A Farewell Letter From the Besieged Jewish Quarter

“Remember me in happiness”: The last testament of Esther Cailingold, a soldier and teacher who fell in the battle for the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem's Old City during Israel's War of Independence

“I have lived my life fully if briefly, and I think this is the best way—’short and sweet.’ Very sweet it has been here in our own land.”


She lay on the floor, along with the rest of the wounded, in the second story of the Armenian monastery. She was burning up with a fever and in unbearable agony. There was no morphine left. Someone offered her a cigarette. She raised her hand towards it, but stopped. “No,” she whispered. “The Sabbath.” Those were her last words. She died not long after, just twenty-two years old at the time of her passing.

Knowing that her end might be near, she wrote a moving letter to her parents in London that was later found under her pillow. A final letter, from the hell that was “the besieged Jewish Quarter, 1948.” The full text is included below.


A footpath in Rehavia

A few years ago, a Jerusalem Municipality committee convened to decide on the names of streets and squares in the city. One of the names commemorated, 70 years after the fact, was that of the soldier and teacher Esther Cailingold, who took part in the defense of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem during the War of Independence. A small footpath in the Rehavia neighborhood, leading to the school where she was a teacher, was named after her.

The beginning of Esther’s life does not at all reflect its dramatic end. She was born in London to religious, Zionist parents. As a young woman, Esther excelled in her studies at university.

Esther as a bridesmaid, at the age of three


However, her Zionist upbringing and news of the horrors of the Holocaust that was filtering through at the time caused her to change paths and immigrate to Mandatory Palestine in 1946.


Running barefoot across rooftops, dodging bullets…

She sought her future in the Land of Israel as an English teacher, and found it at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem. In late 1947, she joined the Haganah, the largest of the Jewish military organizations in Mandatory Palestine. At first, she continued to teach, but soon enough, as what would come to be known as Israel’s War of Independence unfolded, she became a full-time soldier. A few months later, when she heard of the plight of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, she asked to join the defenders of the besieged Quarter.

There were about 1,700 people living in the Jewish Quarter at the time, most of them without military training – ultra-Orthodox men, women, children and the elderly, whose defense was in the hands of roughly 150 fighters, armed with insufficient weapons. So long as the country was still under British control, the fighters could only enter the quarter disguised as regular civilians, and so Esther arrived under the guise of a teacher. At first, she served as a signal liaison between various Haganah positions, providing food, drink and ammunition for the fighters.

Esther as the company cook

With the departure of the British in mid-May, Arab attacks on the Jewish Quarter intensified. Esther was lightly wounded, but she was bandaged up and quickly returned to her post. She often ran along the rooftops, dodging bullets that whizzed by to reach the various Haganah positions.


“It was Saturday night. The people of Jerusalem sat in their homes. They cheered and celebrated the Declaration of Independence in haste and restraint, certain in the knowledge that war was imminent, and here it was already showing its first signs. The Arab attack cut short the festivities, and continued for the rest of the week.  But now, it is the Sabbath and Jerusalem’s Jews sit in their homes, distraught. At this hour, the city’s streets have gone quiet. And its guardians do not rest.”

(A column written by Esther and published in the Hebrew newspaper Hatsofeh, 15 years after her death.)

She was given a rifle and became a fighter

On May 16, the Arab attack began on the Jewish Quarter, and within a day managed to seize about a third of it. On May 19, a Palmach (the elite fighting force of the Haganah) unit was able to breach the Quarter, but soon had to withdraw due to the exhaustion of the fighters. Their replacements, lacking any military training, were also unable to help.

That same day, Jordan’s Arab Legion force, commanded by British officers, invaded the Old City and began shelling the Jewish Quarter. The defenders of the Jewish Quarter fought Arab canons, mortars, and machine guns with pistols, rifles, and scarcely any ammunition. That day, Esther Cailingold was given a rifle and she became a fighter.

Esther at shooting practice with her Sten gun

Then, on May 26, Arab forces blew up a building just as Esther was entering it, shattering her spine.  She was evacuated to the clinic in the Jewish Quarter, but with no medical supplies, and the facilities in poor condition, there was nothing they could do for her. Slowly dying, she was able to remain conscious, speaking and praying with those near her.

“It is difficult to count all of the acts of heroism… one young woman, named Esther, lay wounded in the hospital and vanished. Later it became known that she had taken up a rifle and gone out to shoot at the enemy, until she was wounded and killed by a bullet to the back.”

(A witness’ account of Esther’s bravery, published in Hebrew in the Davar newspaper, June 1, 1948, click here for the full article)


In Motza, near Jerusalem


A letter found under a pillow

Meanwhile, the members of the Legion continued to blow up the houses of the Jewish Quarter, one by one, until it finally fell and the inhabitants surrendered. The wounded, including Esther, were evacuated to the nearby Armenian monastery. It was a Saturday, May 29, 1948. Esther Cailingold lay on the floor, on the second story of the monastery, along with the rest of the wounded. She was burning up with a fever and in unbearable agony. There was no morphine left. Someone offered her a cigarette. She raised her hand towards it, but then stopped.

“A year after the heroic death of my daughter Esther. May the LORD avenge her death.  His delicate and sweet daughter [who was] loved by all. She was modest in her deeds. She was deeply religious and went often to pray in the Hasidic synagogues…

Arriving in the last convoy to the Old City, she said, ‘I am happy to be near the Western Wall!’ There she was slightly wounded, but she refused to accept help and continued. On the day of the surrender, she was fatally wounded, on the eve of Shabbat Beḥukotai [“By my decrees,” the 33rd weekly Torah portion], she asked for a prayer book and with the help of her friend Shulamit, she prayed minḥa  [the afternoon prayer] and Kabbalat Shabbat [prayers welcoming the Sabbath recited on Friday evening], and at six o’clock in the morning on the holy Sabbath, she died.”

(The eulogy recited by Esther’s father a year after her death. Published in Hebrew in Hatsofeh, May 29, 1949. Click here for the full obituary in Hebrew)

“No,” she whispered. “The Sabbath.” Those were her last words. She died around five in the afternoon, just twenty-two years old at the time of her death. She was buried first in the Sheikh Bader cemetery and two years later, her remains were reinterred in the military cemetery on Mount Herzl.


Here is the text of her final letter, written in Hebrew and found under her pillow, which she had written six days earlier:

Dear Mummy and Daddy, and Everybody,

If you get this at all, it will be, I suppose, typical of all my hurried, messy letters. I am writing it to beg of you: Make an effort to accept everything that has happened to me, accept it with the meaning that I intended and understand that I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight and we have experienced Gehenom [“hell” ed.] – but it has been worthwhile because I am completely convinced that the end will see a Jewish state and the realization of our longings.

I shall be only one of many who fell in sacrifice. I had an urge to write this because one in particular was killed today who meant a great deal to me. Because of the sorrow I felt, I want you to take it differently – to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for. God is with us, I know, in His Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost me.

Don’t think I have taken ‘unnecessary risks.’ There is no other choice when human resources are short. I hope you may have a chance of meeting any of my co-fighters who survive if I do not, and that you will be pleased and not sad about how they talk of me. Please, please, do not be sadder than you can help. I have lived my life fully if briefly, and I think this is the best way — ‘short and sweet.’ Very sweet it has been here in our own land. I hope you shall enjoy from Mimi [Esther’s sister] and Asher [Mimi’s husband] the satisfaction you missed in me. Let it be without regrets, and then I too shall be happy. I am thinking of you all, every single one of you in the family, and am full of pleasure at the thought that you will, one day, very soon I hope, come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting.

Much, much love, be happy and remember me in happiness.

Shalom and le’hitraot,

Your loving Esther


The commander of the Jewish Quarter, Moshe Rusnak, wrote to her parents, recommending that Esther be awarded a citation of merit. This never came to pass. 74 years later, at least a small path in Rehavia is now named after her.

May her memory be a blessing.


Epilogue (written by Esther’s nephew, Eli Tor-Paz):

Esther’s father Moshe found it hard to go on with life after her death. He died in London in 1967. After his death, her mother, Hannah immigrated to Israel and lived in Haifa and then Jerusalem until her death in 1992. Esther’s sister, Miriam, and her brother [Asher] immigrated to Israel in the 1950s and have lived in Jerusalem ever since.



The photos of Esther which appear above are taken from the Hebrew book, מלונדון לירושלים : סיפורה של לוחמת בהגנה

(“From London to Jerusalem: The Story of a Female Fighter in the Haganah”)


This article is based on a Facebook post by Benny Landek, originally written in Hebrew, which you can find here.


Further Reading:

The Story of Esther Cailingold

An Encounter with Esther Cailingold – Heroine of Jerusalem

An Egyptian Soldier’s Diary From the Yom Kippur War

Naji Ali, an Egyptian sergeant, documented a total of five days during the fateful Middle East conflict of 1973, leaving a chilling record of the war's brutality and the treatment of captured Israeli soldiers. The historic document recently surfaced in the collections of the National Library of Israel

The notebook the Egyptian soldier carried with him during the Yom Kippur War was used for a purpose other than the one his commanders had intended.

The booklet was originally meant to be used for logging the test results of Soviet “Sagger” missiles transferred to Egypt in preparation for the next military confrontation with Israel. One page of the notebook in question was indeed used for this original purpose, from which we learn that the missile examined by this particular soldier was found to be in good working order. But when the fighting broke out on October 6th, 1973, the notebook was repurposed into a personal diary, and on its cover the soldier inscribed the Arabic word for “Memoir”.

We don’t know the soldier’s full name. The diary only mentions the name “Naji Ali”. Other than that, the author offers very few personal details besides being a “health sergeant” of the Third Army’s Seventh Division. In other words, he likely served as a medic.

“For eternal memory from the battlefront in Suez. Health Sergeant Naji Ali, unit 741”

Shalufa, located on the west bank of the Suez Canal, north of the city of Suez and south of Ismailia, was known as a frequent and bloody point of conflict in the history of Israeli-Egyptian warfare, stretching back to the Sinai Campaign of 1956. The war broke out on a Saturday, at midday, Yom Kippur, 1973. On that first day of war, Naji Ali crossed the Suez Canal and was among the Egyptian forces that moved into the Sinai Peninsula via Shalufa. The documentation from this fateful day, in which Naji Ali describes his first encounter with IDF soldiers and the transfer of equipment from the Shalufa camp to the east bank of the canal is perhaps the most difficult section of the text. Apparently, the events described happened at the Lituf military outpost, an Israeli position on the eastern bank of the canal.

The surprise attack was a success and the Egyptian army not only took the frontline outpost, but also captured Israeli prisoners of war. The callous reporting of the cruel treatment of the captives is shocking to read:

October 6th, 1973, Saturday at 2:00 PM, Shalufa military camp:

We flew in Egyptian planes over Sinai and after destroying the strong positions, we drove amphibious vehicles, landing on positions on the coast and started crossing with our vehicles. The crossing was quiet and without any particular issues. A while later, a civilian position next to us was attacked. The enemy flag was lowered. We captured an Israeli soldier and he surrendered and raised his hands. We did not shoot him because it was pointless. We beat him instead with our boots until he was dead. Then we moved all the equipment like ammunition, tanks, food and drink to our forces that had already crossed.

This is the most chilling passage in this short diary, and it appears right at the beginning. The documentation shows that at this stage the Egyptians did not try to transfer the prisoners to detention, but intended to get rid of them quickly and without wasting their ammunition.

Once the attacking forces were stationed in the area, the author listed the supplies delivered to them: food, ammunition, and artillery. The Egyptian wounded were treated by a colleague named Hassan.

The chilling account of the first day of the war]


Although Naji Ali called his diary a “memoir,” his tone on the second day of the war was propagandist. Reading his words, one can imagine listening to a Radio Cairo broadcast of the war:

The fighting continues for the second day.

The forces are constantly advancing with incredible victories, shooting down some of the enemy planes and tanks.

Except for one position that retaliated strongly and aggressively and caused a limited number of casualties, but we took care of them quickly.

The outpost attacked vigorously and despite our forces’ attempts to stop it, it continued to attack but failed to fend off our offensive. That day we managed to lower the enemy flag and hoisted our Egyptian flag on the soil of Sinai on the eastern bank of the canal. Praise God.

Documentation of the third day of the war once again demonstrates the intensity of the Egyptian soldiers’ hatred of the Israeli enemy. This time, captured IDF soldiers narrowly escape death:

8/10/1973 – Monday

We managed to cross the canal again; we moved some of the equipment and ammunition.

With God’s help, we managed to permanently silence position 149 [the same outpost that had resisted aggressively the day before, apparently a reference to the Lituf outpost].

So the whole area is more or less calm except for the aerial shelling.

When we silenced it [position 149, apparently] our forces captured the area around the position.

We were given a signal to go to the shore and bring three enemy prisoners. We beat them, aggressively. The soldiers surrounded them and wanted to drink their blood. But the leaders [the officers] prevented this in order to question them and extract information.

The signature of an officer with the rank of major (not Naji Ali) appears next to the results of the test of the Russian missile at the end of the diary


The fourth and fifth days of the war are documented in the Egyptian soldier’s diary without any particular incident of note. Once the “strong position” was subdued, Naji Ali’s unit concentrated on preparing the equipment and supplies for further combat and military advances into the interior of the Sinai Peninsula. The equipment included a bottle of Coca-Cola collected from the occupied Israeli outpost:

9/10/1973 – Tuesday [day four of the war]

In the morning at 6:00 we ate breakfast [written here: “over four Israeli planes” – likely referring to planes that crashed, C.M.] and then I moved to the eastern bank. I went to the strong position and brought back a fork, a Coca-Cola bottle, and two other items [unclear]. And the day ended peacefully.

The diary concludes with documentation of the fifth day of the war. This was Wednesday, October 10, 1973. Naji Ali noted that he showered for the first time in ten days. He ended his diary thus:

I loaded ammunition and weapons in the afternoon. I went back and was amazed to discover five more cars loaded with ammunition. I passed them safely. The day is over.

Documentation of day five, which concludes the diary


Due to the diary’s brevity, we were able to follow the entire course of documentation up until the abrupt ending on the fifth day of the war. The Yom Kippur War would last for two more weeks, with the momentum swinging in Israel’s favor on October 15th, when the IDF managed to cross the Suez Canal and establish a bridgehead on the western bank.

What does the diary’s sudden end say about the fate its author, Naji Ali? Did he lose his diary during the fighting? Was he killed in combat? We simply do not know.

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.