The Story Of Josef Trumpeldor And ‘The Lion Of Tel Chai’


Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Joseph Trumpeldor (1880-1920) is known for his efforts in forming a Jewish military force to liberate and defend Eretz Yisrael and for founding the Zion Mule Corps and the Jewish Legion, but he is probably best known for his legendary defense of Tel Chai when he uttered the immortal dying words, “Ein davar, tov lamut be’ad artzeinu” (“Never mind, it’s good to die for our country”).

That expression has become as renowned in Israel as Nathan Hale’s “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” declaration is in the United States.


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Trumpeldor’s name has become a metaphor for the dedicated military defense of Eretz Yisrael, and he remains to this day one of Israel’s greatest military heroes. The northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shemona – literally, “Town of the Eight” – was so named to honor the eight who died at Tel Chai (including two Americans), and “Tel Chai Day” (on the 11th of Adar) is Israel’s only distinct national memorial day besides Yom HaZikaron, the official memorial day for Israeli soldiers.

Perhaps uniquely in the annals of Zionism, Trumpeldor is venerated across the entire political spectrum, from the Revisionists on the right – who named their youth movement Betar (an acronym for “Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor”) in his honor – to arch leftists, who revere him as the defender of the kibbutzim.

Although the czar conscripted Trumpeldor’s father, Zev Vladimir, into the Russian army (he served for 25 years), he remained a loyal, though non-practicing, Jew who successfully transmitted his love of Judaism to his son. Joseph attended a religious elementary school, although, as we will see below, his knowledge of Hebrew was poor. Like his father, he was always proud to be a Jew, but he was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. Early in his life, during an age of rampant and vicious Russian pogroms, he adapted Tolstoy’s ideas about collective communes to develop his own concept of Zionism, which amounted to establishing agricultural communes in Eretz Yisrael and defending them with force when necessary.

Trumpeldor served with great heroism in the Russian army and distinguished himself by volunteering for dangerous missions in the Russo-Japanese War (1904), during which he sustained an injury that led to the amputation of his left arm. Despite the injury, he rushed back to active duty and, after the fall of Port Arthur in Manchuria, was transferred to a prisoner of war camp in Japan, where he published the first Jewish newspaper in Japan and organized Jewish soldiers for settlement in Eretz Yisrael.

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As part of that effort, and though he was himself a thoroughly assimilated Jew, he managed to obtain the backing of his Japanese captors and dedicated himself to meeting all the religious needs of his Jewish comrades, including regular prayer services, holiday observations, and even matzah for Passover, all of which earned him great respect, even from his fellow prisoners who were not religious.

Upon his repatriation to Russia (1906), he became the most decorated Jewish soldier in the Russian army and the first Jew to be offered an officer’s commission.

After earning a law degree and teaching law at the University of St. Petersburg, Trumpeldor and a group he organized made aliyah to Eretz Yisrael (1911), where he worked on several collective farms, including Deganya and Migdal, while also helping to defend Jewish settlements in the Lower Galilee. (The only existing video footage of Trumpeldor, in which he is seen briefly pushing a plough with his one hand, is a grainy video clip of Migdal in 1913 that can be seen on YouTube.) With the outbreak of World War I in 1914 and as a Russian subject in Ottoman Palestine, he became an enemy alien and was deported to Egypt.

In December 1914, he and Ze’ev Jabotinsky – who later would head the Revisionist Zionists – agreed to fight with the Allies to liberate Eretz Yisrael from the Turks and, at a March 1915 meeting, they presented a plan to the Palestine Refugees Committee to form a Jewish Legion. The British Commander in Egypt, General Maxwell, rejected the plan, but he suggested that, while he could not enlist foreign nationals as fighting troops, he could form them into a volunteer transport “Zion Mule Corps.”

Jabotinsky urged rejection of the proposal, which he considered demeaning, but Trumpeldor prevailed in urging some 700 Jewish soldiers to join the Corps and to maintain focus on the ultimate goal: to remove the Turks from Eretz Yisrael and to realize the dream of a Jewish homeland.

The major defeat sustained by the Allies at the Battle of Gallipoli (April 1915-January 1916) is of Jewish interest not only because of the number of Jewish soldiers who fought and died there, but also because of the participation of the Zion Mule Corps which, in March 1915, became the first regular Jewish fighting force to take an active part in a war since the defeat of the Bar Kochba Revolt two millennia earlier. The entire Corps was recognized for its outstanding courage at Gallipoli and, in particular, Captain Trumpeldor was cited for his heroism during the campaign, during which he was wounded in the shoulder but refused to be evacuated.

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At the end of 1916, a unit of 120 former Zion Mule Corps soldiers was assigned to the 20th London Battalion, and Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor submitted a petition to the British government proposing the formation of a Jewish Legion for Eretz Yisrael. Initially, assurances were given that the unit would be unequivocally Jewish in character and would be provided with Jewish emblems but, primarily due to the efforts of anti-Zionist Jews, the unit was designated as the “38th Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers.”

In June 1918, the 38th Battalion was sent to Eretz Yisrael, where the volunteers fought 20 miles north of Jerusalem for its liberation from Ottoman rule. The Battalion also participated in the Battle of Megiddo (mid-September 1918), which is widely considered to have been one of the final and decisive victories over the Turks.

Trumpeldor meanwhile had returned to Russia to try to persuade the Provisional Russian Government to form Jewish regiments in the Russian army that could help break through to Eretz Yisrael. He was elected commissar for Jewish Soldiers’ Affairs and, after the October Revolution, he formed a Jewish regiment whose chief objective was to combat the massacre of Jews. His regiment, however, was disbanded and Jewish defense was outlawed when Soviet Russia signed a peace treaty with Germany.

Postcard sent by Trumpeldor in 1918.

In this exceptionally rare July 29, 1918 postcard written from Petrograd, Trumpeldor writes to Comrade E. Sakher:

My apologies for writing in Russian. You should know that my writing and reading in Hebrew are very bad. I did not read about Bonevich [?], because I don’t read Togblat [a Yiddish language Polish newspaper], but I will meet the comrades today and they, probably, will tell me what it said. The gardening co-operative continues its work and doing not bad at all. I talked to Tsinman regarding your arrival to our apartment directly from the railroad station. He has nothing against it. Therefore, you are welcome, come directly to our house after your arrival. Regards, Cionare [sic]. [Perhaps “sayonara,” a humorous allusion to Trumpeldor’s time as a Japanese POW.]

Last year, a scheduled auction (June 2019) of one of Trumpeldor’s very few Hebrew letters was canceled in the face of credible allegations that it had been stolen from the Jabotinsky Institute in Tel Aviv. The letter concerned Binyamin Wertheimer, a deceased soldier who was a member of an ultra-Orthodox family in Jerusalem. He had initially been teased by his fellow Zion Mule Corps members for his long peyot and traditional clothing, but he proved to be a fierce fighter and died a hero at Gallipoli.

Months later, Trumpeldor received a request from Binyamin’s bereaved father for the return of his son’s tefillin. Trumpeldor sent him the tefillin along with the following words in Hebrew (since the father did not speak Russian): “Know that your son fell as a hero for the sake of the people of Israel and for the Land of Israel.”

In 1919, Trumpeldor was elected chairman of He-Halutz, whose purpose was to prepare Russian Jews for aliyah. That same year, he returned to Eretz Yisrael and proposed to the British military that 10,000 Jewish soldiers be brought from Russia as part of the Jewish Legion. He also urged labor leaders in Eretz Yisrael to unite into a single labor federation that could facilitate the absorption of the new pioneering immigration.

On March 1, 1920, the Jewish farming village of Tel Chai in the Upper Galilee’s Hula Valley came under attack by Shiite gangs from neighboring Lebanon who were searching for French soldiers. A militia led by Trumpeldor arrived and a skirmish broke out, resulting in several casualties on both sides, including Trumpeldor, who was shot in the stomach and died uttering his famous words.

In this February 6, 1934 correspondence, the famous poet and author Chaim Nachman Bialik, as head of the Committee for Construction of a Memorial in Tel-Chai, and his fellow Committee members, write to the Jewish National Council and, in expressing their approval of the Trumpeldor memorial created by Avraham Melnikov in Kfar Giladi, provide a beautiful and detailed description of it:

Letter signed by Chaim Nachman Bialik and others regarding erecting a monument in memory of Joseph Trumpeldor.

In fulfillment of the task that you assigned to us, we visited in Kfar Giladi the monument that was erected there in memory of Joseph Trumpeldor and his comrades through the statue by Mr. A. Melnikov at the invitation of the Vaad L’Umi by means of Lord Meltzer and the arrangers of the work.

During the visits at various times between the months of Kislev and Shevat 1934 by all signatories below, amongst them architect Mr. Yosef Menor who joined them as per your request in place of Mr. Berols, a Vaad associate who passed away in the interim.

After the examination of the monument from all sides and joint negotiations in the matter, the members of the Vaad came to a unanimous decision that in all ways the statue fulfilled its purpose. The choice of the site was made with thoughtfulness and deliberation. The monument stands exposed and open in all directions; it may be seen from afar, and it is very open from the weak side. The material was taken entirely from the stones in the surrounding area, stones that tend toward yellow and slightly speckled, a look that is pleasing to the design of the lion. The housing of the monument is built with 24 large squared hewn stones arranged in four columns. Its height is 2.85 meters [about 9.35 feet] and its arch supports are 2.75 by 2.25 meters [about 9 by 7.4 feet].

The body of the lion statue is sculpted entirely from a single stone. Its height is 3.85 meters [about 12.6 feet] and its arch supports are 1.30 by 1.80 meters [about 4.3 x 5.9 feet] and the style of the work tends to the Assyrian. The intent of the statue is to maintain the memory of the heroes, those who defended Tel Chai with their lives, a monument in the form of a mighty lion who sends its shout to the ends of the earth, even to the heavens, a goal that was decidedly met. The lion sits on its rear legs, its hind legs and tail tucked beneath it, with its front legs upright and standing on two solid pillars and its entire neck and head draped in the curls of its mane, drawn upward and capped by a muzzle, shouting a great roar to the heavens. The entirety looks tremendously sturdy and the general impression is of great strength.

In the first line in large letters will appear the last sentence uttered by Trumpeldor before his death: Tov Lamut Be’ad Artzenu, followed in smaller letters by the names of Tel Chai defenders….

In 1928, Lord Melchett (Sir Alfred Mond), responding to the initiative of the Zionist Executive, agreed to arrange to finance the construction of a memorial to the heroes of Tel Chai. He engaged Melnikov, one of the founding fathers of modern Hebrew sculpture, who prepared a sketch for a memorial in the form of a roaring lion to symbolize “Gur aryeh Yehuda” (“Judah is a young lion,” Genesis 49:9) and to show the linkage between the ancient nation of Israel and the modern Jewish state in formation.

In 1930, a 22-ton block of stone from nearby quarries was moved to the site, and Melnikov began his work. Funding ultimately ran out, so the sculptor, refusing to compromise his vision, personally assumed the costs of completing the project. The memorial was officially dedicated on February 23, 1934 in the presence of Bialik, Yitzchak Ben-Zvi, Eliezer Kaplan, and leaders of the Yishuv. The “Roaring Lion,” the first ever nationalist-Zionist memorial, became one of the most recognizable and beloved sculptures in Eretz Yisrael, as Trumpeldor and the Lion became inextricably entwined in the public consciousness.

Melnikov (1892-1960) served with the Jewish Legion (1919) and, after arriving in Eretz Yisrael, began to devote himself full-time to art, later serving as deputy to Boris Schatz, who founded and served as president of the Association of Jewish Artists. Though best known for the Trumpeldor memorial, he enjoyed great success in the mid-20th century in London as a portrait sculptor, with subjects including Churchill, Bevin, and Toscanini. He was buried at the foot of his Lion at Tel Chai.


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