The last of the founding generation, captured on film
A War of Independence love story, Ben-Gurion’s secret invite, Abba Eban’s UN scorecard, and other tales of the nascent state
Lt. Elad Peled, 20, set out with 35 men, on foot, at three in the morning, to take the city of Safed in the spring of 1948. The story of how he managed to prevail over a superior enemy – and persuade his now-wife of 66 years, Zimra, to marry him in the process – is but one patch on a quilt of video testimony that includes 700 interviewees and 3,000 hours of testimony from those who lived through the War of Independence and the founding of the State of Israel.
The Jerusalem-based nonprofit Toldot Yisrael conducted the interviews over the past several years and has recently partnered up with the National Library of Israel, which is to make the material available to the public.
“I was inspired by the work that Steven Spielberg had done with the survivors of the Shoah and I thought there ought to be a continuation or parallel project about the founding of the state of Israel,” Eric Halivni, the head of the organization, said at a recent press conference.
Assuming that something like that already existed, he found instead that while there was excellent footage from soldiers in the Palmach Museum and at the Yitzhak Rabin Center there was no single, comprehensive archive examining the founding of the state from an array of perspectives.
The interviews typically start with the question “How far back can you tell us about your family,” Halivni said, and often were so engrossing that after each session he and the main cameraman would, in what became a running joke, assure one another that “this was the best one ever.”
Currently only snippets of the testimonies are available online (pasted throughout this article) but the digital product manager at the library said that the 120-year-old institution was in the process of implementing video-to-text and video-search options to allow users easy access to the relevant eyewitness information.
Some of the highlights, Halivni said, included the recollections of Aryeh Handler, who has since died but was one of the last people still alive to have been at the Israel Museum on the 14th of May 1948, when David Ben-Gurion declared independence. During the interview, Handler produced an original invitation, which asked all participants to keep the event a secret and to arrive “in dark-colored holiday clothes.”
Suzy Eban saved her husband Abba Eban’s handwritten scorecard from the historic November 29, 1947, vote (33 in favor, 13 against, and 10 abstained) and recalled how, on the drive from Lake Success, New York, to Manhattan, she, Moshe Sharett, (Israel’s first foreign minister), and Abba Eban (the Jewish Agency’s representative to the UN) were all awed into a complete silence for the duration of the ride.
Shlomo Hillel, an Iraqi Jew who had moved to Palestine in the thirties and was sent back to Iraq as an undercover agent in the forties, spoke of taking part in a rally protesting the UN decision to establish the State of Israel.
The longest interview, with the now-100-year-old Eliyahu Sakharov, required 10 sessions and a total of 26 hours.
As for Peled, who rose to the rank of general in the IDF and later served as the director-general of the Education Ministry, he recently sat beside Zimra at the King David Hotel and delivered an abridged version of events.
On that fateful night in November 1947, he said, he did no dancing in the streets. First because Moshav Ramot Naftali, where he was stationed, along the Lebanon border, “had no streets,” and second because “people were on guard,” fearful of imminent war.
He went to the radio room and wrote a letter to his mother. He told her that he knew she would be dancing but that war was rapidly approaching and that he was concerned because “we, the fighters, are a minority in this country.”
The letter is still in his possession, he said, so he knows “that what I am saying now is not some recreation.” At the time, he added, the Palmach, the largest Jewish fighting force in Palestine, had a total of 2,000 men and 1,000 women under arms.
As a platoon commander, Peled, then still known as Reisfeld, was sent to the majority-Arab city of Safed, where he was promptly made the commander of the Hebrew forces in the city.
Zimra, who let her husband do much of the telling, was then a student at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. On November 28, 1947, one year after her service in the Palmach, she was called up to reserves in the pre-state militia. In some ways her wartime service was more dangerous than his: she served as a radio operator accompanying the convoys from Bab el-Wad, near Latrun, to the blockaded city of Jerusalem. During the early months of the war, 400 people were killed on that route. “Each convoy was a danger to life,” she said.
One convoy, which she said she would never forget, saw 24 people killed, including 14 men and women who opted to blow themselves up inside their armored car rather than be taken into Arab captivity.
During the last battle for the city of Safed, Peled fell off a ladder and was burnt by a flame thrower that belonged to friendly forces. Waking up in the ambulance, he asked the driver where they were, and when he was told Pardes Hannah — “the town of Zimra,” whom he knew from their year of service together in the Palmach in 1946 – he asked for a pencil and some paper.
The note, addressed to Zimra’s parents, read: My name is Elad Reisfeld. I am wounded. Evacuated to a hospital near Tel Aviv. If you know something about Zimra, please tell me. Like a message in a bottle, he tossed it out the ambulance window, he said.
Somehow, the note reached Zimra’s mother, who arrived at the hospital with a bouquet of flowers. She told him that Zimra was stationed in Bab el-Wad. A female soldier at the hospital filled in more information: a small plane took off from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem every day, carrying medicines and letters. The letters would eventually reach Bab el-Wad at the foot of the hills leading to Jerusalem.
Reisfeld sat down and wrote to Zimra. “I described what happened to me,” he said, “and then I wrote this heroic phrase: if we won’t meet now, who knows if we will ever meet again.”
Zimra, calling the letter “dramatic,” in a tone gently suggestive of an eye roll, asked her company commander what to do. He suggested catching a ride with a convoy that was to leave from Latrun to Jerusalem that day. She did.
“Ten days later, we were married,” he said, grinning.
Today, Peled said that while he feels privileged to have taken part in the founding of a state — a claim only a small percentage of people in the world can make — there is “a mixed feeling” about the end result.
“Not exactly what we thought would happen,” he said of today’s state of affairs and of the absence of peace, “but that’s life. It’s not a textbook.”
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