The Story of the Daring Pilot Zahara Levitov

Zahara Levitov was a Palmach fighter and among the first women to fly planes in the newly established IDF, but her service was cut short by a tragic crash


Zahara Levitov, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

It was a dark night. The force descended the slope and approached their objective. They had already caught a glimpse of the operation’s target, the A’Ziv (Achziv) Bridge —but just as they spotted it, they too were detected and immediately fired upon.  An incoming bullet apparently set off the explosives they were carrying to blow up the target. The result was dire: 14 Palmach fighters were killed.

About forty people, including a female soldier named Zahara Levitov, took part in the failed strike. It was just one of eleven similar actions carried out on what became known as the “Night of the Bridges”, an operation by the Haganah’s elite Palmach force which targeted strategic bridges and transportation routes used by the British Mandate authorities. Zahara sustained an eye injury in the explosion, but she managed to reach the nearby Kibbutz Matzuva. There, disguised as one of the children, she hid from the British forces in the children’s dormitory. The caregiver at the scene told the police they could not see her because she had a dangerous illness. The ruse worked, and although her injury was substantial, the British did not arrest her.

Zahara Levitov, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

Zahara was not even 19 years old when she took part in the daring “Night of the Bridges” operation. She was born in Tel Aviv in 1927, the youngest of three siblings. She spent her early childhood in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, before returning with her family to Tel Aviv at the age of nine. While studying at the New High School in Tel Aviv, Zahara joined the Haganah and began her underground activities.

In the second year of Zahara’s service in the Palmach, she became a squad commander, teaching trainees at Ein Harod. There she also fell in love with Shmuel (Shmulik) Kaufman. Their romance became the basis of Devorah Omer’s best-selling book Until Death Do Us Part (Leʹehov Ad Mavet). The book is based, among other things, on the many letters they wrote to each other, which showed the young couple’s flair for writing. Shmulik, who was considered gifted, had planned to travel to the United States with Zahara in 1947. He was to study economics and she would study medicine.

Zahara and Shmulik, courtesy of the Palmach Archive

Shmulik’s Palmach commanders tried to persuade him to stay in Israel due to the tense security situation, but in the end, after meeting with Yigal Alon, the head of the Palmach, Shmulik obtained his release permit. He asked Zahara to leave for Jerusalem right away, but she insisted they stay at the kibbutz for a few more days and organize a farewell party. Two days later, Shmulik was asked to help in grenade training at a neighboring kibbutz. A defective grenade exploded and Shmulik, not yet twenty, was killed, along with two other trainees.

After several months, the broken-hearted Zahara traveled to the United States to begin medical school. She excelled in her studies and received a letter of recommendation that allowed her to transfer to Columbia University in New York. All the while, she continued writing letters to her beloved Shmulik, who was no longer among the living.

Zahara Levitov (at left). Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

The news from Israel, and in particular the news about the fall of the Convoy of 35 during the War of Independence, many of whose members were friends and acquaintances, shocked Zahara. She left her studies and signed up for a pilot’s course that was being organized in California—she was one of only two women in the course. She completed it with distinction and returned to Israel as a licensed pilot. Her squadron was stationed at Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airfield and she was soon appointed deputy commander. She embarked on long solo flights to keep in touch with isolated settlements whose only access was by air. She even set out on her first leave vacation by plane.  Zahara flew to Jerusalem to meet with Shmulik’s father in order to prepare a memorial book about her beloved.  She was scheduled to fly back to Tel Aviv on August 3rd, 1948, with pilot Emanuel Rothstein, but a malfunction caused the plane to crash in Jerusalem’s Valley of the Cross, killing both pilots. Zahara was just twenty years old.

Zahara in the cockpit. Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

At the time, the sisters Ruth and Reuma Schwartz (who would go on to marry Moshe Dayan and Ezer Weizman, respectively) were at their parents’ house in the Rehavia neighborhood, situated on the slopes of the valley. Ruth saw the plane crash from the kitchen window and she hurried with Reuma to the scene. In an interview with the newspaper Israel Hayom, she told about what she saw: “We arrived at the site and what I saw I will never forget. It was terrible. The two bodies were intact and lying next to the broken plane. Zahara was so beautiful. I do not remember him, but she—her black hair fell around her face. She had on a red shirt and a green skirt and she was lying there—whole, but still. What could we do? We opened the back doors of the car and loaded the bodies into the car with the feet sticking out and made our way up to the road. An ambulance took them from there.”

Zahara next to an IDF plane. Courtesy of the Palmach Archive

The tragic story of the young Zahara and Shmulik has been immortalized in a number of Hebrew books and plays.  In the early years of the State of Israel, her story was a source of inspiration, and many girls were named after her. Zahara’s mother used to send a sweater to mothers who had named their daughter Zahara after her own. Over the years, the Israeli Air Force has also contributed to her commemoration as an iconic figure in Israeli history. Today, after many years of women not being able to serve as Air Force pilots in Israel, this possibility is now open to them once again.

Israel’s First Independence Day and “The Parade That Didn’t March”

What Israel's Independence Day looked like before there was an Independence Day

Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

How is a holiday created out of thin air? Well, one method is legislation.

Israel’s “Independence Day Law” from 1949 set the date for Independence Day as the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, while also allowing for the holiday to be brought forward or delayed in the event that the 5th falls on a Sabbath. Additionally, the law authorizes the Prime Minister to “determine the symbols of Independence Day” and even “to instruct regarding the waving of flags and celebrations”.

The question of how Israeli Independence Day came to be celebrated in the way that we are familiar with today is a complex one, and we may very well deal with that in the future, but for now, we would like to momentarily return to the 5th of Iyar, in the Hebrew year 5709 (1949), only some three weeks after the above law was passed.

Confusion was the order of the day.

To be completely honest, that 5th of Iyar was not exactly the only “First Independence Day” to be celebrated in Israel. It was preceded by “State Day”, held on the 20th of Tammuz (July 27th, 1948) – just a few weeks after the actual declaration of Israel’s independence. This date was chosen as it was the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, with the state authorities seeking to link between Herzl’s vision and the new State of Israel which had just been established. The main event on “State Day” was the first ever military parade conducted by the young IDF.

A soldier carries the national flag during the IDF parade in Tel Aviv on Israel’s first Independence Day, 1949. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But back to the other “First Independence Day” – the 5th of Iyar, 5709, which fell on May 4th, 1949. How were people supposed to celebrate Independence Day anyways? No one knew exactly, but a few things could be taken for granted, including folk dancing in the streets (which reminded people of the jubilant spontaneous celebrations after the UN Partition Plan vote in late November, 1947). Plans were made for celebrations in towns and cities across the country, including light displays, flag-waving, concerts by municipal orchestras, torchlight parades and various rallies and marches.

On the eve of the holiday, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion held a special Independence Day speech, published the next day in the papers. Many of the events included a memorial prayer for fallen soldiers, as Israel did not yet have an official day dedicated to remembering them. Ben-Gurion also hosted dignitaries from abroad at a special Independence Day reception held at his office in IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula hosting dignitaries at an Independence Day reception. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But there was little doubt about the planned highlight of the day – another military parade by “our victorious army of liberation”, the Israel Defense Forces – what else? Not only one but two parades were planned, in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem parade went ahead without major incident, but the big story of Israel’s first Independence Day was the controversial Tel Aviv parade.

Crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
A plane flies over the crowds of people. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

“The Parade That Didn’t March”, screamed the Hebrew headline in Maariv the next morning. The name stuck and it is remembered to this day. At first, everything seemed fine. Representatives from the IDF’s various corps marched down the city’s streets: The navy, the medical corps and veterans of the pre-state Haganah organization all displayed their arms. Jewish and Druze soldiers proudly marched alongside each other. Military jeeps and artillery guns were received with cheers by onlookers while a handful of military aircraft flew overhead – all that the Israeli Air Force had at the time. And of course it wouldn’t be a parade without a marching band!

Veterans of the Haganah on parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Marching with the flag at Dizengoff Square. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Druze soldiers on parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But by 4 o’clock, when the marchers were due to arrive at the main stage erected on Dizengoff Street to salute the Israeli leadership, the rumors had already begun to spread – the parade had been cancelled! “People stood and cried. Like children,” Wrote Maariv editor Dr. Ezriel Carlebach. The parade could simply not make its way to the main stage on Dizengoff Street because of mass overcrowding at the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda.

Carlebach described the scene: “When they [the crowd] were told for the third time that it [the parade] would not be coming because it could not clear a path from Mugrabi Square to Idelson Street, a stretch of some two hundred meters – they simply did not believe it. It could not be true. OUR army? The army that had reached all the way to Eilat, that could easily have entered Damascus, was now incapable of making it to Ben-Yehuda Street? Ridiculous, idiotic.”

A canon is paraded through Tel Aviv. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

The humongous crowds that showed up to watch the parade had spilled over onto the streets and blocked the path of the marchers. All of the efforts by the police to open the roads ended in miserable failure. Eventually, the organizers were left with little choice but to call off the parade before the crowds slowly dispersed in bitter disappointment. A senior IDF officer present at the scene was quoted in the Herut newspaper, saying “The Israel Defense Forces managed to conquer everything except the streets of Tel Aviv”.

In retrospect, it seems that organizational failures led to the debacle. The authorities apparently did not foresee the sheer quantities that showed up to watch the spectacle. Reports cited crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands – in a country with a population of some 600,000 people. In addition, roads were only blocked off shortly before the event, further contributing to the chaos. The next day, the papers were already reporting that a commission of inquiry would be investigating the reasons for the fiasco.

Policemen attempt to clear the streets for the parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
A military police truck tries to clear a path through the crowd. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Policemen attempt to block crowds from spilling into the streets. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Following the embarrassment surrounding the Tel Aviv parade, it was decided to hold yet another “State Day” celebration on July 17th, 1949. Another parade was organized, this one on a smaller, more modest scale, in order to make amends and finally complete the unfinished march. This was the last time that Israel’s independence was celebrated on the day of Herzl’s death, and the 5th of Iyar later became solidified as the official Independence Day of the State of Israel. The practice of marking Israel’s Memorial Day on the day before Independence Day began in 1951. This was also the first year of the traditional Independence Day torch lighting ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. The Israel Prize ceremony was first held on Independence Day, 1953, and the first International Bible Contest was held on the State of Israel’s tenth birthday in 1958.

Slowly but surely, year after year, Israel’s Independence Day has developed into the national celebration we know today.

All of the photographs displayed here are taken from the Beno Rothenberg Archive, which is part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel. Rothenberg documented many aspects of Israeli society, culture and life during the first few decades of the state. You can see more examples of his photography here, here and here.

The Cry

A lamentation for Nechama, mother of Alec

A mother and child in Jerusalem, shortly after the War of Independence (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel

There is no single memory for everyone. Each person has a willow upon which to hang one’s violin. Mine is the story of Nechama, the mother of Alec.

There is a headstone in one of the hidden corners of Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot Cemetery, in one of the first plots added as the city was engulfed in war in 1948. I would like to place its story here, like the stone traditionally placed on a Jewish grave; on the graves of all of those who have fallen in this land, on those of the friends and the foes, on all of those who gave their lives out of love for it. All of them, all of them, with great love.

On the eighth of Tammuz 5708, the fifteenth of July 1948, Nechama was brought for burial in the Sheikh Bader cemetery. She was the mother of Alexander Yehuda Cohen –  Alec as he was known – a simple soldier, a corporal who was killed a few months before, on the fifth of Shvat, the night between the fifteenth and sixteenth of January, along with all of his friends in the “Mountain Company”. Half a year passed between the death of the son and the death of his mother.

Alec, eighteen years old at the time of his death, was the only child to Nechama and his father, Moshe. According to Alika who was a year younger than him and from whom I learned the little I know, Alec was exceptionally brilliant, gentle and sensitive. No one – not even his parents – knew about his enlistment.

Alexander Yehuda “Alec” Cohen

But it is not the story of Alec that I wish to share. You may read about him elsewhere, and I don’t have anything to add to what can already be found there. I would like to share something about his mother and her grief, about Nechama, and also about his father Moshe and his grief, as I heard it.

In those days families did not hear about the death of a son from a messenger who came to the house. At least not everyone did. Usually not even via telephone, which there wasn’t, anyway. Often, they found out about it from the daily newspaper. In those days there was no home delivery of newspapers; subscribers had to go to the nearest newsstand where theirs would be waiting. The closest to Alec’s house at 10 Rashbam Street in Mekor Baruch was just a few dozen meters away on Tachkemoni Street. There, on that Friday morning, the sixth of Shvat, was where his father took his newspaper and learned that Alec was no longer among the living, the third of 35 who had grown up together in the tiny area of Mekor Baruch bordered by Rashi, Rashbam and Tachkemoni Streets. He erupted in a terrible cry of pain that startled the quiet neighborhood, a cry that went on and on, and was heard from one end of the neighborhood to the other; back and forth, with no end, until he reached his home. By the time he arrived, there was no longer any need to share the news.

The story of that cry, that one cry, I heard a few times from Alika, and also from Gouri who echoed her story time and again. When he told it, he was startled as if at that very moment he was hearing that terrible cry of the grieving father, rolling on and on, without rest. Anyone who knows how to take on some of the pain of another will hear that terrible cry in the ears of his soul, that which is somewhere between the roar of a lion and the howl of jackal.

Nechama died within the year. Just a few months after the death of her son, her grief overwhelmed her. When Moshe, a sensitive and introverted artist, transferred her to her final resting place, he had the following placed on her headstone:

Nechama who was not consoled
Like an angel to purity like Job to suffering

And at the base of the headstone he added – “In memory of her only son”. Above it the father placed the figure of a lioness lying down, her eyes closed and her paws spread over the top of the tombstone, perhaps protecting her dead son, perhaps preparing herself for the great roar – that rolling roar that would roll from its place, roll and cry, roll and howl, quickly to the hill, from the hill to the valley and back to the mountain again, God forbid. And will not rest.

David Ben David Cheated Death… and Missed Israel’s Birth

He swam to Haifa in 1940, unknowingly escaping the ill-fated "Patria", then spent most of the 1948 war as a POW, saved from death more than once by his Arab Legion captors

David Ben David during the 1948 siege of Kfar Etzion, where many of his comrades were killed by enemy forces. From his autobiography, Gesher al Tehumot (Bridge over the Abysses), in the National Library of Israel collection

David Ben David first crawled into the Land of Israel from the sea.

He was half-naked, soaking wet, exhausted and alone. His first night was spent in a cement mixer.

With restrictions on Jewish immigration to Mandatory Palestine, the British had transferred hundreds of European refugees – including Ben David – onto a ship known as the Patria, which would take them to the island of Mauritius off the coast of Africa.

On November 25, 1940, the Patria sunk in the Port of Haifa – the result of a failed Haganah attempt to disable the ship in order to prevent the deportation of its passengers, nearly 300 of whom perished.

The “Patria” sinking off the coast of Haifa, November 1940

Days before, unaware of the tragedy to come, 20 year-old David Ben David – never a great swimmer – had leapt from the ill-fated ship.

Just as his strength was about to give out, a wave came and lapped him ashore. As the sun rose the next day and he exited the cement mixer, Ben David found himself among the port workers and heavy equipment. He hid inside a tub, where someone threw him a sweater and a hat.

Ben David’s presence raised the suspicion of a local policeman. With no papers to show and no use trying to flee, he was taken to jail, where a Jewish police sergeant instructed him to pretend to be crazy, which he did well enough to be released with just a warning.

It was Friday afternoon, erev Shabbat. The sun was leaning to the west.

“For me, it was the happiest moment of my life. I was a free man in the Land of Israel. My greatest dream had come true,” he later recalled in his autobiography, Gesher al Tehumot (Bridge over the Abysses).

Ben David – who had been raised Hasidic before joining the religious Zionist movement – had not been at a proper Shabbat table for a year due to historical circumstance.

Still barefoot, he found the sister of an acquaintance from the Patria who gave him some food, drink, socks and shoes and then he went on his way to the local chapter of the Bnei Akiva youth group in which he had been active in his native Czechoslovakia.

“My first Shabbat in the Land of Israel, in the Hebrew Haifa, will never be forgotten. In the park, children played with their parents, two- and three-year-old children who spoke Hebrew… It seemed as if the entire world was joyful like I was…”


Missing Independence

Some seven years later, David Ben David was readying for a very different type of Shabbat.

The Etzion Bloc was falling.

Hundreds had been massacred in Kfar Etzion, where Ben David was known as the kibbutz’s mukhtar (village chief).

The funeral of those who fell at Gush Etzion during the War of Independence (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the State Archive; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

He was injured and soon found himself in nearby Masu’ot Yitzhak, the last settlement not yet captured by Arab troops.

Ben David and his comrades prepared for the worst, knowing that Masu’ot Yitzhak would soon to be captured.

They frantically burned or otherwise destroyed anything that might be useful to the enemy.

Food was eaten quickly and plentifully. Clothing was piled on – a strange irony compared to the state of his 1940 arrival in the Land.

Spared a massacre like Kfar Etzion, Ben David and others were taken as prisoners of war and escorted onto a bus headed for Hebron.

It was Friday, May 14, 1948.

Israeli statehood would be declared in the afternoon.

Throughout much of the country, dancing and singing jubilantly marked the end of two millennia of helpless statelessness. Celebrations erupted in displaced persons camps across Europe. Jews around the globe could hardly believe the radio reports.

Crowds celebrating the declaration of the State of Israel in the streets of Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948 (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection, courtesy of the State Archive; available via the National Library of Israel Digital Collection

Yet Ben David and his comrades, bandaged and fearful in the Hebron police station, knew nothing of it.

They sanctified the Sabbath over two biscuits and cried – over friends and loved ones that had been killed, over the fall of the Etzion Bloc and the uncertain future.

In his autobiography, Ben David recalled the feelings of sadness that night rivaling those he felt when the Patria had sunk and when he found out about the destruction of his hometown in the Holocaust.


Saved by the Arab Legion – more than once

The next day the mayor of Hebron – followed by an armed and angry gang of locals – came into the prison compound demanding the blood of Ben David and the other few remaining Jewish defenders of the Etzion Bloc.

As they cocked their weapons and prepared for a massacre, an Arab Legion officer stepped forward, warning them not to take another step, or they themselves would fall victim.

A fight broke out between the Legion men and the mayor’s gang, with the latter ultimately forced to flee.

The officer explained to the mayor that the Arab Legion was responsible for the welfare of the POWs and that King Abdullah I himself had ordered that not a hair on any one of their heads be touched.

Soon after, an Egyptian soldier planned on killing prisoners by dropping a grenade into their cell, an Arab Legion soldier once again interfered, sparing their lives.

The prisoners were held in Hebron for three weeks – a period remembered for its hunger, and crowded and filthy conditions. Finally, on the verge of starvation, the hundreds of POWs from the Etzion Bloc – men and women – were placed in a convoy to be taken to Transjordan.

The vehicles cruelly stopped opposite the remnants of what had once comprised the Jewish settlements of the Etzion Bloc – now virtually unrecognizable heaps of rubble.

The convoy crossed the Jordan River and Arab forces once again had to step in to save the Jews from being stoned to death at the hands of an angry mob. Saved again, they were taken to the Umm Al Jamal POW camp, where they were held captive until the end of the war.

David Ben David finally stepped foot in the State of Israel in early 1949. He had been imprisoned since the day of its birth.

David Ben David reunited with his family shortly after his release from the Jordanian POW camp, where he was when his daughter was born. From his autobiography, Gesher al Tehumot (Bridge over the Abysses), in the National Library of Israel collection

In the years to come, Ben David – who had also fought in the British Army during WWII and helped survivors come to the Land of Israel after the war – would work to give proper burial to those who had fallen defending the Etzion Bloc and support their widows and orphans.

He would also help establish the new communal settlement of Nir Etzion, just a few kilometers from where he had once washed ashore – half-naked, soaking wet, exhausted and alone.


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

Thanks to the Toldot Yisrael team for their assistance preparing this article. Toldot Yisrael is an initiative dedicated to documenting the testimonies of the State of Israel’s founding generation. The collection is now deposited at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. An extended Hebrew interview with David Ben David can be found here: Part IPart II.