Daniel Offer remembers the day in December 1947 when he and his schoolmates were excused from class and summoned to the auditorium.
“The principal called all us seniors in the auditorium and said they’re discontinuing the senior class,” remembers Offer.
But summer vacation was not about to begin early. With the Palestine partition plan just announced and Israel’s independence about to become a reality, the certainty of war loomed large. Offer got in line and waited for his assignment.
Offer, a Jerusalemite, learned he would be heading south to the Negev to fight the expected Egyptian forces with the Palmach, the “strike forces,” one of pre-state Israel’s military units. He was the only one from his class assigned to the desert region.
“The Negev was like a foreign land to me,” he recalls.
Born in Berlin in 1931, Offer and his family emigrated to Palestine in 1936. While they were assimilated Germans who didn’t identify as Zionists, Offer’s parents realized soon after Hitler’s rise to power that their future would be elsewhere. His father, a professor of pediatrics, was ousted from his post along with other Jewish professors. According to Offer, his parents said, “If he can do that, he can do anything. We better get the hell out of here.”
Offer has fond memories of life in Israel, even though it got off to a rough start.
“I remember the first day I went to kindergarten, my mother dressed me in lederhosen,” he says. “Everybody laughed and laughed at me. That was not a very good beginning.”
Despite the embarrassing moments associated with integration into a new society, “it was a very happy life,” he says.
His mother loved their new country. His father returned to Germany after the war and remarried, to the daughter of a preeminent anti-Hitler military figure who was instrumental in obtaining reparations from Germany for Israel.
By the time Offer received his orders to join the Palmach, he was a proud member of the burgeoning state.
“I believed it was my duty to fight,” he said. “I had zero problems about joining the army. I was very proud of what we did accomplish in ‘48.”
As expected, on May 15, 1948, six Arab armies attacked Israel from nearly every direction. Initially equipped with a 20-pound Canadian rifle, Offer, who says, “I was not a big guy, I’m still not a big guy,” served as a scout and a member of the submachine gun unit.
“Oh, I was very scared,” he says. “At that time I was sure that I wouldn’t survive the war. My best friend was killed in the war in ‘48. I saw people get killed. Not many, but enough to scare me. I was amazed and surprised that I wasn’t killed.”
Though roughly 600,000 Jews in Palestine were surrounded by 30 million Arabs, Offer remembers Winston Churchill saying that one Jewish soldier could take care of 50 Arab soldiers, and the Jews would win the war.
“And that’s what happened,” he says.
In the Negev, Offer did not see the more traumatic battles, such as those around Jerusalem. He remembers his unit releasing imprisoned Egyptian soldiers from an old British police station after a ceasefire.
“They all waved to us,” he recalls with a laugh. “It was funny. We waved to them, too. They had no interest in continuing to fight.”
The Palmach’s biggest battle in the south was for Beer Sheva, an Arab-dominated area originally slated in the partition plan for Arab control.
“Beer Sheva was only a small town, and the Arabs all ran away,” says Offer. “At that time, there was nothing there. We didn’t have to fight very hard.”
From there, they headed down to Eilat for the final battle of the war, only to find that region largely abandoned as well. Offer remembers one of his friends stripping down and diving into the Red Sea.
After being sent to Haifa to recover from Hepatitis C, Offer trained in first aid and served in the Israel Defense Forces from 1948 to 1950. Following his medical ambition (there were no medical schools in Israel at the time), he moved to the United States to pursue a degree at the University of Rochester and medical school at the University of Chicago. He spent his career at Northwestern University specializing in adolescent psychiatry.
As for his decision to stay in American, Offer reflects on his success: Eighteen books, 200 articles.
“I don’t think I could have done that in Israel,” he says. “We stand in a crossroads. Some people go right, some people go left. For me I think it was the right thing to do.”
At 81, Offer still returns to Israel every other year to visit his brother. He continues to admire the country and the people.
“Whatever happens, [Israelis] don’t feel sorry for themselves. They’re terrific hopers. They hope very well,” he says. “I really appreciate that. I look at how comfortable Americans have it, and how they complain and are critical. I’m always amazed, and I think to myself, ‘What if the Japanese had conquered part of the U.S., the West Coast — what would have happened?’”
Offer and his wife, Marjorie, relocated to Mercer Island to be near their daughter and her family. They have another daughter in Palo Alto, Calif., and a son in London.
With the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence coming up on April 16, Offer says, “I think a lot about the state, what it was then when I was a soldier, and what it has become. I’m very proud of it.
“I think it has done a lot of good for the Jewish people,” he adds. “You can be very proud that there’s an Israel.”