Navigate to Community section

King of the Negev

How an awkward German refugee helped liberate southern Israel in the 1948 War of Independence

by
Aron Heller
May 03, 2022
Original photo courtesy of Michael Weimers' family
Michael WeimersOriginal photo courtesy of Michael Weimers' family
Original photo courtesy of Michael Weimers' family
Michael WeimersOriginal photo courtesy of Michael Weimers' family

It was a crucial turning point in Israel’s fight for survival. After 10 days of intense fighting, the warring parties agreed on July 18 to the second, and final, cease-fire of the 1948 Mideast war. The ensuing three months would prove to be the decisive window in which Israel would regroup and rearm before coming back for the final phase of fighting that would drive it to victory the following year.

But there was a major problem. At the break of fighting, the Egyptians controlled the road from Ashkelon to Beit Govrin, cutting off the isolated villages of the Negev desert from any land connection to the rest of the Jewish-controlled areas. The frontline outposts were choked of vital supplies. Efforts to transport convoys failed and the light aircraft that landed in makeshift fields were far from sufficient.

The Negev was to make up most of Israel’s land mass and was central to Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s dream of “making the desert bloom.” Without it, there was no Israel.

On Aug. 18, Ben-Gurion convened the military’s top brass to discuss the crisis. The prognosis was dire: The soldiers and residents caught behind enemy lines had enough food to last them just a week. For the Negev to survive, 2,000 tons of food, fuel, and equipment was urgently needed. For that to happen, suitable landing grounds were needed for emergency airlifts.

It fell to the newly established air force to find a solution. And the air force, as usual, turned to its mysterious go-to guy in the Negev to figure something out. The man had no official job and no defined assignment. He was a fixer, and most people didn’t even know his full name. But if something had to get done in the desolate southern frontier lands of young Israel, the man for the job was a shadowy figure known simply as Michael, King of the Negev.

Michael Weimers was a strikingly handsome, English-educated immigrant from Germany who earned the moniker “King of the Negev” because of the airlifts he orchestrated to besieged Jewish communities in the south. His efforts to erect vital airfields ultimately helped liberate Israel’s vast Negev desert at that key turning point in the war.

He was a pioneering meteorologist and air force officer who in his day enjoyed the admiration of his peers. But for some reason his memory suddenly disappeared upon death. Unlike ace pilot Modi Alon, the commander of Israel’s first fighter squadron and hero of its first aerial assault, who crashed to death after a bombing mission, and David “Mickey” Marcus, Israel’s first modern general and architect of the Burma Road to Jerusalem, who was accidentally shot dead by a local sentry and later immortalized in film by Kirk Douglas, Weimers’ legacy simply vanished.

Though still shrouded in much mystery, the outlines of Weimers’ stunning biography can now finally be told after decades of anonymity—decades during which he remained conspicuously absent from even the air force’s own vast memorial project.

The journalist in me was naturally drawn to captivating and widely unknown stories such as his. But there is far more to the bond I have since developed with the ghost of Michael Weimers. He’s become for me a symbol of Israel’s plucky and ingenious generation of fighting founders. Not the grizzled sabras in the vein of fellow 1948 heroes like Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, who later went on to define Israel’s military and political leadership, but rather the traumatized immigrants who sought to reclaim a Jewish home after 2,000 years of exile.

Michael Weimers in Israel in an undated photo

Michael Weimers in Israel in an undated photoCOURTESY OF MICHAEL WEIMERS’ FAMILY

My path to Weimers began as a quest to discover the roots of my grandfather’s own WWII experience in the Canadian air force. His reluctance to share the details of that defining period evolved into research about his friends and fellow airmen that culminated in a pair of articles I published in 2019 for The New York Times Magazine and Tablet. The first focused on the WWII flying heroics of his old friend and classmate Wilfred Canter, while the second delved deeper into Canter’s service as a foreign volunteer in Israel’s War of Independence and his eventual, untimely death.

With the assistance of two fellow sleuths, ample biographical research, and interviews with distant friends and relatives, I managed to piece together the life stories of Canter and the fellow volunteers who crashed to death with him on Oct. 24, 1948, aboard his Douglas C-47 Dakota transport plane: copilot Fred Stevenson, navigator Willy Fisher, and radio operator Leon Lightman. Together, these four made the nucleus of an extended feature about the outsize influence of the overseas “Machal” volunteers who helped tip the scales in Israel’s favor in that existential war.

But there was a fifth passenger on the plane that fateful night and tracking down his full story has become a sort of fixation for me these past few years. Weimers was neither a foreign volunteer nor a member of Squadron 103 like the others. In fact, he wasn’t even supposed to be on board. He hitched a ride on the supply mission moments before takeoff, heading to a separate mission near the besieged Negev community of Sdom, at the southern tip of the Dead Sea.

The crash was one of the first fatal aerial accidents in Israel’s history. But it barely registered, coming right between the two major offensives that turned the tide on the battlefield: Operation Yoav, the Oct. 15-22 campaign in the Negev in which Israel captured Beersheba, and Operation Hiram, from Oct. 28-31, in which Israel captured the Upper Galilee.

Still, those four foreign volunteers were ultimately memorialized overseas, in “Machal” ceremonies and at the squadron’s vast memorial hall at the Nevatim air force base.

The same cannot be said for Weimers. But he was more than just another nameless victim of Israel’s most consequential war. He was a complicated, multifaceted character who both reflected his chaotic times and starkly contrasted with the early Israeli prototype. From a bohemian family well-rooted in Germany, Weimers and his siblings were displaced by the Nazi rise to power and made their way via England to pre-state Israel, where they rebuilt a family but lost Michael along the way—not before he left his stamp on Israel’s origin story.

In short, he’s a historical figure worth knowing and remembering. And this is my modest attempt to do him justice.

Ernst-Moritz Weimersheimer, the future Michael Weimers, was born in Harlingen, Germany, on April 3, 1920, to a secular, Jewish family. His father, Moritz, was a doctor who died four months before his birth, and he grew up in a youth village run by his widowed mother Klare and her sister, renowned educator Anna Essinger.

It was a special establishment, focused on a free and eclectic learning environment in nature, and it drew children from all over Germany, including those of diplomats and actors and those with special needs. Inspired by his surroundings, Ernst-Moritz became a vegetarian at a young age and developed an intense, life-long interest in music, animals, the outdoors, and meteorology. It was a place where his gentle, dreamy nature flourished alongside his two older siblings, even as the family struggled financially in the inflation-ridden Germany of the 1920s.

When the Nazis came to power in 1933, the institution faced near immediate recriminations and was ordered to fly a Nazi flag atop the youth village in honor of Hitler’s birthday. The shocked sisters refused and decided instead to uproot, with Essinger relocating the school to England, along with 66 children, while Klare searched for a more permanent home.

She found her way to Palestine, where in 1935 she negotiated with Zionist leader Henrietta Szold about moving her youth village there. She eventually bought a plot near Pardes Hanna and then returned to Germany to shut down her school property. With much of the land confiscated, she ended up selling it for just one-third of its value.

Ernst-Moritz, meanwhile, went with his aunt and spent his early, awkward teenage years in England, where he became a boy scout, began studying agriculture and became fluent in English. He bounced between foster families and struggled to make friends. He was educated near Kent at the New Herrlingen Country Home School, which his aunt established.

Inspired by her exposure to American Quakers, Essinger served as a hands-on school principal known as both a strict disciplinarian but also a beloved figure affectionately known as “Tante Anna” (Aunt Anna), or TA for short. Even more significantly, her progressive school later became a destination for thousands of Jewish students who fled Germany before the war began, thus sparing them the atrocities to come.

In a report on April 10, 1934, marking Ernst-Moritz’s first half year there, his group teacher, Adolf Prag, graded his development as “favorable,” noting that while he had fallen behind in English, German, and history he was serious and reliable.

“At times he is still dreamy and childish,” the teacher wrote. “His interests are entirely practical, and he takes his duties very seriously, often neglecting his schoolwork on account of them.”

A later letter summarizing his education and signed by his aunt, hints at a possible diagnosis of dyslexia, which afflicted other family members. Moreover, it offers deeper insight into these formative years and provides a glimpse into the kinds of qualities that defined his later contribution to Israel.

“He developed very slowly and was not systemic in his schoolwork. He was, however, very much interested in everything connected with nature—sun, moon and stars, animals, flowers and grasses—and acquired knowledge of these things in an unusual way,” she wrote.

“He was not worldly wise, but his character was above reproach. He never lied, and he was reliable and trustworthy in big and little things alike.”

In 1936, at age 16, he joined his mother in Palestine, changed his first name to Michael, and shortened his last name to Weimers (sometimes spelled Wymers). Socially, he struggled. He had difficulty adjusting to the local schools and eventually dropped out to seek employment. He briefly worked in the fields before his amateur interest in meteorology caught the attention of Rudolf (Reuven) Feige, an aviation pioneer and founder of Israel’s meteorological service. Feige hired Weimers as a meteorological scout at the airports in Lod, Ramle, and Haifa. More consequentially, the fellow German refugee became a mentor and father figure to Weimers in his new home.

Weimers’ family friend Zohar Vilbush recalled a bright-eyed, pale-skinned, and rosy-cheeked kid nicknamed “Brody” who stuck out from his fellow peers and had trouble connecting at first with the local Zionists. He struggled with Hebrew and mostly kept to himself, choosing to spend his free time with Feige at the airports, where he would often listen to music and play his flute. With his mother busy with her school and his brother and sister immersed in local life, he became a bit of a loner. Still, he was gentle and patient as Vilbush would speak for hours about the romantic aura of life in pre-state Israel.

“He listened and he absorbed, but he didn’t ‘feel’ this type of life. He couldn’t find his way to it,” Vilbush recalled in a postmortem tribute.

Michael, bottom left, and his siblings, 1932

Michael, bottom left, and his siblings, 1932Courtesy of Michael Weimers’ family

When war broke out in Europe, Weimers attempted to join the Royal Air Force and sought out contacts in England to vouch for his character. A 1940 letter from the department of civil aviation to a RAF recruiting officer, states that Weimers is “a reliable meteorological officer of good character. His experience includes upper air observations, and he has some knowledge of wireless telegraphy, electrical wiring and carpentry.”

In a subsequent handwritten letter to his mother in 1942, though, Weimers says he “did not get any definite reply from the RAF.”

He ultimately opted to stay with the Palestine Meteorological Service until 1944. Upon his release, his supervisor reported that “he did a lot of extra work, constructed and installed instruments and introduced upper air observations on his own initiative. He was an excellent observer, and I must say that I am very sorry to lose a man like him.”

But it was time for Weimers to move on and take a more active role in laying the foundations of the Jewish state. He completed several professional courses, including welding, and attempted to join Kibbutz Alonim in the north. But with his Anglo sensibilities and eccentricities—some locals suspected he was a spy after he unspooled wiring across the kibbutz for meteorological testing—he failed to fit in and was rejected. So, he gave it another shot in the south, descending upon Revivim—the first Jewish kibbutz established in the Negev.

Kibbutz member Yoel de-Malach recalled in his memoir how an attractive, blond man with green-blue eyes arrived by foot with just a backpack and sat down in the communal dining room where he began eating. He then announced his intention to stay.

“My name in Michael Weimers,” he declared. “I’m almost a pilot, almost an engineer and I have a lot of experience with meteorology. If you don’t want me, I will leave.”

In Revivim, Weimers fell in love with the barren Negev landscape. He began working to establish a meteorological center that measured temperatures three times a day and researched the phenomenon of artificial rain. He was completely devoted to the task. Thanks to his connections to top meteorologists, Weimers was able to procure sophisticated equipment from various sources, including those that the British had left behind when they abandoned Lod airport.

At first the locals were suspicious of the European oddball, but it was “the girls” who, charmed by his dashing appearance, successfully lobbied for him to be accepted as a member.

Though Weimers didn’t appear to reciprocate amorously, he quickly also found favor with the rest of the community and became renowned for his technical skills, ably wiring connections and fixing irons, typewriters, and other appliances. He figured out how to capture radio signals by balancing an antenna in his mouth, and he famously assembled the radio transmitter that allowed kibbutz members to hear David Ben-Gurion declare Israel’s independence on May 14, 1948.

Two weeks later, his mentor, Feige, was killed by a Jordanian shell that slammed into a meteorological center in Jerusalem.

The outbreak of war steeled Weimers’ decision to enlist. He believed the best way to help link his beloved Negev to the central heartland was to serve in the burgeoning nation’s nascent air force.

“I’m going—the air force needs me,” he proclaimed, according to the account of de-Malach, a botanist and agricultural researcher. But as in other chapters of his life, Weimers wouldn’t be taking a direct route there either.

Israel’s newly formed military also didn’t quite know what to make of the strange outsider with English and German mannerisms. But the Wild West atmosphere of the times suited Weimers perfectly. Rather than being formally drafted, he did the Israeli thing and created facts on the ground. He simply showed up and got to work. According to de-Malach’s memoir, Weimers zigzagged on foot within sight of Egyptian outposts across the sandy terrain in search of hard, dense land. When he found it, he declared: “I will build an airport!”

And he did, clearing out a landing ground adjacent to his Negev kibbutz for light aircraft arrivals.

“It seems unrealistic today, but that was the mindset in ‘48,” explained Uri Dromi, a former navigator and editor of the air force magazine. “The air force was in its infancy. It was haphazard and disorganized. The focus was on building a staff at headquarters and erecting major bases. No one paid attention to the periphery. If someone like him showed up with initiative and ability to execute, the higher-ups just took what they could get.”

Though not a pilot, Weimers still stumbled into air action, where his creative thinking came in handy. On one of his sorties aboard a Piper aircraft, an Egyptian aircraft appeared and began to circle. The light-skinned Weimers with his European features confidently saluted the Egyptian pilot who apparently mistook the Israeli for a United Nations pilot and let him go.

On another mission, Weimers’ plane came under attack from anti-aircraft fire. With no ammunition to respond, Weimers began dropping empty bottles to the ground. Their loud shattering apparently did enough to deter those firing to cease and take cover.

When Weimers transitioned to military service, the meteorological station he set up in Revivim was forced to shut down. But he still made sure to care of his adopted home with repeated supply runs.

With his air force connections, and the modest landing pad he helped erect, Weimers was a frequent flier who arrived bearing much-needed food and clothing. Because of his unique access, he became a key conduit for the besieged residents and was known to arrive bearing modest gifts, like battery-powered radios and ice cream—amenities otherwise unavailable in the south. Gestures such as these helped carve out his persona, and his nickname, as the “King of the Negev.”

Weimers shuttled frequently between the Negev and air force officials in the heartland, repeatedly lobbying for more assistance.

“He was an extraordinary person,” 101-year-old Dan Tolkovsky, a former commander of the Israeli air force, told me. “Very determined, with a particular goal of creating a purposeful connection with the Negev.”

On July 3, Weimers wrote to headquarters saying that “the responsibilities at the airfield in Revivim are growing by the day” and members of the kibbutz were no longer able to “provide all the necessary services.”

He appealed for a jeep with a trailer and for a deputy commander to assist him in running the airfield and overseeing flight control since he was mostly preoccupied with other operational activities.

Though he wasn’t formally air force personnel, and it often remained unclear under whose approval he was acting, his requests were usually granted, and he somehow became the air force’s de facto resource for all things Negev. His fluency in English, from his years in Britain, also made him an ideal liaison to the foreign volunteer airmen with whom he ultimately shared a final flight. But it was the crucial airfields he established, and the airlifts they enabled, that were to become his true legacy.

By the time the second cease-fire kicked in on July 18, 1948, Weimers’ reputation was well established. To the locals, he was the “king” who delivered goods during difficult times. To the air force, however, he was even more essential—a unique guru of the barren, remote lands. So, when the air force started carrying out Ben-Gurion’s order, Weimers was immediately called into action. Within days, he helped convert a modest airfield between Ruchama and Shoval into a 1,100-meter-long and 40-meter-wide dusty road landing strip that could handle aircraft weighing up to 30 tons.

On Aug. 23, at 18:00, the first such airlift arrived raising so much dust that the airfield and, in fact, the entire operation bore its name: Mivtza Avak—Operation Dust Bowl. Over the next month, some 200 flights landed at the Avak I airfield. It became more than just a supply route. To some 2,200 soldiers, it was also their only way out for a reprieve, a good meal and a hot shower.

Michael Tsur visits his uncle's gravesite, 2021

Michael Tsur visits his uncle’s gravesite, 2021Courtesy of Michael Weimers’ family

Soon the frequency of flights increased to about 10 a night. In a letter dated Sept. 8, Weimers dispatched a list of his needs for the overworked airfield: a generator, 4 kilometers of electrical wire, tents, beds, blankets, thermoses, and cash. With fighting set to resume on Oct. 15 and Israel preparing for Operation Yoav, the emphasis shifted to military supplies. Ben-Gurion was determined to recapture the Negev and the order came down to construct another airfield further south. Here Weimers’ role was even more critical as he located the strip and laid the foundations for the second airfield—Avak II—near Imra, or present-day Kibbutz Urim.

Weimers vouched for the 1,600-meter strip and sought approval to operate it from Gen. Tolkovsky, then the air force chief of operations. The OK arrived on Sept. 14 to begin construction based on Weimers’ recommendation. Weimers arrived at the field on Oct. 9 to line up the petrol-filled tins along the landing strip that he would light up upon hearing the engines approaching for nighttime arrivals. The following night, the first planes indeed began arriving.

Such precautions were needed, since the conditions at Avak II were even harsher than at Avak I. The field was within Egyptian artillery range and the planes were loaded with fuel, weapons, explosives and ammunition. However, the Israeli forces managed to deflect the Egyptian attacks, and the airfield proved decisive in the weeklong Israeli offensive that turned the tide of the southern front.

The prolonged airlift allowed the military to swap out its exhausted forces in the Negev and replenish them with fresh troops from the center and north. Overall, some 2,500 tons of food, fuel, and military supplies were flown to the Negev and more than 5,000 people transported back and forth before the operation was completed on Oct. 21, 1948.

“What Michael did single-handedly is amazing,” said Dromi, who in air force history literature has chronicled much of Weimers’ exploits. “He was a man with remarkable resourcefulness and an ability to improvise something out of nothing.”

Friends and family who came across Weimers at this time say it was his finest hour. His eyes would twinkle when he spoke about the Negev and about his role in the campaign. He seemed to have found his calling. His old friend Vilbush said Weimers was transformed.

“I found a ripe young man, tanned from the rays of sunshine who had been absorbed by the land. It was Michael, not much was left of ‘Brody,’” she wrote in 1949, referring to his old nickname. “I think he finally found that balance. He gave the most of his knowledge, of his talent and ultimately of himself to the war effort.”

Despite his dizzying array of activity, Weimers largely remained an untethered freelancer who unilaterally took on responsibilities that were formalized only in retrospect, a Forrest Gump of sorts who kept uncannily showing up at key moments.

In fact, only on Oct. 14 did the air force head of operations finally dispatch a written statement to the head of the southern front stating that Weimers “serves at the air force representative” regarding the airfields.

By then, the effort was all but complete. Ten days later, Weimers was dead.

With the Negev essentially liberated, Weimers’ attention turned to Sdom, the ancient Jewish settlement near the Dead Sea that remained besieged. The task was to oversee the paving of a new runway for an airfield, since the current landing strips were susceptible to flooding and hazardous for the frequent flights that arrived to deliver supplies to the more than 350 soldiers stationed there, according to air force history literature.

On Oct. 1, Weimers reported that the engineers in Sdom had found an appropriate landing path, and on Oct. 19 he informed the air force that he had given the order to start paving it. He was heading to inspect the progress when he boarded the doomed Dakota flight on the night of Oct. 24.

Israel’s newly formed military also didn’t quite know what to make of the strange outsider with English and German mannerisms. But the Wild West atmosphere of the times suited Weimers perfectly.

The mission began with the four foreigners boarding in Haifa with a joyrider and his dog. The joyrider and dog disembarked at Sde Dov military airport in Tel Aviv, where the supplies were loaded for Sdom. Weimers signed the delivery papers and then drank a cup of tea at the canteen before hopping aboard the aircraft with the others at 22:40. After a delay because of foggy conditions, the plane took off smoothly.

Almost immediately, though, the right engine began to overheat and spit out flames. The pilot redirected for an emergency landing at the Tel Nof air base, but the engine exploded within sight of the airfield, breaking off the right wing and sending the plane spiraling to the ground at 23:55, when it exploded into a ball of fire. Firefighters who arrived on the scene found debris scattered for miles and “burned body parts.”

Weimers was identified by the “three-to-four day” stubble on his face. Unlike the others, who were cleanshaven, Weimers had recently begun growing a beard.

“I have never witnessed such destruction. There was nothing left of the plane,” Squadron 103 commander Danny Rozin wrote in his report.

An investigation could not determine the exact cause for the crash. The Dakota was 100 hours overdue for servicing and criminally overused. The squadron’s chief mechanic had begged to have its engines replaced and a nagging oil leak fixed. He also repeatedly warned against flying without proper fire extinguishers on board. But on the eve of the fateful flight, he was granted a rare 48-hour leave and the flight took off without his consent. The crew had neither fire extinguishers on board nor emergency parachutes and IDs, as required.

The following day, flight orders were clarified so that flights had to have parachutes for each of those departing, under penalty of court martial. The devastating crash led safety concerns being taken more seriously. More flights were canceled, and pilots more often refused to take off if they felt unsafe.

Upon his death, 28-year-old Michael Weimers, military ID 81338, was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He was the ninth, and final, war casualty of Kibbutz Revivim out of its 30 members. He was buried at the military cemetery in Rehovot in a joint bloc alongside two of the Canadian volunteers who crashed with him: pilot Wilfred Canter and navigator Willy Fisher.

“Only after he died did we fully realize who this man was and how vast were his talents,” wrote his kibbutz mate de-Malach.

“He was a special sort of character. Just very positive,” added Tolkovsky, the former air force chief. “Just a very nice man. Energetic, humble and constantly running about dealing with things about the Negev.”

After Weimers’ death, the war pressed on and he, like the others, was slowly forgotten. There was nothing glamorous about the overloaded, rickety plane long overdue for servicing that crashed while delivering flour, coffee, and soap to besieged Israelis when heroic military sacrifices were happening all around.

When the fighting ultimately subsided, and Israel finally came around to telling its story, there weren’t many around to tell his.

The airfield in Sdom was eventually named after Weimers, and his name appeared on a few long-forgotten war monuments scattered across the country. In 1978, Kibbutz Revivim renamed the meteorological center he founded in his honor. The kibbutz also casually mentioned him as one of its fallen at its annual Memorial Day remembrance service.

Because of Weimers’ murky status, and a puzzling lack of outreach from his extended family, there remained a loophole: He wasn’t formally commemorated at any military facility. As far as the air force was concerned, he had essentially vanished.

Though the four foreigners who died alongside him had no local advocates for their commemoration, they were included in the annual memorial ceremonies honoring the 123 casualties among the overseas volunteers. But Weimers was not. Only in 2008, when a formal remembrance hall was established at the Nevatim air force base in southern Israel, did its curator, Tal Landman, begin looking for the so-called “orphaned fallen soldiers” who hadn’t been formally commemorated.

He and his partners, Efrat and Gideon Gal, methodically put the puzzle together until, they thought, only one missing piece remained: Wilf Canter. That’s how they got to me, and the connection to my grandfather. Eventually all four were commemorated in photos and biographies that were included in Nevatim’s vast memorial hall.

Weimers, though, once again, was the odd man out. Because he wasn’t officially a member of their squadron, he was not included. However, he still wasn’t recognized anywhere else either, leaving him as one of just 26 “orphaned fallen soldiers” among the 1,520 casualties in the history of the Israeli air force.

Once Landman, the reserve air force officer, became aware of this slight, he set out to rectify it.

“I believe no one deserves to die twice. No one deserves to fall into the abyss of obliviousness,” he explained. “These people gave their lives for the country, and we can’t have a situation where no one knows that they ever existed.”

He began lobbying the Nevatim base for Weimers’ inclusion and, in parallel, began digging up Weimers’ file and searching for any relatives.

A lengthy paper trail led to an interview in the early 2000s in an obscure newsletter of a nonprofit called the Association of Israelis of Central European Origin, in which a certain Yoav Tsur described his upbringing in Germany. In the interview he disclosed that his original family name was Weimersheimer, and that he had a younger brother who died in the 1948 war, and for whom his youngest son was named.

A phone directory search led to Landman placing a late-night phone call in February 2021 to a stunned Michael Tsur who suddenly discovered that the Israeli air force was looking for the next of kin of his namesake and long-lost uncle who died more than 72 years ago.

On April 9, 2021, I joined Landman, other air force officials and Efrat and Gideon Gal in the coastal city of Herzliya for a meeting with more than 20 members of Weimers’ extended family across four generations.

Weimers’ now-deceased siblings—older brother Yoav Tsur and older sister Michal Yaffe—each had four children of their own, and their children were just as curious as we were to learn more about their mysterious great-uncle.

Tsur’s daughter, Noa Schendar, came armed with pictures, scrapbooks, and documents showcasing the family’s journey from Germany via England to Israel. The detailed records of Weimers’ life and death she provided proved essential in crafting this article.

Among the findings was the only known media reference to Weimers’ wartime contribution. In 1964, an Israel radio trivia show did a segment on Weimers and his role in “Operation Dust Bowl.” In a letter to the show’s producers on May 29, 1964, his sister Michal Yaffe noted how happy he was in the final months of his life. She said he was consumed by his service and would arrive exhausted for brief stays with her, during which he could sleep for 24 hours straight.

Among the material was also the testimony of Yoav Tsur’s wife, Shulamit, who recalled Weimers’ last visit with them during the first cease-fire of the 1948 war. She said he arrived for the circumcision ceremony of their firstborn son bearing as gifts cigarettes and a jerrycan of petrol that could be swapped for great value. Their next son, Michael, was named for him.

Michael Tsur, born 15 years after Weimers’ death, said that on the rare moments his father would painfully open up about his late brother, he would remark to his son about the similarities between the two of them, how both were determined men of action who overcame obstacles.

“He would say things like, ‘That’s something only my brother Michael would have said,’” Tsur recalled. “My father didn’t say much but he missed his brother. And my name, and these similarities, helped us grow closer. It gave me great pride to carry that name.”

Most insightful, though, was the firsthand recollection of Shulamit’s elderly sister, 93-year-old Yehudit Milo. She told me she had warm memories of her brother-in-law. She said Weimers was very handsome, gentle and polite. Once, he had asked her out to a movie and was a perfect gentleman.

But she also described an awkward man who had trouble connecting with others and who, had he lived today, would likely be diagnosed with a learning disability or placed somewhere along the autism spectrum.

This description of Weimers, and of his often-detached family, help explain some of Weimers’ lack of recognition. Yes, the Israeli military was less scrupulous in those days about honoring its dead and keeping in close contact with their survivors. But it seems that Weimers’ family had little interest in delving into the past either.

“They were a German ‘Yekke’ family who didn’t indulge in emotions,” explained Weimers’ niece Noa Schendar. “They didn’t invest in his memory and didn’t discuss it. They weren’t religious and ascribed no significance to Jewish traditions. It wasn’t in their culture. As far as they were concerned, what happened with Michael happened and they moved on.”

Schendar, who inherited the family archive from her aunt Michal, said it was typical of the family’s inability to cope with emotions. When she discovered Landman’s outreach she was overcome with a deep sense of regret.

“How could Michael be considered an ‘orphaned fallen soldier?’” she asked. “We have a large family. We just didn’t know.”

In retrospect, however, she says there is symbolism in how it all played out.

“All his life he was an outsider, someone that people didn’t quite understand or know how to handle,” she said. “It’s fitting that he would remain so in death.”

More than 70 years after his passing, Weimers is now officially recognized at the Nevatim airbase for his crucial role as the liaison between the air force and Negev villagers. Several folders of material detail his life and career and honor him for “establishing the landing pads that provided for besieged residents and laying the foundations for the landing of Squadron 103’s Dakotas.”

His siblings’ descendants have since visited the site and have been included in various air force alumni events. The story of Michael Weimers is one the family now celebrates and shares.

Last Memorial Day, Michael Tsur also made the pilgrimage to his uncle’s gravesite in Rehovot. There he felt a sense of guilt over all the lost years in which Weimers was forgotten.

“I asked for forgiveness,” Tsur told me. “This was a very special and unique man who we didn’t know anything about, and we made no effort to find out about either. But now there is a feeling that we are righting that wrong.”

Aron Heller is an Israel-based feature writer, columnist, and broadcaster. He was also a longtime Associated Press correspondent and journalism lecturer. His Twitter feed is @aron_heller.

Join Us!

All of Tablet’s latest stories—in your inbox, daily. Subscribe to our newsletter.

Please enter a valid email
Check iconSuccess! You have subscribed to the Tablet newsletter.