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Notes from Limmud 2004

Josef Trumpeldor - the real story

Bernard Fisher

Josef Trumpeldor was a famously one-armed war hero of pre-state Israel; I learned a little about him in the Hebrew lessons on my year off. I didn't really remember anything of it, thought, except on being asked by the teacher to summarise the article (in Hebrew), I said he had lost his arm, and she completely cracked up laughing, as this idiom doesn't exist in Hebrew. Consequently, when the opportunity came up to learn about him in Limmud, I thought I would take advantage of it.

I also thought from the title the talk would deal with the alternative histories that revisionist historians have proposed for him recently - saying, for example, that rather than his last words being nationalist sentiments uttered in Hebrew, they were a string of curses in Russian - but in this respect I was disappointed.

I was not sure it would be worth transcribing my notes, but seeing as these are considerably longer than the ones I can find on Trumpeldor by googling (the English ones at least), and throws considerably more light on his personality, I decided to go ahead.


Josef Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk, in the Russian Caucasus, in 1880. His father, Zeev Wolf, had survived in the Russian army for thirty years. This was the period when the Russians were doing everything they could to force Jews to convert to Christianity, by taking children and drafting young men into the army. Jews had to serve twenty-five years; if a child was caught, he would spent five years on a campus where they would try to convert him. It sounds from this description like Zeev Trumpeldor was one such.

At the battle of Sebastopol, in the Crimean War, he distinguished himself and when discharged was appointed chief pharmacist to a hospital. Ledocia, his wife, was the opposite of him. She said openly that Judaism was a burden, and the best thing they could do was convert. She was committed to russifying. One of her children became a convert, another married a Christian; only the youngest of the four, Josef, came to anything.

At the age of seven, Josef came home from cheder, and said: it's Pesach tonight, why aren't we having a Seder? His parents said they didn't want one. He said he was told Jews had to have one, insisted, and got his way. When his father saw he was interested, he bought him books about Judaism.

Josef was burly like his father. He went to public school, tried to get into high school and was rejected due to the numerus clausus - the Jewish quota was exceeded. His mother said see: convert and not only the high school but also the universities will be open to you. He refused, and joined his brother as a dentist. He took to Tolstoy, who laid down a Spartan way of life. Thereafter, Trumpeldor never again drank anything but water, never took any sugar in any of his meals, and slept on hard boards. He intended throughout his life to be a moral character.

1897 was the year of the first World Zionist Congress. Trumpeldor took to this and one year later had formed a Zionist movement in his own town. By 1900 he had obtained a diploma as a dentist in Karkov. Three years later, he was called up to the army, forestalling his plans of settling down. By birtue of being a professional dentist, he was accorded certain privileges - he didn't have to eat or sleep with the common soldiers. He refused all of these privileges. It was the common soldiers whom he later engaged with the idea of a Zionist state.

1903 saw the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War, as the Japanese invaded Russia. The Japanese extended themselves so far they not only didn't have the matériel but ran out of money, so they sent a financier to London to try and get a loan, where he was turned down by all the banks. Then the night before he left, he was having dinner and a banker lent him the money "not because I am a banker but because I am a Jew." The banker was Jacob Schiff and he lent the Japanese $169m to beat the hell out of the Russians because of what they were doing to the Jews. As a result, the Russian army collapsed and the Japanese took ten thousand prisoners.

Amongst these was Josef Trumpeldor. He had already turned down the opportunity to be a warrant officer; he got to serve with the common soldiers to prove Jews weren't cowards. Prior to going to the front he was faced with a commander who said "We are the best regiment in Russia; I hope there are no Jews or cowards amongst you." Trumpeldor took three steps forwrd and said "I am a Jew but no coward and I will show this to you." And this he did. Decorated by the commander in charge, his exploits became known across Russia.

1904, after only one year, his arm was shattered and had to be amputated. He was cheery when his friends came to visit; he said "It's only my left arm; I still have my right." He refused discharge and asked to go back into service. His commander wrote in his favour, and promoted him to [?warrant] officer.

In 1905 Trumpeldor and his company were taken prisoners of war at Port Arthur (now Lüshunkon) in China, then under Russian control. At this time the Japanese were honourable in their treatment of prisoners of war. The PoW camp was a holiday camp compared to those in Europe. (Incidentally, there was later an attempt to settle persecuted Jews in Manchukuo, the puppet Manchurian state set up by the Japanese in 1931. This would have saved one million Jews from the Holocaust, but the Americans refused to back the plan because of their opposition to the Japanese occupation.)

In this PoW camp Trumpeldor established his ability not only as a soldier but as an organiser. He organised a society for the Jewish prisoners (five hundred of the ten thousand PoWs) and a mutual aid fund for those who were unable to receive money from their families in Russia. He opened schools for the PoWs and lectured there himself; he wrote a Russian grammar for those [presumably Yiddish speakers] that did not understand Russian. He wrote a play called "The Selling of Joseph". When the Russians came begging to see the play but couldn't understand it, he wrote it again in Russian. He edited a Jewish magazine, wrote articles in Russian for the camp magazine. While he was there he talked about one thing and one thing only - implementing Herzl's plan. He got together twelve like-minded people to go to Palestine after they were released and till the soil to make it fertile.

When peace was signed in 1907, the PoW magazine said no man had done more for both the Jews and the Russians than Trumpeldor, and made a presentation to him with the last of their money. He refused the chance to leave first. One thousand soldiers got together and carried him on a chair to the door and out. When he was evacuated he arrived back in Harbin when he was automatically [promoted] to the rank of sergeant-major - the highest rank short of officer class. He was presented to the Czar in St Petersburg, and decorated for the fifth time. There was only one other soldier in the whole of the Russian army to come out of it so highly decorated.

In 1907 he was commissioned as a reserve officer. He declined all offers; his mind was set on Palestine. But he said he needed a better education. He went to the Faculty of Education in St Petersburg, and earned money for it by teaching in his spare time. One day he found a calling card from Princess Cagarina, a cousin of the Czar. She wanted to offer him a commision in her own regiment as a the first Jewish officer in it. But there was one condition - he had to do away with his Jewishness. He wrote back expressing gratitude, but declining. He continued his studies and developed further his moral sense. He was concerned about the rights and privileges of the common man. He started the Organisation of Jewish Socialists. He set out a manifesto; he said what he had written was a solution not only for the Jews but for the whole world.

By 1912 he had completed his studies and and left with his group (now reduced by one) - five men, five women. They went to Moshav Migdal and started working the land. This moshav failed. He went on to Kibbutz Deganya [the first kibbutz], and started to formulate his ideas for the future of the Yishuv [the Jewish settlement in Ottoman Palestine]. One day he got a letter saying his mother had returned to Judaism; and that one day she hoped to come to Palestine and join him there. This was a great success for him. At 1913 he attended the Eleventh Zionist Congress and there said they were Jews working for Jews, and wouldn't accept foreign aid from anything else. In theory it was a good idea. But in 1920-1 when the first Arab riots took place, the British report said that the Jews were being unfair to their neighbours and not letting them join their unions, etc. This was the reason for the 1922 Churchill White Paper rescinding most of the privileges accorded to the Jews by the Balfour Declaration.

When World War I broke out they were told anyone who did not take on Ottoman citizenship would be deported. Trumpeldor responded by going back to Russia [not according to Wikipedia!] to fight for them. There he met Zeev Jabotinski. In Egypt he met with General Maxwell and put forth the idea of a Jewish regiment going to Palestine to fight for the Jews. Maxwell refused. He said if you want to enrol Jews in the British army it could only be as a Zionist mule corps. Jabotinski immediately said no. Trumpeldor said he would take this as better than nothing. It would allow them to prove themselves.

Trumpeldor accepted this promise straight away. Trumpeldor took the military oath in the presence of the Chief Rabbi at Alexandria wearing British Army uniform and a Star of David.

The Zionist Mule Corps, which had the hardest role in the Gallipoli campaign, earned the respect of all the Allies. General Sir Ian Hamilton wrote afterwards in praise of the Corps. Hamilton also wrote extending the friendship of the British people to the Jewish people, offering also future friendship in Jewish Palestine [Fisher's (spoken) emphasis].

When a superior said something about the Jews once Trumpeldor offered to resign. When he came back to his regiment the regiment rioted. The general apologised, and Trumpeldor continued in his post. The corps was disbanded at the end of the campaign, and in his parting speech - in Hebrew - Trumpeldor announced he was going to London to get them to raise a Jewish Legion. However, this did not happen; the Russian Revolution broke out, and Trumpeldor went to Petrograd [the once and future St Petersburg] to get the Jews to form regiments to move to Palestine. At that time there were pogroms in Russia. All the Mensheviks had copies of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and they spread them over all Europe.

Trumpeldor formed Hechalutz - a movement preparing people for aliyah - immigration to Palestine. He wrote documents dealing with the mistakes made in the Yishuv and how to rectify them. Seeing the antisemitism of the Bolsheviks, he went back to Palestine.

There were sixteen settlements which would have collapsed without the backing of Baron de Rothschild. [Not sure how this ties in to the narrative. In the late nineteenth century the Baron de Rothschild had bought substantial parts of the Galilee and Golan Heights and established vineyards and wineries there.] There he met General Allenby [who had liberated Jerusalem in 1917]. He offered ten thousand Jewish soldiers on condition that at the end of the war they could keep the territory they took. Allenby refused. Trumpeldor went back to the settlements; he started talking to the people trying to work out their problems and stop the infighting. This let to the Histadrut - trade unions congress.

The main problem was the Arabs and French fighting the British in the Galilee, along the Syrian border. [This border was not yet finally settled. The area had been reassigned from the British to the French; the British had evacuated the area but the French not yet moved in, and the Arabs took advantage of the power vacuum to attack the Jews]. He went there to appeal to the people to get them to prepare themselves. He organised the defence ring in the triangle between Metullah, Hamrah, Kfar Gil'adi and Tel Hai [in the Huleh valley north of Lake Tiberias]. He went there against the advice of Jabotinski, who told him how dangerious it was there.

On February 29 he was in Kfar Gil'adi when he heard of an attack on Tel Hai. He went there. It was an impossible situation. He separated his 120 men into three groups in the three towns. The Arabs had come under a white flag to satisfy themselves there were no French there. They came in and immediately opened fire. Trumpeldor joined the men helping to try and close the gates and was hit four times. He said "Forget about me, close the gates." They rushed to find a doctor but he was already in his last stages. His intestines were hanging out but he told them how to put them back. The doctor asked him how he was; he said, "אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצינו" (never mind, it is good to die for our country). He was taken to Kfar Gil'adi. On the way there he was taken with violent pains and died with no complaints.

It was clear the area could not be held against the Arabs. They defendants held a burial at six o'clock in the morning and then evacuated the area south to where the main forces were. This was on 1 March (11 Adar) 1920.

At the end of the war, two years later, the bodies were disinterred. They took an Arab village which they had captured and turned it into Kiriat Shemona ("town of [the] eight") - a memorial to him and his fallen comrades.

Because Trumpeldor was Trumpeldor he quickly became a legend for the Jewish people all over the world. The Betar movement was founded in his name (ברית יוסף תרומפלדור).

Date: 2005-02-02 01:16 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] pseudomonas.livejournal.com
That'd look good on Wikipedia, assuming you don't need permission for the material.

Date: 2005-02-02 09:56 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
TBH, I don't actually know what the rights status of the contents of any of the Limmud talks is. I could ask... but the result could be having to take down the notes I've put up here. Or making them friends-locked, at the least.

Date: 2005-02-02 05:11 pm (UTC)
liv: cartoon of me with long plait, teapot and purple outfit (teeeeeeeeea)
From: [personal profile] liv
I don't actually know what the rights status of the contents of any of the Limmud talks is
I'd be really surprised if the Limmud speakers have the right to object to your putting up these kinds of posts. I mean, you're not using their words, you're summarizing what they said, and in a more or less public forum, at that. If you had to ask permission for that you'd also have to have permission to mention the plot outline of a book or film, and that's getting a bit ridiculous.

Date: 2005-02-02 05:25 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
They're not summaries; I tried to get down as much as possible. And it's pretty damned close to the speaker's words, in this case.

Date: 2005-02-02 05:38 pm (UTC)
liv: A woman with a long plait drinks a cup of tea (teapot)
From: [personal profile] liv
In that case you are a much better stenographer than I was giving you credit for. And my comment doesn't really apply, given that.

Date: 2005-02-12 11:33 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] snjstar.livejournal.com
Very interesting, I had heard of him, but did not know much about him, thanks

Spelling Correction

Date: 2006-02-21 10:27 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
We in Betar spell Trumpeldor תרומפלדור so as to fit the first letter Tav with בית"ר. The Arab village, Halisa, I think, was taken during the 1947-49 war. As for no complaints while dying, there is one version that has him saying a very not-nice Russian curse. Yisrael Medad

Re: Spelling Correction

Date: 2006-02-21 11:06 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] lethargic-man.livejournal.com
We in Betar spell Trumpeldor תרומפלדור so as to fit the first letter Tav with בית"ר.

Thank you; I am somewhat functionality dyslexic when it comes to modern Hebrew.

As for no complaints while dying, there is one version that has him saying a very not-nice Russian curse.

Yes, I mentioned that at the top. I get the impression this version only surfaced with revisionist historians attempting to deconstruct the founding myths of the Israeli state in the last decade or two; the speaker evidently had no truck for these (or had not heard of them). I myself cannot profess to have an opinion on the subject.

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