Read about WWI's Jewish Legion in diary – Houston Chronicle
Read diary excerpts about the Jewish Legion
Shelly and Vickie Liss grew up on their dad's war stories but, to be honest, they always seemed a little short on glory.
The elder Liss arrived in Palestine as World War I was winding down and spent most of the following year guarding prisoners of war.
But it turned out that Yitzak Jacov Liss — later known to generations of Houston residents as dentist Jack Liss — was engaged in something equally momentous: serving in Palestine with other Jewish soldiers committed to the cause of a Jewish homeland.
More than 90 years later, Shelly Liss, a retired Houston doctor, and his sister, now Vickie Herzberg, have produced a translation of their father's wartime diaries, giving scholars new insight into the Jewish Legion, in which he was serving and which was organized by the British Army during World War I.
The diary, translated from the original Yiddish, eventually will be posted on the Web site of the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
“It is an essential, important part of ... the background to Israeli statehood,” said Robert Abzug, the center's director. “Usually people concentrate on World War II and the Holocaust.”
Members of the Jewish Legion served “with some hope that it would make a favorable impression on the British to allow ... a Jewish return to Palestine,” Abzug said.
Israel was established three decades later, in 1948.
Abzug said the diary provides a ground-level view of the daily lives of the soldiers. For Liss and Herzberg, it offered a chance to hear from their father decades after his death.
“It's strange when you're in your 70s, and you read something your father wrote when he was 16,” Shelly Liss said.
Jacov Liss was just 16, too young for the U.S. military when he tried to enlist in 1918, eight years after his family emigrated from Russia.
But the British were recruiting for the Jewish Legion, and Liss signed on.
From May 1, 1918, when he set sail on a troop ship out of New York Harbor, he wrote almost every day until returning home in December 1919.
At times, he sounds very much a teenager — bored with the tedium of military life, happy for the occasional special meal and eager to see as much of the world as he can.
But there is an undercurrent of history in the making, as the young soldier contemplates the possibility of a Jewish state.
“Here I see the enslaved workers' life in New York and the free colonist in Palestine, now I see the happy and merry life in New York and the poor, lonely life in Palestine,” he wrote in August 1919. “The heart aches, the brain splits. Here? or America? ... Of course, I still believe that Palestine will grow into a strong, wealthy, Jewish land, and I would like so much to be one of the builders.”
Ultimately, a British requirement that anyone wishing to remain in Palestine had to re-enlist tipped the balance.
Liss went home, moving to Houston and eventually opening a dental practice in the Heights.
He died in 1967, but his children knew he had left a record of his war service.
He even reported that he and their mother, Mary Ann Liss, had seen the diary at the Jewish Legion Museum during a trip to Israel in the 1960s.
Flash forward four decades.
Herzberg, who lives in Vermont, always meant to track down the diary. In 2008, she contacted a cousin who lived in Israel, explaining that she was searching for a diary her father kept during his time in the Jewish Legion.
The cousin, Esty Sagi, had just heard from a researcher at the University of Calgary, who told her he had found her father's name in a World War I era diary.
But Sagi's father had been too young to serve then. Perhaps, she suggested, it was the Liss diary, somehow entrusted to her father and ultimately passed on to the museum in Israel.
Herzberg contacted the researcher, Michael Keren, who asked for samples of her father's handwriting for comparison.
There was just one catch. The handwriting had to be in Hebrew because the diary was written in Yiddish, which uses the Hebrew alphabet.
Herzberg found a sample. It matched.
That summer, she and her family arrived in Tel Aviv and discovered a collection of 13 composition books, all under glass at the Haganah Archive.
“All I could do was look at it,” Herzberg said.
She and Liss had the diaries translated and have published a compilation for family members, and Liss said they may produce it for wider distribution, too.
In retrospect, he wishes they had searched for the diary sooner.
“We had no idea it would be so interesting,” he said.


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