When the Irgun Decided to Be Judge, Jury and Executioner

Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach were executed after being sentenced to death by drumhead court martials organized by the Irgun | Their death sentences on the alleged charge of treason were delivered by a self-sanctioned, non-transparent body, lacking any oversight | Delving into the details of the cases reveals a violent and controversial procedure in which military organizations permitted themselves to execute people without conclusive evidence | A look back at a darker side of the pre-state era

Members of the Irgun patrolling on the border of Jaffa, 1948. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

On a March morning in 1947, residents of Mandatory Palestine – the Land of Israel – awoke to find a new announcement from an “Irgun Tribunal” heralding a double execution carried out by its members. These were frenzied days when the Jewish settlement was battling the British Mandate government and its attempts to prevent Jewish immigration. The Irgun and Lehi underground organizations saw the British as their greatest enemy, and anyone suspected of collaboration, even if that person was a Jew, became a potential enemy in their eyes.

The statement released that morning announced the execution of two Jews — Kadia Mizrahi of Rehovot and Leon Mashiach of Petah Tikva — on the charge of informing to the British. These were two more names in a long list, but a thorough examination of the announcement can teach us quite a bit about the phenomenon as a whole.

Irgun poster announcing the executions of Kadia Mizrahi and Leon Mashiach (Hebrew). This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

Executions within the Jewish community in Mandatory Palestine were not a new occurrence. The first political assassination was that of Jacob Israël de Haan in 1924, and dozens more Jews were sentenced to death by various organizations on charges of treason, passing on information and collaboration with the Arabs or the British, before the State of Israel’s establishment in May of 1948.

The phenomenon is sometimes attributed only to the Lehi and Irgun, with the thinking being that their hardline positions led them to commit such violent acts, but in fact, the Haganah also assassinated Jews for similar reasons on several occasions. The difference was that the Haganah carried out its executions “quietly,” whereas the Irgun and Lehi chose to publicly announce theirs. Throughout most of the 1940s, the majority of the executions of Jews on these and other charges were indeed carried out by the Irgun and Lehi, while the Haganah during this period attempted to maintain a policy of cooperation with the British, as World War II and the Holocaust were both underway.

And for the slanderers/informers let there be no hope, traitors to their people” – an Irgun poster that made reference to the execution of informers. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

The announcement distributed in March 1947 begins with a description of Kadia Mizrahi’s guilt: “A whore who is corrupt to the core, a traitor to her people, a servant of the enemy, a professional informant who betrayed Jewish citizens, even her own son, to the British secret police.” It goes on to say how conclusive evidence was presented to the court (whose members remain unknown to this day) and that after Mizrahi had been warned about her behavior on previous occasions, she was executed.

Kadia was born in Israel to a Yemenite immigrant family. Her fate was sealed early on in life when she haphazardly married a youth her family did not approve of. The marriage was annulled, but from that day forward, she was an outcast. She was later married to Avraham Shriqi (whose name was Hebraized to Mizrahi) and became a homemaker, while also earning some money working in the homes of wealthier families in the area. The couple had five children. In 1945, Kadia did the unthinkable at the time by asking the Rabbinical Court for a divorce from her husband. Her request was eventually granted, along with a plot of land in the Marmurek area (Rehovot).

Following her divorce, Kadia lived alone after her ex-husband gained custody of the children in order to avoid paying child support. She adopted a lifestyle that was frowned upon by just about everyone aside from herself. She enjoyed dressing in nice clothes, dancing, sitting in cafes and smoking cigarettes. Around this time, the Jewish establishment in Mandatory Palestine began recruiting women to entertain British soldiers and show them a good time, as a way to win them over to the Zionist cause. Kadia signed up.

It should be noted that the women were not recruited to have sexual relations with the soldiers. Nevertheless, many among the Jewish community were skeptical of the tactic. The national institutions wanted the girls to dance with the foreign soldiers, host them and advocate for Jewish interests in the Land of Israel, but others feared assimilation. The “Committee to Protect the Honor of Jewish Daughters” was established to combat this “plague”. At one point, Kadia was recruited to work for the local branch of the British police. She started in maintenance and cleaning, advancing to the position of Arabic-English interpreter, before finally becoming a police officer/warden working with local women.

She and other women were occasionally followed by Irgun agents who suspected them of passing on information to the British, but Kadia was dismissive of these tactics. According to various sources, one night, after an Irgun attack on the Qastina airbase, the fighters returning from the operation stopped by her house to rest and change clothes, but Kadia wouldn’t let them in. Her refusal was to have dire consequences.

“Kadia Mizrahi, Police Officer From Rehovot, Murdered…she was sent threatening letters warning her ‘not to be too chatty and to refrain from informing'” – news item published in HaBoker, March 10, 1947

As a woman at that time, Kadia was already at a disadvantage. Her extroverted behavior, association with the British, the fact that she was divorced, lived alone and made no excuses for whom she associated with, all made her an easy target. She suffered various harassments, including masked men who tried to break into her home as well as malicious rumors that were spread about her. Finally, when the British imposed martial law in March 1947, she was accused of informing and passing on the names of Hebrew fighters.

The language of the announcement detailing her execution clearly displays the opinions of the Irgun about her chosen lifestyle, indicating that this was among their considerations when making the final decision on her fate. After receiving several threats, Kadia went to the British police but they refused to help her. Finally, one night, armed and masked members of the Irgun broke into her home and shot her eight times in her bed. She was 42 years old when she died. Her children engraved on her tombstone: “Murdered as a result of unjustified hatred and false accusations”.

The case of Leon Mashiach, who was executed around the same time, was slightly different, though his fate was similar. Originally from Bulgaria, the 29 year-old Mashiach was a newly discharged soldier and recently divorced. His accusers used the same language as they did for Kadia: “a traitor to his people and an informer.”

The Irgun tribunal published that Leon Mashiach confessed to his deeds and even signed a statement proving his guilt: “I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva. I gave him two training locations, one in the synagogue near the flour mill […] and the other in a kindergarten in Mahane Yehuda […] I devised a plan to capture the weapons trainees […].” Below it, he signed his name, the date, his year of birth and other details. His statement was not published along with the poster and was only found many years later in various archives.

After admitting his guilt, Mashiach asked to commit suicide as an “honorable solution” and to protect his son’s reputation. His request was denied, but according to the tribunal’s declaration, the Irgun assured him that “the disgrace of the traitorous father will not taint the son, who will grow up to be a loyal son to his country and homeland.” According to a news item published after the murder, his body was found blindfolded, after “rumor spread that he was involved in passing information to the police.”

“I, the undersigned, hereby declare of my own free will that I had contact with the detective Sergeant MacLachlan of Petah Tikva” – Leon Mashiach’s “confession”. This item is part of Archive Network Israel, made accessible via the collaboration of the Etzel Collection, the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage and the National Library of Israel

We don’t know the conditions under which Leon Mashiach’s “confession” was obtained, or what, if any, chance he was given to prove his innocence. It is possible that the confession was forced in order to “sanction” the execution, but it is also possible that he was indeed an informant and, once caught, chose to confess. The language of the confession — two exact locations, the name of the officer he was in contact with, and what they planned to do — may attest to its authenticity, but it is also possible that the statement was dictated to him.

The description of events, among other things the wording – “the court denied the request”, creates the illusion of an orderly judicial process. However, it is equally possible that everything happened quickly, and that the orderly procedure was nothing more than a short conversation before the execution. It is interesting that in this case, the “evidence” was presented in the form of a confession, while in the case of Kadia Mizrahi, there was no evidence at all besides “her lifestyle”, which had no real connection to the acts she was accused of perpetrating. The short news item about Mashiach’s execution was published in the newspaper HaTsofe, where the headline called it a “murder”, although the article itself was not critical of the act. Mashiach was buried in Petah Tikva. Meanwhile, the Leon Mashiach file in the archive of the Jabotinsky Institute remains confidential and is kept in a safe.

Screenshot of the confidential file, the Jabotinsky Institute Archive

The poster published by the Irgun concludes with a general paragraph that is both a warning and a threat promising a similar fate to anyone who cooperates with or passes information to the British. The public methods used by the Irgun and Lehi provoked widespread criticism from within the Jewish community, while the Haganah were relatively shielded from public outcry because they were more discreet about the murders they committed.

In Jerusalem, a body calling itself the “Thou Shalt Not Kill League” was established, which tried to combat acts of violence aimed at Arabs and Jews alike. In the many leaflets it distributed around the country it called the perpetrators of the violence “terrorists.” After Kadia Mizrahi’s murder, the league distributed a leaflet that mentioned her name and raised the question of the legitimacy of the drumhead court-martials and criticized their decisions. “Who is the court? […] What are their names so that we may know?” The murder of women in particular shocked the community. In another poster the league called to “Lend us a hand, join us and together […] we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst”. Despite the public protest, the murders continued, right up to the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence.

“…we will burn the scourge of terrorism from our midst…” – A poster produced by the Thou Shalt Not Kill League, the Jabotinsky Institute, 1947

The main problem with the executions, apart from the violence and the use of the death penalty as a solution, is that to this day it is not known what acts the “guilty” were actually responsible for. Aside from the important question of whether collaborators indeed deserved to die, the secrecy in which the organizations conducted their “trials” leaves no possibility of critically examining their actions. Was Kadia Mizrahi executed because she really was an informant for the British, or did false rumors and accusations, along with her lifestyle and the presence of trigger-happy executioners lead to her death? Did Leon Mashiach actually confess to his actions, or was his a forced confession, extracted in order to justify his execution?

We will never know since the “Irgun Tribunal” was conducted in the form of a drumhead court martial. The murdered were not allowed an orderly proceeding with a prosecutor and a proper defense and this issue remains unaddressed to this day. With the establishment of the State of Israel, this practice was repeated only once: the execution of the officer Meir Tobianski who, innocent of any crime, was murdered at the hands of a drumhead court organized by veterans of the Haganah. This case was investigated in depth, and we can only hope that the State of Israel learned its lesson.

The Ugly Duckling Is Set Free

The story of how a fighter in the Palmach, a Jewish underground organization from the pre-state era, managed to translate a popular children's classic while incarcerated in Jerusalem’s central prison…

Tuvia Hadani with an illustration from his translation of “The Ugly Duckling”

I’m holding this tiny booklet wrapped in a plain, orange book cover, and reading the words written in fastidious circular Hebrew handwriting, in the right corner of the title page:

“Just before school,

kind Hagit!

Accept from afar,

a humble gift”.

Underneath, the title reads:

“The Ugly Duckling.

By Andersen.

Jerusalem P., 15 Elul, 5704.”

 

 

Who is Hagit? Who was responsible for this mysterious handwritten translation of a classic children’s fairytale? What is “Jerusalem P.” (ב”ס ירושלים)? And exactly how “afar” was the booklet sent from?

The origins of this story stretch back eighty years, to the day when a British military court sentenced Tuvia Hadani to five years in prison for possession of illegal arms.

 

Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets” – An article describing Tuvia Hadani’s (Hodansky) trial, during which he was sentenced to five years in prison, Haaretz, September 6, 1942.

It was the same day that newspaper headlines ran with the news that the British were finally successful in stopping the Germans in North Africa, and it was easy to overlook the meager caption in the page before the last: “Life Imprisonment for Possession of Bullets”.

The article described the verdict from the trial of several Palmach members that were caught “near a path leading to Givat Brenner”, and in possession of weapons that could only have been taken from British army bases or warehouses. The Palmach was the elite fighting unit of the Haganah, the largest Jewish underground organization during the British Mandate period in the Land of Israel. One of the defendants, as noted in the caption, was sentenced to life imprisonment. The others were sentenced to “lesser” prison sentences of five to seven years.

When one of the accused, Tuvia Hodansky, raised his hands and surrendered to the British soldiers together with his friends, he probably wasn’t thinking about graceful swans, ugly ducklings or European fairytales altogether. It was much more likely that he was pondering the sentence that awaited him and the family he would be forced to leave behind. There was nothing beautiful or whimsical about this moment – his life was about to change and not in a good way.

Tuvia (or Teddy, as his friends and family called him) was born in Leipzig, Germany, a few years prior to World War I. After becoming infatuated with Zionism, he joined one of the Zionist youth movements, left his family and made Aliyah (immigrated) to Israel.

The year was 1932, a year before the rise of the Nazis to power. Together with other recently arrived “Yekkes” (German Jews), he became a member of Kibbutz Givat Brenner, which at the time was a poor kibbutz, with land too meagre to support all its inhabitants. Since Teddy had been a carpenter’s apprentice in Germany with some expertise in the field, he and his friends established a carpentry shop, that would subsequently become a famous factory, known across Israel.

Tuvia Hadani at a Bikkurim ceremony (first-fruits offering) at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. From the Hanan Bahir collection. The Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

But all of this productive work was put to a halt after about a decade. During World War II, Teddy voluntarily enlisted in the Palmach, along with many youths from the kibbutzim and other Jewish agricultural settlements. Before he had even had a chance to gain experience and establish a reputation in the organization, he was caught with other Palmach members smuggling weapons. The mission’s details had been leaked to British military personnel, who were waiting for them at the designated place and time.

Following his sentence, he arrived at the prison, where he was to share a cell, some moldy mattresses and a bucket with several other underground prisoners.

The prison cell in Jerusalem’s central prison, illustrated by Tuvia Hadani

It was not a quiet place. He had no desk, peace of mind or any source of inspiration. But still, when he wasn’t performing tasks for the prison administration, he sat and diligently worked on his project, a meticulous and delicate translation of the children’s fairytale, with its ironic title, considering his situation – “The Ugly Duckling”.

Did he identify with the duckling and see himself, and his own life story, when he wrote about the poor bird’s suffering and isolation?

“He got up and ran away. As he left the huge lake far behind, he came upon a small pond. He hid in the dark among the trees and waited for the break of dawn.”

Aside the beautiful and meticulously handwritten Hebrew words, he added sweet and graceful illustrations for children.

He dedicated his creation to Hagit, the daughter of Uri Steinberg, who was arrested together with him but had been given a shorter sentence.

The first pages of the illustrated manuscript

His final product was not a professional or polished Hebrew translation by any means. It included a number of grammatical errors, which were very common at the time in the immigrant society of the early State of Israel. When I read it, I could almost hear my grandmother’s voice reading it to me, with Hebrew enunciation that we would laugh at as children: using the long “oo” vowel sound instead of the long “o”, or “sh” instead of “s”.

Was the inadequacy of the translation the reason it never got commercially published? Or was it the reality of war and conflict with the British that prevented a resourceless Palmach fighter from promoting his work?

Whatever the reason, the children of the young country never got to enjoy this creation. It was only in the latter part of the 1950s, that they were able to read a Hebrew version of “The Ugly Duckling” (translated by Malka Fishkin, Yizre’ela Publishing).

Following his release from prison, Teddy returned to the kibbutz, where he managed the famous carpentry shop. Later on, being something of an intellectual, he returned to his studies in order to complete his formal education, while also working to facilitate further Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel.

Since then, there have been numerous published Hebrew translations of Hans Christian Andersen’s literature, and particularly of “The Ugly Duckling” classic. It was only posthumously, in Teddy’s memory, that members of Kibbutz Givat Brenner finally published his “Booklet” (as Amos Rudner, who had edited several of Naomi Shemer’s writings and produced the publication of this creation, called it).

When it was finally published, Hagit was a much older woman, perhaps even a mother of adult children, and so the publishers dedicated the work to all of Givat Brenner’s children.

Tuvia never got to enjoy seeing the letters of his booklet in print, letters that he managed to handwrite in erratic conditions, on the bare, cold prison floor. He never saw his delicate illustrations brought to life in color either.

He did get to see the country that he had only dreamt of back in Germany, and for which he fought for from the moment he arrived. The country that grew up and shifted from a young, feeble duckling, lacking any grace, into a beautiful and splendid swan, walking proudly and confidently among its peers, the other swans of the world.

“But when we look through this booklet, when we read it, or when we listen to our parents read it to us, we see before our eyes a proud Hebrew prisoner writing and illustrating for us, on the prison floor, translating Andersen’s story about the ugly duckling, even as he remains certain that all of his friends, his fellow prisoners, are nothing but swans dressed in ugly duckling clothes, imprisoned in a duckling pen, who are destined yet to sail and fly away as swans.”

(Amos Rudner, in the introduction to the translation)

Banishing the Nazi Darkness: Who Are the Father and Daughter in This 1941 Hanukkah Photo?

Europe was cloaked in darkness during Hanukkah of 1941. With war raging on all fronts, the Jews of British Mandate Palestine did their part in the fight against the Nazis. A picture postcard featuring a Jewish soldier in the British Army and his daughter was meant to warm the hearts of Jewish soldiers serving around the world. But one question remains – who are they?

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Postcard of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, Hanukkah 1941

The winter of 1941 was a dark one. At the beginning of the previous summer, after completing their conquest of western Europe, the Nazis stormed across eastern Europe to invade the Soviet Union. They were now besieging Leningrad, with fierce battles underway around Moscow. Early December saw another major turning point: the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.

At the same time as their invasion of the U.S.S.R., the Nazis also began the mass extermination of Europe’s Jews. In Ukraine, Belarus and other countries, Jews were lined up in front of enormous killing pits and executed by the hundreds of thousands. In December, the first extermination camp, Chelmno, was established, and experiments of mass killings using gas vans were carried out. A short time later, the decision would be made to implement the “final solution to the Jewish question“—the total extermination of European Jewry.

Meanwhile, the situation in Mandatory Palestine was also looking bleak. German forces were advancing eastward in North Africa, and there were fears that they would eventually conquer the Land of Israel. In order to fulfill Ben-Gurion’s commitment to “fight the Nazis as if there were no White Paper,” (a reference to Britain’s resistance to Jewish immigration to Palestine) the local Jewish population provided thousands of volunteers who enlisted in the British army. Some of them were captured during fighting in Greece earlier in 1941.

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Poster for “Jewish Soldier Day”, 1942, organized by the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier. From the Oded Yarkoni Archive of the History of Petah Tikva
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“And what are YOU doing for our soldiers?” Donor Certificate in support of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the National Library of Israel collections, photo: Amit Naor

And so, in the winter of 1941, quite a few young Jews from Mandatory Palestine found themselves on Europe’s frigid soil at the start of the Hanukkah holiday. These were not ideal conditions for celebrating a religious festival, but thanks to the efforts of some hardworking people who devoted themselves to the welfare of the Jewish soldiers scattered around the world, it was made possible. The National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, established at the initiative of Yosef Baratz, worked to meet all the needs of Jewish soldiers serving in the British Army.

The committee contacted the British military authorities to raise awareness of the needs of Jewish soldiers. Its members saw to cultural matters first, sending newspapers in Hebrew, organizing Hebrew theater events, and even arranging Hebrew and English lessons in the various army units. Alongside all this, the committee provided the soldiers with religious items such as bibles, tefillin and prayer books, as well as kiddush cups and candlesticks, so that they could observe the Sabbath. In addition, the committee naturally also sought to provide the soldiers, especially those who had been wounded, with financial assistance.

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“For the Soldier”, “For the Soldier’s Family” – A poster listing the various activities and contributions of the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the Ephemera Collection at the National Library of Israel

And so it was that during Hanukkah, in December 1941, the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier attempted to lighten the mood and offer encouragement and aid to the Jewish soldiers fighting the Nazis. Heading the effort was a huge gift drive for the soldiers. Dozens of volunteers including WIZO staffers, schoolgirls and members of the Working Mothers Organization, prepared packages that were sent to soldiers stationed in Mandatory Palestine and abroad. The soldiers in Europe received sweaters and warm woolen socks, as well as cigarettes (hey, it was the 1940s!), candy (yum!) and razors (handy!). Along with the packages, they also received letters and drawings from children back home, as well as the “Soldier’s Almanac,” a small booklet containing a yearly calendar, in addition to historical, cultural and geographical information the committee thought the soldiers should have.

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The Soldier’s Almanac, 1941–1942. In addition to a calendar, the booklet included chapters on history and geography, a dictionary of English phrases and other useful information, the National Library of Israel collections, photo: Amit Naor
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First aid information from The Soldier’s Almanac. Photo: Amit Naor

 

The Winter Soldier Will Banish the Darkness

In addition, the committee also issued a special holiday postcard which it sold in kiosks and bookstores, featuring an especially poignant image of a father in a British army uniform lighting the Hanukkah candles while his daughter watches, mesmerized by the flames. Underneath the picture is a line from the Hanukkah hymn Maoz Tzur: “The head of the Benjaminite You lifted/ and the enemy, his name You obliterated.” The contemporary context and the hope for a miracle that would brighten the future of the Jewish people would have been plain to all.

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The postcard published by the National Committee for the Jewish Soldier. The postcard was found in the private collection of Yirmiyahu Rimon, the Haifa City Museum
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The original photograph by Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Little is known about this image. This and two other photographs of the candle lighting were taken by Zoltan Kluger, who was then one of the most prominent photographers in the country. Today, these photos are in the Zoltan Kluger collection in the Israel State Archives. You can see all three here, here and here.

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Can you help us identify the mysterious soldier and child and discover what became of them? Photo: Zoltan Kluger. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

Kluger worked for the KKL-Jewish National Fund and other national institutions on numerous occasions. We don’t know who commissioned the photos from him, but it seems that they were taken in the Land of Israel close to the time the postcard was issued. Apart from the postcard published by the Committee for the Jewish Soldier, the photo also appeared in the 1941–1942 calendar published by Keren Hayesod. Beyond that, we haven’t been able to find out any additional information about the photograph or about the soldier-father and his daughter. We do do not know the identity of the soldier or that of the little girl, we do not know where the soldier was stationed, nor whether or not he survived the war. We also do not know whether Keren Hayesod commissioned the photographs.

Which is why we are turning to you, our readers!  Perhaps one of you recognizes the soldier or the little girl? Perhaps you know what became of them? You might even have a copy of the postcard stored away somewhere. Let us know here in the comments!

 

Our thanks to the Israel State Archives for its assistance in the preparation of this article.

Chaim Topol and the Giant Shadow of Sallah Shabati

Sallah Shabati, the character that launched Chaim Topol's acting career, also threatened to typecast him as a mere impressionist. But thanks to Topol’s great talent and determination, what could have been an obstacle to a rich and varied career became the role of a lifetime. Topol’s wife Galia and son Omer discuss the role that became the actor’s ticket to the international stage and screen…

Chaim Topol and Esther Greenberg in the film Sallah Shabati. From the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Hearing the name Chaim Topol inevitably brings to mind either Sallah Shabati from the film of the same name, or Tevye the Milkman from Fiddler on the Roof. Indeed Sallah, the role that launched Topol’s international career, has largely become synonymous with the well-known actor. It was therefore surprising to learn that it was this very role, which Topol performed so brilliantly, that almost became an obstacle on his path to a theater career. Can you imagine Chaim Topol being overlooked for major acting roles? That unimaginable scenario for Israel’s first international film star did not come to pass for the simple reason that Topol did not believe for a moment that it could, and he also went on to prove why not.

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Chaim Topol, circa 1969. From the Dan Hadani Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, the National Library of Israel

Our story begins with a Hebrew article published in Maariv in May 1964, about two weeks before the Israeli premiere of the film Sallah Shabati. The article states that when Topol left the Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) performing troupe to set up the Haifa Theater, he was asked what he wanted with theater since the only role he knew how to play was the character of Sallah, a Mizrahi Jewish immigrant, newly arrived in Israel. To this Topol replied, “I’m not worried. . . I’ve already proven to myself and to others that I’m able to go beyond all of this Sallah business.” It sounds absurd, looking back at his great international success, but just imagine how such criticism at the beginning of one’s career can be an obstacle. Topol, it seems, took it all in stride.

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“Sallah Shabati was the man who made Chaim Topol (as an actor), who embodied his whole stage presence and who embedded himself in his very bone marrow. But the same Sallah Shabati also threatened to destroy Topol (as an actor), when he moved from the small stage to the theater.” –  From a promotional article for the film Sallah Shabati, Maariv, May 15, 1964

Topol, like many Israeli entertainers of his generation, got his start in the IDF’s performance ensembles and theater troupes.

“Topol fell by accident into the Nahal troupe,” says Galia Topol, his wife of 66 years who herself was part of the second-year class of the Israeli army’s Nahal performing troupe. “He was in the middle of an eight-month Nahal training course. At the time, he and a couple of friends performed together as entertainers and Chaim was the resident comedian. One evening, the first-year Nahal troupe, with Yossi Banai and Yona Atari [famous Israeli performers], came to perform for them, and everyone decided not to laugh for the entire show. And that’s how it was—no one laughed the entire evening. Then the troupe asked Topol and his friends to come on stage and within minutes they had the whole audience rolling on the floor. That’s how Chaim ended up being selected for the Nahal troupe.”

In 1955, Ephraim Kishon, the famous Israeli author, director and satirist, collaborated with the Nahal troupe, composing a skit titled “The New Social Worker”. This was the first appearance of the character Sallah Shabati. It turns out that Topol played a big part in the creation of the skit, even before inhabiting the written character. “The Nahal [troupe] decided to introduce some more serious material,” says Galia. “Chaim thought to turn to Kishon. They didn’t know each other, but before the army, Chaim had been a printer at the Davar newspaper where Kishon worked, and he felt he could approach him.  Kishon wrote the character of Sallah for Chaim. Topol was actually opposed to the serious skit, and he wasn’t alone. We all thought that a serious skit wasn’t right for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and this was the army after all, so that’s what was decided, and we all went along with it.” Galia also participated in the skit, eventually playing the role of the social worker sergeant after Nechama Hendel left the troupe.

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The Batzal Yarok (“Green Onion”) troupe in a publicity photo for the Sallah Shabati skit. From left: Chaim Topol, Nechama Hendel, Avraham Mor and Uri Zohar (seated). Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

Today it’s likely that no one would think to cast the young Ashkenazi Topol as the older Mizrahi Sallah , but one cannot judge a nearly 60-year-old film by today’s standards. When the film came out, Israeli public opinion was firmly behind the idea of a societal melting pot, in the hope that within a generation or two the question of identity would become unimportant. Topol received quite a bit of criticism for portraying a character who at times appeared ridiculous and laughable, but as a professional actor he took the role extremely seriously, approaching it in the spirit of the times. He embodied Sallah regardless of the essential difference between himself the actor and the character.

 

Did Topol do anything special to prepare for the role? In one interview he said that the director David Bergman used the Stanislavsky method and that preparing for the role was intense.

“He took his training for the role very seriously. He spent hours in m’aabarot [transit camps for new immigrants to Israel], studying the language, the diction and just listening. He also got the idea for the hat from there and one time he came home especially to look for his beret from his own schooldays. Chaim immersed himself in the character, but he was also certain that it would not be appreciated by the audience, mainly because he thought the sketch was too serious and not suitable for the troupe. But Kishon insisted and it became a hit.”

Topol and the rest of the troupe learned very quickly that they had been wrong, and the audience welcomed Sallah with open arms. “The skit was performed more than 500 times on stage,” recalls Galia. “Already at the general rehearsal, the Nahal commander, the chief education officer and other senior officers sat in the front row, and when the Sallah skit came on they burst out laughing, even before anyone started speaking. As soon as Topol came on stage they started laughing. We looked at them and didn’t understand what was so funny, but they burst out laughing—this was largely Kishon’s genius.”

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Poster for the film Sallah Shabati, from the Abraham Deshe (Pashanel) Archive, available in digital format, courtesy of the family and in cooperation with the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

But even Kishon himself recognized that Sallah Shabbti’s enormous success was due in no small part to Topol’s genius. When asked about this once, Kishon said that “the secret of its success lay in the perfect union between actor and character, a rare stage phenomenon.”

“There is no doubt that Chaim completely embodied the role as well as grasped Kishon’s critique,” Galia says. “He conveyed it thrillingly on stage. It was that rare connection between Kishon’s ability to provoke sympathetic laughter while revealing the [character’s] soul and Chaim’s acting ability. It was not for nothing that they were friends and partners for many years after.”

Topol continued to collaborate with Kishon, playing the character of Sallah for years. After his army service Topol played Sallah in the sketches “Ziggy and Habuba” and “Cat in the Sack” as part of the Batzal Yarok troupe that he founded with Uri Zohar, another major Israeli talent. In fact, Topol played Sallah Shabati on stage from 1954 to 1960, fleshing him out in form and spirit in five different skits to the delight of theater-goers.

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The Batzal Yarok troupe in rehearsals, from right: Galia Topol, Zahrira Harifai, Topol, Eliyahu Barkai and Avraham Mor. Photographer unknown, from the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family, and with the collaboration of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

For Topol, it was time to move on to the next career stop—the repertory theater, and thus, he found himself among the founders of the Haifa Theater, whose establishment was initiated by the mayor at the time, Abba Hushi. “During the Haifa Theater period, there was no Sallah,” says Galia. “Chaim was one of the first to join the troupe and the first thing he did there was The Taming of the Shrew, directed by Yosef Milo, in which he played Petruchio. I remember he had to wear tights and he found it very embarrassing.”

 

Did these six years in which he played and became identified with Sallah make people think that that was all he could do?

“First of all, Sallah is a multi-layered character, so being identified with him is not a bad thing,” replies Galia. “But I don’t remember anything like that. Maybe people thought that, but Chaim didn’t think so. He knew he was a serious actor and set himself goals and the fact is he was able to achieve them and more.”

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Chaim Topol and Uri Zohar during the Batzal Yarok period. Photo: Boris Carmi, the Meitar Collection, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection, National Library of Israel

“I don’t think that Sallah eclipsed [Topol] at any point, but there is no doubt that he got under his skin in some sense,” says Omer Topol, Galia and Chaim’s son. “He also definitely brought him home, for example in the mannerism of throwing the backgammon dice,” he says and they both laugh and demonstrate. “It isn’t just idle talk about the connection between an actor and a character, because in this case there definitely was, only in this instance the actor was also much more than that.”

There is no doubt of Topol’s acting abilities, but it seems that in the first years of his career, Sallah cast a shadow nevertheless. Topol’s personal archive, which was scanned and made available on the National Library of Israel website, also sheds a different light on the subject. In an article published two weeks before the release of the movie Sallah Shabati, Topol remarks that quite a few people raised an eyebrow when he moved to the repertory theater because they thought he was unable to play other characters. Although theater critics were unanimous about Topol’s phenomenal success as Petruchio, it seems that even people who knew Topol’s abilities initially shared this feeling that Chaim was Sallah and nothing else. An excerpt from Ma’ariv written after the opening of The Taming of the Shrew, suggests that even Kishon didn’t see Topol as a serious actor in the beginning. “Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman,” Kishon joked as he tried to demonstrate the concept of absurdist humor to the audience.

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Ephraim Kishon was speaking of absurdist humor, and wishing to bring forth a fitting example, he said: ‘Imagine Chaim Topol playing the part of an Italian nobleman‘” – From Maariv, October 10, 1961. Photo: the Chaim Topol Archive, courtesy of the family and with the cooperation of the Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage, the National Library of Israel and the University of Haifa

It seems that the 26-year-old Topol was determined to prove to everyone that he was much more than Sallah. In hindsight, after two Golden Globe Awards, an Oscar nomination, countless plays, including on the stages of the West End and Broadway, one James Bond film, and also the Israel Prize, the Kinor David Prize and a slew of international and other awards, it is clear that Topol certainly succeeded in his mission.

 

But then, in the early 1960s, after he had already proven himself on the theater stage, the idea of ​​a film came up and essentially brought Topol back together with Sallah. Did Topol want to return to this character again?

“Chaim and Kishon were partners,” Galia says. “It was both of their dreams to expand the five Sallah sketches that had been performed up to that point into a movie,” she says. “Production began when Menachem Golan entered the picture. Chaim as usual was skeptical. Kishon kept telling him that the film was good, but Chaim refused to believe it. However, he was completely committed to it and felt tremendous responsibility for its success. Since at the time he was still an actor with the Haifa Theater, he would finish performing the Brecht play The Caucasian Chalk Circle at night, and go straight to Tel Aviv to film. He would drive like a madman and get to Tel Aviv in under an hour. He would film, then drive back to Haifa to rehearse, put on another show that evening and then sleep for the night, only to do it all over again the next day. While making the film, he appeared in several plays, also in Rashomon and Karnafim.”

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Topol and Kishon with the Golden Globe, Maariv, February 19, 1965

Looking back, Topol had nothing to regret about agreeing to reprise the role that has become so identified with him. Sallah Shabati, the first film directed by Ephraim Kishon, was an immediate massive hit, winning the Golden Globe and receiving Israel’s first Oscar nomination. Sallah’s international success was also the springboard for Topol’s own international career. “Chaim was happy when the film received such a warm reception when it came out,” concludes Galia. “Despite the doubts, he was fully committed to Sallah Shabati and gave it his all. His ability to do it all is part of his inner drive. He proved that he can be Sallah, or Petruchio, or Azdak in The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” Topol has proven that he is an actor of diverse abilities and that no role can cast a shadow on his bright star.