His Way: Frank Sinatra in the Service of Israel

How Ol' Blue Eyes managed to trick the FBI, make a special delivery down at the docks and help the Jewish state-in-the-making...

Frank Sinatra watching an IDF parade during a visit to Israel in 1962, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photograph Collection, the National Library of Israel. Colorization: MyHeritage

And now, the end is here
And so I face that final curtain
My friend, I’ll make it clear
I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain
I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way

(My Way, lyrics by Paul Anka, famously performed by Frank Sinatra.)

It was March, 1948 – in a few weeks, the State of Israel would declare its independence.

The Haganah organization was working back channels in order to arm the Jewish population in what was still officially Mandatory Palestine. Fighting was already underway.   At a room in a New York hotel that served as the Haganah’s de-facto local HQ, Teddy Kollek planned his next moves: His mission, on David Ben-Gurion’s orders, was to transfer funds to the captain of an Irish ship, docked not far away and loaded with ammunition. Once the transfer was made, the ship was set to sail to the Land of Israel.  But Kollek, who years later would become famous as an iconic mayor of Jerusalem, faced a difficult problem: as a known Haganah operative, U.S. federal agents were monitoring his every move. Every member of his team was being watched as well. He knew there was no way he could get the money out of the hotel on his own to pay the captain. The fate of the arms delivery the Haganah so desperately needed was unclear.

Next to the Haganah’s secret headquarters, in the very same building, was the famous Copacabana nightclub. Haganah agents would sit at the bar and drink alongside the cream of New York’s entertainment scene. One of the establishment’s frequent visitors was none other than Frank Sinatra.

“I went downstairs to the bar and Sinatra came over, and we were talking,” Kollek later recalled. “I don’t know what came over me, but I told him what I was doing in the United States and what my dilemma was.”

Frank Sinatra (right) and Teddy Kollek (left), who by then was mayor of Jerusalem, an AP photo published in Davar, June 19, 1980

The next day, in the early morning hours, Teddy Kollek left the building holding a bag. FBI agents followed him. At the same moment, Frank Sinatra left out the back exit, carrying a million dollars in a paper bag. He went down to the pier, made the delivery to the captain, and waved goodbye to the ammunition ship as it sailed on its way.

“It was the beginning of the young nation, I wanted to help.” Sinatra later told his daughter Nancy.

Well after Israeli independence was declared, Frank Sinatra would continue to accompany the young country for many years. And everything he did, he did with love. His way.

And here’s a special bonus treat – this short film produced by the “National Comittee for Labor Israel” documented Sinatra’s 1962 visit to the country, in color!

Further Reading:

Sinatra: The Life – Anthony Summers, Robbyn Swan

Friends in Deed: Inside the U.S.-Israel Alliance, Yossi Melman, Dan Raviv

Stuart Davidson – Full interview about Frank Sinatra and Teddy Kollek, Jimmy Hoffa (Associate) – Toldot Yisrael

Heinrich Himmler’s Books at the National Library of Israel

Even a mass murderer can have a personal library. Some of the books from Heinrich Himmler’s private collection, containing his signature, can be found today at the National Library of Israel. How did they get here?

Shlomo Shunami, a former senior staff member at the National Library of Israel, devoted his life to locating Jewish libraries that remained scattered across Europe after the Holocaust, and bringing these books to Israel. Over decades, he managed to transfer hundreds of thousands of books to the Jewish State, many of them ended up at the National Library of Israel.

In an interview conducted in 1977, Shunami recounted that among the books that had come from Germany were some from the private collection of none other than the head of the SS, Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful figures in the Nazi regime.

I set out to find them.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS

Himmler was a talented administrator who successfully ran many complex governmental and policing systems while raining terror down on the citizens of Germany and the rest of Europe. He, more than anyone else, was responsible for the deportation of the Jews to ghettos in Eastern Europe, the establishment of concentration and extermination camps, and the murder of six million Jews and millions of others. Unlike other senior Nazis like Joseph Goebbels, Himmler did not have an extensive academic background. Yet he spent a great deal of time developing dubious racial and pseudo-scientific theories intended to “prove” the supposed superiority of the Aryan race and the inferiority of other peoples. It is easy to imagine him surrounded by books on history, folklore and science written by German and other scholars.

Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS

Adolf Hitler’s personal library, discovered after the war, was transferred to the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. The library of the antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer was deposited at the Yeshiva University Library in New York. But what ever happened to Himmler’s books?

Himmler was very interested in mysticism and the supernatural, and many of his books dealt with these subjects. Some of these books, collectively dubbed “the witch library,” were discovered a few years ago in the Czech Republic.

But what of the more traditional, classic antisemitic material that he most likely owned?

As luck would have it, this intriguing question has been solved. After years of searching, I stumbled upon a book from Himmler’s personal library in the collection of the National Library of Israel.

The book Der Aufstieg der Juden by the journalist Ferdinand Fried is a historical description of the Jewish people from the destruction of the Second Temple to the Roman period. Fried joined the SS and was promoted within the organization by Himmler himself. What’s more, the copy of Fried’s book in the National Library contains his own dedication to Himmler, who Fried described as his loyal partner in their joint struggle.

A year and a half after Fried penned the dedication, Himmler signed his name at the top of the page in large letters in green ink, with the date 28.12.38, probably the date on which he finished reading the book.

Ferdinand Fried’s book, featuring the dedication to Himmler. Himmler signed his name at the top of the page

I have held many of the library’s treasures in my hands, but the thought that 84 years ago, the blood-soaked hands of the architect of the Holocaust also held this very book was chilling, to say the least.

This book led me to another title from Himmler’s library. This time, it was the book Schriften für das deutsche Volk, by the Orientalist and antisemitic biblical scholar Paul de Lagarde, on the subject of government and politics. Himmler had signed his name at the top of the book’s title page.

The next book I found was Die Vererbung der Geistigen Begabung, which deals with issues of heredity and race and their impact on character and intelligence. Himmler signed his name as usual, with the date 22.1.39.

Two other books I discovered on that occasion did not belong to his personal library, but were sent by Himmler to the Nazi movement’s branch in the city of Haifa. Yes, there was indeed such a thing!

The first of three pages detailing the books kept in the library of the Haifa branch of the Nazi party in Palestine. Himmler’s book is the twelfth on the list. Photo: Israel State Archives

Before World War II, less than 2,500 German citizens were living in Mandatory Palestine, most of them in the Templer colonies. The Templers (not to be confused with the medieval Knights Templar) were a religious group with roots in the Pietist movement of the Lutheran church in Germany whose members immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in the mid-19th century. Karl Ruff, an architect born in Haifa to Templer parents, founded the Palestine branch of the Nazi party. Nazi groups were established in the Templer colonies of Haifa, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Sarona (Tel Aviv), and by the end of 1933, they had 121 members. The Palestine branch continued to expand, and members were emboldened to march through the city streets in Nazi attire, carrying flags emblazoned with the swastika. To encourage the members of the branch, the Nazi movement in Germany sent pamphlets, books, and even cheap radios for listening to propaganda broadcasts from Berlin. Towards the outbreak of the war, some of the men were drafted into the German army and returned to Europe. The rest of the Germans in the country were imprisoned or deported by the British Mandatory authorities (you can read more here).

These flags were used by the Nazi party branch in Mandatory Palestine

Among the books that reached the Nazi library in Haifa were those sent by Himmler himself. Eventually, the British dismantled the organization in Haifa, and the books found their way to the National Library in Jerusalem. So far, I have located only two of them. The first, Bauernbrauch im Jahreslauf, describes the country life, nature, customs and folklore of Germany. The second book, Die Schutzstaffel als antibolschewistische Kampforganisation, is Himmler’s own book on the history of the German people, the founding of the SS, and the racial and mental qualities required of its members.

Both books open with a short dedication to the Nazi group in Haifa from November 9, 1937. Both also feature Himmler’s personal signature along with his rank, Reichsführer-SS.

Himmler’s book, donated to the Nazi library in Haifa

I carefully closed Himmler’s books, returned them to the National Library’s rare books storeroom, and went to look for some hand sanitizer…

Jews in Keffiyehs? – The Headdress That Became a Symbol

Nowadays, people identify the keffiyeh as the unequivocal symbol of the Palestinian national movement. However, going back a few decades, we find documentation of senior members of the Zionist movement wearing the traditional headdress as well as members of the Palmach and even soldiers in the IDF. What changed along the way?

Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion on a tour of the Negev with Yitzhak Rabin as a young officer. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

Imagine for a moment the following scene: a man bearing a moustache and holding a shepherd’s crook stands silently as he stares straight ahead. On his head he wears a keffiyeh, a traditional Arabian headdress, while around him a herd of sheep graze quietly. Trees, rocks and clumps of grass dot the tranquil landscape. An idyllic image of a native Canaanite shepherd…

At this stage, the dream-like atmosphere is abruptly shattered when we notice a large camera positioned across from the man in the keffiyeh, and behind it a professional photographer. On closer inspection we see that the sheep, rocks, and blue sky are in fact a painted backdrop. The “shepherd” is actually a European-born Jew answering to the name of Zvi. Setting down his crook and taking off the keffiyeh, Zvi leaves the darkened studio and walks out into the sunny streets of early-20th-century Tel Aviv, dressed in his ordinary day-to-day urban clothes. To understand why Zvi would choose to dress-up like a shepherd and what he hoped to achieve by doing so, we must look to the history of the keffiyeh – an item of clothing that to this day arouses a whole range of emotions across different groups of people living in this land.

Aminadav Altschuler, a leading figure in Jewish land purchases in the Negev, wearing a keffiyeh while planting a tree on Tu B’Shvat in the desert near Beit Eshel. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Today, this traditional headdress is a popular, political, and class symbol, particularly the black-and-white version that has become a definitive Palestinian national symbol. In retrospect, however, at the beginning of the previous century, the situation was different. From the early 20th century until the 1950s, even after the establishment of the state of Israel, senior members of the Zionist movement, as well as many other Jews, were documented wearing the keffiyeh. One of the most famous examples is the photograph of the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann wearing an elaborate keffiyeh in his meeting with the Hashemite Prince Faisal in 1918.

The Emir Faisal (on the right) and Chaim Weizmann (on the left) in keffiyehs, in the city of Ma’an in Jordan, 1918

Alongside Weizmann, members of Zionist military organizations such as the Palmach, HaShomer, and even soldiers in the IDF wrapped themselves in this particular item of clothing. In the first few decades of the 20th century, the Jewish immigrants of the First and Second Aliyah would often have studio portraits of themselves taken while dressed in full Arab costume, complete with a resplendent keffiyeh.

Studio portrait of Rachel Slutzki, among the founders of the cooperative agricultural settlement Nahalal (on the right wearing male garb and holding a rifle) and her cousin Liza Slutzki in a woman’s “Bedouin” dress holding a clay jar. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.


Yitzhak Shmilovsky, a young Jew, wearing a keffiyeh and agal—the keffiyeh is actually a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl, repurposed here as a keffiyeh. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

The keffiyeh was also worn by Jewish schoolchildren and members of youth movements in the Land of Israel. How then, did the keffiyeh come to be viewed as an anti-Zionist symbol?


Adopting the Keffiyeh as a Means of Integration

The Zionist movement, as a fundamentally European movement, was naturally influenced by many typical, contemporary European intellectual trends, among them Orientalism. With the arrival of waves of immigration to the Land of Israel (then Ottoman controlled Palestine), the European Jewish immigrants found themselves to be very different from the local inhabitants. Many saw the Arab peasants that prevailed in Palestine-Israel at the end of the period of Ottoman rule, as the successors of the ancient Jews who had lived in the Kingdom of Israel before the exile. The Jewish community of Peki’in that had been living in the Land of Israel for centuries also served as a model for an indigenous, “authentic” way of life. Embracing this view, many of the new immigrants sought to imitate the lifestyle of the locals. The visual culture produced in the Land of Israel during the early days of the Zionist movement demonstrates the attempt to fashion the “New Jew” in the Land of Israel.

Schoolchildren at Ein Ganim, dressed in white and wearing keffiyehs. The school building is visible in the background. This item is part of Israel Archive Network (IAN) and has been made available thanks to the collaborative efforts of the Yad Ben Zvi Archive, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel.

Abraham Soskin’s photography studio in Tel Aviv, one of the first Jewish-owned photography studios in the country, is a good example of this. Among the services that Soskin offered his customers was a portrait photograph displaying them in full local peasant or Bedouin dress. Soskin’s photos capture the Zionist movement’s zeitgeist at the beginning of the 20th century, which sought to transform the diaspora Jew into a “New Jew,” while appropriating an ancient national identity they perceived as the authentic Jewish identity. These images show how Westerners viewed and tried to emulate the locals. This perception persisted into the Third Aliyah, with Zionist Jews seeking to become like the indigenous inhabitants and imitating them in many ways.

Yitzhak Hoz, a member of the Hashomer organization, pictured in a studio portrait by Abraham Soskin. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ada Tamir Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

Another notable example is the dress adopted by members of the Hashomer organization, most of whom were Ashkenazi Jews, but who wore keffiyehs and abayas in an attempt to resemble the country’s Bedouin residents.

Members of the Hashomer organization, two of whom are wearing keffiyehs, while others are wearing the Turkish kalpak and fez. Nadav Mann, Bitmuna. From the Ben-Zion Israeli Collection. Collection source: Aharon Israeli, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

It is important to distinguish between European-colonial orientalism, exemplified by Europeans photographing themselves dressed in indigenous attire out of a sense of paternalism and cultural appropriation, and the early Zionist immigrants who adopted local dress and wore the keffiyeh out of the desire for closeness and a sense of belonging to the place. The latter aspired to shape their image in the spirit of the ancient, historical Jews, whose legacy they believed they were continuing. This sentiment is also visible in the artwork produced by the early 20th-century Jewish artists who studied at the Bezalel School of Arts and Crafts, who imagined the “New Jew” through an orientalist lens.

The pioneers, members of agricultural settlements, youth movements, and even military organizations such as the Haganah, Palmach, Irgun, and Lehi, also tried to promote their perception of the figure of the New Jew. Along with the return to the Land of Israel and the return to working the land, the keffiyeh was a clear visual expression of this. The familiar item of clothing, which was customary in the Arabian Peninsula even before the advent of Islam, was meant to protect the head and face from sand and dust, to shield those laboring in the fields from the summer sun and the winter winds. The keffiyeh has three familiar, traditional styles: the white keffiyeh is popular today in the Gulf States and among the Bedouin, but is also found in the region of Iraq; the red-and-white keffiyeh, which is very common in Jordan, but can also be found in other places; and the black-and-white keffiyeh, which is today identified with the Palestinians.

Israeli soldiers in a Jordanian jeep with a framed photograph of Jordan’s King Hussein in a keffiyeh on the front fender, in Jerusalem after the conquest of the city in 1967. The Meitar Collection, Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

As the Zionist enterprise developed, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict grew, the Zionist Jews’ attempt to imitate the locals waned. In his book Pre-Israeli Orientalism: A Photographic Portrait, which reviews the phenomenon of studio photography in peasant and Bedouin clothes among Jews in the Land of Israel, Dor Guez points to the violent events of 1929 as a turning point in the Jewish attitude and the end of their desire to emulate the locals: “The naïve Orientalist perception of the first aliyot was shattered . . . and with it their passion to ‘Easternize’ themselves as the indigenous people.” Towards the end of the 1930s and the eruption of the “Arab Revolt,” when the Palestinian national consciousness was also largely shaped, the keffiyeh became a national-Palestinian symbol, replacing the Ottoman fez hat or tarboosh. The keffiyeh’s identification as a political symbol began to enter local consciousness, as did a process at the end of which the keffiyeh became a symbol holding an ideology completely opposite to Zionism.


The Political Nuances of the Keffiyeh

After the events of 1929 and the Arab uprising, the popularity of the keffiyeh began to decline and Jewish attempts to emulate the locals became less common, but throughout the 1940s and 1950s, the keffiyeh could still spotted in Israel, including around the necks of Jewish Israeli politicians and military personnel. One well-known image shows David Ben-Gurion during a patrol in the midst of the 1948 war, wearing a white keffiyeh around his neck, alongside young officers Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with a keffiyeh tied around his neck, during a tour in the Negev with a group of officers including Yitzhak Rabin and Yigal Alon. May, 1949. Photo: Government Press Office

Another famous photograph from that war, known as “The Girl with the Gun,” shows communications officer Ziva Arbel leaning against a tree, with a holster and gun around her waist and a keffiyeh tied like a kerchief on her head, shortly after the battle of Barfiliya.

“The Girl with the Gun”, wearing a keffiyeh; Ziva Arbel, communications officer in the Yiftah Brigade’s 3rd battalion, in Ben Shemen Forest after the capture of the village of Barfiliya. July, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

These two photos, along with many others, show how in the late 1940s the keffiyeh was still a strong symbol of the Zionist ethos, despite its significance in Palestinian political identity that had begun a decade earlier. Boris Carmi, known as Israel’s “first military photographer,” documented IDF soldiers wearing keffiyehs in 1958.

Keffiyehs and “Tembel” hats: 1958 IDF military parade, soldiers in keffiyehs at a tent encampment, 1958. The Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

The shift in consciousness that led to the Jews’ near complete abandonment of the keffiyeh only began towards the end of the 1960s. Behind this change was the key figure of Yasser Arafat.

Yasser Arafat on a visit to Gaza, wearing the keffiyeh that became one of his signature features. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

The 1967 war and the great defeat of the Arab states led to the rise of the Fatah movement headed by Arafat, who presented himself as a leader who spoke on behalf of the Palestinian people. One of the most prominent features of his appearance besides his perennial “battle dress” and gun was the black and white keffiyeh. He began wearing it as early as 1956 when he first traveled to Europe as a member of the Palestinian student delegation from Egypt. From then on, he made sure to be seen wearing it, and thus, it became one of the Palestinian leader’s most identifiable signs. Arafat was even nicknamed abu al hata: (“hata” being the local Arabic word for keffiyeh). In his biography of Arafat, author Danny Rubinstein describes how the Fatah leader made sure to drape the keffiyeh in a particular way that gave it a pointed edge, supposedly creating the outline of the Holy Land. Arafat’s appearance strengthened the keffiyeh’s political status, and already in the first intifada, Palestinians were seen wearing it in their confrontations with the Israeli security forces.

Supporters of Arafat in Rafah in the Gaza Strip. The keffiyeh’s symbolism is clear. July, 1994. The Dan Hadani Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

In the 1990s, the status of the keffiyeh as an “anti-Zionist” symbol finally solidified, when a picture of the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin wearing a keffiyeh was published by far-right activists, as a way to demonstrate his supposed “betrayal” in signing the Oslo Accords.  Since then, caricatures and images of various politicians in keffiyehs have been circulated to illustrate similar messages.

A poster criticizing former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, edited to show him wearing a keffiyeh. The Hebrew text reads: “The Liar – Elections Now!”, the Poster Collection at the National Library of Israel

The Keffiyeh in the 21st Century

The 20th century ended with the polarization of the keffiyeh, so that at the beginning of the 21st century, public opinion in the country regarding this headdress had completely shifted from what it had been a century earlier. The keffiyeh had played a role during the various attempts to begin the peace process over the years. Apart from the Oslo Accords and the familiar image of Arafat alongside Rabin in a keffiyeh, an incident at the 1991 Madrid conference also sparked controversy, when the Palestinian representative Saeb Erekat wore a keffiyeh around his neck, thus angering those present, particularly the Israeli delegation. In less than 50 years, the Israeli attitude towards the head covering had completed a 180 degree turn – though Ben-Gurion had willingly wrapped himself in a keffiyeh back in 1948, by the 1990s, it was considered a threatening and unwelcome sign.

Interestingly, the Abraham Accords signed in 2020 have led to a kind of “Israeli renaissance” regarding the keffiyeh.  Israeli tourists visiting the Gulf countries and Morocco have been photographed happily wearing the head covering in its white, Gulf States version as part of the local tourist experience. Once the Palestinian-political context is out of the picture, it seems that Israeli Jews are ready to return to wearing the familiar Arab headdress.

Over the years, there have also been attempts to create a “Jewish kaffiyeh,” somewhat reminiscent of the “sudra,” the Jewish head covering that was once common in Arab countries. At the same time, the Palestinians have continued to ensure the keffiyeh remains their representative symbol, including through popular culture, music, television, the internet, and social media. Singer Muhammad Assaf even won the popular singing contest “Arab Idol” in 2013, with his song “Wave the Keffiyeh,” whose words glorify the headdress as a Palestinian national symbol.

Looking back, the history of the keffiyeh seems to be inseparable from the history of the region and the struggles over the character of the Holy Land; yet, hopefully one day, this symbol and the significance that it holds for both peoples, will become less charged.


Thanks to Eli Osheroff for helping in the preparation of this article.  


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