Shulamit Halevi volunteered to teach Hebrew to the young newcomer from Czechoslovakia and help him cope with the lonely life of a parentless pioneer in Eretz Yisrael. In time Shulamit’s kindness and Yiftach’s gratitude blossomed into love, and in 1944 the 19-year-old Yemenite girl and the 21-year-old Czech immigrant married and settled down near Shulamit’s family in Rishon LeZion.
Three years later their daughter, Yardena, was born. Having a young child did not prevent the devoted Zionist couple from involvement in underground activities. Shulamit smuggled arms for the Irgun, distributed secret posters and in general served as a clandestine contact person for the organization. Yiftach joined the Jewish Brigade and fought on several fronts.
Eventually the dedicated couple settled in Netanya, a vital center of covert military activities. In 1948 with the establishment of the Jewish State, Yiftach joined the Israel Defense Forces, serving in the Alexandroni Brigade.
It was then that the tragic Altalena incident took place.
A few months earlier, in accordance with a secret agreement approved by the French foreign minister, weapons valued at 153 million francs were donated by the French government to members of the Irgun. These were loaded on a cargo ship purchased by the Irgun and renamed Altalena, a pseudonym of Zev Jabotinsky.
Unfortunately, the cargo ship arrived on Israeli shores with some delay, on June 22, 1948. David Ben Gurion had declared the establishment of the State on May 14, 1948. The arrival of the explosive cargo in Irgun’s possession was erroneously perceived as a threat to Ben Gurion who without further ado issued a command to Yitzhak Rabin to shoot at the ship with a host of Irgun members aboard. The first shot ignited the ship. The Altalena was engulfed in flames. The volunteer sailors jumped into the sea and swam ashore. Among them was Yiftach Stein who had boarded the ship earlier in order to serve as contact person for Menachem Begin.
Yiftach was among the last sailors to leap into the sea. Before reaching the shore he took a last look at the ship and noticed that the flag of the Irgun was still flapping, unharmed among the flames. He swam back under a barrage of bullets, climbed aboard the burning ship, released the flag from its pedestal and, wrapping the precious banner about his body, swam safely ashore.
As a sign of recognition for his valiant deed Yiftach was presented with the flag of the Irgun, now the only one in existence. A year later the modest couple decided to hand over the banner of the Irgun to the Jabotinsky museum.
Years passed. Shulamit and Yiftach became grandparents to Gila, Ron, Orly and Lior Rottenberg, their daughter Yardena’s children. Yardena, an active social worker, is the widow of Dr. Shmuel Rottenberg, a beloved family physician.
Yiftach died in 1992. Shulamit sought comfort for her grief by paying a visit to the flag in the Jabotinsky Museum. However, the flag was missing and no one seemed to know where it had gone. It took three years of intense searching to find the missing flag. Eventually it was installed in the Guidi Museum in Tel Aviv as a permanent exhibit in a decorative ceremony attended by dignitaries, family and friends
Shulamit was later instrumental in having the government posthumously present Yiftach with a festive medal with the burning Altalena engraved on its face and the story of Yiftach saving the flag on its back.
May his memory be a blessing.
Prof. Livia Bitton-Jackson
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