By Jesse Robitaille
Isidore “Issie” Baum has lived in Montreal for many of his 73 years, but his influence as a stamp dealer, community leader and family patriarch stretches across time and space.
When Baum was 20-years-old, he moved to Israel, where he joined a kibbutz before eventually meeting his future wife, Zila, and fighting in the Six-Day War. It was 1967, and he was serving in the Israel Defense Forces as an infantry soldier and radio specialist.
“Our unit took a village called Latrun, midway between Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem and where hundreds died during the 1948 War of Liberation,” said Baum, adding he was often stationed at the bombed-out Allenby Bridge, serving as official translator and giving interviews to various newspapers – mostly in English but also in French and some German – and acting as Red Cross liaison for his unit.
“I had a beard down to my knees, and they didn’t know if I was a soldier or a rabbi or a stamp dealer.”
One day after the war ended (it was July 11, 1967) and given where Baum was stationed, he visited the Western Wall, which had been liberated some 36 hours earlier, and prayed there for the first time before.
“It was one of the most amazing experiences in my life.”
Baum was also allowed a 24-hour leave to visit his wife and then-eight-week-old son; however, while walking home, he noticed a local Arab stamp dealer’s shop and simply couldn’t resist.
“The old city of Jerusalem was still under curfew, and I – like all soldiers – was still in full battle gear, with my Belgian FN rifle, grenades strapped to my waist and extra clips.”
Baum noticed a sign in the shop’s window with the Lebanese name “Elias”. Against all military regulations and without considering the dangers involved, Baum decided to pay the man a visit.
“I knocked on the door, which was opened by a kind-looking middle-aged man.”
Baum said the man spoke English quite well; however, the shop owner was fearful of this supposed “enemy soldier” looming in his midst. Fearful for what was to come, the shop owner told Baum he could take anything he wanted.
But being the gentlemanly sort of fellow he is, Baum explained he wasn’t there to steal stamps, instead he was in the business of buying and selling stamps.
Finally, the shop owner was convinced and began displaying his stock of stamps from Arab countries.
Baum said it’s important to note all Arab states had an embargo on all products from Israel or any international products whose companies had any connection with Jews. As such, in Israel, it was also difficult to find stamps from Arab states; although Israel had no embargo on Arab products, it did have serious currency restrictions that disallowed Israelis from holding any foreign money.
Luckily, back home, Baum had an “illegal” stash of $300 US as well as hundreds of glassine envelopes that remained from a previous philatelic venture the year before.
Baum returned to the Lebanese stamp dealer, giving him the rest of the amount owed – a small fortune at the time, he noted – and proceeding to Jericho, where he was stationed. He organized his newly acquired stamps, placing them in the glassine envelopes and selling them as souvenirs at the Allenby Bridge – “not necessarily to collectors and to all Israelis who came to visit at the bridge,” he said – adding the bridge had been bombed out the week prior.
The business became a wild success but ran afoul of the authorities after only a few days, at which time more than 90 per cent of his stock was sold.
At that time, Baum said, a senior army officer approached him and remarked: “Kennedy, (his nickname in the army was Kennedy because it sounded like ‘Kanadi’, or Canadian in Hebrew) I’m not sure if you’re an army radio NCO, a rabbi, or a stamp dealer. For sure you cannot be all three, so you are hereby demoted to what you started the war with: NCO radio officer.”
About three weeks before Baum was to be demobilized he was patrolling an area near the Jordan River and was shot in the head.
“I was on jeep patrol near a bridge called Damya, about eight to 10 kilometres from the Allenby Bridge, and foolishly was not wearing my helmet. A group of Jordanians – soldiers or Bedouin marauders, we never found out – were nearby, and when taking cover behind a boulder, I was struck in the head, either by a bullet or ricochet,” said Baum, who added he was quickly bandaged and airlifted to a Jerusalem hospital, where he was treated and told to rest for three days.
After managing to convince his doctors to allow him to visit his wife and then-11-week-old son, Baum arrived at the door with a fully bandaged head.
“My wife, who stayed at her mother’s during the entire time I was mobilized, answered the door, and upon seeing me fainted dead away; no one had told her I had been wounded,” he said, adding he returned to the hospital two days later and was pronounced fit to return to his unit for another few weeks.
Baum said he loved his time in Israel despite being shot in the head while fighting a war there.
“I loved living in Israel, was privy to see some historical events take place during my seven years there, including taking part as a photojournalist at the Eichmann trial – another story in itself – but my biggest accomplishment was meeting my wife there and having a baby son born there just weeks before the war,” he said, adding a daughter followed in 1971 after his return to Canada in January 1968.
Back in Canada, Baum would work for 22 years as a comptroller for an import company owned by the now-defunct Dylex Ltd., a large Montreal clothing conglomerate.