Israel's Declaration of Independence, on May 14th, 1948 (5th of Iyar, 5708), Photo: Rudi Weissenstein
At 11 am on May 13, 1948, Otte Wallish was assigned a sensitive task. As the official graphic designer of the Jewish community, he was asked to decorate the entrance hall of the Tel Aviv Museum in preparation for Israel’s Declaration of Independence. The budget at his disposal was a mere 150 lira. The ceremony, as per David Ben-Gurion’s plans, was to be conducted under heavy secrecy.
Wallish tackled the urgent task with all the energy he had remaining after several sleepless nights designing the first stamp series for the state-in-the-making. Wallish scrambled around Tel Aviv- buying wood for a table from the main department store, a cloth to cover the wall behind the stage (which was covered in nude paintings) and a carpet that would lend a more respectable appearance to the hall. Chairs for the stage were confiscated from the nearby cafes. The meager design budget would not be enough for flags, and it was not yet possible to obtain a picture of the State’s visionary, Theodor Herzl, in stores. He requested these two items from the Keren Hayesod organization (the United Israel Appeal).
When he finished his rounds of purchasing, confiscating and borrowing, the graphic designer suddenly became an interior designer, making use of his artistic intuition to arrange the hall for the momentous occasion. And so, at 11 o’clock the next morning, exactly twenty-four hours after he was assigned the task and just five hours before the Declaration of Independence was signed, Wallish declared the hall ready to make history.
Zipporah Rosenfeld immigrated to Israel from Europe as a survivor of the Holocaust. Like many of her generation who lived in the shadow of the catastrophe, Zipporah felt a sense of urgency to start her own family. She had met her husband Yehiel while still in Europe. After the war, the coupled decided to immigrate to Palestine and settle in Gush Etzion (the “Etzion Bloc”, in English), a cluster of settlements in the West Bank, south of Jerusalem. Their first child, Yossi, was born there. Despite the Etzion Bloc’s location in the midst of a hostile Arab population, its Jewish residents felt they had found a place they could call home. Over time, they began to develop economic ties and a life of co-existence with the neighboring Arab villages.
The Partition Plan put an end to all that. According to the border plan, Gush Etzion would remain outside the borders of the Jewish state. Yet, even with the sweeping approval of the plan by most of the member states of the United Nations, the Palestinian representatives and the Arab countries made clear they were willing to fight with any means at their disposal in order to prevent the partition plan from being implemented.
Over the years, there have been quite a few grievances aired surrounding the representation of the National Religious sector in the context of commemoration of Israel’s War of Independence. However, the group whose story has been suppressed perhaps more than any other is that of the religious Zionist women who bore the burden of caring for the children during wartime, with many risking (and sometimes even forfeiting) their lives in defense of their homeland.
The Women of Religious Zionism and the Building of the Nation
Even before the war, National Religious women, including the women of Gush Etzion, took an active part in the building of the country. It was a significant departure from the traditional conception of the role of the religious Jewish woman. The women of Gush Etzion, like many National Religious women, welcomed their new responsibilities in building the nation. During the period of calm before the war, the women of the Gush trained and took up defensive positions when the men were out patrolling the surrounding area.
However, with the outbreak of fighting and the Arab Legion’s attack on Gush Etzion, most of the mothers and children were evacuated.
The female fighters who remained were all unmarried, with the exception of two, one of whom was eventually evacuated before the fall of the Gush. Zipporah Rosenfeld, the only mother who stayed behind to help in the defense of her home, was caught in a terrible dilemma.
When the fighting began, she hurried to send her only son Yossi along with the other evacuees from the Gush. She chose to remain with her husband and protect her home with her own body. Almost to the end, Zipporah debated whether to leave and join her little boy or stay and fight. “We left the decision until the ambulances arrived. I’m torn. I must decide between my duty as a mother and my obligation to my fellow members under siege” (Lilach Rosenberg-Friedman, Revolutionaries against Their Will, 324 [Hebrew]). As one of the fighters, she saw with her own eyes the severe shortage of people able to use a rifle, and therefore decided to delay her evacuation. Eventually, the siege by the Arab Legion prevented the possibility of evacuation and Zipporah and her husband Yehiel were killed in the final battle of the Etzion Bloc.
Along with Zipporah and Yehiel, another 127 soldiers were killed in the last and most difficult battle over Gush Etzion, which took place on May 13, 1948. Among the fatalities were twenty-two women, the highest number of female fatalities in a single battle in all of Israel’s wars. Dozens of women from across the Etzion Bloc were taken captive by the Jordanian Legion. They were taken with the remaining men to Umm al Jamal, a prisoner-of-war camp on the eastern side of the Jordan River. The women were released six weeks later, while the men only returned to the territory of the fledgling state nine months after being captured.
Our collective national memory of the War of Independence reserves a place of honor for secular female fighters who sacrificed their lives for the nation. It is worth asking: What of the memory of the religious female fighters of the War of Independence? Why has the memory of fighting women — women like Zipporah Rosenfeld, who contributed equally to the war effort and who helped to strengthen the morale of the fighters on the battlefield—been relegated to the shadows? The pressing need for armed combatants in the period when the young state fought for its existence justified the enlistment of female fighters from the National Religious sector. The participation of women in battle did not stem from a change in the National Religious perception of the proper role of women in society, but from necessity. Indeed, immediately following the war, the leadership of the National Religious sector exerted heavy pressure to exempt religious women from army service.
The children of Gush Etzion’s founding generation, like Yossi Ron, the son of Zipporah and Yehiel – most of whom were evacuated with the outbreak of fighting – have been working for years to correct this historical bias and to remind all of us—the National Religious sector and the Israeli public in general—of the worthiness of remembering and cherishing the memory of the religious female fighters and those who fell in battle.
VisitArchive Network Israeland find over a million historic photographs, manuscripts, documents, recordings and videos that tell the story of the State of Israel.
The Kabbalistic Ceremony That Helped to Identify the Fallen Soldiers
When the thirty-five fallen soldiers of a legendary military convoy were brought for burial at Mt. Herzl, following Israel's War of Independence, only twenty-three could be identified with certainty. To resolve the problem, Rabbi Aryeh Levin performed a little-known Kabbalistic ritual.
The funeral of the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, 1948. Photo: Historical Archives of Gush Etzion
Twice, the funeral procession descended from the village to the lower slopes of the hill above the wadi, to where a mass grave had been dug in the young pine forest. Those carrying the stretchers with the dead, soldiers, members of the settlement, and relatives walked silently down the sloping path. A heartbreaking sight was a mother walking silently behind a stretcher, her hand supporting the head of her only son, which protruded slightly from under the cover draped over the stretcher—as if her son were alive and his mother’s caress would soothe him (“Yoman Kfar Etzion” [Hebrew], January 18th, 1948).
On the night between the 15th and 16th of January, 1948, thirty-five members of a convoy, commanded by Danny Mass, set out on a mission to deliver supplies to besieged Gush Etzion (the “Etzion Bloc”, in English), a cluster of settlements in the West Bank, just south of Jerusalem. Before dawn the unit was discovered and surrounded by thousands of Arab fighters. All thirty-five members of the convoy were killed in a battle that lasted the entire day. They have come to be known in Hebrew as the Lamed-Heh (ל”ה), after the two letters which together indicate the number thirty-five.
Twelve Graves Remained Unidentified
Two days later, the bodies were discovered by Hamish Dugan, chief of the British police in Hebron. He intended to bring them to burial in Kfar Etzion, but before he could so, Arabs residents of the nearby village of Surif mutilated the bodies beyond recognition. This led, later, to the problem of identifying the dead.
A few months after the end of the War of Independence, in late 1949, the Chief Rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, Shlomo Goren, initiated a mission to bring the bodies of Gush Etzion’s fallen defenders, including the Convoy of the Thirty-Five, for reburial at the national military cemetery on Mount Herzl.
The bodies had been identified for the temporary burial in Kfar Etzion with great effort, but after the fall of Gush Etzion, the burial details were lost including the information of who was buried where. As a result, when the bodies were brought for permanent burial at Mount Herzl it was necessary to re-identify the bodies, and only twenty-three of them could be determined with certainty. Twelve graves remained unidentified. The families of these twelve fallen soldiers approached Rabbi Tzvi Pesach Frank, the Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem, who suggested they contact Rabbi Aryeh Levin and ask him to perform a Kabbalistic ceremony known as Goral HaGra [“The Lottery of the Vilna Gaon”] in order to identify the bodies.
The Verses that Miraculously Provided Answers
Rabbi Aryeh Levin was known for his kindness. He was called the “Rabbi of the Prisoners” for his habit of writing letters to prisoners and visiting them every Sabbath to visit them in their jail cells to lift their spirits during the British Mandate period. He was particularly known for his visits to the imprisoned members of the underground movements and those headed for the gallows. He also regularly visited the Hansen Leper Hospital in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh neighborhood to offer encouragement and comfort to the residents. He himself participated in the funeral arrangements and identification of the bodies before the burial of the fallen of Kfar Etzion in 1948.
Goral HaGra, a ritual attributed to the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Elijah ben Solomon Zalman), is conducted by randomly opening a bible and linking the verses on the page to the matter at hand. The purpose of the ceremony is to find answers to a question of great importance. If there is no hint in the verse, one skips to the next verse that begins with the last letter of the previous verse.
At first, Rabbi Levin refused to perform the mystical ritual, but after being convinced that it would help the bereaved families gain a measure of closure—he acquiesced. The Rabbi was given both a list of the fallen whose burial places were unknown and a sketch of the unidentified graves (there was no need to dig up graves or desecrate the existing burial sites). He went over the sketch, one grave at a time, and tried to affix a verse to each.
According to the book by Simcha Raz, Ish Tzadik Haya (“There was a Righteous Man” [Hebrew]), the Rabbi’s work was miraculously swift. At first, a few general verses appeared that contained hints of the letters Lamed-Heh followed by eleven verses in rapid succession that hinted at the names of the dead according to the order of their burial in the sketch. Some of the verses even contained the specific name of the deceased. In others, there was a clear hint. No verse was found for the body of the twelfth fallen soldier, Jacob Kotik z”l, but at this point there was no need, since the identification of the other eleven left no doubt as to where he was buried.
“It was Thursday, night time. They went upstairs to the yeshiva located in the attic of the small, modest house of Rabbi Aryeh, in the Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood (a small neighborhood near the Mahane Yehuda market). In the darkened hall, twelve candles were lit, which illuminated the eastern wall next to which was the Torah Ark. Those present included: Rabbi Aryeh along with his son-in-law and son. Two of the parents of the deceased were also in attendance: Mr. Reuven Mass and Mr. Yitzhak Dov HaCohen Persitz. They began with the recitation of Psalms.
A sacred silence prevailed. The burning candles added to the sense of awe. They opened the Bible randomly without looking for a particular page. After each opening, they leafed through it again, seven times, and repeated the act seven times and decided that the findings would determine to whom each grave belonged before marking the tombstone. And this is the rule that was followed: the last verse on the page must include the name or a hint of the name of one of those whose identity is being sought.”
Sometimes it’s best to let the departed be. Through the generations, various rabbis have voiced reservations about this custom, which is supposedly aided by magical means. Despite the progress of science, to this day none of the members of the families of the twelve have asked for the bodies to be identified using more advanced methods such as DNA markers, and the fallen of the Convoy the Thirty-Five remain buried based on the identification determined by the Goral HaGra.
Rabbi Levin lived for years on Mount Gerizim Street in the Mishkenot Yisrael neighborhood in Jerusalem. After his death, this street as well as streets in other cities in Israel were named after him. In July 2005, the Israel Coins and Medals Corporation issued a commemorative medal and a stamp bearing his portrait was also published.
Giving a Face to the Fallen: Uncovering the Life of the Late Menachem Baumgarten
In May 1943, a mysterious Hebrew soldier was among the hundreds killed when German bombers struck the British ship, SS Erinpura. Documents found in the National Library shed light on the life of a young man who perished at sea
In May 1943, a soldier from the Land of Israel, Menachem Baumgarten, was killed along with 138 of his Jewish comrades when German bombers struck the British ship, SS Erinpura.
Details of Baumgarten’s story and identity were sparse. But, after diligent research, utilizing the resources of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, details and documents have been uncovered that offer at least a partial picture of the young Jew who perished at sea on his way to fight the Germans.
May 1, 1943. A convoy of British ships en route from Alexandria to Malta is spotted and attacked by a 12 plane German bomber squadron. The brunt of the attack is focused on the SS Erinpura, carrying more than a thousand soldiers and crew members. 664 soldiers are killed, including 139 soldiers from the Land of Israel who had enlisted in the British Army.
Among those killed in the attack is Menachem (Leopold) Baumgarten. Information about the young man was almost nonexistent. Other than his name, his year of birth and a few notes regarding his activities and movements throughout the years, there was almost no record of the young man’s existence.
The volunteer organization, “Giving a Face to the Fallen“, initiated an attempt to obtain more information about Baumgarten by contacting the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library. The archive staff meticulously combed through thousands of files, mainly focusing on official appeals to immigrate to the Land of Israel from Vienna, which saw a great influx between the years 1938-1940.
The search finally bore fruit when the archive staff discovered Baumgarten’s file in the Vienna Jewish Community Archives. The file revealed previously unknown details about the young soldier. The document included Baumgarten’s exact birthdate and birthplace, as well as a small amount of detail about his background and family. Documents found in the Zionist Archives provided additional information, including the date of his emigration to Mandatory Palestine (August 16, 1939). His Youth Aliyah card, which was also unearthed in the search, documented Menachem’s placement at Kibbutz Tel Yosef upon his arrival in the Land of Israel and his subsequent departure from the Kibbutz on June 8, 1941, in order to enlist in the 462 Transport Company. The Yad Vashem archive also provided details that further serve to complete a portrait of Menachem Baumgarten.
Here are some of the documents found in the Vienna Archive:
Translation of the above document:
Attention final processing!
Leopold Baumgarten, a Jew, according to his beliefs. Completely without means, applied to the social welfare office in his area of residence, his father is deceased.
Applicant is traveling with Youth Aliyah to Palestine on 15.8.1939.
In regard to his travel, he cannot afford to pay for his travel expenses, therefore he directs the expenses of the (immigration) contract to the Palestine Office (RM 166.35 + £ 1.14).