Rediscovered: A father’s lost letters from Israel’s foundational years

Rediscovered: A father’s lost letters from Israel’s foundational years

Finding the letters after his father’s death, Daniel Chertoff tells stories from pre-state Israel through his dad’s experiences

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Mordechai Chertoff, an American who lived in pre-state Palestine from 1947-1950, where he wrote for the Palestine Post and served in the Haganah (Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)
Mordechai Chertoff, an American who lived in pre-state Palestine from 1947-1950, where he wrote for the Palestine Post and served in the Haganah (Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)

After his father Mordechai died at the age of 91, Daniel Chertoff discovered a dresser drawer full of his letters written when Mordechai was in his 20s and living in pre-state Israel, where he witnessed the founding of the Jewish state.

The correspondence, describing events that took place between 1947 and 1950, are a veritable treasure chest of early statehood stories.

Chertoff, 65, who had retired early and was working on a master’s degree in literature, had already worked with his father to write his memoirs prior to his death. His father, who had spent his entire adult life in the US, returned to Israel in his late 80s, in order to live near his son and family.

But the letters had never been mentioned by Mordechai, who brought them with him to Israel when he moved six years before his death.

“I believe in my heart of hearts that he forgot about them or maybe it was a strategic decision that I would discover them later and have to embark on this journey without his help,” said Chertoff. “That’s my fantasy.”

The cover of Daniel Chertoff’s non-fiction book based on the letters written by his father, Mordechai Chertoff, and discovered in a bottom dresser drawer (Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)

No matter the reason, the letters beckoned to his son. They became the basis of the intense research and writing that led to “Palestine Posts, An Eye-Witness Account of the Birth of Israel” (Toby Press), Chertoff’s non-fiction work based on his father’s letters that specifically examines the tense, eventful year leading up to Israel’s declaration of statehood in 1948.

“But it is Jerusalem which really feels like home, and I think today will go down in my personal history as my happiest. I feel a little delirious, drunk “v’lo me-yayin.”32 If you could only be here!

It’s a telling of Jewish history with an extremely personal theme throughout, mostly because Chertoff had a complicated history with his father. It’s something that he discusses frankly in the book’s introduction, and then revisits at the very end. But he doesn’t let the tangled personal relationship into the heart of the book, preferring instead to focus on his father’s story, telling, as he puts it, “a highly personal, subjective and idiosyncratic work.”

“I decided not to analyze as I went along because I didn’t want to preempt the reader’s interpretation,” he said. “I invite people to come to their conclusions and share them with me. I’m militant about not telling people what to think.”

Daniel Chertoff, who spent years researching and writing a memoir about his father’s letters (Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)

Still, it took Chertoff time to commit to the project. He first began scanning the letters, thinking he’d store them for his own three adult children. But as he began reading the accounts, he realized that he was the only person who knew who was being discussed in the chatty family missives.

By that point, he was hooked. He had the letters transcribed by a service in India, retyped digitally and annotated. As Chertoff read them more thoroughly, he discovered the deeply historical aspects of his father’s adventures.

There were secondary sources to be read, memoirs and autobiographies that filled in the blanks sometimes left by Mordechai Chertoff.

The book, all 499 pages of it, focuses on a narrow window of time, the year leading up to 1948 and the partition plan. Chertoff had come to pre-state Palestine in 1947 and was working at the Palestine Post, the precursor of The Jerusalem Post and served in the Haganah, the pre-state militia.

I must admit, Mordecai, that my heart is not now in the writing of letters. I don’t have the peace of mind or serenity for it. Because these days – the days of the U.N. assembly – are fateful days – for us. Our fate – the fate of the land and the nation – have been cast into their hands, they will determine our fate. I read the report of the assembly daily, and my heart is horrified from humiliation and fury… humiliation at our lowly status among the nations. They all sent their delegates, and we have not a single delegate, as though we are not a nation, and as though it has nothing to do with us.

Mordechai Chertoff, an American who lived in pre-state Israel from 1947-1950, where he wrote for the Palestine Post and served in the Haganah Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)

He sat in a cross-section of the information flow, which offered him a particular set of insights into what was happening at the time.

“He loved being in the know and was a schvitzer,” said Daniel Chertoff. “My father filtered things through his eyes, but it’s what he saw.”

“November 30, 1947 And so it was – And it came to pass at midnight!3 And a redeemer will come unto Zion!4 My dear family – Friday afternoon, before Shabbat, we sat crowded together and fearful around our huge radio in the newspaper office, and heard the proposal to postpone the vote5 – Our eyes dimmed and our blood froze in our veins: they’re “pulling one over on us,” as the children say. After the broadcast we walked through the silent and sad streets of Jerusalem, and found no comfort. We envisioned military posts at every corner and machine guns, explosions and sirens, the terror and suffering renewed. Then comes a clear Shabbat morning under the scalding sun, and the people walk about with some sort of hope and prayer on their lips, and they stream to the Western Wall to pray with the chief rabbis. I visited Rabbi Herzog before going to the office to hear the latest broadcast, and to work with no logical hope of victory but with a great sense that despite all, we will triumph.

His eyewitness experiences included the siege of Jerusalem, the actions of Dov Yosef, the military governor of Jerusalem in 1948, and the 1948 bombing of the Palestine Post offices, which took place on a day Chertoff was at his desk working.

“He wrote almost 5,000 words to his parents about what happened,” said Chertoff. “He talks about the rescue efforts, what happened inside and about pulling out his favorite typesetter,” a beloved staffer who died of his injuries.

I remember back in the States, when the war broke out and all the boys were leaving, worrying how I would react in a moment of crisis were I called out too. I recall the fear I felt then that I would funk. When the bomb hit, I have a sharp recollection of having thought to myself, “do I know what to do?” and a momentary panic at the feeling that I could do nothing to help. It passed much more quickly than it takes to record, and then I knew I’d be alright. It now appears that the first words spoken in the News room were Mike’s alright, but they were not to Leah: he first shouted out “everything is alright,” going on the logical assumption that the bomb you hear is not the one which will hurt you – It’s already behind, and you’re seeing its result.

Mordechai Chertoff during the years he spent living in pre-state Israel, from 1947 to 1950 Courtesy Daniel Chertoff)

Like many English speakers today, the elder Chertoff wrote that he preferred Israelis but was mostly friends with other Americans. They took care of one another and called each others’ parents when visiting back home in the US.

Daniel Chertoff spent a lot of time finding those friends, and their children, as part of his own research.

“I kept telling people the stories of their parents,” said Chertoff. “These are people who are interesting in their own right, and the friends of my father, their parents, had really interesting roles here, and that was fascinating to their children.”

For Chertoff, who describes his parents as a self-absorbed pair and not the warmest of parents, it ended up being a way to access his father, an opportunity to meet him as a young man.

Mordechai Chertoff, who ended up working as a Conservative pulpit rabbi in the US after leaving Israel, was a talented writer, but wasn’t successful as a pastor, said Chertoff, probably because he wasn’t the most empathetic man.

For Chertoff, now 65, married, with three children and eight grandchildren, the process of discovering his father as a young man has been critical to his own identity.

“I was unbelievably blessed to have these letters,” he said. “It gave me the chance to figure out how we got from there to here.”

At the end of the book, he asks readers to talk to their parents and ask them about their histories.

“I do feel incredibly privileged to have these artifacts,” he said. “It’s a treasure.”

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