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Fall 1999

When Memory Comes
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"I wanted to know everything about what was going on in the political situation of Palestine," he says. "I read everything I could find." The moment the United Nations partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states, he wanted to go there "to fight (for a Jewish homeland)," he says. "I thought the idea of a Jewish state was a solution."

As did many young Jewish survivors in post-Holocaust Europe, Friedlander tried to join a moderate Zionist youth movement, but it wouldn't take him because, at 15, he was too young. He lied about his age and joined a more militant group that was linked to the hard-core Irgun, an underground organization that was fighting the British mandate in Palestine.

Not long after David Ben-Gurion announced the formation of the State of Israel, Friedlander sneaked away from his boarding school in Paris and boarded an Irgun-sponsored arms-smuggling ship, the Altalena, en route to Israel. However, as the Altalena approached Tel Aviv on June 20, 1948 with its cache of weapons, contrary to the orders of the newly formed Israel Defense Force, it was shelled. Twenty-two on board the ship were killed in the assault. (Among the survivors was Menachem Begin, who would become prime minister of Israel and sign a peace treaty with Egypt in 1979). The destruction of the Altalena was among the bitterest episodes in Israel's war of independence.

Friedlander again survived, and he made his way to two uncles living in a small village north of Tel Aviv. They packed him off to agricultural school "so I could learn something useful," he says. "They told me, 'Enough with this intellectualism. Learn a skill.'"

But his thirst for knowledge about his newly adopted country was great, and each day he would walk several miles to the nearest city to buy a newspaper, struggling to learn Hebrew so he could read it. "I was so enthusiastic about every little detail," he says.

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