My cousin and her husband recently made aliyah. Prominent in their chosen fields, they retired to fulfill their long-time dream to move to Israel. They are continually in awe of the small everyday experiences that turn into stories of bravery and valor, of the opportunity to connect on an almost daily basis with Jews who have really put their lives on the line for the Jewish people.
After a very touristy walk in old Jaffa, they met yet another “old Jew” who just blew them away. This is their story:
As we were walking along the sea on our way back to our car, we came across a small interesting building and when we got to the side we saw that it was the Etzel Museum (Etzel is an acronym for Irgun Tzvai-Leumi, or Irgun, the Jewish military organization founded by Menachem Begin and devoted to “encouraging” the British to leave Palestine). We decided, in our newcomer-to-Israel-what-the-heck mode, to go in for a few minutes. At the reception desk sat an older gentleman who sold us our tickets and then went to get them for us. I saw him talking to some people in the museum and asked him if he was giving a tour. He said no, but if we had the time he would like us to see the 20 minute film that they have.
So we went into this viewing room and he stood at the front fiddling with a laptop to try to get the film to start. We groaned inwardly but then the magic began; for the next 15 minutes he told us his story. He, Yosef, had enlisted in the British army at age of 14. Thousands of Israeli youths did the same because they knew the mufti was supporting Hitler and had plans to create concentration camps for the Jews of Palestine. In order to fight the Nazis they had to join the British in spite of the problems being caused by the British White Paper. They also thought they should get training for the coming conflict with the Arabs.
He served in the British army for four years and was involved in the landings in Sicily, and North Africa. While in the British army he was also a member of Lechi (the Hebrew name for the Stern gang, another military organization that shared the goals of the Irgun). Because he spoke Hebrew, English, Arabic, Spanish, German and Portuguese both the British and the Lechi used him for undercover missions. He mentioned that, in order to facilitate this undercover work, he had a healthy tooth removed and replaced with a gold tooth because the Arabs would have a gold tooth symbolic of a bullet and it would enable him to move freely dressed as an Arab.
He was involved in the kidnapping of two British officers. He was caught, tried and convicted and sentenced to death but the sentence was commuted to 15 years when the officers were released. He was imprisoned in Akko for over a year until he escaped in the famous Akko prison break. At a later date he and his wife boarded the Altalena north of Tel Aviv with Menachem Begin. Yosef claimed that Ben Gurion had given the Irgun permission to bring in the weapons but then withdrew the permission so that when the ship was going to dock in Tel Aviv it was attacked by the Palmach and Hagana. Even though they were under heavy fire, Begin ordered his men not to return fire. Begin said that the second temple was destroyed because of Sinat Chinam (causeless hatred) and he refused to have the nascent state destroyed by having Jews fighting Jews.
Even though the Irgun did not return any fire, they were subject to heavy artillery and ultimately the ship was hit. When it became apparent that the ship was sinking, Begin insisted on being the last person off of the ship, but Yosef and others forcibly put a life-vest on Begin, saying that he wasn't just a captain of a ship but the leader of a movement, and they threw him overboard. Yosef and his wife jumped into the water, swam to a dingy and went on to rescue five Cuban volunteers.
After the creation of the state of Israel, Yosef went to work for El-Al and became the head of all the stewards. He was always part of the crew when Israeli Prime Ministers flew. Many years later when then Prime Minister Begin was flying to the US to sign the peace treaty with Egypt, Yosef made up a bed for Begin in the crew's quarters. He asked Begin to go lie down. Begin asked whether there was a bed for everyone on the plane and when the answer was no, Begin refused to move from his seat. After five hours, Yosef approached him again and offered the opportunity to get some sleep so that he would be rested when he arrived in the US. Begin's answer was still "no" but added "Don't think that I forgot that you threw me in the water!”
Sometimes we forget who we are. Sometimes we get caught up in the nasty headlines – the ones attacking Israel or detailing yet another financial scandal. But Yosef’s story is also who we are, a people who will put ourselves on the line for our country and for each other. Each story needs to be told. Each one is a new inspiration and a new opportunity for gratitude.