1948 battlefield love story unfolds in forgotten letters recovered by their son
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First person'A single word is written on their gravestones: Palmachniks'

1948 battlefield love story unfolds in forgotten letters recovered by their son

A glimpse of Israel’s fight for independence through the eyes of two 20-something fighters, as their missives are found decades after their deaths by their children… including me

  • Mordo and Ella Ben-David. (Courtesy)
    Mordo and Ella Ben-David. (Courtesy)
  • Letters written by Palmachniks Mordo and Ella Ben-David in 1948 outline a love story that developed as they fought for Israeli independence. (Amir Ben-David)
    Letters written by Palmachniks Mordo and Ella Ben-David in 1948 outline a love story that developed as they fought for Israeli independence. (Amir Ben-David)
  • Ella Ben-David, center, puts up a barbed-wire fence as part of her Palmach service. (Courtesy)
    Ella Ben-David, center, puts up a barbed-wire fence as part of her Palmach service. (Courtesy)
  • Ella Ben-David, left, with a fellow ’girl’ during her service with the Palmach. (Courtesy)
    Ella Ben-David, left, with a fellow ’girl’ during her service with the Palmach. (Courtesy)

Nobody prepares you for the moment when you have to choose an epitaph for your parents’ gravestone. Your heart is filled with the turbulence of mourning, the people who have come to pay condolence calls, the tears and the childhood memories that surface unbidden — and in the midst of all this, you have to think of a way to sum up an entire life in a few words.

It is a daunting task, particularly for those who respect the written word, which in this case is going to be engraved in stone.

Should one resort to the conventional, and therefore worn-out, phrases and list the lofty traits of the deceased? (“He was a humble and modest man, wholehearted and just”; “She was a woman of valor who performed many acts of kindness.”) Should one write about the impression that the deceased left upon the family? (“He was an admired father and a beloved grandfather,” or “She was the beating heart of our family.”)

Should one perhaps focus on a life-altering event in the life of the deceased that shaped his personality? Any walk through a graveyard will show you many gravestones of this type, which bear inscriptions such as “He was a survivor of Dachau,” “She was a partisan and a warrior,” “One of those who renewed Jewish settlement in Gush Etzion,” “One of the first faculty members of the Hebrew University,” and so on.

While such inscriptions may seem informative and dry, they reveal something of what was once personally fundamental and important. They tell us how the deceased grasped the piece of history that fate had dealt him.

Palmachniks Mordo and Ella Ben-David fell in love as they fought and lost comrades in the early days of the state. (Courtesy)

My father, Mordo, died in April 2007 at the age of 79. My mother, Ella, never recovered from his death. She suffered a severe stroke approximately four months later and left this world after three years of terrible physical and mental suffering.

They are buried next to one another in the old cemetery of Ramat Hasharon. A single word is inscribed upon their gravestones, beneath their names and the dates of their deaths: “Palmachnik” (member of the Palmach), in the masculine, on my father’s gravestone, and “Palmachnikit,” in the feminine, on my mother’s.

My siblings and I chose these words because their importance in my parents’ world, the world of yesterday, can never be exaggerated — even as that world moves steadily away from us, melting slowly into the pages of the post-high school history matriculation exam and the periodic disputes that surface with the publication of the latest sensation-causing book.

Until my parents’ last days, their best friends were Palmachniks, and the happiest days of the year for them were Independence Days that they celebrated with “the hevreh” (the gang), always the hevreh — and the stories and songs from the great moments of their lives. If you hear an accordion playing in the background, your ears aren’t playing tricks on you.

Illustrative: A Palmach-era kumzitz, where accordion and singing, sometimes accompanied by a bonfire with hot potatoes tucked underneath, went hand in hand (Courtesy Palmach archives)

Setting the tone

The Palmach was the elite strike force of the Haganah — the pre-state underground Jewish army covertly operating during the British Mandate. When the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) was officially established in 1948, the Palmach was disbanded and many of the 2,000 men and women who fought in its three brigades served in the IDF’s highest echelons.

But the Palmach’s contribution to Israeli society extended far beyond the realm of the military.

In the early decades of the state, members of the Palmach generation took major positions of influence and became the ones who dictated Israel’s zeitgeist. They set the tone, which was almost always nostalgic. A minor key, chords in diminuendo, mandolin and flute, a shepherd calling from afar.

“See, evening has already fallen on the desert, but we will tell until the night is gone how the Palmachnik searches for tomorrow, how the Palmachnik raises his eyes toward tomorrow.” So beautiful was the melody that composer Sasha Argov wrote to the lyrics of former Palmachnik Haim Hefer that the song, entitled “The Palmachnik Searches for Tomorrow,” still touches people many years later.

Hearing it performed, members of the audience, now more than 70 years old and accompanied by Filipino nurse-aides, sing along and tell one another their favorite joke: “I never knew that we had so many Filipinos with us in the Palmach.”

They are sunk in nostalgia. They immerse themselves in it with a pleasure that only increased as they aged. The original meaning of the word “nostalgia” described an ailment in which a person suffered unbearable yearning for the place of his birth. It was considered a disease of exiles, of immigrants who had been uprooted from their homeland and could not stop longing for it.

Palmachnik Ella Ben-David. (Courtesy)

My parents and their friends were, at least to some extent, exiles in their homeland. Although they were the ones who fought for its independence and established it, they never stopped yearning for it. In other words, they longed for some idea of it that continued to exist only in their imaginations.

It is no accident that their unofficial anthem was an odd song entitled “Hayu Zmanim” (“Those Were the Days”).

The Palmachniks began singing this song, whose lyrics were written by Haim Hefer, their court poet, and whose melody was composed by Moshe Wilensky, immediately after the war ended: “One day, you will sit bent over in front of the fireplace, as if with a hunchback, and you will remember your time in the Palmach, and recall it through the smoke of your pipe.”

As hard as it is to believe, this song was a hit among 20-year-olds. What 20-year-old sings a song anticipating the day when he is an old man, with his grandchildren sitting around him, sighing and recalling his younger days? My parents and their friends finished fighting at around that age, licked their wounds, mourned their dead, and immediately began longing for themselves as they had been only a few months before. And they never stopped longing until their dying day. Nostalgia became their religion.

Ella Ben-David, left, with a fellow ’girl’ during her service with the Palmach. (Courtesy)

New days came in the meantime, during which various assertions were made about “the Palmach generation,” particularly that they helped themselves to a much larger slice of Israeli-ness than they deserved, which was also much bigger than the slice that was left for everybody else.

These claims made my parents and their friends feel sad and angry. They could not understand how or why they were no longer seen as worthy of songs of praise and were now viewed as privileged — a word that they did not really understand.

Most of their acquaintances never became part of the establishment or received extra privileges that anyone could see. My father worked in the same job from the age of 25 until he retired: as a warehouse worker in a large freezer next door to the Haifa port. My mother was a secretary in a vocational school and then a clerk in the Haifa municipality’s department of education.

None of the dozens of Palmachniks in their crowd became wealthy. Some were more successful, some less so, but all of them worked hard for a living. In their close circle, those who were hired as bus drivers in the Egged cooperative or became employees of the Israel Electric Corporation were objects of envy.

A different kind of assertion surfaced when their children reached adulthood, woke up to the reality around them and began to look at their parents with a critical eye.

The zeitgeist changed in the meantime, and the Palmachniks had to deal with the claim that the restraint that they had imposed upon themselves had taken a heavy emotional toll.

Illustrative: Palmach naval training in Caesarea, 1944 (Palmach Museum photo archive, Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons)

They had sanctified toughness and keeping a stiff upper lip at any price, and that like the companionship described in “Ha’reut” (The Camaraderie) the well-known song by Haim Gouri, they too had stayed gray, stubborn, and silent, without words, biting their lips so hard that they could no longer let go. They sealed their lips and kept them that way even after the war had ended.

And in truth, many of the Palmachniks had difficulty talking freely about their feelings. Impatiently, they waved away the young people who kept pestering them, asking the new generation’s key question: “How did you feel?” (In other words: Tell me about the scars that those awful months left on your soul, when you were just teenagers, hemmed in on all sides by the terror of death.)

Unlike us, their children, the Palmachniks were very suspicious of psychology and thought it nonsense. This was before the word “post-trauma” entered the lexicon and explained a great deal.

Letters from the battlefield

After my mother died, we cleaned out her apartment. In a shoebox that she kept in a drawer under the tablecloths, among the old report cards from elementary school and high school, old pay slips and congratulatory letters from the Haifa municipality from the 1960s and the 1970s, we found a bundle of letters that had been written and sent in the early months of 1948, deep into the war.

We saw the War of Independence through the eyes of a 20-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman who fought in it — and who also happened to be my parents

These were letters that my father received, mostly from my mother, but also from other friends.

For the first time, we could understand from the letters how they experienced the events as they happened, before they were wrapped in anesthetic nostalgia on the one hand and subjected to social criticism and psychological analysis on the other. We saw the War of Independence through the eyes of a 20-year-old man and an 18-year-old woman who fought in it — and who also happened to be my parents.

A box of letters written by Palmachniks Mordo and Ella Ben-David in 1948, discovered by their son Amir Ben-David following his mother’s death. (Amir Ben-David)

Some background is necessary for understanding the letters’ context. Father and Mother met on the Palmach’s training base in Ashdot Yaakov. Father enlisted in 1946, when he was 18 years old. He joined Company C of the Yiftah Brigade’s Third Battalion, and took a squad commander’s course on the Joara base in the Jezreel Valley.

In late 1947, around the time that the UN announced the establishment of the State of Israel, Father met Mother, who was two years younger than he. She had also enlisted in the Yiftah Brigade.

The letters quoted here were written between January and May 1948.

Father and the rest of the “boys,” as they were always referred to in the letters, had already been placed in various combat positions in different places in the country. Father was sent to Dafna and to Lehavot Habashan to train combat soldiers for battle. The “girls” remained on a kibbutz in the north.

Everyone was tense with the anticipation of the war, which they knew was inevitable. Some of the letters, which are more personal, are written in the first person singular. Others, which are written in the first person plural, are signed “The Communications Committee.”

January 21, 1948

Dear Mordo,

For the first time, we gave up waiting after we didn’t receive any letter. We read your letter to the girls in Ashdot [Ya’akov], but it wasn’t enough for us. We always knew that your situation was more difficult than another’s was, due both to loneliness and to the hard work. That’s why we didn’t mind that you didn’t write, and we wrote to you more than to others. And now, once we’ve read about what your life is like there, we see that we weren’t so far off… Your way of life interests us just as our way of life will interest you, since you are the individual who makes all of us, the collective, complete.

***

April 4, 1948

Dear Hevre,

Disaster has struck once again. On Saturday, March 20, Miriam succumbed to her wounds in the hospital. “There was once a man, and he is no more, and his life’s song was cut off in the middle.” [Taken from a Haim Nachman Bialik poem, “After My Death”] In the middle? No! She had her whole life ahead of her. We were shocked at the terrible news of Miriam’s death. The Miriam we all knew, so devoted to her friends and dedicated to her work. She has left us, gone forever.

Our friend suffered terrible shocks and always tried to rise above them and go on living a proper life. This time, too, we tried to do that as much as we could in the regimen of this life. We set up a kitchen in which our girls work with dedication and wisdom. The food is as good and as tasty as the products and the budget allow. The clothing warehouse is also improving steadily. All of this is thanks to our girls, who, despite the conditions they must live under, do not neglect their work one iota.

Miriam Arnheim, who was born in Germany in November 1929, immigrated to pre-state Israel with her parents in August 1933. Although her parents were pacifists, Miriam enlisted in the Palmach’s Third Battalion and went to the Ashdot Yaakov training base. She worked mainly in the children’s house of the kibbutz. Her death is described on the Palmach Museum’s website as follows: “On March 12, 1948, when she had completed her work in the kitchen, she was sitting on the balcony of the citadel [in Safed], singing.

“At that moment, a bullet fired by an Arab sniper struck her, and she was critically wounded in the abdomen. When the burst of bullets was fired and Miriam fell, she did not give in to despair, but calmed the people around her. She was taken to Hadassah hospital only several hours later, the way there being dangerous because of the murderous gangs that roamed the area. She needed a great deal of patience and inner calm in the hospital to bear her pain and believe that ‘all would be well.’ She languished for seven days, and all the physicians’ efforts to save her failed.”

Letters written by Palmachniks Mordo and Ella Ben-David in 1948 outline a love story that developed as they fought for Israeli independence. (Amir Ben-David)

April 4, 1948

To Mordo, many greetings!

Although I did not receive an answer to my letter, I feel the need to write. Yes, the hevre is feeling badly after Dudik’s death. I do not know when the letter will reach you. Maybe the message will surprise you, and maybe not. In any case, imagine what the hevre is feeling. A different person is lost each time, and now Dudik. Can this be seen as any way to live? Right now, I feel like our whole life is no life at all. Each time, I hear about someone else who lived with us for years and suddenly is cut down and gone. This is how life turns into something that’s cheap and worthless. Maybe this is a moment of despair that’s hard to overcome. But this is how I’m feeling right now.

Mordo, I can’t write at length about what is going on here, even though there is what to write about. But my mood doesn’t allow me to devote myself to writing a letter that talks about our life here as a whole.

Dudik Hasin was born in Haifa in 1928. He attended the Reali School and was active in the Haganah from a young age. After completing his matriculation examinations in 1946, he enlisted in the Palmach and was sent to Ashdot Yaakov for training. Upon the UN’s announcement in November 1947, he was sent to the Galilee, where he participated in the capture of Sasa and the defense of Ein Zeitim, Safed, and the surrounding area. He was working in Ein Zeitim to reinforce the location when he was struck by a sniper’s bullet.

The following is written about him on the Palmah Museum’s website: “Shortly before the bullet from the post struck him, he said, smiling, ‘What’s the disaster, friends? We’d do better to sit and sing a bit.’ Perhaps that is the order for those who remain — the order that, despite everything and no matter what… to sing forever!”

Serving under a hero

On April 20, 1948, my father participated in the battle for the capture of the Nabi Yusha citadel in the Upper Galilee (it is known as the Ko’ach Citadel today in memory of the 28 fighters who fell in battle there). He was seriously wounded during the battle by bullets that struck him in the chest and the arm, and was evacuated to the rear.

Dudu Cherkasky, the company commander, was killed in that battle. After reaching the wall of the citadel with his troops, he was struck by a grenade thrown from above.

Commanding officers of the Palmach planning on operation. (Courtesy Government Press Office)

Dudu eventually became one of the best-known heroes of the Palmach generation thanks to the eponymous song that Haim Hefer wrote about him: “He had a forelock of curly hair; he had a smile in his eye. When he was up to his neck in girls, he laughed to the heart of the sky. Pass round the finjan [pot of coffee prepared over a campfire] and say, do: Is there any Palmachnik like Dudu?”

Among those killed in the battle of Nabi Yusha were Filon Friedman, the company commander; Yosef (Sefi) Ohali, and other comrades from my parents’ training base. They were buried in a mass grave at the foot of the Ko’ach Citadel in the Galilee.

Several days later, my mother wrote to my father, who was recovering from his serious wounds in hospital in Safed.

May 1, 1948, 1:30 a.m.

Greetings to you, my boy!

I’ve chosen a bit of an odd hour to write this letter, haven’t I? But really, this is the time I like best for writing letters. The whole gang is sleeping the sleep of the just, with only a bit of light snoring here and there. I can’t sleep, and strange thoughts are coming up in my mind in no particular order — in short, it’s hard to control my mind and my imagination during these hours; they control you. And that, of course, is the most convenient time to rest and write a letter.

Isn’t it strange? After all, at this very moment you could be here next to me. We’d chat a bit or laugh together. Perhaps we would do neither, but just sit quietly. We would sit for a whole mountain’s worth of silence — and then it would be good, as good as it could be just in the time of reflection before sleep. And then perhaps we might hear the chatter of another couple of kids passing the time together… Yes, there was a dream and it is gone. We have all returned to the world of reality.

You know, Mordo, as strange as this is to say, this time, too, when the disaster has struck so close, I don’t really understand it. Always, when someone I knew died, someone who was dear to me, I took the news with a certain kind of quiet. I didn’t get particularly upset or go into extreme grief. Simply because I didn’t grasp it, I didn’t realize what it meant — maybe I hadn’t matured enough to understand the nature of death. But I always thought that if, God forbid, someone really close to me were to die, then I would understand and I would know. It’s strange, but it hasn’t turned out the way I thought it would.

Filon fell, Sefi fell, and so did twelve other people from our training base. It seems to me that there are no other people who can be as close and as beloved as they were. But I don’t grasp it this time, either. Our girls haven’t stopped crying and lamenting over our fallen ones. They seem to have accepted it entirely — that they will never see our fallen ones again. They understood the meaning of the concept of death. But I haven’t even shed a tear. Yes, it’s strange not to hear Filon singing in the house, but the others are gone, too, and they will come back, and so will he, he must come back — no matter when.

It’s not that I’m trying to avoid thinking about him. I do think about him, and I keep remembering the lovely days that the four of us spent together in Lehavot and here in Metula. But it’s impossible to think that we will never meet again.

Mordo and Ella Ben-David. (Courtesy)
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