The Age of Exodus


Although not a fan of thrillers or adventure literature, I was tempted to buy this book by Gavin Scott because its subject-matter combined ancient archaeology and the struggle to establish the modern State of Israel. An irresistible combination for me.

The year is 1947 and Dr. Duncan Forrester, Fellow in Archaeology at Oxford university, has returned to civilian life after participating in the pre-D-Day action aimed at eliminating senior German officers on European soil. Prior to that he had been assigned to training young Jewish men in what was then British-Mandated Palestine when it was feared that Rommel would be victorious and manage to conquer the entire Middle East.

A colleague asks him to advise a friend at the Foreign Office who possesses an ancient object, which turns out to be a Sumerian cylinder seal found in an excavation in the area now known as Iraq but formerly part of the Ottoman Empire. The plot thickens when the friend is subsequently found murdered in the area reserved for artifacts from the Ancient Near East in the British Museum.

Forrester is then asked to help protect the British Foreign Minister, Ernest Bevin, in New York, from a possible assassination attempt by members of the far-right Jewish resistance to British rule in Palestine. Negotiations are under way regarding the future of Palestine and British rule there, with Bevin and the Foreign Office fiercely opposed to the creation of a Jewish State and in favour of the Arab cause. Attaining access to the oil that is controlled by the Arabs is behind the British stance, as well as a firm streak of anti-Semitism.

Attempts are made on Forrester’s life durimg the crossing by liner and while he is in New York. The effigy of a Sumerian idol is stolen, and after being attacked again Forrester escapes on to a ship anchored in the harbor. Using his extensive nautical knowledge, Forrester helps to save the ship from sinking,and get to its destination in southern France. There he is taken to a building holding Jewish refugees seeking to get to Palestine in the framework of the illegal immigration known as Aliya Bet. Shocked by what he has seen and heard, Forrester’s sympathies shift to the Jewish side, and he does what he can to further their ambitions.

The mysterious murders of British diplomats, the uses and abuses of archaeological artifacts, and the struggle for the Jewish State are all tied together neatly, bringing the book to a satisfactory conclusion. History has proved that Forrester’s instincts were right and the views and interference of the British establishment wrong, despite the suffering that has been caused along the way.

In the Village

Like many other villages in this semi-deserted area of central France, the population consists of a mix of old and new, native and foreign. I’ve been told that it was once a thriving place with shops of various kinds and even a cafe, but now there is no sign of its former commercial activity, and it is purely residential. However, it still has an imposing building housing the mayor’s office, a library and a central hall for public activities, serving as the administrative centre for several surrounding villages.

First and foremost among the residents are the farmers, whose holdings extend over the fields and meadows that can be seen on all sides. Their tractors and other farm equipment (hay-balers, trucks carrying huge quantities of hay, or even logs sometimes) scan be seen working in the fields and also sometimes on the roads. And the roads here are narrow and winding, so watch out if you’re thinking of overtaking one of those slow-moving objects (though they often move aside to let drivers of smaller vehicles pass). Many of these farmers live in one of the villages, so there’s rather a lot of coming and going during the season.

Many of the original residents are very old. Some have moved away to be near children who have moved on in search of work. Those that have remained can be seen hobbling to the boulangerie using their walking sticks for their usual baguette, or gathered around the grocery van that delivers essentials once a week and tootles it’s horn to summon the buyers. These old folk are usually courteous, even friendly, but it’s difficult to have a conversation with them as they speak a local dialect, and their lack of teeth doesn’t make for clear diction. Almost every day a van from the regional medical centre brings a meal on wheels to someone who is evidently unable to,leave his or her home.

There are still a few younger people, families with children, but these are few and far between. One large building houses an institution for children of various ages who have been taken into care. The staff consists mainly of young people who come and go, though there is a small core of permanent administrators. There are even one or two young families living nearby, but they keep themselves to themselves.

The small square housing the sixteenth century church (recently refurbished with metal tapestry windows honouring Leonardo da Vinci, but essentially deserted), contains a motley crew of residents in the summer, though the houses are empty for most of the year. One house serves as the site for a family gathering in the summer and at Christmas, too. It once housed the now-deceased parents and their children, who have all moved elsewhere. Yet when they decide to get together one family, with children and even grandchildren drive up from Toulouse, while another brother drives down from Paris. So they all meet in the middle, spend a few days or weeks together, reminisce about their childhood, and then go their separate ways again

One smaller house, which was once a bicycle-repair shop, was bought and renovated by a genial Australian, who has dubbed it ‘Maison Roo.’ He is usually here for part of the year, spreading bonhomie wherever he goes, but this year is stuck in Oz due to Coronavirus restrictions. Another French couple who live in the south of France bought a derelict building on the corner of the church square and did it up by themselves, being both handy and capable. They have turned it into a beritanle palace, with each room furnished in a unique and aesthetic way. This year they haven’t been a ale to come either, and we hope that all is well with them, and that we can all be reunited next year.

The monument to the young men from the village who fell in the two world wars may partly explain the dearth of local inhabitants. The many derelict and deserted houses throughout the region are gradually being bought up and refurbished by people from other parts of Europe (mainly the Netherlands and England), bringing a new sense of cosmopolitanism and intellectual interest to the region. Many of the newcomers are artists, writers, and people who have had enough of the urban rat race and are opting for the quiet life. It all makes for an interesting social mix when we manage to get together.

When in France…

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Whenever I’m in France, usually for a month or two in the summer, I do my best to read, listen to (and talk) French. I listen to the French classical music programme on the radio, where there seems to be rather a lot of talking. This usually consists mainly of names of composers and artists, or discussions about them, so I can usually get the gist of what’s being said. When the occasional, very brief, news broadcast comes on life gets more difficult for me. The announcers speak (or read) at a rapid pace, so I can hardly understand a thing.

This is where the written word comes to my rescue. Every Friday we buy the weekend edition of the national newspaper, ‘Le Figaro,’ which despite being Conservative comes with a plethora of supplements, which provide me with interesting and educational reading for almost a week.

The main section naturally consists mainly of material about French politics, which are somewhat beyond my ken. I dutifully cast my eye over the articles, but find it difficult to grasp the vagaries of the French political system. The articles which interest me the most are to be found in the various supplements.

The supplement which concerns the various French media (TV and films) details all the programmes of the week, and rarely contains anything of interest for me (we have no TV in the house). There is a fairly extensive economics supplement, evidently based on the ‘Financial Times,’ as it too is printed on pink paper. In this, thankfully, I am no longer duty-bound to attempt to interest myself, and so it is with great relief that I allow myself to set it aside unread. The rather brief culture supplement is full of interesting articles, and is a joy to read.

But the one that interests me most is the women’s supplement, which goes under the name of ‘Madame.’ The telling point here is that it is not called ‘Mademoiselle,’ and is hence directed at the older woman, I.e., moi. It is in glorious colour and is replete with photographs of gorgeous younger and older women displaying fashion, jewellery and makeup, as is only to be expected. But the latter half of the supplement is of greater interest for me, as it contains weightier articles on subjects that are of a more general nature,

Thus, there are several pages devoted to recommendations for various categories of books to read over the summer. Last week’s edition contained an article about how to treat adolescents in the family during the long summer holiday. This seems to consist of fairly obvious advice about being relaxed about dealing with them, and starting to gear up towards the approaching school year as the holiday starts coming to an end.

Another article which aroused my interest was one entitled ‘The Revolt of the Invisibles,’ and was about the double ageist and sexist discrimination against older women in Hollywood. Using the term ’quinquas’ (‘over fifties’) to define actresses of a certain age, the article describes the difficulty they encounter in finding employment in the film industry, and in Hollywood especially. I was intrigued to learn that there is a Center for the Study of Women on TV and in films at San Diego University, and that it recently published a study called ‘It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World.’ Amongst other things, the study showed that the representation of men over fifty years of age in films and TV far outweighs that of women.

Some older women in Hollywood have formed an organisation to try to help their peers create and find suitable roles in the film industry. There is even a special section at this year’s Cannes film festival entitled ‘Women in Motion,’ devoted to the subject.

The local newsagent has been prewarned to reserve a copy of the weekend edition of ‘Le Figaro,’ with all its supplements, for us every Friday. That doubtless explains why she remembered us, even after an absence of two years. And so it is as if various forces have conspired to keep my French language skills in play and my mind entertained while I’m enjoying my summer holiday.

Trouble in Paradise

Having managed to overcome all the bureaucratic, technical and medical obstacles in the way of anyone wanting to travel abroad from Israel, we finally managed to make our way onto the plane taking us to France. For the last few years we have got into the habit of spending a month or two in the depths of rural France, staying at a spacious house set in a quiet village. Apart from the chimes of the nearby church clock, there is nothing to disturb the bucolic peace of the area.

until this year, that is. This year the regional authority has decided it is time to install fibre-optic cables and a new electricity grid underground. And that means digging up roads throughout the village, making huge holes and trenches to accommodate the new system. Each such hole or trench is neatly surrounded by barriers to make sure that no one falls into them.

one day in the distant future (perhaps even by this time next year) the job will be done and all will be serene once more. This year, however, all is anything but serene. Huge machines, reminiscent of space-age. Ontraptions, some painted yellow, others red or blue, are to be found all over the place, blocking access roads or even cutting them off completely. Huge piles of gravel and sand have appeared at strategic points (fortunately for us not too near our abode), and strapping men in orange overalls and hard hats emerge from around corners as well as lanes and side roads, whether on foot or driving one or another of those vehicles.

But all is not lost. The house is well-insulated, with double-glazed windows, so very little noise penetrates the cosy interior. The workmen seem to take a long lunch-break, as is the custom in France, and although they start work on the dot of eight in the morning, by four o-clock in the afternoon there isn’t an orange-clad being to be seen, and the monstrous machines are parked as neatly as possible at the sides of the roads and squares. That gives us four hours or more of peace and quiet to enjoy the little table and chairs outside, where we can have coffee and cake in the sunshine, and chat to anyone passing by.

Because that is the nature of French village life. Anyone who happens to pass, whether you’re out for a stroll or sitting outside, must be greeted and saluted for a little chat (preferably in whatever French we can muster). Also, when the occasional vendor of groceries, baguettes (five la baguette!) or meat comes by with his or her van, then toots their horn to signal their arrival, anyone within earshot gathers at the open aperture and buys what they can find, or even what they might need. That, too, is an opportunity for a little light conversation. For some people, particularly the elderly and less mobile villagers, that is the only chance they have to socialise.

it has taken us a few days to get used to our new-old surroundings. Unaccustomed to things not being in certain places (“a place for everything, and everything in its place”), we find ourselves constantly looking for our mobile phones, keys, pens, etc. In one instance a hearing aid that had been lost somewhere in the big town was miraculously found when we retraced our steps to one of the shops we had frequented several hours earlier.

people on the whole are nice, kind, good-natured and patient. Everyone is masked almost everywhere, both inside and outside. An alco-gel dispenser is waiting to be used at every entrance point. Social distance is observed almost everywhere, even in the checkout line at the supermarket. No one seems to be in a hurry, but that is the nature of life in this part of life. It’s gradually getting through to us, too.

The harrowing Thursday afternoon drive south from the Paris CDG airport together with the hordes of Parisians who were on the road at the same time, is already a distant memory. Thnkdully, we reached our destination with no harm done, though badly in need of a good meal and a good night’s rest. Praise be, there’s no shortage of either of those where we are now.

When She Came Back; A WW2 Historical Novel Based on a True Story

I read this book (written by Yaron Reshef and translated from the Hebrew by Nina Rimon-Davis) as an ebook. I had been told it dealt with Chortkow, the town in Poland (now Ukraine) from which my in-laws came. As I read on I found many similarities between the two stories – both Syma, the heroine of the book, and my in-laws came from a medium-sized town with a large Jewish population, some of whom were assimilated and quite prosperous. The crux of the story takes place in the port town of Haifa in pre-State Israel, which is also where my in-laws lived. But they fortunately remained there, whereas the heroine of this (real-life) story returned to Chortkow, where the Holocaust caught up with her, leading to her tragic death.

The heroine of the book is Syma Finkelman, a woman in her thirties who followed the unusual path of qualifying as a physician. After working in her profession for severa; years, she decides to take a trip to what was then known as Palestine, where her brother and his wife lived. This was done ostensibly to attend a medical conference there, but she was also considering making it her permanent home.

On the elegant cruise ship that takes her to her destination she meets a fellow-passenger who shows interest in her. Nathan Hoffman is an educated older gentleman who is in the book-publishing business. They embark on an affair, which continues when they reach Haifa and spend time together.

The accounts of life in Haifa in the mid-1930s, the people, the architecture, the markets, as well as of an arduous journey to visit Jerusalem, are full of fascinating details. The illustrations consist of photographs taken at the time, adding another dimension of interest to the book. Similarly to my in-laws, some relatives emigrated from Chortkow to the U.S.A., while most of them remained in their home-town, with disastrous consequences.

Syma’s activities and thoughts are desribed in a convincing way, and we have to take the author at his word (given in his afterword) that he undertook extensive research to authenticate the details he provides.

Some of the chapters in the book describe dreams that the author has provided for Syma, possibly presaging her ultimate fate. I found these intrusive interruptions of the narrative unnecessary and even annoying, but that is a matter of personal taste.

As a whole, the well- written (and well-translated) narrative flows smoothly, and the reader is able to see, hear and feel what Syma is experiencing during her two months in Haifa and her affair with Nathan Hoffman.

But suddenly, for no apparent reason, their affair comes to an end and after only two months in Palestine Syma decides to return to her family and her life in Chortkow. The final chapter takes place in November 1942 in the crowded truck of the cattle-train taking Syma and ten thousand other Jews from Chortkow and the surrounding area to the death camp of Belzec. The scene is described as experienced by Syma, and I found this account very moving, as well as harrowing. I take my hat off to the author for managing to imagine what it felt like to be on that train and undergo the final dehumanizing process inflicted by the Nazis on their Jewish victims.

There is nothing left but to close the book with a sigh of relief and think, ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’

L’Etat c’est Moi

The tendency to equate the state with one’s person (expressed in the phrase ‘l’Etat c’est Moi’ [I am the state]) was a feature of the monarchies of Europe in the period during and after the Middle Ages. With the passage of time, the introduction of republics, democracies and various forms of constitutional monarchy that equivalence became a thing of the past, and today is identified largely with the seventeenth century French king, Louis IV (and to a limited extent France’s post-WWII president Charles de Gaulle). The phrase epitomizes the arrogance and self-importance of the person uttering it.

I have not heard those words spoken by Benjamin Netanyahu, but his behaviour in the latter part of his twelve-year ‘reign’ as Israel’s prime minister, as well as in the manner of his leaving that position, indicates that he may well think and believe it.

Indications abound of his supercilious and condescending, or even downright destructive, attitude to those who have acted to oust him from power. It started with his campaign to discredit the new government and its members. That having failed, it was evident from the behaviour of the Likud members of the Knesset when the incoming prime minister was presenting the new government’s policy to the House that a highly-orchestrated chorus of heckling, disruption and just plain name-calling was under way. Naftali Bennet was not allowed to complete a single sentence or phrase. While the Knesset Speaker did his best to keep the Knesset members under control, the task was obviously beyond him. The behaviour of the Knesset members put Israel as a whole to shame in its own eyes and those of foreign observers.

But that wasn’t all. Before leaving the Prime Minister’s Office Netanyahu instructed the staff there to shred documents. The full extent of the damage thus caused is yet to be assessed, but that is something that no responsible public official should do. In addition, the entire handing-over procedure from the outgoing to the incoming prime minister took all of half an hour, which seems unlikely given that Netanyahu was in office for twelve consecutive years. The customary ceremony in which the departing official wishes the incoming one success and good fortune in his/her role was omitted completely.

To top the begrudging handing-over of power, Netanyahu and his family declined to leave the official residence at Balfour Street in Jerusalem. It’s as if the defeated prime minister of Britain refused to leave 10 Downing Street, or the outgoing President of the USA would not go out of the White House. Eventually, it seems, some kind of agreement was reached and the Netanyahu family has been given a date by which it must vacate the premises. Don’t worry, there’s no need to feel sorry for them, as they have at least one apartment in Jerusalem as well as a fine house in Caesarea.

Sadly, it all goes to show just who and what has been behind the formation of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy for a very long period, with consequences that are visible world-wide. Not for a very long time have Israel and the Jewish people been hated by so many people in so many places.

Only in Israel!

With its unique mix of people from all over the world, almost all of them with Jewish roots, Israel’s population comprises a wide range of cultures, traditions and even genetic composition.

The juxtaposition of so many people from so many different backgrounds has given rise to some unexpected friendships, relationships, combinations and unions. The idea that this could happen ‘only in Israel’ came to me as I was participating in an event to celebrate the fiftieth wedding anniversary of friends. The husband was brought from Yemen to Israel as an infant, the wife is a former ‘new immigrant’ from the USA. They met in Jerusalem, fell in love, got married and, lo and behold, their marriage has lasted for fifty years. Their drastically different cultural backgrounds weren’t an obstacle to their marriage and don’t seem to have got in the way of its endurance. I know that people from different ethnic backgrounds get married all the time all over the world, but this is the one I’m familiar with.

When new neighbors moved in to the house next door we wondered who and what they might be. On becoming acquainted with them we realized that these were in fact neighbours from heaven. Both husband and wife are translators, which is exactly the profession I have been working in most of my adult life. They are literate, well-read, cultured and pleasant (and don’t have a dog – unlike  the three neighbours opposite whose five hounds bark all day and most of the night). In additon their son, Ariel (same name as my son, but much younger), is a gifted pianist and did very well at the recent Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. As inveterate music-lovers, we were happy to be able to hear him practicing on their Steinway grand piano at the other side of our shared wall. Having completed his studies in Israel and London, Ariel is now living in London and embarking on his professional career.

The young technician who came to our house a few weeks ago to attend to some disfunction equipment had to check something in our basement. When he saw our table-tennis table there he challenged my 81-year-old OH to a game, and was amazed and impressed at being thoroughly trounced. Upon completing his assignment he gave us his phone number and told us to call him directly whenever we had a technical problem and not to bother calling the company. The only reward he required would be a repeat game of table tennis. Only in Israel!

During the Corona pandemiv, when people were told not to go out and about, and before the vaccinations had been developed, we opted to order our groceries from the local grocery store. We would phone the owner with our shopping list, and half an hour later he would be at our door with the best-quality items as well as fruit and veg. (and priced somewhat higher than the supermarket). This friendly personal interaction lasted throughout those long, dreary months of isolation, but eventually we got our jabs and life began to return to its normal routine, where we could venture out and go to the supermarket once more. After a few weeks had passed, we had a phone call from the owner of the grocery store inquiring after our health and indicating that he would like to see us in his store from time to time. We got the hint, and now try to make a point of going there as well as going to the supermarket.

Most Thursday evenings my OH goes to one of Jerusalem’s major bakeries to buy freshly-baked Challot, the special bread Jews have for the Sabbath. He likes to be sure that the loaves are really fresh and that they have not been touched by the hands of other customers. So he has got into the habit of phoning the bakery ahead of time to make sure that the Challot are out of the oven and ready when he comes. By now the serving staff recognize his voice on the phone, tell him when to come, that they have put some aside for him, or that him he should go and get some groceries first. I doubt that one would find that level of intimacy and concern anywhere else in the world.

I might be wrong, but these and other examples give me hope for the future of the Jewish people and humankind in general.

Cautious Optimism

About three years ago my husband and I rescheduled our flight back to Israel from London, at considerable financial and personal cost, because Netanyahu had called a snap general election. We were determined to cast our votes in order to get rid of the party in power and especially the man at its head.

That election was won by Netanyahu and his party, despite all our efforts. But the coalition government he cobbled together did not last long, and so for the past three years Israel has had to go through another three general elections, in all of which we voted for rival parties and all of them resulting in political deadlock.

The cost to the country in political, financial and social terms has led to a downturn in general morale as well as in its international standing. During that period Israel has managed to weather the storm of the Covid 19 pandemic and the attack on its population by rockets fired from Gaza, but its ministries have been unable to take any positive action or initiate fresh policies because of the political stalemate and the inability (whether genuine or deliberate) to approve the budget.

Political gridlock is almost inherent in the nature of Israel’s electoral system, in which parties are elected on the basis of proportional representation rather than regional constituencies, thus making coalitions almost inevitable. This was the system that was used to elect delegates to the pre-State’s representative bodies, and so, although palpably unmanageable and inefficient, no government, once in power, has ever felt inclined to change it.

Thus, anyone who feels they have a cause worth fighting for sets up a party and tries to garner support. It was hoped that the introduction of a minimum threshold would improve the situation, but that does not appear to have been the case. Political parties have split and splintered. Personalities have sought to express themselves and their views. Ideas, interests and ideologies have emerged or become more entrenched than before. As the results of the latest (fourth) election show, the situation has remained much as it was.

But something has changed now, nonetheless. Yair Lapid, the leader of one of the parties that opposes Netanyahu and advocates more liberal, centrist ideas, has managed to bring together a disparate– and ostensibly impractical — collection of right, left, center and even Arab parties to form a coalition. As I write this it looks as if that two-headed coalition government known as ‘Bennet-Lapid’ will in fact be ratified by the Knesset and sworn in next Sunday (13th June).

This certainly gives rise to optimism among those who have had enough of Benjamin Netanyahu and his minions, and feel that he has run the country for far too long – twelve consecutive years at the last count. He has certainly chalked up several achievements, but no democracy should be expected to put up with the same leader – no matter how gifted – for so long.

The new government, if allowed to come to fruition, comprises both new and old faces, some who have been in previous governments and some who have not. The fact that so many politicians adhering to such differing views have been able to come together in order to achieve the objective of finally replacing the government and providing Israel with a leadership that is focused on new ideas and the good of the country as a whole, rather than being based primarily on the cult of personality, is certainly a cause for cautious optimism.

Remembering Jerusalem

I’m thrilled to be able to announce that my new novel, ‘Rootless in Zion,’ is now published and available for sale on Amazon, in both ebook and paperback form.

The book stems from an inner journey I have taken over the past year, as I delved into memories, as well as documents and texts, concerning the year 1966, soon after my arrival in Israel.

The narrative consists primarily of accounts of the lives, thoughts, actions and interactions of three students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in 1966. The three characters – Cynthia from England, Batsheva from the U.S.A. and Brian from Australia – are graduate students in the University’s History Department, each one of them trying to enjoy life and do whatever is necessary to attain a more fulfilling career.

My main reason for writing the book was an attempt to reconstruct life in the divided city of Jerusalem at that time. In 1966 there was a high wall separating the Israeli part from the section then controlled by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. The idea of going to the Jordanian part of the city seemed totally alien to those of us who were recent arrivals in Israel. It was, however, customary to take tourists to one of the higher buildings in the Israeli part of the city in order to get a glimpse of the other side. To anyone living in Jerusalem today that idea is astonishing, but that was the situation then, just one year before the Six Day War and the reunification of the city.

Looking back at that period, it seems to have been a time of innocence, when both physical reality and the political scene were circumscribed and parochial. There is something to be said in favour of innocence, of a sense of acceptance of a limited arena in which events take their course. Thus, the issues that concern the three principal characters, as well as the student body as a whole, seem relatively simple and straightforward.

And so the search for academic success, romantic love or financial security are the principal concerns of the protagonists. Nonetheless, society in general is concerned with the pressing political issues of the day, as well as the ethnic divisions within Israeli society at a time when the struggle to absorb and integrate new immigrants was assuming increasing prominence.

And then there are the professors, who play a pivotal role in the lives of the graduate students. Some are more egocentric than others, seeking to ‘publish or perish’ at all costs, while others seem more interested in trying to bed young female students. And finally, there are the Israeli students who interact with the newcomers, using their relations with them for their own personal advantage or in order genuinely to help them. Whether it is in night-clubs or in the library, there are myriad ways in which contact is established between the two groups.

The story twists and turns around the events affecting the three main characters and the steps they take to achieve their various objectives. Why have they come to Israel? Will they ever learn Hebrew? Will Cynthia manage to find love and fend off Professor Zelinger’s advances? Will Batsheva and her husband succeed in their business venture? Will Brian manage to keep his family together?

Read the book and find the answers. The ebook is free to download from Amazon.com on 11th June.

Also available from my website: http://www.shefer-vanson.com

The Remarkable Life of David Sealtiel

This small book, ‘David Sealtiel,’ subtitled (in German) “I want to be a compatriot of the Jewish people,” describes the life of the man who rebelled against the bourgeois and orthodox way of life of his family in early twentieth-century Hamburg, and embarked on a life of almost unceasing adventures and escapades in Europe and the Middle East. Although the book is short, the content is amazingly dense and Sealtiel’s life was so eventful that this review will inevitably be long. What an astonishing life this man had!

The book was published in the framework of a series entitled ‘Jewish Miniatures,’ under the auspices of the Jewish Center, Leipzig. The author, historian Dr. Ina Lorenz, is the director of the Institute for the History of the Jews of Hamburg. I read the book in German, though in my opinion it deserves to be translated into English as well as Hebrew.

David Sealtiel was born in Berlin in 1903. His father, Benjamin, had been born in Hamburg, and in 1912 the family moved there, joining other members of the Sealtiel clan. David was given a traditional Jewish education, attending the Hamburg Jewish community’s ‘Talmud Torah’ high school. David was neither studious nor disciplined, preferring to spend his time roaming the streets of the city and mixing with individuals whom his parents considered to be undesirable elements. From an early age David displayed impatience with the rigid way of life of orthodox Judaism and was not prepared to fit in with the demands of the Jewish community and his family. His barmitzva was celebrated in the Bornplatz synagogue, though it is not certain that he actually graduated from school.

In 1923 David spent a year on a training farm (hachsharah) in Britissh Mandated Palestine, and this first encounter with the Zionist cause made a deep and lasting impression on him. He worked in various agricultural spheres, visiting newly-established kibbutzim as well as trying to sell holy water to Christian pilgrims and serving as a foreign correspondent for German and French newspapers.

In 1925 Sealtiel returned to Europe, travelling through Italy and France. He spent some time on the French Riviera, ending up in Marseille, where he joined the French Foreign Legion, possibly in reaction to the breakdown of his relationship with a young woman in Nice. In the Legion he served in North Africa, and even wrote articles about his impressions of the region and encounters with the Berbers for the Hamburg Jewish newspaper. He left the Legion in 1931 with the rank of Sergeant.

Sealtiel spent the following years in France, living with his mistress, Leony, in Paris, and then working for Royal Dutch Shell in the Alsace-Lorraine region. These were times of severe economic difficulties in Germany and the rise to power of Hitler and the Nazi party. While living in Metz, Sealtiel experienced his first encounter with Jewish refugees from Germany, and this coincided with his meeting with the Zionist pioneering movement in France (Hechalutz). Together with Zionist leader Peretz Leshem, Sealtiel established agricultural training farms in various regions of France, resigned from his position at Royal Dutch Shell and accepted employment by Hechalutz. He came into contact and worked with many leading figures in the Zionist movement, among them David Ben Gurion, Eliahu Golomb, Berl Katznelson, Israel Galili, Levi Eshkol, Gideon Rafael, to name but a few.

As head of the French Hechalutz movement, Sealtiel was involved in establishing the kibbutz known as Machar in the Correze region of central France. He spent some time there, and also married his first wife, Inge Goldberg, the daughter of a distinguished lawyer, and the young couple moved to Jerusalem in 1934. Sealtiel worked briefly as a gardener at the Hebrew University, though it is possible that this was merely camouflage. He engaged in clandestine activities on behalf of the Zionist movement and the Haganah, providing students with military training, and eventually working for Ta’as, the underground Jewish arms industry.

In 1935 Sealtiel was sent to Europe to purchase arms for the Haganah, and find ways to smuggle them into Palestine without being discovered by the British Mandate authorities. The comings and goings involved are described in great detail in the book, and eventually he was caught by the Gestapo, who tried him for arms smuggling and engaging in illegal financial activities. After lengthy interrogations and torture, Sealtiel was sent as a political prisoner first to Dachau and then Buchenwald concentration camps. In May 1939 he was released, possibly because a ransom was paid. He returned to Palestine that same year, resuming his activities on behalf of the Haganah and resuming his relationship with Judith Schonstadt, a young woman he had met while on the Machar kibbutz in France, and whom he subsequently married.

In Palestine Sealtiel was arrested by the British authorities, accused of having participated in an attack on an Arab village, imprisoned in Acre and condemned to death. However, on Rosh Hashana 1939, he was pardoned, together with other prisoners. Under cover of working for Tnuva Food Industries, he was able to acquire and distribute arms and ammunition, while operating to blow up bridges and engage in clashes with Arabs in the Haifa region. He was appointed chief of Haganah operations in Haifa in 1939 as the Second World War broke out.

In 1942 Rommel’s forces were approaching the borders of Palestine, where Arab forces led by the Mufti of Jerusalem were waiting to join them in slaughtering the Jewish population. The Jewissh population organized to defend itself in the case of invasion by Nazi troops, but Rommel’s defeat by the British force led by Montgomery enabled them to breathe freely once more.

When the armies of several Arab countries advanced on the newly-established State of Israel in 1948 Sealtiel was appointed commander of the forces defending Jerusalem, which was then under siege by the Arab forces. No food or supplies were able to reach the Jewish areas of the city, as the Arabs of the surrounding villages were able to destroy the convoys attempting to relieve the siege. When it became clear that the Old City of Jerusalem could not hold out, while the newer, mainly Jewish, neighbourhoods had been conquered by the Haganah, Sealtiel agreed to a ceasefire on condition the Jewish population of the Old City of Jerusalem was saved. A heavy price had to be paid, and the Old City, with the Jewish Quarter and the Western Wall remained in Jordanian hands. When the Old City was reconquered in the Six Day War of 1967, Sealtiel took the first opportunity to go there, proclaiming it to be “the happiest day of my life.”

In the years that followed David Sealtiel rose to a senior position in the Israel Defence Force and eventually filled several ambassadorial positions in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Mexico, Cuba and the Netherlands. While serving in Amsterdam he tried to trace the fate of his family, only to find that no one had survived. He died suddenly in Jerusalem in February 1969 of a heart attack. In his eulogy, his friend Gershom Scholem said: “…he displayed the characteristics of his formative years, as well as the internal contradictions of his adventurous nature — love of danger combined with a sense of discipline and order.”