Obituary: Jerry Gross, 96, was one of the last surviving overseas volunteers who fought for Israel in the 1948 war  

Jerry Gross in a 2018 interview with Toldot Yisrael. (YouTube)

Joseph “Jerry” Gross, one of the few surviving machalniks, overseas volunteers who fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, died in Montreal on Jan. 14. He was 96.

Gross was among 268 Canadians, most of them Second World War veterans like him, who joined with natives of British Mandate Palestine in the fight to secure the nascent Jewish state. He became a successful businessman, but maintained a strong link with his fellow machalniks around the world.

He served in the underground Haganah’s elite Givati 52nd Brigade.

Gross notably participated in the fierce battle at Latrun on May 25, 1948, 10 days after the State of Israel was declared, to free besieged Jerusalem.

The retreating British left the road between the coastal plain and Jerusalem, which was overlooked by an ancient hilltop fortress, in the hands of the Jordanians who blockaded it.

Gross, whose unit acted as a reserve force to the vanguard, described the battle as a “slaughter” and a “bloodbath” with the defenders of Israel heavily outgunned by the Arab foes.

In a 2018 videotaped interview with Toldot Yisrael, Gross said the charge was launched by recently arrived Holocaust refugees from Eastern Europe who did not have the necessary military experience. Gross said probably half of the 300 or so frontline fighters were killed.

The three-hour recording is archived in Israel’s National Library.

Seventy years later, Gross still welled up thinking of what he and his fellow Canadian volunteers witnessed. Behind the action, they looked on helplessly as they sheltered in the forest, artillery shelling shrieking over their heads.

They could do nothing because they did not have the weaponry that could match that of the Jordanians, he said.

  • Why Jerry Gross wanted to be remembered as a hero who helped create a Jewish homeland, on The CJN Daily .

Gross was born in Montreal in 1926 to Yiddish-speaking Ukrainian immigrants and grew up in the Jewish district around St. Laurent Boulevard. He never finished high school and went to work in his family’s modest fur business.

He remembers encountering a good deal of antisemitism as a youth on the street.

Called up to serve when he was 18 in 1944, Gross trained for the tank corps at Camp Borden in Ontario. On account of his having flat feet, he remained at the base and worked as an office clerk.

One day an officer demanded coffee, calling him a “Jew boy.” Gross complied but when he returned with the cup, he threw the coffee in the man’s face.

At his court-martial, he told the presiding brigadier-general that he assaulted the officer because of the antisemitic slur. Gross related that it so happened this high-ranking officer had seen the death camps in Europe and immediately dismissed the case.

Postwar, Gross returned to the family business. In 1947, at a Jewish branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, he heard that Israel-in-the-making needed people with wartime experience.

With little hesitation and over his parents’ objections, Gross volunteered explaining simply, “be a Jew—that’s it.”

The Montreal volunteers joined other Canadian machalniks in New York and sailed to the north of France from where they were bussed to the port city of Marseille. In the nearby mountains the group of about 45 was trained—without arms—by a representative of the Palmach, Haganah’s premier unit, for about two weeks.

A group of religious Hungarian Jews was their “front” in case the French authorities looked into what they were doing.

The Canadians, provided with false documents, then sailed to Haifa and, according to Gross, had no trouble entering the land because the British customs officer had been “paid off” by the Israeli government-in-waiting.

Gross’s chief role was assisting the scout carrying out reconnaissance.

Based in Rehovot, the brigade’s first action was defending a kibbutz against Arab looters. Gross recalled that his fellow Montrealer Sidney Cadloff lost a leg in that conflict, despite Gross’s efforts to stem his bleeding with a tourniquet.

Gross was also involved in the protection of what would be the border with Egypt in southern Israel, his battalion again facing an enemy with far superior firepower.

Later, Gross was assigned to the navy because of his knowledge of how to mount guns, that he had learned with tanks.

He found himself in the midst of the so-called Altalena Affair, a controversial episode in the young Jewish state’s history. The new government ordered the Israel Defense Forces to capture an arms ship owned by the still underground Irgun paramilitary organization.

Gross refused to fire on his fellow Jews and was jailed. However, he joked about that week or so in detention. He was never actually restrained and spent convivial nights having a drink with his guards.

After returning to Montreal in late 1948 (he remembers neighbours on their balconies welcoming him home), Gross started his own business manufacturing furniture.

He and his late wife Etta Silverman were married for 69 years and raised five children.

Gross was a handsome man, whose matinee-idol looks drew comparisons to Clark Gable. He was known for his outsized personality, and as a bon vivant with a constant smile and twinkle in his eye.

He loved to talk and hold parties, was a snappy dresser and drove a Cadillac convertible.

He made many Israeli friends during 1947-1948 that he kept over the years. “It was the greatest time of my life,” said Gross, who downplayed his personal role.

Gross never missed a Yom ha-Zikaron commemoration for Israel’s soldiers, saying, “My prime concern is not to allow their memory to fade away.”