A Murder in Mandatory Tel Aviv: The Orientalist as an Advocate

Buried in the archives of the scholar S.D. Goitein are papers which reveal his crucial intervention in a murder case which shocked thousands…

S.D. Goitein

During the years 2015-2017 I was hard at work, cataloging the archive of the German-Jewish historian and Cairo Geniza scholar S.D. Goitein (1900-1985), which is preserved at the National Library of Israel. One morning, while working on materials from the early 1940s, I came across a bunch of crumpled, yellowing papers, written in haste. After a few attempts to decipher the text I figured out that I was holding a draft of a deposition, submitted to the British Attorney General in Mandatory Palestine, William Fitzgerald. Soon enough I realized that I had rediscovered a forgotten criminal case which had shaken Jewish society during the British Mandate era, on the eve of World War II.

Sir William James FitzGerald, the British Mandate’s Attorney General in Palestine, photo: The National Portrait Gallery

On a sunny afternoon in the summer of 1939, two Jewish high school students stumbled upon a body on the beach of Tel Aviv. According to their report, they noticed that something was buried in the sand, and thus began digging to uncover whatever was hidden beneath the surface. To their horror, they soon discovered a baby’s corpse, wrapped in a hospital blanket and a newspaper. They called the police, who were able to find a hospital bracelet nearby with the name of the baby’s mother on it. Soon enough, the infant’s father was arrested. The investigation revealed that the father had taken his five-day-old son from the hospital safe and sound, and buried him in the sand that same night.

It was revealed in court that the motive behind the murder was the fact that the young mother had given birth only four months or so after her marriage. The baby, therefore, was obviously conceived before the marriage took place. It also transpired that the couple moved from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in order to keep the birth a secret – the mother’s family had been unaware. There was no doubt about the father’s identity, nor about the fact that he was the one who buried the child in the sand. The question was whether the father had killed his son or not.

The father had claimed that the infant was sick, and that he died shortly after he was taken from the hospital. The father said he panicked and therefore buried the infant without reporting the death. The judges, however, were not convinced. Given the information available, the court found the young father guilty of murder: The judges believed that following the birth, he had felt the need to rid himself of the child, fearing the reaction of his and his wife’s families. The terrible crime was committed after he had picked his son up from the hospital, assisted by a friend.

The father was sentenced to death; an appeal was declined.

Many in the Jewish public in Mandatory Palestine refused to accept the capital punishment that was handed down by the court, leading to public protests. These bore fruit and early in 1940 the death sentence was commuted to life in prison.

However, this was not the end of the story; efforts were made to help the young parents – both under the age of twenty, and a particularly interesting effort was made by S.D. Goitein.

Shelomo Dov (Fritz) Goitein, a famed ethnographer, historian and Arabist with an expertise in Jewish life in the Islamic Middle Ages. His archive is preserved at the National Library of Israel

Who was Goitein? And what was his connection to the trial?

Shelomo Dov (Fritz) Goitein was born in Bavaria in 1900, and later moved with his family to Frankfurt, where in 1923 he also submitted his PhD. That same year, Goitein emigrated from Germany, leaving academia behind for a few years in the hopes of developing a career as a teacher and educator in the burgeoning Jewish community Palestine. However, in 1928, Goitein returned to his academic pursuits, accepting an invitation to join the School of Oriental Studies at the newly-founded Hebrew University.

Initially, Goitein was appointed a lecturer of Arabic and Islamic history, but over the course of the 1930s, he turned his scholarly attention, above all, to the spoken language and culture of the Jews of Yemen. Yet he was active in other fields as well. In 1938 he joined the British Mandate’s department of education, in which he served as a high school education officer until 1948. These two occupations made Goitein an especially valuable acquaintance to the convicted father.

The parents were both of Yemenite origin, and Goitein was called in to assist them with the father’s legal predicament regarding his prison sentence. This is where the forgotten draft enters our story. As a scholar of Yemenite Jewry, who also had some contacts within the mandatory system, Goitein was just the man the couple needed. He wrote a deposition in the hopes of mitigating the sentence imposed on the father for the murder of his child. In the text, he attempted to clarify the significance of an extramarital pregnancy for the traditional Yemenite community:

Life during 1500 years, at least, in the regions of South-West Arabia, in midst a society of strictly tribal character, had the effect that the Yemenites adopted both of the conceptions and the practice of the unwritten law of their neighbors. These, although being true Moslems, follow in family matters largely their own traditions [rather than?] the commandments of the Koran. It may be not superfluous to remind that the law of the tribes is in some respects close to that of old Israel, reflected in the bible.

Goitein explained that the young husband wanted to save his wife from the terrible punishment which the men of her family were likely to impose on her.

But there was yet another point which he chose to emphasize. Using several scholarly sources, he explained that for the Yemenite community of his time, a child whose mother did not immerse herself in a ritual bath (mikveh) before intercourse is considered a bastard, and is therefore doomed to be excluded from his community for his entire life.

“…that the child would be regarded as a bastard…” From the draft of Goitein’s legal deposition, the S.D. Goitein archive at the National Library of Israel

An unmarried woman would not be permitted to take the ritual bath and therefore her son was, without doubt, the offspring of an “impure woman”, for whom the misery of an excommunicated existence was to be expected.

Goitein argued that the adversity which the young father experienced in light of his child’s fate caused him to abandon reason and lose sight of his conscience – a kind of temporary insanity – which took hold of him when he committed the terrible murder:

“…most probably committed by one who did not know what he was doing…” From the draft of Goitein’s legal deposition, the S.D. Goitein archive at the National Library of Israel

In view of such implications, we may safely conclude that it was not pure selfishness – or more rightly exaggerated love for his wife – which induced the father to dispose of the newborn, but an unfortunate pressure of social beliefs. He simply lost his head when this child came into being for which the community had no use. His crime is, however, absolutely exceptional. I have heard about abortion, I have never come across, during the many years [in] which [I] am interested in the language and the literature of the Yemenites, about infanticide.[sic] The psychological […] preceding to the murder are fully to be explained by the impulse exercised by social belief. The murder itself was most probably committed by one who did not know what he was doing.


This was the concluding passage of Goitein’s text. Thanks to his access to senior officials in the British administrative and legal establishment, he was able to submit his statement to the Attorney General in person. Goitein hoped that his arguments might help the couple rebuild their life at some stage.

It seems the scholar had quite an influence on the Attorney General, even more than he could have hoped for. In fact, Goitein’s intervention was so successful, that only two weeks(!) after he submitted the statement, the father was released from jail; This was 1941, two years after the original death sentence had been handed down.

Goitein’s academic expertise was based upon German foundations, but it also involved long years of work in Mandatory Palestine and a deep acquaintance with local Eastern communities such as the Yemenite Jews. These, together with his position within the British administration, dramatically changed the life course of one member of the Yemenite-Jewish community, resulting in a surprising end to a tragic affair in Mandatory Palestine.


This article is the first in a series of guest articles which were written by participants in the archival project “Traces and Treasures of German-Jewish History in Israel”. The project, which was initiated in 2012, is a collaboration between The Franz Rosenzweig Minerva Research Center (Hebrew University of Jerusalem), Deutsches Literaturarchiv Marbach and the Leibniz Institute for Jewish History and Culture – Simon Dubnow (Leipzig). It is funded by the German Federal Foreign Office.

This project promotes the arrangement and description of archives of German-Jewish scholars, writers, and artists and encourages archive-based research in the fields of Cultural Transfer, the History of Science, the Migration of Knowledge, and the History of Ideas. It offers junior scholars and students the opportunity to combine academic research with archival practice and provide an essential foundation for new cultural and scholarly discussions, by making previously inaccessible personal archives, literary estates, and historical collections available to international research.


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Rare Photos: The Trial of John Demjanjuk

The man believed to be "Ivan the Terrible", a notorious Nazi war criminal, was brought to Israel to face charges in 1986, but the affair ended in doubt and mystery

John Ivan Demjanjuk in custody in Israel, October, 1986. Photo by Israel Simionski, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“A primitive thug, thick-legged, with a Slavic face, tall, constantly earning pats on the back from his Nazi commanders. That’s how he appears in my dreams. Perhaps because of his great cruelty he seems much larger than he truly was. Perhaps he’s not even that big, perhaps he’s small, but in my memory, he is a sort of cruel giant…”

This was how Samuel Willenberg, the last survivor of Treblinka, the Nazi death camp, described the figure known as “Ivan the Terrible”, the infamous, sadistic camp guard who operated the gas chambers.

He was believed to have been a former Ukrainian prisoner of war, retrained after his capture by the Germans to man the facilities of the extermination camp. Ivan the Terrible (“Ivan Grozny” in Russian) delighted in torturing the inmates. He used his hands, whip and even a sword, with which he cut off ears and limbs of his victims before they were later put to death, according to the testimony of survivors and other guards.

In the chaos of the war’s final years, Ivan the Terrible managed to slip away and disappear. His true identity remained unclarified and his crimes forgotten by many.

In February of 1986, more than 43 years after Treblinka had ceased to exist, Israeli authorities believed they had finally put their hands on the elusive war criminal.

John Ivan Demjanjuk arrives in handcuffs at Ben Gurion International Airport in February 1986. Photo by Ilan Ossendriver, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

John Demjanjuk emerged from an EL Al commercial airliner with his hands cuffed, and was slowly led down the stairs and onto the tarmac of Ben Gurion International Airport by a police escort.

“He’s a Nazi, he’s a killer” Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres told the international press, while Demjanjuk, using broken English, told the judge presiding over a preliminary hearing: “I am completely [the] wrong person. I was never once in that place, that everybody telling me, Treblinka…”

Demjanjuk at an early hearing, August, 1986. Photos by Efi Sharir, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

John (formerly Ivan) Demjanjuk had been extradited from the United States, where he had lived a quiet life as a Cleveland auto mechanic since his arrival with wife and child in 1952. It was only in 1975 that US authorities learned of his past as a Nazi camp guard. His photograph was soon identified as matching the appearance of Ivan the Terrible by Treblinka survivors, resulting in the revoking of his American citizenship. Still, it took more than a decade for the extradition to go through.

The trial was held in a converted movie theatre, February, 1987. Photo by Efi Shafrir, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Demjanjuk and the original head of his legal team, American attorney Mark O’Connor, February, 1987. Photo by Efi Shafrir, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


Demjanjuk (center) and his Israeli attorney Yoram Sheftel (left), July, 1987. Photo by Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Demjanjuk trial, which began a year after his arrival in Israel, was organized as a media event. Emotional testimony by survivors was broadcast live on television, from the stage of a converted Jerusalem movie theatre, with an emphasis on painful details that recalled the trial of Adolf Eichmann 26 years earlier. The reasoning behind this was that the significance of the crimes could only be understood by the retelling of their full context.

Eliahu Rosenberg, a Treblinka survivor, testified at the trial and identified Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible. Photo by Ilan Ossendriver, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

“I received blows from him! I saw what he did and he remembers me. Refresh his memory well and he’ll remember me!” testified Treblinka survivor Eliahu Rosenberg in Hebrew, his voice raised, while leaning forward in the witness stand and staring straight at Demjanjuk. Seconds later, an audience member interrupted the proceedings with cries of “Murderer! Murderer!”

Demjanjuk, August, 1987. Photo by Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Demjanjuk was under constant supervision while in Israeli custody. Seven guards took turns watching over him, with an adjacent jail cell converted into a guard room. A private yard was also designated for Demjanjuk, who was allowed to spend an hour a day there.

Demjanjuk in the yard of Ayalon prison, August, 1993. Photo: The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Upon his arrival, the contents of the cell at Ayalon prison in Ramla consisted of shoes, slippers, toothpaste and a toothbrush, as well as two cups, one of them blue. Demjanjuk would soon decorate the walls of his living space with photographs, postcards and Christmas ornaments.

Demjanjuk, in his room at Ayalon Prison, August, 1993. Photo: The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Demjanjuk, August, 1993. Photo: The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Demjanjuk’s legal defense team, originally headed by American attorney Mark O’Connor, was later joined by Yoram Sheftel, a colorful character who had made a name for himself by representing the Jewish-American Mafia boss Meyer Lansky. Sheftel wrote of his “close and special relationship” with Lansky, who had sought refuge in Israel from tax evasion charges before being deported back to the US. The Israeli attorney described the mobster as an “ageing, warm-hearted, sharp-witted Jew” in his book, “The Demjanjuk Affair” (1993).

Attorney Yoram Sheftel was drawn to high profile cases, also representing Meyer Lanksy and Elor Azaria, July, 1987. Photo by Yossi Aloni, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Throughout the trial, Sheftel continuously insisted that the photo spread used to identify Demjanjuk as Ivan the Terrible was insufficient for a conviction. He cast doubt on what he saw as unreliable witness testimony, pointing out inconsistencies and contradictions in narratives of events that had taken place decades before. In the case of Eliahu Rosenberg’s testimony, for example, it would emerge that the survivor had previously stated his belief that Ivan the Terrible was actually killed in the Treblinka uprising of 1943.

Demjanjuk’s photo (center), taken from his Nazi ID card, was used to identify him as Ivan the Terrible by Treblinka survivors

According to Yoram Sheftel, Demjanjuk was the defendant in a “show trial”, orchestrated by the Israeli establishment for the sake of educating the public on the Holocaust

The judges were not convinced.

“We determine unequivocally and without the slightest hesitation or doubt that the accused, Ivan John Demjanjuk, standing trial before us, is Ivan who was called Ivan Grozny [the Terrible]” announced the presiding judge Dov Levin on April 18th, 1988. Levin and his fellow judges Dalia Dorner and Zvi Tal unanimously found the witness testimonies to be reliable, commending them for their precise, detailed accounts. Many of those called to the stand had seen Ivan the Terrible up close at Treblinka, and identified him with the photographs of Demjanjuk in his guard uniform which were presented to the District Court.

Demjanjuk was soon handed a death sentence. Capital punishment had only been carried out once by an Israeli civilian court, in the case of Eichmann.

Demjanjuk at the opening of his appeal to the Supreme Court, May, 1990. Photo by Eli Harati, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It was during the appeal process that the turning point arrived. New evidence emerged in 1991, in the form of Soviet documents containing statements from numerous former guards at Treblinka. 21 of these guards, who had been tried in the USSR, identified Ivan the Terrible as one Ivan Marchenko, not Ivan Demjanjuk. They described Marchenko as having a large diagonal scar on his cheek, dark hair and brown eyes. He was already a father of three during his time at Treblinka, they said. Ivan Demjanjuk was blond, with greyish-blue eyes, no scar and no children until years later. A photograph of Marchenko was also presented to the court; it was clearly not the same person.

Ivan Marchenko was last seen alive in 1945. His fate is unclear.

Demjanjuk awaits the appeal verdict of the Supreme Court, July, 1993. Photo by Vered Peer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

This time, the judges decided that the evidence constituted reasonable doubt. It would take two more years, but on July 29th, 1993, Meir Shamgar, the Chief Justice of Israel’s Supreme Court announced: “Ivan Demjanjuk has been acquitted by us, because of doubt, of the terrible charges attributed to Ivan the Terrible of Treblinka. This was the proper course for judges who cannot examine the heart and mind, but have only what their eyes see and read[…] The matter is closed – but not complete, the complete truth is not the prerogative of the human judge.”

Demjanjuk’s lawyer Yoram Sheftel leaves the Supreme Court after the acquittal of his client, July, 1993. Photo by Vered Peer, the Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Demjanjuk was released and allowed to return to his home in Ohio, but one strange detail remained somewhat unresolved.

In his 1951 US visa application form, Demjanjuk had written “Marchenko” in the space reserved for his mother’s maiden name. This was a mistake, he explained to the court. He claimed to have forgotten that her name was in fact “Tabachuk”, writing a common Ukrainian surname instead. Perplexed, the judges remarked, “The question is not what was her true name but why did the appellant record that her name was Marchenko…”


16 years later, Demjanjuk would be extradited once more, this time to Germany, in May 2009. He was convicted again, but on charges that did not relate to Ivan the Terrible or Treblinka. Demjanjuk was found to have been an accessory to the murder of 27,900 Jews as a guard at the Sobibor, Majdanek and Flossenburg camps. He died in Germany in March, 2012 at the age of 91, after an appeal process had already been set in motion, but before it could be completed. This meant that according to German law, he died an innocent man.


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Nathan Yellin-Mor: The Underground Fighter Who Became a Peacenik

The incredible life story of the former leader of the Lehi underground movement, whose personal archive is preserved in the National Library

At the Bernadotte murder trial with Mati Schmulevitz, 1949. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album

A week after the outbreak of the Second World War, two couples left Warsaw—Aliza and Menachem Begin and their friends, the newlyweds Frieda and Nathan Friedman-Yellin. Following an arduous, month-long journey by train, horse-drawn cart and mainly on foot, they reached Vilna, the capital of Lithuania, which was still a free country. There, they parted ways. Begin, the head of the Beitar movement in Poland, was soon arrested by the Soviets when they took control of Lithuania, while the cautious and wary Friedman-Yellin managed to make his way to Mandatory Palestine. Here they eventually met again.

Begin arrived in British-controlled Palestine as a soldier in the Polish force known as Anders’ Army following his release by the Soviets. He was soon appointed commander of the Irgun underground movement. Twenty-six-year-old Nathan Friedman-Yellin, who would later become Yellin-Mor, joined up with Avraham (“Yair”) Stern’s Lehi organization, otherwise known as “The Stern Gang”. After Yair’s murder, Yellin-Mor would form part of a triumvirate command along with future Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Israel Eldad.

Another young leader of Polish Jewry who also reached Vilna around the same time, on his way to Palestine, Dr. Moshe Kleinboim-Sneh, was appointed shortly after his arrival to be head of the national military headquarters of the Haganah – the de-facto Defense Minister of the country in the making. Once World War II had come to a close, all three met again (Begin, Yellin, and Sneh), and founded the Jewish Resistance Movement, an umbrella group for the three underground movements, with the goal of expelling the British from the Land of Israel.


A “Wanted” Poster for Yaakov Eliav, Yitzhak Shamir and  and Nathan Friedman-Yellin

“How often does one meet someone and upon parting, feel and know that he is no longer the same person? That from now on his life will take another course, different from the one taken so far? That all that has transpired is only preparation for that which is to come?” writes Yellin-Mor in the introduction to his memoir Shnot be-Terem [“The Years Before”], about his meeting with Avraham “Yair” Stern.

Yellin-Mor’s life changed after meeting Yair in the summer of 1937. Then a member of the Irgun’s leadership, Stern was in Poland organizing recruits for the underground. Yellin-Mor, despairing of the gap between the declarations and actions of the Revisionist movement, enthusiastically adopted Yair’s new prospect: a war of independence against British rule and establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. Yair’s vision was to build a forty-thousand strong army of trained young men who would invade the country by ship and join forces with the members of the Irgun who would declare a revolt against the British.

That same evening, Yellin-Mor joined the war for the liberation of the country. As Yair’s emissary, he traveled the length and breadth of Poland by train, recruiting Beitar members to the Irgun. Some succeeded in immigrating and joining the struggle, but the gates of the country remained shut to most of the members of the vibrant mass youth movement, and they were murdered in the Holocaust. In 1938, Yellin-Mor, along with his lifelong friend Shmuel Merlin, was appointed editor of the newspaper Die Tat, which reported the position of the Irgun on the news from Palestine to the Jews of Poland, while calling on them to flee the country before it was too late. As noted, with the outbreak of the war, he reached Vilna and a year later, in January 1941, he and his wife Frieda arrived in Tel Aviv and immediately joined the Lehi.

Yellin-Mor, whose underground name was “Gera,” became the close aide of Yair, who six months earlier split the Irgun on the grounds of his opposition to ending the war against the British and established what would come to be known as Lehi (Fighters for the Freedom of Israel). The British saw them as a “fifth column” that sabotaged the war effort against the Nazis, while Yair searched for a way to reach an alliance with the Germans, using the mindset – “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” He believed that an agreement could be reached that would save Jewish lives and achieve Jewish independence with German support.

Yair sent Yellin-Mor to meet with the leaders of the Balkan countries in an attempt to attain permission for Jews to leave. Under the guise of an engineer, Yellin Mor left for Aleppo, where he was arrested by the British after they searched his home in Tel Aviv and discovered his address in Syria. His wife Frieda was arrested and imprisoned in the women’s prison camp in Bethlehem for five years. She was released only at the end of 1947. In the Yellin-Mor archive in the National Library is a small notebook in which he wrote down his daily schedule as an engineer tasked with building a British army camp until his arrest.

“February 9, 1942, Monday… I was brought to Prison in Aleppo” Pages from Yellin-Mor’s daily diary with reports of his work and his arrest in Syria

It was then he also learned of Yair’s murder. Although the underground had been all but wiped out, its members and commanders retired, arrested or in despair, Yellin-Mor decided to keep up the struggle. There were now three at the head of the underground: Yitzhak Shamir, known as “Michael,” was responsible for operations, Israel “Eldad” Scheib, in charge of propaganda, and Yellin-Mor, the political brains of the underground movement and the man responsible for its external relations. Throughout the remaining history of the organization, at least one of the three was in jail and contact between them was maintained through notes or letters written in secret code.

He published the article “Breaking the Prisons,” in the renewed Lehi newspaper, calling on members of the underground to do everything in their power to return to the fight. He would later order members to carry a pistol and fight to the last bullet in order to avoid arrest. Shamir escaped from prison and began to rebuild the underground. On November 1, 1943, the guards at the Latrun detention camp awoke to a scene that was straight out of the movie The Great Escape. That night, twenty Lehi members, handpicked and headed by Yellin-Mor, escaped from the camp though a 75 meter tunnel they had dug underneath one of the shacks, disposing of the earth by moving it to the garden they tended at the shack’s entrance.

Yellin-Mor was a partner in Lehi’s major decisions, including the use of terror tactics against individuals, including the attempted assassination of High Commissioner Sir Harold McMichael, and the murder of British Colonial Minister Lord Moyne on November 6, 1944 in Cairo by underground members Eliyahu Hakim and Eliyahu Bet-Zuri. The two turned their trial into a propaganda platform through which they promoted Lehi‘s objectives, winning sympathy and even demonstrations of support from Egyptian youths.

In Israel the organization began to gain sympathy among youth from the Labor movement, in including members of the elite Palmach force.

It is possible that this was the reason Yellin-Mor remained unharmed during what was known as “The Saison” or “The Hunting Season” (November 1944 to February 1945), when members of the Irgun were hunted down and arrested by a special unit of the Palmach before being handed over to the British. Yellin-Mor himself offered a different explanation.

While Begin ordered his people not to resist, Yellin-Mor arrived with a pistol in his belt to his meeting with the commander of the Haganah, Eliyahu Golomb. Placing his pistol on the table, he announced that any attack on a Lehi member would be met with a response. “For us the British are foreign rulers. It is our duty to fight them, not to ask for their help… There will be no more one-sided civil war. Since we do not benefit from the same conditions as you do, we have only one response available to us: to execute those responsible for harming our people” This was the threat he issued to Golomb, as described in his book Lohamei Heirut Yisrael (“Fighters for the Freedom of Israel”). Later on, he also was in contact with members of the Irgun and Haganah regarding the establishment of the Jewish Resistance Movement. The three underground groups cooperated for approximately nine months, until the bombing of the King David Hotel by the Irgun.

When Shamir was arrested in 1946 and exiled to Africa, he entrusted Yellin-Mor with Lehi‘s operations.  By then, it was already a mixed organization of the left and the right, religious and secular, former Beitar and Irgun members alongside socialists who had served in Hashomer Hatzair. What they all had in common was the belief that independence was achievable only through war with the British. He outlined a new path for Lehi – that of an armed political organization which aspired to “naturalize the Middle East,” while sending his men to establish cells and ties abroad.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 it was decided that Lehi would be dismantled. Yellin-Mor surveyed a final honor guard of his men at Sheikh Munis. They were now emerging from the underground to enlist in the newborn Israel Defense Forces. The group was still active however, in Jerusalem, and it was there that the UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte was assassinated by Lehi gunmen.

Yellin-Mor was tried in a military court together with Matityahu Schmulevitz, later director general of the Prime Minister’s Office. After spending a year in prison, he was released in a general amnesty and was elected to the first Knesset as the head of the Fighters’ List (Reshimat Lohamim), founded by Lehi veterans. At the first national assembly of the young party it became clear that the majority identified with Yellin-Mor and Yitzhak Shamir who tended toward a socialist platform. The right-wing minority headed by Israel Eldad withdrew and the party quickly faded into obscurity.


The cover of the final edition of Etgar, featuring IDF Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, on the eve of the Six Day War, 1967

“If you had asked someone at the beginning of 1949, which of the three key members of Lehi has the best chance of being prime minister of Israel, they would have answered without hesitation: Nathan Yellin-Mor,” wrote Uri Avneri. But Yellin-Mor did not fit in with the existing parties, and like many of the veterans of the underground who had a hard time finding work in the young state, he turned to private business.

Due to his opposition to Israel’s alliance with Great Britain and France in the Sinai campaign of 1956, Yellin-Mor, along with Uri Avneri and his friends from Lehi Boaz Evron, Shlomo Ben Shlomo, Yaakov Yardor and others, founded the political group “Semitic Action” (HaPeulah Hashemit), and worked diligently to publish a platform under the title “The Hebrew Manifesto(Haminshar Haivri ), which for the first time presented the option of establishing a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel. The group published Etgar, a bi-weekly political-literary magazine which ran until 1967. Yellin-Mor, as editor, recruited young writers such as Meir Wieseltier, Dalia Ravikovitch, Mazim Gilan, Dan Almagor, Ehud Ben Ezer among others. Avneri said that Yellin-Mor, with his enviable mastery of Hebrew, was the best editor he has ever met. He also noted his remarkable talent for raising money from donors, which kept the paper afloat.

In 1960, at the height of the honeymoon period between Israel and France, Yellin-Mor and his friends from Semitic Action established the “Committee for a Free Algeria,” and contacted underground fighters who were fighting against French colonial rule in the North African country. Lehi, the infamous “Stern Gang,” had garnered respect among members of the world’s underground movements and the Algerians were interested in knowing if they could receive help and guidance from its veterans.


A letter from David Ben Gurion, who agreed to meet with Yellin-Mor personally, but not with the editorial staff of Etgar.


With Ben Gurion at Sde Boker, at a family event for Yehoshua Cohen, a former Lehi member who served as the prime minister’s personal bodyguard, early 1960s. Cohen was also the man who fired the shots that killed UN diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte. Photo: Yellin-Mor Family Album


 After the Six Day War, Yellin-Mor became one of the leaders of the Israeli peace camp, calling for the return of the captured territories and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. He was not afraid to act with the reviled members of the Israeli Communist Party (Rakah) and sign petitions against IDF actions in the territories, which raised strong opposition among the public.


Visit to the Soviet Union, Yellin is in the bottom row on the right. Next to the monument to Pushkin in Odessa

In September 1971, he traveled to the Soviet Union, which had forbidden Israelis to visit, in a special six-member delegation sponsored by Rakah.

During this period, Yellin-Mor made his living by editing a daily financial newspaper published by his friend from the underground, the advertiser Eliezer Zurabin. He wrote political columns and personal memoirs in Haaretz and was a popular writer in a Yiddish newspaper in New York that was close to the Chabad movement, Der Algemeiner Journal.

Those same years the estrangement between Yellin-Mor and his friends from Lehi grew into a hatred on their part for their former commander. He was vilified, ostracized and persecuted, while a minority remained true to him throughout. With Eldad and his followers it was a rift that never healed. He and Shamir maintained a strong friendship for years. When Shamir was elected Speaker of the Knesset, Yellin-Mor came to his office and the two shared a long embrace. When he died on February 18, 1980, Shamir eulogized him at the grave: “The heart weeps for the great talent that did not find the right channel.”

Yellin-Mor was a man with a healthy sense of humor who could hold his liquor, and who enjoyed good food and good conversation. Nevertheless, throughout his life, he was a tough and loyal warrior to his cause, who did not bend or give in but also avoided holding grudges. When it was decided to recognize the service of Lehi members in the underground for the purposes of pension funds, it was Yellin-Mor who had to issue each one of them, even those who had attacked and slandered him, a certificate of membership, a task he completed without hesitation.


“Holding the Territories – Bad for Israel” – A poster for a political gathering in Tel Aviv against the continued control of the territories, 1969

Yellin-Mor did not understand those who were unable to comprehend his shift from revisionism to communism, from the extreme right to the extreme left, from his support for a Greater Israel controlling both banks of the Jordan River to his adoption of the principle of “two states for two peoples”. In a letter from September 9, 1974 to the journalist Yossi Ahimeir which was published in the journal Ha-umma, Yellin-Mor wrote:

“In my opinion, every person must always fight for the cause he sees as central to the life of his society. More than thirty years ago I believed with all my heart that the achievement of freedom, independence and political sovereignty was the determining factor for our future. I was sure that if we failed in this mission, there would be no revival of our people, not in Israel or the Diaspora … I therefore would have given my life to achieve this greater goal. We succeeded. We have in our hands the tool to do much for our future. On the condition that this achievement is not a brief episode. I therefore believe, once again, with all my heart, that in our time, the greatest and most sacred goal is to register the existence of the State of Israel as a fact, acceptable to the world, an indisputable fact. This we can achieve only through peace with our neighbors, through a historic reconciliation with them. For the achievement of this goal, – on which I believe, the life of my people and country depends – I am willing to sacrifice a great deal, as I was then …Therefore it is not I who must answer the question, why do I follow the path I follow. Others, must answer: Why have their brains become overgrown with rust? What has polluted their minds?  Why has their understanding frozen in time?”


Nathan Yellin-Mor’s personal archives are preserved at the National Library of Israel


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When Heinrich Heine Revealed His Thoughts on His Conversion to Christianity

Several months after he was baptized, the poet Heinrich Heine wrote to his friend about the frustration, disappointment and remorse that this action had brought about.

Portrait of Heinrich Heine by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim, 1831

It was his “entry ticket”. He saw it as a necessary step to open the gates of the German cultural world. It would serve as his seal of approval, certifying unconditional Germanism, the full and complete removal of all obstacles. If he could have written his own story, he probably would have chosen a simpler path for the hero’s role he was forced to play. One can assume with a high degree of certainty that, given another option, he would not have chosen to convert.

In his youth, he believed that stubbornness paid off, and indeed this turned out to be the case on more than one occasion. His father and uncle insisted that he enter the thriving family business, but he was intent on a life of art and creativity. Eventually, his obstinacy won out over that of his family, and they agreed to finance his higher education. In 1819, Heine began studying law at the University of Bonn.

Six years later, after three different universities, a semester-long suspension and even an invitation to a duel that never took place, Heine finally graduated from Göttingen University. A doctorate of law was not the only thing awarded to the 28-year-old in July of 1825. That same month he was also given his new name – Christian Johann Heinrich. Heine received the name after being baptized in a Protestant church in the nearby town of Heiligenstadt. Using this name, he would come to be recognized as one of the greatest poets and writers of the nineteenth-century.

As part of the continued discussion of Heine’s Jewishness, his writings have been poured over in search of every trace and reference to Jewish culture and religion. The references found were combined to create a 300-page volume. From the volumes of writings Heine produced during his life, only a single letter of his is preserved in the National Library of Israel. As you will soon see, it sheds a great deal of light on the feelings of the poet in regard to his conversion to Christianity.

On January 9th, 1826, less than a year after his conversion, Heine sent a letter to his classmate and confidant, Moses Moser. The letter was composed in the Heine family house in Hamburg and is full of secret references and codes between friends. It even mentions the name of a certain publisher (“the bastard Govitz”) on whom Heine sought revenge after the delayed the publication of a story Heine sent him. Toward the end of the letter, Heine proceeds to address the true source of his own distress: his baptism. He felt torn and confused, and expressed to Moser his difficulty in writing or thinking about “external things.”

Heine believed that German-Christian society, which demanded that its Jews abandon their religion in order to ascend its ranks, had exposed its true nature in light of his sacrifice. From other sources we learn that Heine expected that his conversion would help him win a coveted academic position, an expectation that was ultimately dashed. “Isn’t it strange,” he asked Moser, “I just converted to Christianity and already they are angry at me for being a Jew?”

There is a certain note of irony in Heine’s words that dulls the sting of the situation. “Now I am hated by both Christians and Jews. I am very sorry that I converted to Christianity, and I have not felt better since. Quite the opposite actually, since I seem to be surrounded by bad luck – but enough of that, you are too enlightened not to smile at it.” He added, “I think I’m better off than I know.” The likely truth is that his harshest critic was, of course, himself.


Heinrich Heine’s letter to his friend Moses Moser, the National Library collections. Click to enlarge

Thoughts on German

By 1831, almost six years after his baptism, Heine had had enough of German censorship and repeated criticism of his work and moved to Paris. Two years later, all of his works (including those not yet finished) would be confiscated due to a decision reached by the states of the German Confederation. The converted writer would become something of a refugee, who spent the rest of his life in exile in France.

In his new residence in Paris, Heine would make the most of his new life. He was able to mingle in the most sought-after circles, socialize with great personalities such as Alexander Dumas and Frederic Chopin, his name would become ever more famous, and his works (those that were written in Germany and those that he would write in Paris) would eventually become renowned the world over.

Neither the feelings of rejection nor the fear of a nationalist takeover of German politics could overcome Heinrich Heine’s longings for his native land. His homesickness would remain with him until his death on February 17th, 1856.

This article was written with the assistance of Dr. Stefan Litt, of the Archives Department at the National Library of Israel , and Chaya Meier-Herr, Director of the Edelstein Collection at the National Library.


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