Sunday, June 19, 2011 | 2 a.m.
I know this is a special day. My daughter and grandchildren would even tell me it is my special day. As would all children of fathers everywhere.
And because it is my day to do with it what I want, I want to talk about a very special father. His name is Al Schwimmer.
Al died a week ago Saturday in Israel. It was his 94th birthday. There is some sadness, to be sure, as there is with all deaths of family members and friends. But, as it should be with a man who lived hundreds of years packed into less than a century, there was reason to celebrate.
You see, there are few people — like George Washington — who could be called the father of his country. Al Schwimmer, if he wasn’t the father of Israel — David Ben-Gurion gets that high honor — was certainly a very involved son of that remarkable little country.
Actually, Al was an American. Like many young men after World War II who saw an opportunity to help a new country survive its existential war with every one of its Arab neighbors in 1948, Al dropped everything and risked even more to do what he could to help that fledgling nation live.
I am telling this story about Al for three special reasons.
First, Al was my friend. I have known him for more than half a century and during that time I have never known him to be anything other than totally dedicated to the country of his birth, America, and the country of his choice, Israel.
Second, when my father was near death, he gave me three specific jobs. The first two were easy, and I carried them out as any good son would do if given the opportunity to fulfill a dying father’s wish. The third responsibility proved to be just a bit more difficult. I promised Dad that I would tell Al’s story.
Little did I know that Mr. Schwimmer would prove to be a most reluctant storyteller. In fact, his entire life was governed by secrets, so the idea that this humble man would voluntarily talk about himself and his exploits was pretty much a pipe dream. Looking back, I am sure my father knew that, and this was his way of messing with me.
The third reason is the most important. Al Schwimmer epitomized the word “hero.” Humble, mostly unknown, except to the few who knew the truth, and extremely capable and determined. And he never wavered when it came to the question of right and wrong. He was driven beyond measure by the belief that a homeland for the Jews in Israel was the inescapable answer to the horrible question raised by Hitler’s Germany, “wither goest the Jews?”
The documentary “Where I Stand: The Hank Greenspun Story” shares with the world my father’s gunrunning exploits on behalf of Israel. Hank risked life and limb and, certainly, his freedom flying all over the globe in search of weapons and other munitions to help Israel in her time of need. The man who recruited Hank to that righteous cause in 1947 was Al Schwimmer.
When it was all over, the United States prosecuted my father, Al and others for violating a few laws designed to prevent the lifesaving weapons and airplanes from reaching the Israelis who faced well-armed Arab armies with nothing but farm tools and grit. Hank and Al were convicted, paid a fine, were spared prison time and wore their convictions as badges of courage and righteousness throughout their lives.
Their exploits in the early days forged a bond between those two men that was never broken. President John F. Kennedy pardoned my father in 1961. Forty years later, President Bill Clinton gave a righteous and well-deserved pardon to Al Schwimmer.
Whether it was Iran before it was Iran-contra, or President Anwar Sadat’s historic visit to Israel that almost brought peace to the entire region, or the “obtaining” of plans to French fighter jets that a reluctant France was unwilling to provide to the Jewish state, or a host of other exploits that have yet to be discussed, Al Schwimmer was in the mix. Usually at the front of the line.
Israel’s president and Schwimmer’s longtime friend Shimon Peres said Al “was a leader that was not deterred by dangers or wars” who “laid the foundations for Israel’s superiority in ... advanced technology.”
That is a simple statement that is profound on so many levels. Mostly because of what President Peres didn’t or couldn’t say about what Al did for his beloved Israel. Did I tell you that Al is responsible for building Israel’s aerospace industry? Did I tell you he phonied up an airline in Panama in 1948 so he could secretly fly airplanes to Israel? That along the way he stopped in Czechoslovakia to load up the cargo planes with dismantled German Messerschmitts that carried Swastikas on their tails when they flew to Israel, but when they flew in defense of that brand-new country, the Star of David displayed an irony that has protected the Jewish homeland ever since.
I could tell you many stories of who Al Schwimmer was and what his unsung heroism caused him to do throughout his life. The good news, though, is I don’t have to. Although Al did not live quite long enough to see the story of his life come out in print, it will shortly, and it will be a story that everyone in need of heroes will have to read.
This is not a happy Father’s Day for Al’s family. But for what that man did throughout his life, it is a very happy day for millions of others who live because of what Al did.
Happy Father’s Day to all the dads who live the lessons of courage and determination and teach them to their children.
Brian Greenspun is publisher and editor of the Las Vegas Sun.