When Moshe Brodetzky left City College of New York (CCNY) to enter the military as World War II was raging, he ended up in Officer Candidate School (OCS), where he made no secret of his Jewishness.
“We had to practice calling out to guys at an adjoining hill,” Brodetzky recalled. “Instead of saying, ‘Left, right, left, right,’ I’d sing out, ‘Adon Olam.’ At the OCS graduation, we all got drunk, and I taught the other guys how to dance the horah.”
Small, compact, nearly 90, wearing a black kippah, Brodetzky has bright eyes and a ready humor. His memory is razor-sharp, and he’s skilled at telling his story.
In early 1945, Brodetzky, then a 20-year-old second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, landed in Europe on one of World War II’s largest troop convoys. His battalion then headed toward Germany in the final, grueling push to victory.
“We marched across France,” Brodetzky said, “through the mountains of Alsace-Lorraine, to the Siegfried Line. It took weeks. All along the way, we saw dead German soldiers.
“The Germans were retreating quickly, and we tried to catch up with them. We were within a mile of the Rhine River when we realized we’d fallen into a trap: They opened fire on us. Right away, we had 10 percent casualties.
“My scout … was in front of me, and he says, ‘Lieutenant, this is no place for us to be.’ He got up and ran, and I followed him. A dozen of us ran into the woods.”
Once in the woods, Brodetzky realized he and his platoon had outflanked the Germans’ machine gun positions. Summoning up his inner chutzpah, Brodetzky ordered the German soldiers to surrender. Some did, but some fought back.
Brodetzky’s Silver Star commendation fills in the story: “With utter disregard for personal safety ... he continued to advance, destroying three machine guns, capturing 19 enemy soldiers and killing four, including one German officer. Brodetzky was … wounded in the foot and leg, but returned unaided to his unit with information that materially aided in the … routing of the enemy.”
On the ship heading back to the United States with other wounded soldiers, Brodetzky heard the news: Germany had surrendered.
After recuperating from his injuries, Brodetzky used the GI Bill to study at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He had deep roots in Eretz Yisrael: His parents had been raised in Palestine, and he had lived there as a child. Also, he had been an active Zionist during his school years in America.
“I arrived in Haifa by sea in June 1946,” Brodetzky said. While the British Mandate was still in effect, he studied agronomy at Hebrew University.
“They sent me to Kfar Malal [an agricultural moshav],” Brodetzky said, “to study under an agronomist named Sharon. That’s right — Ariel Sharon’s father.”
In early 1948, as independence was approaching, Brodetzky left his studies and underwent training with Etzel, the Zionist paramilitary group commanded by Menachem Begin. By mid-May, when Israel became a country, Brodetzky was in a unit defending Jerusalem.
“There were about 80 of us, and one night we were called for a midnight action,” Brodetzky recalled. “It was just days after independence. We thought we were going to help relieve the Jewish Quarter. Instead, we were sent south of Jerusalem, to Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which was in danger of being overrun by Arab irregulars. There was only a small group of Haganah there.
“When we got there, it was nightfall. … We were assigned positions. I was lookout on the roof of the cheder ochel, the dining room, the only building in the kibbutz. As dawn broke, I was on the roof.
“Egyptian armored cars were approaching. We only had one machine gun, but it stopped an armored car. … Then our machine gun broke down, and all we had was rifles and grenades. …
“Next thing I know, I’m looking southwest — you know Mar Elias, the monastery? Arabs are coming over that hill like ants. It looked like an anthill! The next thing, shells are landing where we are. My buddy Nissim is next to me, and, just like my scout in Germany, Nissim says, ‘This isn’t the place to be.’ And he goes. Soon as he left, a shell landed, and my body was covered with shrapnel. I was bleeding. I couldn’t see. I passed out. Later, I found out Nissim came back and took me downstairs. …
“When I came to, I was in the dining area. I could see, but I had shrapnel everywhere. … It was early evening and there were 20, 30 guys there, most of them wounded. The Arabs were approaching, and our guys were sitting there. I told them, ‘Grab your rifles, and take your positions. If we’re going to die, let’s die fighting.’ ”
As the enemy came close, Brodetzky and his buddies opened fire and tossed Molotov cocktails.
“Nessim ve niflaot,” Brodetzky said. “Divine miracles. Somehow, we repelled the attack. We’d been given up for lost. Everybody assumed our little unit had been overtaken. So they sent a Palmach unit to retake Ramat Rachel … and they found us! They couldn’t believe it that we were still alive.”
After recovering from his wounds, Brodetzky came back to the United States and resumed his studies at CCNY, earning degrees in civil engineering. He worked as an engineer for New York urban development and later in Washington, D.C., doing similar work for the federal government.
During those years, Brodetzky married, had two children and divorced. In the late 1970s, Brodetzky met and married Yolanda, a widow with two children. Their melded union has resulted in eight grandchildren. After Brodetzky’s retirement, he and Yolanda moved to Israel, then to Florida, and they’ve lived in Southern California since 2006.
But that’s not the whole story.
“You can say I’m a veteran of three wars,” Brodetzky said, with a self-effacing shrug. “World War II, the Israel War of Independence … and the third? The struggle to save Soviet Jewry.”
In the mid-1950s, Brodetzky was treasurer of the Intercollegiate Zionist Federation of America (IZFA). During a meeting discussing places from which people might immigrate to Israel, he suggested the Soviet Union. Others thought it was impossible to get large numbers of Jews out of there. He helped form the Center for Russian Jewry and was involved in protests, agitation, daily vigils and handing out fliers. This became his cause and consuming passion.
Brodetzky smiled with obvious pride: “Somewhere in the archives, there’s a news photo of me chained to the fence outside the Soviet embassy in 1969. And the police have those huge shears, you know, the ones that cut through metal.”
Today, the unassuming Brodetzky lives in a modest apartment in Tarzana with Yolanda, a fine example of what’s been called “The Greatest Generation,” known for its heroism and bravery in the face of great challenges.
Not that you will get Brodetzky to admit he did anything particularly courageous.
“You want me to be honest? If you think about bravery, it’s foolishness. When you’re facing death, when you’re facing obstacles, you do what you have to do. You just do what you have to do.”