Remember the Altalena?
Remember the awful tragedy on the night of June 22, 1948 when Jewish guns attacked the Irgun cargo ship as it reached the coast of Israel from France? Sixteen Jewish boys were killed and scores of others wounded when Yitzhak Rabin, under the command of Ben Gurion, fired the first shots, setting ablaze the boat that was bringing arms to the fighters for Israel’s independence.
I cried as news of the tragic loss of Jewish lives at the hands of fellow Jews reached me in a D.P. camp in Germany – a bare three years after the Holocaust!
Sixty-six years have passed since. The grieving teenager from the D.P. camp grew into a mother, a grandmother and great-grandmother, now living in Israel.
The Altalena faded from my memory. Until last month, when a friendly taxi driver playfully chose to test my knowledge of Israeli history by asking if I knew of the Altalena. When I answered in the affirmative, he proceeded to reveal that the day before he had as passengers in his taxi the widow and the daughter of a hero from the Altalena, driving them to their address right nearby.
I could not believe my ears. What? The horrible historical event’s survivors are still alive? And here in Netanya?
In my excitement I wasted no time in tracking them down and soon stood at the entrance of a rural cottage, the home of Shulamit Stein, widow of Yiftach Stein, who had escaped from the burning boat by jumping into the sea and swimming ashore. Yiftach was among the last ones to abandon ship but unlike the others, just before reaching the shore, he turned back and saw the flag of EZEL still fluttering among the flames of the exploding ship. He quickly swam back and climbed aboard the inferno, pulled the flag from its moorings and, wrapping it about his body, swam to safety with the precious cargo. Seconds later the ship exploded, but the flag was safe with Yiftach Stein and his wife Shulamit who settled in the Tiomkin neighborhood in Netanya designated for the families of EZEL.
Who was Yiftach Stein? Where did he come from? Born in Czechoslovakia, Yiftach joined the Betar movement and made contact with Aliyat Noar. In 1941 he arrived in Eretz Yisrael, coming to Rishon L’zion, the headquarters of the Betar Movement.
It was a momentous event for Yiftach, as it was there that he met Shulamit Halevi, his future wife.
Shulamit Halevi was the daughter of a family who came with the historic aliyah from Yemen and settled in Rishon L’Tzion. She became a member of Betar early on, and so it was that when news spread about the arrival of a new Betar group from Europe, Shulamit was among the locals who hurried to greet them.
Yiftach Stein, the young Czech Jew, met Shulamit Halevi, the exotic young Yemenite Jewess, and a spark was kindled.
(To be continued)