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August 21, 2014 / 25 Av, 5774
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They Went to “Build a Jewish Country”


Lt. Yehuda Bielski (top, second from right) and his men during the War of Independence

Lt. Yehuda Bielski (top, second from right) and his men during the War of Independence

One day, the news I feared arrived. Yehuda had been shot and was badly wounded. He was given an emergency operation in the field and the doctors thought that they might have to amputate his leg. But the surgery was successful and Yehuda was sent to a hospital to recover. Today we still have the scissors that the operating doctor gave Yehuda as a reminder of that surgery. Yehuda had survived a German bullet in Poland and now an Arab one in Israel.

Yehuda’s left leg was wrapped in bandages when I visited him. He told me that it was a very painful wound. I had expected to find Yehuda in a much worse condition because he was wounded badly enough for the surgeons to actually consider amputation. “How are you managing and how is Nili?” he wanted to know. He had a picture of the three of us. I assured him that I was doing well and Nili was being watched by Aunt Rula. There was nothing to be concerned about except his complete recovery.

I inquired about the war. “We will win,” Yehuda said. “How can we be holding on when there are so many more Arabs than Israelis?” I asked. “We have a strategy, Lola. Every Jew who gets killed or wounded in battle has to take out a hundred or more Arabs.” Yehuda was already looking forward to rejoining his men and fellow officers.

“One of the problems we have is that the Arabs are very well armed,” he continued. “They were able to buy weapons from many countries.” “What about us?” I asked. “Unfortunately, President Truman blocked all sales of weapons to Israel so we couldn’t get any from the United States. We bought them from Czechoslovakia instead. And the Irgun also hid weapons in wells after taking them from the British. This will surprise you, Lola. The planes in our air force were bought from Germany.”

I visited Yehuda several times during his hospitalization. Nili called for her abba (daddy) when I put her to bed at night and it made me very sad to think about other children who would ask for their fathers who might never return. And who knew if Yehuda would ever come back from the war?

Yehuda (second from right) with other officers

Yehuda (second from right) with other officers

One afternoon, I took Nili and visited my friend in Tel Aviv. Her husband was also in the army and they had a son about the same age as my daughter, so we mothers had a lot to talk about. While we were having our tea at a beach café, we suddenly noticed people walking quickly toward the sea. Some were even running. Something was going on. As word spread in the café, people got up and followed the crowd. Curious, we quickly paid our bill and joined them.

When we got there, we saw from a distance a ship burning. “Oh, my God! The Arabs blew up one of our ships,” my friend exclaimed. I was speechless, looking at the scene before me and thinking about those on the boat. It was smoldering. We watched with our children while people around us were pointing and speculating. Soon, however, we both needed to get home and left.

We found out later that Arabs did not blow up that ship. It was destroyed under the orders of Ben-Gurion. His men killed many Jews on that ship called the Altalena, which was bringing Holocaust survivors, fighters, weapons, ammunition, and medical supplies to Israel.

“It was a fight for power,” Yehuda explained to me. “Ben-Gurion saw an opportunity to eliminate the Irgun members on the boat. Begin was wounded.” Some of the Jews who jumped off the burning ship were shot in the sea while trying to swim to the beach.

Although I had seen it before in the Beylorussian forest, I still could never understand how some Jews could so easily kill other Jews. And how could it happen in Israel so soon after millions had already been murdered by the Germans and their collaborators? Jews killing Jews to gain political power! To this day it upsets me terribly.

The war between Israel and the Arabs lasted for several months. Many countries believed and some even hoped that the new nation of Israel would be destroyed. To the surprise of the world, several hundred thousand Jews fought off millions of Arabs armed with the finest weapons their money could buy. Yehuda and the defenders of the new Jewish State returned home real heroes. Watching Yehuda on parade with the other brave soldiers in our army made me so proud of our military and very proud to be an Israeli.

Lt. Yehuda Bielski leading his men on parade during the rebirth of the Jewish State.

Lt. Yehuda Bielski leading his men on parade during the rebirth of the Jewish State.

I thought about Holocaust survivors who had probably never even held a gun before taken into the army to fight for our new country. And did they fight! Despite heavy losses, the Israeli military succeeded beyond anybody’s dreams.

My brother came home, too, in good shape. Yet Yehuda would continue to have problems with his back and legs, and he suffered other ailments for the rest of his life as a result of the wounds he had received during the Holocaust and the War of Independence.

Yehuda’s love for the Jewish state continued after the war, too. He never took the military pension that he was entitled to as a wounded officer. “The money can buy weapons or medical supplies,” he always said. “Let Israel keep it; they need it more than we do.”

Yehuda settled down to civilian life, but he was still in the reserves. He enjoyed his time with Nili very much. Soon, I had some very good news to tell Yehuda: “I am going to have another baby.” He was very pleased. This time we both wanted a son. And then Yigal arrived.

Yehuda, Nili, Lola, and Yigal (Y. E. Bell) in Holon

Yehuda, Nili, Lola, and Yigal (Y. E. Bell) in Holon

We had achieved what we had set out to do. We were now a family of four living in a Jewish country.
(Photos courtesy of the Yehuda and Lola Bell Collection)

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Lola survived the Nazi genocide and with Yehuda Bielski went to Palestine. In commemoration and celebration of Israel on the Jewish State’s 60th birthday, the following is from her memoir, “ONE CAME BACK” — edited recollections about an extraordinary time in Jewish history when extraordinary people worked to, as Yehuda put it, “build a Jewish country.”

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