Israel, 1948: Vidal Sassoon in Combat

Not long before becoming the world's most famous hairstylist and building a business empire, Sassoon fought for Israeli independence. He lost friends, gained confidence, went weeks without a shower, and literally never learned the Hebrew word for 'retreat'...

A well-coifed Vidal Sassoon poses for a photo while in Israel, 1948 (Original photo: Toldot Yisrael via the Sassoon Family / Colorization: MyHeritage)

“As I left the hall, I knew that I would not be cutting hair for quite some time.”

April 1948. Vidal Sassoon, a poor 20-year-old Jew who had been learning how to cut women’s hair by day and literally fighting fascists on the streets of London by night, had just been clandestinely recruited to battle for Israel’s independence.

He would soon find himself in Paris and then aboard a dodgy Dakota aircraft, eventually landing outside Haifa after stops in Rome and Athens. Grouped with other English-speaking volunteers in the Palmach, the elite combat force that would later be integrated into the Israel Defense Forces, Vidal and his comrades were sent to the Negev where they lived in stark huts and went weeks without changing clothes or showering, let alone doing their hair.

Like many other foreign volunteers, Vidal’s Hebrew was sparse.

In a rare 2010 interview conducted as part of Toldot Yisrael, an oral history project focused on Israel’s founding generation, he recalled:

“They never taught us the word ‘retreat’ in Hebrew.”

“All orders were given in Hebrew, which none of us understood, though we soon learned the hard way to recognize the sounds,” he elaborated in his first memoir, Sorry I Kept You Waiting, Madam. In fact, the gap in his linguistic knowledge almost got Sassoon killed when an Egyptian armored car sped towards him, “blazing away with its machine gun,” its bullets “tickling the sand all around us”:

“… nobody had told us how to say ‘Run like mad’ in that ancient tongue. Maybe they thought we would never hear it…”

Sassoon and his friends scurried up the nearest hill, racing for cover alongside their sabra brothers-in-arms. One of the faster soldiers, Sassoon would have caught up without any issue, if not for an unexpected and embarrassing turn of events…

“I would have made it easily, had I not been hit – by a very personal crisis. My belt burst!

…My plants flopped around my ankles. I fell flat on my face. By the time I got the sand out of my mouth and my pants at the correct military level, my comrades were fifty yards ahead, scrambling up that hill in a cloud of dust. Sten gun in one hand, decency held high with the other, I took off after them…”

In a later memoir, Vidal: The Autobiography, Sassoon recounted:

“News of my exploit got around, and for about a month soldiers that I didn’t even know would look at me and start laughing. The embarrassment stayed with me, but there’s no doubt it was a memorable lesson in self-preservation…”

Yet the war was, of course, not all fun and games.

Sassoon and 41 fellow soldiers took a strategic hill from Egyptian forces in a daring early morning assault, the success of which he called “a bloody miracle” – and one which cost a heavy price. Seven soldiers were killed taking “Hill 18”, while numerous other left the battlefield on stretchers.

A funeral in the Negev for fallen Palmach soldiers, 1948. The photo appears in an historic album available online as part of a collaboration between the Palmach Photo Gallery, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel
Tending to Palmach casualties in the Negev, 1948. The photo appears in an historic album available online as part of a collaboration between the Palmach Photo Gallery, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

“I wasn’t touched. I was also one of the lucky ones. But the casualties were very high,” he later recalled of his service fighting in and around the Gaza Strip as part of the strategically imperative Operation Yoav.

The soon-to-be legendary hairdresser’s most harrowing experiences during the war was seeing one of his friends get killed as he ran towards Vidal with some rations.

“Half his head came away. A sniper caught him. I think it’s the only time that I really got out of sorts… I went to the end of the trench and just vomited,” he recounted in the 2010 interview.

Vidal remembered the first shower he took on a kibbutz after leaving the battlefield quite vividly, calling it “one of the greatest luxuries I have ever known.”

“The water cascaded down on us, streaking away the filth of days and washing away some of the grimmer memories, too.”

Though somewhat striking in contrast, perhaps it’s no wonder that the name “Vidal Sassoon” would become synonymous with ubiquitous shower-centric commercials, soaps, shampoos and other products.

“I came back from Israel with so much more confidence… It gave me the inspiration to go on and do other things,” he recalled in his Toldot Yisrael interview.

Within just a few short years of his “luxurious” shower in the Negev, the poor Jewish kid from London became the world’s most famous hairstylist, a universal symbol of popular culture, his name gracing salons, academies, and beauty products across the planet.

Already by the mid-1960s he was a global cultural icon, recognized and referenced even in faraway Israel. Israeli hairdressers would boast that their cuts were “like at Vidal’s”. Some of them had even gone to London to learn from the master himself, though most just went to his academies or simply mimicked the styles he created and popularized.

Yet it wasn’t until after the publication of his first memoir in 1968, and the expansion of his business empire in the years that followed, that Sassoon’s participation in Israel’s fight for independence became more widely known.

In 1970, David Carmeli, Sassoon’s commander in the Palmach who had since became a respected expert in water and agricultural engineering at the prestigious Technion, was flown to London to surprise Vidal on an episode of the show “This is Your Life”.

A few years later, Carmeli was brought to New York to speak at a special event celebrating the “first annual Beauty Hall of Fame award dinner of the American Jewish Congress” – an honor so specific that it seems to have been created solely for Vidal Sassoon, who was apparently the “annual” award’s only ever recipient.

Published in The Sentinel on December 25, 1975; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection
Published in the Bnai Brith Messenger on December 12 1975; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

For the rest of his life, Vidal Sassoon built an empire of style and philanthropy – vocally and financially supporting many Jewish and Zionist including the Hebrew University and its Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism. He believed that global antisemitism could only be defeated through education of the young and a “very powerful Israel which upholds the dignity of Jews everywhere.”

“Israel gave us dignity. Israel means our very life’s blood. We can’t have any race or people decide our destiny,” he said at a 1981 fashion show to raise money for Israel Bonds.

More than thirty years earlier, matters at home had required Vidal to leave Israel for London after his step-father had a heart attack and his beloved mother – who had encouraged him to go and fight – needed her son at home to help support her.

Shortly before Vidal returned to England, the fiancée of the man he had seen killed in action told him:

“This is your home, Vidal. This is your country. It’s not enough just to fight for it. That’s pointless, in fact, if you don’t stay to help build it.”

“Was she right?” Vidal questioned two decades later.

“Sometimes I wonder.”


Many thanks to the Toldot Yisrael team for their assistance preparing this article. Their complete interview with Vidal Sassoon is available here. Toldot Yisrael is an initiative dedicated to documenting the testimonies of the State of Israel’s founding generation. The collection is now deposited at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

The Yemenite Jews Who Arrived in the Holy Land in 1881

Shortly before what is known as "The First Aliyah”, a group of Jews from Yemen arrived in the Land of Israel. Several dozen Yemenite families had embarked on a long and arduous journey to settle in Jerusalem. Once there, they encountered hostility, arrogance, and deprivation on the part of their fellow Jews. Where did they turn and who came to their aid?


Houses in the village of Shiloah, the Haim Berger Collection, from the Bitmuna Collection, the National Library of Israel

When did “The First Aliyah” – the first major wave of Zionist immigration to the Land of Israel – begin? If you answer by recounting the pogroms in Russia in 1881 and the pioneers of the Bilu movement, you may be mistaken. There were various reasons that led historians to label this wave of immigrants from Europe as “The First Aliyah”, when in fact Jews had been immigrating to the region in a steady trickle before then, from different parts of the globe. Several months before the Eastern European Jews landed in the port of Jaffa to expand and revitalize the local Jewish community, another group of Jews had arrived, but to much less historical fanfare. These were Yemenite Jews, most of them from the city of Sana’a, who had set out on an arduous journey to the Land of Israel shortly after the festival of Shavuot, in May 1881.

What led them to take this step? The reasons are not entirely clear, but apparently, a contributing factor was the Ottoman governor of Yemen’s issuing of an immigration permit. The first few arrived in August 1881. In the following months, and throughout 1882, more immigrants arrived from Yemen, about 200 people in all. In comparison, the Bilu pioneers that landed a few months later numbered only a few dozen. The Hebrew name given to this wave of Yemenite immigrants, E’eleh BeTamar, means, “I will climb up into the palm tree”. It is taken from a verse in the Song of Songs (7:9), and also derives from an anagram of the Hebrew year 5642 – תרמ”ב (corresponding to 1881-1882 and pronounced tarmab in Hebrew).

Two Yemenite immigrants, a man and a child, in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

The Jewish community in the Land of Israel at the time, the Yishuv, consisted of both new arrivals and long-time residents who had been around for generations. Immigrant newcomers had just established the farming community of Petah Tikva, another at Rosh Pina had recently been abandoned, to be re-established the following year, and studies were underway in the Jewish agricultural school at Mikveh Israel.  Yet the majority of Jews in the Land of Israel resided in the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberias and Safed. These people were known collectively as the “Old Yishuv.”

The new immigrants from Yemen had their sights set on only one place – Zion, Jerusalem. Their journey had been long and difficult, with few friendly and welcoming faces along the way. They had to pass through rough terrain, traveling through Egypt and India, until they finally reached the Holy Land. Even those who had left Yemen with means arrived in the Land of Israel with their pockets empty.

Two Yemenite immigrants in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Once in the Land of Israel, they made their way to Jerusalem. But when they reached the city, these Jews from a distant land, dressed in their unique garb, or what was left of it, were met with hostility. The Yemenite Jews not only looked very different from the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews already living there, they followed different traditions, which made it difficult for them to integrate into the Jewish population. What’s more, some of the locals even called into question the new immigrants’ Judaism. This was somewhat ironic, considering Jews were living in Yemen well before Europe’s Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities even coalesced into existence.

The suspicion and doubt also had practical implications. The Old Yishuv in Jerusalem was organized according to community networks, called kollels, which facilitated financial support for the city’s Jewish residents. The Yemenite Jews’ incompatibility with the familiar ethnic patterns caused the community’s administrators to refuse to accept them into the existing kollels and, as a result, they did not receive their share of the charity funds that supported the city’s Jews during this period. In practical terms, this also meant that the recent Jewish arrivals from Yemen were forbidden from settling within the walls of the Old City.

Destitute and looked upon as foreigners, the Yemenite Jewish immigrants had no choice but to seek housing elsewhere. Still, they did not relinquish their dream of settling in Jerusalem. As a first step, they built simple huts outside the Old City’s walls and slept outdoors, under the open sky. Some Yemenite immigrants even slept in caves, barns, and other makeshift shelters in the vicinity of the walled city.

Homes in the village of Shiloah in late the 19th century. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Degani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel
The village of Shiloah in the late 19th century. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Degani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The immigrants did not wait for handouts or for someone else to rescue them. The young people among them immediately went to look for work among the city’s Arab contractors. They did not shy away from manual labor such as mixing mortar, portering, carrying heavy stones for building, or road paving. The older immigrants engaged in handicrafts such as carpentry or pottery repair. However, these jobs were not enough to support the entire community, and the issue of housing was still in need of a solution.

The Yemenite immigrants also continued in their attempts to join one of the kollels in the city in order to receive the distribution money to which they were entitled. Surprisingly, there were periods when the group was part of the Ashkenazi kollel. Eventually, however, they joined the Sephardi kollel, whose members spoke Hebrew and Arabic using a pronunciation that made it easier for the Yemenite Jews to communicate, as opposed to the Ashkenazi Jews whose pronunciation was significantly different. Years later, the Yemenite Jews established their own independent community, in part because of the condescending attitudes of their fellow Jews, who did not allocate them a fair share of the charity funds arriving from abroad.

Yemenite boys playing in the streets of the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, at the National Library of Israel

Refused housing inside the city proper, the Yemenite Jews hoped to settle down as nearby as possible. Their salvation came from an unexpected source. Israel Dov Frumkin, the editor of the Havatzelet newspaper, ardently campaigned on behalf of the Yemenite immigrants. He wrote about their dismal situation in his paper, and contacted the philanthropist Boaz Ben Yonatan Mizrahi, who eventually donated half of the land he owned on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, near the Kidron River, to the immigrants from Yemen. The new tenants called it the village of Shiloah, after the famous Pool of Shiloah (or Siloam) fed by the Gihon Spring.

The proximity to the Old City and the Temple Mount—only a quarter of an hour’s walk—as well as the nearby water sources and open farmland contributed to the Yemenite Jews’ decision to settle there. But they were not alone. The village of Silwan, most of whose residents are Arab, exists to this day. Locals testified that neighborly relations were very good to begin with, and the Jewish and Arab residents would visit and take part in each other’s festivities. According to these testimonies, the Arabs even learned to sing Yemenite wedding songs.

A Yemenite immigrant boy with a lamb in the village of Shiloah. Courtesy of the estate of Zeev Aleksandrowicz, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The settlement grew slowly, reaching 150 families at its peak. The expansion stopped when the intensifying Jewish-Arab conflict in other parts of the country reached the village. During the Arab riots of 1929, traveling the roads to Shiloah became dangerous for the village’s Jewish residents, with several violent incidents taking place in the area. With tensions mounting, the village Mukhtar, Hajj Muhammad Ruslan, interceded on behalf of the Jewish residents, confronting the violent instigators. In order not to escalate the situation, the Jewish residents even refused the Haganah’s offer to send fighters to protect them. Ultimately, the Mukhtar could not fend off the rioters. The Jews of Shiloah left their belongings with their Arab neighbors and moved temporarily into the Old City, where they lived like refugees. After calm was restored, the Jews returned to the village, and the story of the Mukhtar coming to their aid became etched in their memory.

Nevertheless, neighborly relations could not survive the intensifying conflict. The Great Arab Revolt of 1936–1939 finally ended the Jewish settlement in the village of Shiloah. The Arab boycott of Jewish products and the closure of the Dung Gate by the authorities cut the village off from the city – a devastating economic blow. There was also increasing harassment by Arab gangs who came from Hebron and Nablus, in addition to looting and even cases of murder. Slowly, more and more families left until in August 1938, exactly 57 years after the first immigrants from Sana’a, Yemen, arrived in Jerusalem, the last of Shiloah’s Jewish residents was evacuated.

This article includes photos from the collection of photographer Zeev Aleksandrowicz. You can find many more photos taken by Aleksandrowicz in Shiloah, along with other photos from the area on the National Library Israel website, here.

Thanks to Dr. Rachel Yedid, director of the “E’eleh BeTamar” association for their help in preparing this article.

A Haredi Holocaust Hero in the Congo

"I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color."

Dr. David Sompolinsky with children in Congo-Léopoldville, 1960 (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

“According to the newspaper and the radio, the Congo is now the epicenter of global unrest, a powder keg. And here I am some 30 days in the Congo. The land is quiet, pleasant, smiling.”

Sometime in the summer of 1960, Dr. David Sompolinsky — an ultra-Orthodox Jew throughout his long life — scribbled these words onto Air France stationery, part of a 12-page handwritten report on his time in the fledgling African nation.

Nearly two decades had passed since Sompolinsky had risked his life in a very different environment, working valiantly to save hundreds of fellow Danish Jews from the Nazis. In his book October ’43, devout Christian Danish resistance fighter Aage Bertelsen — who worked closely with Sompolinsky rescuing Danish Jews — recalled David’s vast knowledge of halakha, which he kept “conscientiously and rigidly… even more than other orthodox Jews,” as well as his striking, selfless courage:

“Incessantly, day and night, literally, David was busy helping, completely disregarding his own dangerous situation… He was on the go everywhere, and everywhere he looked up Jews and helped them out, always bubbling with activity, yet always well balanced, cheerful, but also cunning and level-headed.”

After the war, David returned to Denmark, where he finished his studies prior to moving to Israel in 1951. It was in his new home that he would soon become a respected expert in microbiology and take part in an epic mission to Africa.


Developing nations

In the summer of 1960 there were two newly established neighboring countries, both known as “The Republic of the Congo.”  To avoid confusion, the Belgian Congo was referred to as “Congo-Léopoldville,” and the French Congo as “Congo-Brazzaville”.

Only 12 years old itself, Israel was still a developing country at the time. The Sompolinsky family, like many others, did not even have a refrigerator in their home. Nevertheless, the young state — driven by Jewish humanitarian values and practical diplomatic concerns — dispatched the mission and numerous others like it in those early years. Israel had, in fact, boasted one of the largest delegations at Congo-Léopoldville’s official independence festivities on June 30, 1960, which included then-Minister of Finance Levi Eshkol.

King Baudouin of Belgium reviews Congolese troops after his arrival in the Congo for independence ceremonies, June 1960 (Congopresse / Public domain)

Sompolinsky was asked to join an Israeli delegation being sent to help set up the nascent country’s medical system. Headlines from Léopoldville were troubling. Violence and chaos appeared prevalent. Rumors reached Sompolinsky’s wife, an Auschwitz survivor with nine kids under the age of 14 at home, that cannibals were prevalent in the Congo. And yet David, who had risked his life saving the Jews of Denmark, felt obligated to use his professional expertise to help those in need and fulfill what he saw as his Zionistic civic duty.

And so, one day in July 1960, Mrs. Sompolinsky took her nine small children along to Lod Airport to bid farewell to their father, and he was off to Africa.


Surprises in the Congo

The Israelis nearly didn’t make it to their destination. After stopping in neighboring French Congo, the team was informed that it wouldn’t be able to get to Léopoldville because the situation was too unstable. Determined to nonetheless begin their mission as soon as possible, they managed to score rides on two small planes and a helicopter, eventually reaching their destination on July 24, 1960.

What the Israelis found in the Congo surprised them: in some ways better than what they anticipated, and in some ways much worse. In an interview published in the Ma’ariv newspaper shortly after Sompolinsky returned to Israel, he even used the word “holocaust” to describe the medical situation they encountered when they arrived:

“When the Belgians were in the Congo, there were 800 doctors and 50 veterinarians. Now, almost all of them have left the country. Medically this is a holocaust, and yet the Congolese believe that they can overcome anything as long as they are their own masters.”

Many of the estimated 200 hospitals and 80,000 beds were inaccessible due to violence, instability, and other factors. The situation they found was a bizarre paradox of sorts, as the former colony was actually exceedingly well-equipped in some respects, especially compared to Israel at the time.

“Preventative medicine in the Congo is incomparably more developed than in Israel… They have equipment that we in Israel don’t even dream of,” Sompolinsky assessed, recalling one of the hospitals in Léopoldville as “massive,” with an exceptional institute for tropical medicine unlike anything in Israel.

Dr. Sompolinsky teaching bacteriology (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

With the indigenous population barred from many areas of higher education and training under the oppressive Belgian colonial system, the young country suffered from a gaping vacuum in terms of personnel to operate key areas of the medical system. When he got there, for example, Sompolinsky found that some locals knew how to perform various lab tests but had never been trained in analyzing the results, rendering their efforts all but pointless. By the time he and his team left, the Congolese could run the labs and analyze test results completely independently.

“The Congolese are a marvelous people, warm and full of faith in the future,” Sompolinsky would later report.

Sompolinsky with Congolese children (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He and his team had indeed been warmly welcomed. They encountered no cannibals and did not feel particularly threatened as “white” people, which they thought they might. Locals clarified that it was only the Belgians they hated, not all whites. White UN soldiers were actually a common sight in the streets of Léopoldville: The young doctor recalled shocking some Swedish UN personnel when — speaking fluently in their native tongue — he explained what the Israelis were doing in Africa and told them all about life in Israel.

As far as the natives themselves were concerned, Jerusalem and Nazareth were familiar from the Holy Bible, not from any contemporary atlas. Sompolinsky and his colleagues, sporting the symbol of the Jewish state, were in many cases the first to ever inform many of those they encountered that the State of Israel existed.


Distance learning

Walking to fulfill his medical mission one Shabbat (when driving is forbidden according to Jewish law), Sompolinsky was stopped by a group of Congolese soldiers “hunting” for whites,  according to the Ma’ariv article:

“At first he was stuck in a quandary, but ultimately decided to act as naturally as possible. He approached the Congolese officer and said ‘mbote‘ to him, meaning ‘hello’. This greeting was enough: Within one minute Dr. Sompolinsky found himself surrounded by Congolese soldiers listening with intent and curiosity to the reason the Israeli delegation had come.”

Though already in 1960 there were some Israelis and other Jews living in the Congo, Sompolinsky was unable to form them into a minyan (prayer quorum of 10 Jewish men), even on Shabbat. Never one to compromise his kashrut standards, Sompolinsky survived largely on papaya and other fruits.

Yet his physical distance from the “comforts” of Jewish communal life and his children did not stop him from working to fulfill the commandment to educate them, as evidenced in the postcards he frequently sent back to his family. He would drop them at the Israeli Embassy simply addressed to: “Mademoiselle Sompolinsky, Rishon Lezion.”

Sompolinsky with the Congolese family that “adopted” him (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

In the letters, he provides details of his daily life in the Congo, while also clearly trying to model and educate his children from afar. In one, he describes seeing traditional African face scarring, and then goes on to explain to his children how the practice is forbidden according to Jewish law.

On the solemn day of Tisha B’Av, he wrote how his fast had gone quite easily and that in the afternoon he would put on his tallit and tefillin, in accordance with Ashkenazic Jewish tradition. In the same letter, he chronicles some of the many injustices the local Black population had to bear under Belgian rule, his tone clearly reflecting the deep impact that seeing such racism had on him, a devout Jew who narrowly escaped the Nazi genocide.

The only Black person allowed on white buses was the driver.

Bathrooms and kitchens were segregated, with Blacks given far inferior facilities.

Black people who wanted to use the telephone had to submit a special request, including the reason for the call and the name of the intended recipient.

Blacks were expected to greet and bow to any whites they encountered, without ever expecting even the most basic acknowledgment of their existence in return.

In this context, Sompolinsky clearly took pride in the role he was able to play in helping the new masters of the Congo set up a functional medical system following centuries of colonial rule and oppression:

“I have no doubt, and I am happy and proud that our mission is spreading the idea of loving one another, loving humanity, without paying attention to skin color.”

In the letters, he told his wife and kids how much he missed them and beckoned the children not to fight with one another or with their mother. When he came back to Israel, he brought exotic gifts including de-toxined poison arrows, with which generations of Sompolinsky children would play.

Sompolinsky helped start a program to bring Congolese fellows for training at Bar Ilan University, and over the next six decades he would become a prominent figure in the field of microbiology, playing an active role as Israel became a global leader in medical research and practice.

Sompolinsky later in life in his lab (Courtesy: The Sompolinsky Family)

He even launched a few public health crusades of his own, including one to warn his local ultra-Orthodox community about the fatal dangers of smoking.

David Sompolinsky continued working well into his 90s. He passed away in October 2021 at the age of 100.

An extensive obituary appearing on the leading ultra-Orthodox news site B’hadrei Hadarim eulogized Sompolinsky as not only a savior of Danish Jewry and a founding father of Israel’s scientific community, but also as a genius “immersed in the world of Torah, a tremendous scholar who never spoke idle chatter” and who had special relationships with some of the 20th century’s most prominent rabbis, including the Hazon Ish and the Brisker Rov.

Perhaps reflecting hopes for his own children at the time, Sompolinsky had concluded his 1960 report with his belief in “a happy and prosperous future for the Congolese people,” whose youth were “courageous and knowledge-seeking.”

The mission to the Congo was a biographical drop in Sompolinsky’s century-long story, but a tale that was known to many of his estimated 700 living descendants, and one that undoubtedly reflected a man with seemingly boundless dedication to bettering the human experience and remaining full of faith in the future.


A version of this article was originally published in Tablet MagazineIt appears here as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

When Nazi Swastikas Were Paraded in Downtown Tel Aviv

Tel Aviv's Purim parades between 1933 and 1935 evolved from joyous celebrations into full-on protests against Nazi Germany

A mock-up of a canon, adorned with a swastika, and an effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This photograph is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. The clear and present danger to world Jewry was obvious to many, including here in what was then still Mandatory Palestine.

A month and a half later, on March 13th, Tel Aviv held its annual Purim parade, the “Adloyada”. Among the costumes, colorful displays and general revelry, one cry of protest stood out in the crowd.

This was an exhibit designed by a group of Jewish immigrants from the Caucasus region. It displayed Hitler on horseback, pursuing two Jews as they ran terrified before him. They appeared beaten and bruised. The exhibit was titled, “Hitler in Pursuit and the Land of Israel Remains Locked Shut”. A sign was hung on Hitler’s neck, reading “Death to All Jews”. We were unfortunately unable to find a photograph of this particular exhibit in the archives.

The German Consulate heard of the stunt and sent a sharp letter of rebuke to Tel Aviv Mayor Meir Dizengoff, written in English. The Consul was most perturbed:

“Besides being of opinion that the person of a leading statesman on such an occasion should never be made the object of presentation whatever the intention might have been, I find myself in the necessity to protest most urgently against the tendencious [sic] manner in which Herr Hitler was publicly represented in this special case…I sincerely hope that they will think it right to apologize.”

The letter sent to Mayor Dizengoff, the Tel Aviv Municipality Archives

Dizengoff refused to apologize, responding:

“It is clear that this display is nothing but a spontaneous reaction reflecting a public view that is unwilling to accept the fate of the Jews of Germany. In fact, one wonders why the protest was not even sharper…”

The truth is, there was room to doubt the “spontaneous” nature of the exhibit, as it had been pre-approved by the municipality, which even rewarded the designers with a cash prize.

The Hitler exhibit won sixth place and a cash prize of two Palestine Pounds, according to a Hebrew report in Davar, March 17th, 1933

By 1934, fear of the Nazis was even more grounded in reality. Hitler was consolidating his power, and anti-Jewish measures were on the rise. That year’s Purim parade in Tel Aviv was marked by full-on protests against the Nazis, featuring clear demands to boycott German goods and stand up to the National-Socialist party.

This time around, the main attraction was a massive three-headed, swastika-emblazoned dragon, with an effigy of Hitler mounted on its back.

The “Antisemitism Dragon” featured in the 1934 Purim Parade. The creators drew swastikas all over the creature’s body. Photo: Library of Congress

At the end of the march, the “Antisemitism Dragon” was brought to Dizengoff Square and set on fire. A municipality newspaper, Yedioth Iriyat Tel Aviv, reported that “This was one of the most wonderful sights of the Purim celebrations, and the joyous bonfire-light dancing[…] lasted for many hours”.

By 1935, the gloves were off. The parade had now become a blatant anti-Nazi march through downtown Tel Aviv, purposefully aiming for maximum-shock effect.

A mock canon featuring a Nazi swastika and parade participants in Nazi costumes. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

One of the parade’s most shocking and prophetic displays was this one:

An effigy of a Nazi stormtrooper trampling a Jew, Tel Aviv, 1935. This record is part of the Israel Archive Network project (IAN) and is accessible thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Ben Zvi Institute, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

World War II would begin just a few years later. The fate of European Jewry would be worse than anything the Purim parade participants could have imagined.



Further Reading:

Tel Aviv’s 1933 Purim Parade Starred This Controversial Hitler Float \ JTA