The secret romantic history of Zionism’s first military martyr
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The secret romantic history of Zionism’s first military martyr

Joseph Trumpeldor (Wikipedia.org)
Joseph Trumpeldor (Wikipedia.org)

On March 1, 1920, Joseph Trumpeldor, mortally wounded in a probably accidental gunfight that killed eight Jews and five Arabs at the Jewish village of Tel Hai, uttered his famous last words: “It is good to die for our country.”

The basic outline of Trumpeldor’s life are well known, and the stuff of Israeli national legend: Born in the North Caucus region of the Russian Empire in 1880, he volunteered for the Russo-Japanese War, losing his arm to shrapnel in Manchuria and ultimately becoming Russia’s most decorated Jewish soldier. In 1911 he emigrated to Palestine, where he helped organize the Jewish Legion that fought alongside the British in World War I.

After the war, he returned to the Galilee, where he led the defense for the Jewish farmers.

But did you know about the short stories he wrote?

Oshrat Assayag-Lopez recently translated them into Hebrew for the first time for her Ph.D. dissertation in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva.

She talked about her dissertation — and her just-published historical novel on Trumpeldor, “On My Bed at Night” — in a long interview that Haaretz published last weekend.

Ms. Assayag-Lopez’s research took her to Saint Petersburg, where she gained access to family archives not examined by previous biographers, as well as to letters with young women he courted, before apparently deciding to put his Jewish national dreams ahead of romance and family life.

“He turned out to be a romantic and charismatic person, attractive, a sensitive yet heartbreaking lover,” Ms. Assayag-Lopez told Haaretz. “He writes about his yearning for falling in love, yet demonstrates fear and diffidence, as well as an ironic sense of humor. The love letters he received and sent allow one to shape this side of his personality. The translation of his family letters allows us to know one of the founders of Zionism as a brother, son and brother-in-law, showing a complex figure, sensitive, possessing a sense of humor, concerned and modest.”

Trumpeldor wrote his stories as a student, first of dentistry, and then, after losing his arm, of law. According to Ms. Assayag-Lopez, they contain “clear biographical elements that illustrate a different side of his character: someone who is a romanticist, soft, diffident, with a sense of humor, mainly self-deprecating.”

The article presents a multifaceted picture of someone who had been mythologized into a one-dimensional hero. It is well worth the read.

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