World War II – the story of a Jewish soldier – Esther Herlitz

​Jewish women of Mandatory Palestine, serving in the British Army, the A.T.S (auxiliary Territorial Service)

Soldier's id:

Name: Esther Herlitz

Date of Birth: October 9, 1921

Fought in: WW2

Corps: A.T.S (Auxiliary Territorial Service)

Enlisted at: July 1942

Type of Service: Volunteer

Decorations: The Africa Star, WORLD WAR IIat His Majesty's Service.

Demobilization date: March 1946​

From Esther Herlitz experiences – a soldier and officer at the A.T.S

From Esther Herlitz's book: "Ester, o le-an kevar ishah yekholah le-hagiʻa?" in the chapter "Regards from Shulamit:"

From 1940, 30,000 people of Mandatory Palestine volunteered to serve in the British Army. Mobilization was not obvious, the question was whether all should join the British Army in the struggle against Israel, or perhaps some should stay in the country, lest the Germans advance to its gates… in July 1942 when I and my friends enlisted, General Rommel was in El-Alamein.

Drafting women raised the expected questions: should women draft at all, and if so, would they go astray, among the non-Jews soldiers? In an assembly of women potential draftees, I, speaking in public for the first time in my life, said so: "The war against Hitler is our war, and the girls place is alongside the boys." We sounded very sure in the rightness of our choice.

Following a month of training in Sarafand (Zrifin), commanded by some British and "Palestinian" sergeants and officers, most women were posted in Egypt and other places within the "Middle East Command." As far as the British were concerned, we from the Jewish Yishuv and some Arabs, were Palestinians… in all aspects we were a unique unit. We, the women, insisted on our national identity. Thus, for example, although most of us understood English, we insisted that each command would be translated into Hebrew.

In the training camp, there were women of all types and social strata. There were young Sabra's, older women escaping failed marriages, young girls who immigrated on their own, in "Aliat Ha'Noar," mainly from Germany and Austria… some illiterates and house cleaners loathing their hard lives…

The sharp gaps among women from different backgrounds became dull in the new and strange military life… the fear of war and the daily difficulties in the army, mixed with the distress of being away from home… and with the female, Eretz Israel, fraternity, all these hardened and united us.

Women did not receive arms and were not trained in using them, but were occupied in various military occupations. Most were quartermasters, since the whole Middle East was a huge logistical base. Others were clerks, nursing helpers, telephone operators and drivers, who drove long and hard roads, in long convoys from Alexandria to Haifa, via the Sinai Desert. Some women became gunsmiths, others car mechanics, including tanks.

But life with the English were occasionally a cause for heartbreak. Some girls fell in love with them and were totally dissociated… I spent a year in Sarafand, training new recruits, and each month new girls arrived. Whoever gave me "Shulamit's" regards, I knew she was a member of the Haganah. These were directed to gunsmith courses, to learn the subject. "Shulamit" was Shulamit Klebanov, Women's commander in the Haganah. I spent four and a half years in the British army, all that time as a "Servant of Two Masters." The English did not know all, but undoubtedly, occasionally understood the special nature of our activities and turned a blind eye… we were loyal soldiers, as well as dedicated Haganah members, subject to the King's command and the Zionist leadership at the same time.

… The British women officers taught us, the girls from Eretz Israel, the meaning of proportions. "You Palestinians," they told us, "are taking all to your hearts in horrible seriousness. Let go, smile, show some sense of humor…"

The Brits, it should be noted, drafted girls in the army, not only to strengthen the rear, but from social motivation too. The conducted dance parties and mixes social gatherings, girls and boys, and were strict in not missing their five o'clock tea. Serving as an officer, I learnt the tea pouring rite… every day, at five o'clock in the afternoon, I poured milk and sugar into teacups, and only afterwards the dark and strong tea. This too is a lesson not to be treated lightly.

In 1945, as the war came to a close, the Yishuv's struggle against the British intensified. Learning about this we announced that we refuse payment from the King. The British officers retorted that this constitutes a breach of the King's order. Therefore, we decided to resign from the Army.

Modesty in the A.T.S

From a protocol of a meeting between the Yishuv's Chief Rabbi, within the "Committee to defend the honor of Jewish women," and women representatives.

Joseph (Rabbi) Uziel: "Rumors are circulating that not everything is OK among the (female) soldiers… we heard that some soldiers were forced to drive officers. In a ball at Sarafand, brawls erupted between English and Jewish soldiers due to jealousy of Jewish female soldiers…there was a ball to which female soldiers were invited… many of the English soldiers and Jewish girls left it in couples. We heard of female soldiers becoming pregnant during their service…"

Mrs. Giladi "it is well known that some of the Yishuv are not yet morally-nationally inoculated… such a non-inoculated young woman, when out of her family and society's supervision and in the army – it is easy to understand how far she may go... We request to be let inside… that they shall be supervised within the Women's Corp."

Hadassah Samuel (head of WIZO Israel and organizer of the women's draft): "I regard the present meeting as of high importance. Of course we shall not discuss the women's draft as far as the objections to it within certain circles. For us, it is a major Halacha that women, as well as men, should participate in equality in the war against the enemy and for our people and Israel."

Background data – Mandatory Palestine women volunteers to the British Army in WW2

In WW2, 1939 –1945, the Jewish population of the Yishuv numbered 500,000. Out of which 4,000 women and 30,000 men volunteered to serve in the British Army. In January 1942, women were called to volunteer for the A.T.S – the Auxiliary Territorial Service. 3,200 of the Yishuv women served in it in WW2.

From April 1943, 800 women volunteered to serve in the Women Auxiliary Air Force W.A.A.F of the Royal Air Force. ​


Esther Herlitz's: "Ester, o le-an kevar ishah yekholah le-hagiʻa?"

Tzvia Cohen (Ed.), We volunteered for the British Army: Jewish women from Mandatory Palestine in WW2, Miskal, 2005. 

Esther Herlitz files in the "Jewish Combatant" Collection.

A.T.S photographs in the collection

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