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Jewish Journal

Adventure, Danger Color Israeli’s Life

by Tom Tugend

August 5, 2004 | 8:00 pm

Aaron Friedman in 1939 while serving in the Jewish Settlement Police under Orde Wingate. Photo courtesy Aaron Friedman

Aaron Friedman in 1939 while serving in the Jewish Settlement Police under Orde Wingate. Photo courtesy Aaron Friedman

Esther Shawmut spent three years trying to find her rescuer. The American nurse had come to Israel in 1948 aboard the Pan York, a refugee ship that was being searched in Haifa Harbor to prevent military-age refugees from entering the country. The young woman, who had come to aid Israel's army during the War of Independence, jumped overboard in an attempt to reach shore.

As Shawmut thrashed about in the water, a young Haganah frogman rescued her. Once safely ashore, the nurse futilely sought out the young man who had saved her.

But even in a small country like Israel, Shawmut was unable to find him. Then fate intervened, and she bumped into Aaron Friedman while sharing a cab in Tel Aviv. They were married shortly afterward and have one daughter.

Many adventures mark Aaron Friedman's 80 years, and looking back on his life as an adventurer and witness to history, Friedman has three heroes:

His father, Abraham, who trekked with his wife from the Ukraine across Europe to Palestine and settled in the Arab town of Jaffa in 1921.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister, for whom Friedman served as a bodyguard.

Orde Charles Wingate, the British army officer and devout Christian, who taught Moshe Dayan, Yigal Allon -- and Friedman -- how to fight against marauding Arabs in the late 1930s and laid the groundwork for Israel's Palmach striking forces.

Recently, Friedman, now a Reseda resident stood and spoke before hundreds of British, Israeli, Ethiopian and Burmese dignitaries and military officers at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to honor Wingate's memory on the 60th anniversary of his death during World War II.

"I believe I am the only living survivor to have served under Wingate in Palestine as part of the Jewish Settlement Police and the Special Night Squads," said Friedman during an interview.

Menachem "Mendele" Friedman, as he was then known, was a strapping 16-year-old when he joined Capt. Wingate's training camp in Ein Harod in 1939.

Growing up among Arabs in Jaffa, young Friedman learned to speak different Arab dialects fluently, a skill that impressed Wingate when the Hebrew-speaking officer first interviewed the young recruit.

"Wingate was a short man, with hypnotic eyes and true magnetism, whom you would follow anywhere," Friedman recalled.

The son of missionaries and an ardent Zionist, Wingate trained the Jewish volunteers in guerrilla tactics during the 1936-39 riots, although his official assignment was to guard the Iraq-Haifa oil pipeline.

Three months after Friedman joined Wingate, the British authorities, suspicious of Wingate's unorthodox tactics and his dream of leading a Jewish army fighting for its own state, transferred the officer out of Palestine. During World War II, Wingate applied the guerrilla tactics honed in Palestine to help liberate Ethiopia and in leading the famed Wingate's Raiders behind Japanese lines in Burma.

In 1944, Wingate was killed in a plane crash in the Burmese jungle, along with a number of American officers. Because the bodies could not be identified, all were buried at Arlington.

Friedman remained with the Settlement Police until 1947, serving part of the time under a sergeant named Moshe Dayan.

As the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust sought to reach Palestine after World War II, Friedman was assigned a new task.

Many of the "illegal" ships carrying the refugees were intercepted by the British navy and their passengers interned in a camp in Cyprus.

Friedman, raised by the sea and trained as a frogman, was assigned by the Haganah to sail in a small craft to the shore of Cyprus, infiltrate the camp, identify people with scientific and engineering skills, spirit them away and ferry them to Israel.

After the State of Israel was declared in May 1948, Friedman was given another job. Refugee ships were now allowed to dock in Haifa, but United Nations observers were under orders to keep out men and women of military age. As a bonus of his work he was able to save his future wife.

In the meantime, Friedman had been recruited for yet another job, that of Ben-Gurion's bodyguard, chosen, he said, for his "fluent Arabic, prodigious memory and quick reactive skills."

In the early 1950s, Friedman paid tribute to his old commander by helping to establish the forerunner of today's Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports in Netanya and serving as instructor in gymnastics and swimming. Later in the decade, the Friedmans moved to the United States, where, he said, he wanted to inspire boys and girls to become leaders of the Jewish community.

After serving as synagogue and community center director on the East Coast, Friedman got his wish in 1964 when he was hired as youth director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism's Pacific Southwest region.

He also became an early activist in the movement to gain the freedom of Soviet Jews and was instrumental in gathering 5,000 signatures on a 250-foot-long petition, presented to Soviet diplomats at the United Nations.

Today, Friedman, wearing his trademark Australian-style military slouch hat, is officially retired, but speaks frequently at schools and before youth groups. His favorite topic is the history of Palestine and Israel over the last 100 years, to much of which he bears personal witness.

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