One of the great legends from the early Zionist period of settlement in Palestine are words attributed to the dying soldier and pioneer, Joseph Trumpeldor.
Like with all legends of all ethnic backgrounds and nationalities there are always two differing accounts of events. With the written word there is no problem. The writing is visible and can testify to its source. Oral history, on the other hand, is a collection of “he said, she said”. The truth is left to the believer.
One such legend revolves around a young Zionist who arrived in Palestine from his native Russia in 1912. Previously he had served as an officer in the Czarist army during the Russo-Japanese war in 1905-1906 and lost one arm in battle. He was hailed as a Russian hero and upon his return from captivity in Japan, Russia awarded him with its highest military honor, the first ever bestowed upon a Jew, the St. George Cross for bravery.
After his return to Russia, he organized a group of young Russian Zionists in his new-founded He-Chalutz movement (The Pioneers) and helped to prepare them for the development of Jewish life in Palestine.
Palestine at that time was a part of the Turkish Ottoman empire and when war broke out in 1914, Trumpeldor joined a legion of the British army and fought against the Turks in the battle of Gallipoli where he was again wounded in a shoulder.
His army training from his years in Russian military service was of good service to the British forces and the Zion Mule Corps which he founded and commanded led to the defeat of the Ottomans.
Shortly after his victory, he returned to his native Russia in the early years of the Russian revolution and once again he took up arms in the defense of his motherland.
At the War’s end in 1918, Trumpeldor returned to Palestine and settled in the farming community of Kfar Giladi in the upper Galilee adjacent to the French mandated area of Lebanon.
Shiite Arabs frequently crossed the unmarked frontier and entered the new Jewish settlements at Tel Hai and Kfar Giladi in search for French soldiers thought to be hidden by the Jews.
In 1920, a band of Arabs from Lebanon arrived at Tel Hai demanding to be allowed to search the settlement for French soldiers who might be hidden there.
The Jewish settlers were hesitant to allow the search, insisting that they were neutral and that no French soldiers were in the settlement but ultimately they agreed to allow the Arabs to enter and to search.
Finding no French soldiers, the Arabs began attacking the Jews in Tel Hai. One of the defenders of Tel Hai fired a pistol shot into the air as a signal for help from nearby Kfar Giladi.
Help swiftly arrived, led by Joseph Trumpeldor. In the battle of Tel Hai in 1920, the 39 year old Trumpeldor was severely wounded . He was carried by his comrades to nearby Kfar Giladi where medical help was available.
As he was dying from his wounds on the way to Kfar Giladi, two witnesses testified that they heard him speak his last words… “En davar. Tov lamut b’ad artzainu”. It doesn’t matter. It is good to die for our country.
Historians quote the very same words written in Latin in the “Odes” of the Roman poet Horace. “ Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” .”How sweet and honorable is it to die for the fatherland”.
Some years after his death, other settlers disputed Trumpeldor’s dying words. His Hebrew was very limited and he spoke mainly Russian.
But in an effort to inspire and to bring hope to the young Zionist pioneers under frequent Arab attacks, the words which Trumpeldor never spoke became recorded in the annals of the Zionist movement and the history of Jewish Zionist life in pre-State Palestine.
There is a memorial in his memory at Tel Hai, a statue of a brave lion with the inscription of Trumpeldor’s alleged last words.
Eight Jews and five Arabs were killed in the battle of Tel Hai. The Jews were buried in a common grave and the place was named Kiryat Shmoneh, in memory of the eight who fought and died for Jewish freedom on March 1, 1920.
Joseph Trumpeldor’s life and death has always has always been observed in Israel on the 11th day of the month of Adar. The Zionist youth movement which he founded together with Zeev Jabotinsky, the father of the Revisionist Zionist movement and the now named Israeli political party, Likud, is called Betar, or Brit Trumpeldor.
I remember it from my youth and from the songs we sang about Trumpeldor’s life and heroism.
Trumpeldor is a national hero and has always been an inspiration for the Jewish settlers in Eretz Yisrael.
And whether or not his “spoken words” which were never spoken is truth or legend, it does not really matter. Those words are part of the foundation of Zionism and the building of the State of Israel.