|Dr. Lionel Melzer|
When Jewish Agency emissary Michael Comay arrived in South Africa in January 1948, at one of his first meetings with Dr. Lionel Melzer he asked him to get involved in recruiting medical volunteers for the impending struggle to defend the nascent Jewish state.
Dr. Lionel Melzer, decorated in World War II with the Military Cross (M.C.) ¹ and the Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), had been a lieutenant colonel commanding the 11th Field Ambulance in East Africa and later on the 20th Field Ambulance in North Africa and Italy. During his service in North Africa, he had visited Palestine.
Before leaving South Africa, Dr. Melzer had been invited to meet Brigadier du Plessis, who headed the Army Medical Headquarters in Pretoria; they met surreptitiously at a sports meeting at Roberts Heights. He was surprised to learn that the brigadier knew exactly where he was going, who was going with him, and on what plane they were to fly. “You see,” said the brigadier, “we know everything that is happening with you chaps in Johannesburg.” He asked Melzer to submit reports of medical services in Israel, as he wanted to reap the benefits of the South African’s experience there for possible future use in South Africa.
He led the advance guard of medical personnel from South Africa who flew to Israel via Rome, landing at Haifa airport on 25th June 1948.
Upon his arrival in Israel, Dr.Melzer met with Dr. Chaim Sheba, head of the I.D.F. Medical Services, and was taken on a tour of many fronts; he found the medical facilities woeful and inadequate – insufficient equipment and ambulances – with no means of treating or evacuating the wounded.
Dr. Sheba appointed Dr. Melzer the deputy director of medical services in the field, on all fronts, a task which required many inspection trips. Subsequently, he was also asked by Dr. Sheba to take over Medical Corps Headquarters, so that he, Dr. Sheba, could spend more time at General Headquarters.
Dr. Melzer's duties involved traveling by land and by air all over the country to all fronts, as far as Kfar Giladi in the north and the Ruhama Field Hospital in the south. He was caught up in air raids in Tel Aviv, and also accompanied medical teams, following the troops into battle. During a tour of the Negev front on 9th July, he reached Be’er-Tuvia shortly after it had been bombed and shelled, and in spite of the lack of equipment, he was pleasantly surprised to see how casualties were being evacuated. Osna Wilton, Diana Penn and Rose Melzer arrived in Israel on 9th September to join their doctor husbands.
Dr. Melzer is credited with having introduced the field ambulance system into Israel. With little knowledge of Hebrew, he nagged, cajoled and bullied the military authorities into rustling up beds and medical supplies, and traveled the length and breadth of the country at the height of the war, inspecting hospitals and field medical facilities. His diary reveals his persistence in the face of local rows and rivalries: “I met members of the executive of the Magen David Adom this evening. My object in meeting them was to ask them to lend us some ambulance cars. I tried to keep as cool as I could – but I did tell one bloke there was no point in losing his temper, because I didn't understand Hebrew! I got 15 cars."
He remained with his family in Israel for five years before returning to South Africa. Much later, during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, Lionel was called back to Israel to serve in a military hospital in Safed. He always retained his connection with Israel, serving as the Chairman of South African Machal and of the External Fellowship Project of the Israel Medical Association for over twenty years.
On returning to South Africa, he became a specialist anesthetist in Johannesburg.
¹ The Military Cross is awarded to officers for bravery under fire.
Author: Dr. Boris Senior (Machalnik from South Africa) and supplemented by extracts from Henry Katzew’s book “South Africa’s 800."