Dorothea Shefer-Vanson

The Remarkable Life of David Sealtiel

photo by Dorothea Shefer-Vanson of book cover

This small book, 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.”

About the Author
I was born and brought up in England. I am a graduate of the LSE and the Hebrew University. I have lived in Israel since 1964. I am an experienced translator, editor and writer.
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