"Do you remember me?" he asked. "I am Semion, the soldier with the camel. In Berlin, at the Brandenburg Gate, remember?"
I sure did. During the war there were no trucks for his artillery unit, so several dozen camels were shipped in from Soviet Asia to pull the guns. Just two made it to Berlin where soldiers found boxes of German medals, draped them all over the camels and posed for pictures. About 10 years ago, Semion showed me his picture. I contacted the Los Angeles Times and they ran a story with a picture of Semion with his humped friend.
Now we met at a day care center where I had come with Yoram Likhtenshain, a member of Israel's Aliyah Battalion. Likhtenshain had come to the United States to raise funds for the Battalion, and was invited to visit Los Angeles by the Russian Department of the Bureau of Jewish Education.
The battalion is the brainchild of Roman Rathner, a former major in the Russian green berets -- the Spetznaz -- who immigrated to Israel a decade ago, who offered his expertise and knowledge to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), and was refused because he was older than 30 -- too old. A year ago he went on the Russian radio and appealed to his former colleagues.
"Aren't you tired of watching our women and children getting killed on TV? Don't you want to do something to help?" he pleaded.
He got more than 500 responses within a week and the Aliyah Battalion was born. A year later, it has more than 1,000 members and more than 3,500 more have applied. Admission standards are high: battle or anti-terror combat experience is required as well as previous attendance in military academies. Surprisingly, more than 50 percent of the members are not Jewish -- they are ethnic Russians, Armenians and Ukrainians who have come to Israel with their Jewish wives and want to fight for the existence of the Jewish country that is now their country as well.
Every weekend after work, the fighters leave their families, get into their cars, buy gas, pack sandwiches and jugs of hot coffee and drive hundreds of miles to guard settlements. They patrol from 7 p.m. until 6 a.m., hiding in the rocks and brush around the settlements, facing the Palestinians. They guard just four settlements -- two of them near Ramallah and Jenin -- but more than 30 others have asked for their help. Since the Battalion started operating, not a single settlement they guard had been penetrated by terrorists.
"We work with the IDF, with the general staff, with Arik Sharon, with the local military commanders. We are not a militia, not a guerrilla force," Likhtenshain said. "We have recently been asked by the IDF to provide security for Jewish holy places in East Jerusalem," he added.
The army's cooperation is more symbolic than substantial. The Battalion gets no equipment, pay, gasoline, or even food. They get their weapons from the settlements and turn them in before going home. They drive without bulletproof vests or night vision equipment, and most importantly, without any insurance that would provide medical care in the case of injury or help their families if one of them is killed.
"We are not angry at the army," Likhtenshain said. "The economic situation is terrible. There is no money for anything. The IDF simply can't absorb an additional 1,000 soldiers at this time. But this is why I am traveling in the U.S. now, speaking to the immigrant communities here. This is their fight as well."
Yoram has spent five days in Los Angeles speaking before groups of mostly elderly immigrants. He has received contributions from the veterans of the Soviet Army, from a Holocaust survivor association and from visits to day care facilities like the one where we met the camel soldier. There was also a good meeting with a group of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans at a home in the Valley. Unfortunately, we were unable to arrange meetings for him with the younger members of the Russian-speaking community, the ones who work, earn a living and have managed to create good lives for themselves and their families.
This disturbed me, and I mentioned it when I was asked to say a few words as we were leaving the rest home.
"I thank all of you," I said. "I am touched by your response to Yoram's story, but I wonder, where are your children? Most of you are far from secure financially, you can barely make it from week to week, but you have not forgotten that we, all of us, have an obligation to help. Don't your children -- and your grandchildren -- have the same obligation?" I asked. I could see heads nodding in agreement.
"Sit down with your children," I urged. "Talk to them. Tell them that by skipping just one meal at a restaurant they could write a check for $50 or $100. Tell your grandchildren that by skipping one movie and a pizza they could send $15 or $20 to the men who are giving so much more than just money."
I gave them the address: Aliyah Battalion, PO Box 15268, Rishon le Zion 75051, Israel. They promised to follow it up, to try and get a response from the younger ones. Only time will tell if they will succeed.
Si Frumkin is chairman of the Southern California Council for Soviet Jews.