haganah unit without his father’s knowledge. As a major in the underground, Avneri helped refugees arriving from European death camps and countries such as Iran, Egypt and Syria settle in the land of Israel, often risking his own life.
Many people were unhappy with the British Mandate in Palestine and sought to drive out the occupiers by speaking to them in a language they understood, which usually meant threats and violence, Avneri said.
He also fought off Arab attacks alongside the Irgun, led by Menachem Begin, and Lehi, led by Avraham Stern. He was among the first 10,000 soldiers in the War of Independence, his wife of 49 years, Penny, said during an interview.
Avneri served in the Haganah until it became the Israel Defense Forces with the independence of the Jewish state in 1948. He served with the IDF until 1950.
Avneri began his military service as No. 10701 and was one of 18,900 men who entered the war with limited arms. His unit had the support of nine obsolete planes but no cannons or tanks.
He was a member of the mobilized special forces that fought for Latrun, Jerusalem and the eastern Galilee under chief of operations Yigael Yadin and helped capture Tiberias and Haifa and open the roads to Jerusalem.
One of Avneri’s scariest moments during the 1948-49 war came when his unit mistakenly left him alone in the barracks. He woke up surrounded by Arabs, he said, and had to find his way back to his comrades undetected, which also meant avoiding being shot by comrades who were unaware he was missing and weren’t expecting a fellow Israeli to approach them.
“If anyone says that war isn’t scary, they’re lying,” he said. “Any time you are facing death or could be killed, there is always tension and fear.”
Avneri still has nightmares about his experiences in the war, Penny said, and often wakes up shrieking in the middle of the night. She said he lost many friends and cousins.
Avneri noted the number of female soldiers who were killed in the war and said, “They were the ones who gave us courage.”
After the war, Avneri entered the diamond-cutting business, learning the tricks of the trade from a Holocaust survivor from Holland. He also served as a lifeguard and was an expert skier, tennis player, swimmer, yachtsman and sailor.
After he turned 26, however, he began to look for new horizons overseas. He eventually immigrated to the United States and went to work for the jeweler Harry Winston in New York.
He met Penny in a cocktail lounge, he recalled, after she asked him to get the bartender’s attention for her, even though she wasn’t a drinker. Avneri offered his seat instead, and after watching from afar as she danced in the seat, he approached her and asked whether she could do the same thing on the dance floor.
After the couple married, they moved back to Israel and served as volunteers during the 1973 Yom Kippur War. They lived in Ramat Gan for seven years, then returned to the United States and lived in Redondo Beach, Calif., for 16 years before moving to Georgia.
Avneri has never forgotten the stories Holocaust survivors told as they entered Israel. To honor them and the memory of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust, he used his background as an artist to sculpt a memorial at Chabad of Cobb.
The six points in the center of the sculpture represent different stages in a life lost in the Holocaust, while the flame in the form of the letter shin symbolizes the blood of 6 million reaching up to G-d.
With the support of a donor, Avneri also provided sketches for the Victory Menorah that stands in memory of IDF soldiers.
Seventy years later, Avneri remembers the War of Independence as patriotic and is glad he served his country. He said he did his best to suppress his fears when called to duty.
Avneri said the Jewish state is better equipped than ever to defend itself with its strong military. “I wasn’t born in Israel,” he said. “But Israel is my home.”