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  • Gil Zohar

Israel Turkienicz remembered as hero of Israel’s War of Independence, survivor of the Holocaust


Israel Turkienicz, a hero of Israel’s War of Independence and survivor of the Holocaust, died of respiratory failure in Florida January 5, and was buried in Toronto where he had lived for 65 years. Born in the shtetl town of Sarnik, Poland – today Belarus – near Pinsk in about 1933, Turkienicz witnessed the Red Army’s occupation of eastern Poland in September 1939. When Hitler’s Wehrmacht invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, “Issy” as he was known, escaped into the forest and survived there with other Jews for three years until liberated by the Red Army in 1944. They lived in dugouts, called “zemlyanka” in Russian. Sometimes his group lived with partisans. Issy learned how to survive in the woods, foraging for edible mushrooms and fashioning footwear from plants. Those experiences in the forests of Belarus left Turkienicz with a lifelong love of nature which he expressed in farming and fishing at cottages on Lake Simcoe and Lake Muskoka. Following WWII, with the aid of the Palestinian Jewish underground organization Breicha, Turkienicz made his way as a stateless displaced person to Marseilles where he sailed to Mandate Palestine in April 1946 aboard the French steamer Champollion. Together with 700 other orphans, Issy received an Immigration Certificate on the occasion of the birthday of King George VI's wife Elizabeth – the Queen Mother and mother of Queen Elizabeth II. In Palestine, Turkienicz joined the pre-state Palmach (Strike Force) militia and fought in Hativat haNegev (the Negev Brigade) in virtually every battle of the War of Independence on the southern front including driving the Egyptian Army and Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser from Beer Sheva and Falluja.

After the Palmach was disbanded, along with the Lehi, Etzel and Hagana, Issy served in the newly-established Israel Defense Forces. In the last campaign of the War of Independence, the Negev Brigade was

ordered to secure the abandoned the abandoned British Police post at Umm Rashrash on the Gulf of Aqaba, today the resort and port city of Eilat.

In his last visit to Israel in 2010, Turkienicz recalled the famous event. “We were in Beer Sheva, and we went down to the south.” On March 10, 1949 after five days of traversing the road-less wadis and mountains of the Negev Desert, Turkienicz crossed into Egyptian Sinai and arrived at the Gulf of Aqaba.

Turning north, they came to the Taba border crossing. The Egyptians were confused, and we gave them several cans of sardines, he recalled. “The Egyptian police officers said that if we cross through the side, we won’t have to pay, and that’s how we crossed into Eilat without a single gunshot fired.”

Arriving at Umm Rashrash, brigade commander Nahum Sarig noticed none of his soldiers had an Israeli flag on hand. He ordered his troops to make a handmade one. The brigade secretary, Pua’ah Er’el, drew a flag with ink. But no one had a camera. Two hours later Avraham “Bren” Adan, company commander of the 8th Battalion of the Negev Brigade, and a few other soldiers arrived. They famously hoisted the makeshift flag with two blue ink stripes and a Star of David torn from a first-aid kit. Micha Perry then snapped his famous photo, akin to the flag raising at Iwo Jima. Today a sculpture stands at the site of the Eilat flag raising.

A few hours later soldiers of the Golani Brigade arrived and replaced the improvised flag with a standard banner. With typical modesty, Issy was neither in the photo nor the statue.

In 1953 Issy came to Canada to attend the wedding of his brother Benny, who married Lina Becker, another Holocaust survivor. At a dance at the Bloor Street Y Issy met Clara Rubenzahl, born in Oshawa. Ontario but living in Toronto. They married, and had Randi – living in Jerusalem, and Stewart and Brian – who live in Toronto. Issy is survived by Clara, their 3 children and 6 grandchildren.

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