35

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61 years ago today, 5 Shevat 5708 (Jan 16, 1948), 35 Hebrew University students set out to the besieged settlers of Gush Etzion. A previous convoy had been attacked a month before, and the settlers of Ramat Rachel themselves were attacked twice in the previous week. So, at an age when most of us don’t have bigger worries than keeping our grades up or finishing the next paper these youths volunteered with the Haganah and chose to head into danger. Under the leadership of Danny Mas, they each took a 60 lb pack and headed into the Judean Hills.

We don’t know exactly what happened next, but there were enough messages intercepted by the British police to reconstruct some detail. (Not that the British tried to use this information to save lives.) The group passed an Arab shepherd outside the town of Suref, and rather than kill him to ensure his silence, they compassionately chose to simply lie about their intent. The shepherd informed an armed group, and this troop was attacked twice, involving hundred of local Arabs.

Dr Solomon Bloom tells his part of the story in an open letter to his daughter:

The settlement Ramat Rachel, slightly south of Jerusalem, was being besieged by the Arab Legion. The Haganah decided to send a small force of thirty-five soldiers, most from the Pal Mach’s best veterans, plus a few from our group of American recruits, to try to lift the terrible threat at Ramat Rachel. I was one of the Americans selected to join the thirty-five. During the final determination of who was to go, I was on my bunk listening to the officers of our battalion discussing those to be sent. One said; “Well we can’t send Shlomo Bloom, he’s married.” The other officer asked; “Why not?” The reply came back; “Well suppose Shlomo becomes a casualty and doesn’t get back here after this action. Then we have his American wife sitting, grieving alone here in Jerusalem. We can’t handle all the problems that would come up. There will be too many diplomatic and political problems if that happens; we just can’t be concerned with such a problem.” So I was struck from the list and Moshe Pearlstein, whom I had trained with but had no previous U. S. army experience, was selected in my place to join the thirty-five.

I will always remember how formidable – yes, how heroic – the “35” appeared in all their battle gear, as they assembled on the edge of Beit Hakarem. They were the Yishuv’s best and seemed invincible in my eyes. The group went out to reach Ramat Rachel, but never made it through the Judean hills. Twenty-four hours went by and no word from the “35.” Then our officers assembled a further group, I among them, to seek them out. Just before we started, the officers were listening to the news and there was this British bulletin stating that the “35” had been caught in an Arab ambush and there were no survivors. This tragedy was a terrible blow to the Haganah, the kibbutz fell to the Arab Legion a few days later and its surviving members were taken prisoner.

My dear daughter Ruth, I write this story forty-seven years after its occurrence. Being married to my first wife Helen in January of 1948 was my salvation. And what eternal gratitude I have for that Haganah officer who decided not to send me because of my marriage. That sweet soul Moshe, my good friend from training days and life together in the Haganah, became, as far as I know, one of the first Americans to fall in the war of independence for Israel. His sacrifice has given me a long eventful life – baruch Ha-shem. And it was just that twist of fate that I was luckily married at that time.

Ruth, if you should ever visit Israel again, be sure to ask the location of the “Forest of the Thirty-five.” Yes, there is today a forest planted to memorialize those “35” hero soldiers of Israel.

Moshe Pearlstein, the person who volunteered in Dr. Bloom’s place, was my grandfather’s cousin.

I recall the last time I visited my grandfather a”h, which was a few weeks before the yahrzeit. “Grandpa” expressed his frustration that he no longer healthy enough to make it to the annual gathering of family members of the Lamed Hei at the military cemetary Har Herzl. His worries that he would take with him a piece of the past were justified. I wish I had asked my grandpa when he was still alive more about Moshe Pearlstein so that I could draw for you a better portrait. (I wished I had asked him more about many things.)

What I do know is that Moshe Pearlstein made aliyah from Jersey City, NJ. He was an alumnus of Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchal Elchanan (today the yeshiva affiliated with YU) who was studying Agriculture and Jewish Studies at the time of his murder. He was 23.

None of them survived. They were so brutally beaten, Rav Aryeh Levin zt”l had to rely on a Goral haGra, a lottery system attributed to the Vilna Gaon, to identify the last 12 bodies.

Danny Mas, the leader, was an amateur cartoonist. He drew the pictures on the right. We’re not talking of hardened soldiers, anonymous “troops”. We’re speaking of young people who put the lives of those at Ramat Rachel, ahead of their own. Men who risked, and ultimately gave, their own lives rather than risk killing an enemy civilian needlessly.
The names of these 35, the Lamed Hei, were:

  • Yisrael Alonai (Marzel)
  • Haim Engel
  • Benny (Sailor) Bogoslavsky
  • Yehuda Bitansky
  • Oded Binyamin
  • Ben-Tzion Ben-Meir
  • Yaakov Ben-Atar
  • Yoseph Baruch
  • Eitan Gaon
  • Sabo Goland
  • Yitzchak Gintzburg
  • Yitzchak HaLevi
  • Eliyahu Hershkovitz
  • Yitzchak Zvuluni
  • David Tash (Tur Shalom)
  • Alexander Cohen
  • Yaakov Cohen (Jordan)
  • Yechiel Kalev
  • Yaakov Kaspi
  • Yona Levine
  • Alexander (Avraham) Lusting
  • Eliyahu Mizrachi
  • Amnon (Mischel) Michaeli
  • Danniel (Danny) Mas
  • Shaul (Sully) Pnoali
  • Moshe Pearlstein
  • Binyamin (Benitzky) Persitz
  • Baruch Pat
  • David Tzabari
  • David Zwebner (Shag)
  • Yaakov Koting
  • Yoseph (Yup) Kopler
  • Tuvia Kushnir
  • Danniel (Chichu) Riech
  • Yaakov Shmueli

It’s strange to think, but they would have been, should have been, grandparents by now.

But it’s inspiring to think of the human potential. Man’s ability to place others ahead of his own very survival.

Yehi zichram barukh.

And your thoughts...?

  1. I thank Micha for this moving posting. How easy it is, as we lead our basically routine lives, to forget that people essentially no different than us displayed extraordinary courage and heroism when called upon to do so.
    Interestingly, I was at Ramat Rachel yesterday, at a wedding. Greatly enjoying the simcah, the wedding of the son of an old and dear friend, I was blissfully unaware of the significance of the time and place, and gave no thought to the drama and tragedy that unfolded in that area around this time of year. I am glad that now, somewhat belatedly, I can think of the sacrifice of the lamed heh, thus honoring their memory. Yhi zichram baruch.

  2. a few comments:
    1. in doctor solomon bloom’s letter he reffers to a siege on ramat rachel which the 35 were trying to lift this is incorrect the seige was on gush etzion and that is very clearly documented with no room for any doubt
    2. the rest of the story is very moving and pretty accurate.
    3. my uncle was on of the 35 after whom i am named david zwebner (and not “TZOVNER”)
    please correct this mistake.
    4.the annual gathering of the surviving families of the lamed hei taked place at their graves on mt. hertzel in jerusalem where there bodies were interred after a state was established in 1949.
    David Zwebner
    lamed hei commitee member.

  3. David,

    I corrected the spelling of your uncle’s name. It’s a side-effect of transliterating back from a Hebrew text. My apologies.

    I also corrected my mis-recollection of where my grandfather couldn’t get to for the annual gathering.

    I’m reluctant to question the word of someone who was actually involved in the story, and would first try to find a manner of explaining how his memory could be at odds with the official report. A “gush” is a “block” of settlements. Today, Gush Etzion is defined as starting in the valley right below Ramat Rachel. Is it possible Ramat Rachel was considered part of the gush back then?

    (I will not edit the opening of this post until we figure this out, and I wouldn’t touch the quote either way.)

    -mi

  4. Dear Micha,
    Yona Levine (not Levin [Now corrected. -mi]) one of the 35, was a good friend of my mother’s (Z”L). He had asked her to come from Canada to Palestine to marry her.
    Can you please let me know when the Yarzeit is commemorated on Har Herzel? I would very much want to go if possible.
    Thank You,
    Frayda Naor

  5. I am making an uncomfortable point in light of the lofty status of the Kedoshim, but nevertheless one that needs to be made since we are witnessing to this day more and more needless Jewish casualties as a result of the same mistakes.

    “The group passed an Arab shepherd outside the town of Suref, and rather than kill him to ensure his silence, they compassionately chose to simply lie about their intent.” As the narrative states this VERY SAME reciever of compassion turned into a murderer against those who saved his life.

    Unfortunately this is same misplaced compassion has been applied time and again throughout the State of Israel’s existence.

    How many husbands, fathers, sons etc were killed in Jenin in order to spare ‘innocent’ arab life? I think it was 16.

    And then there was the revolting statement I heard on the radio a few years ago by an army commander how we are the most civilized people on earth since we chose to place 6 soldeirs in danger and indeed lost them r”l due to our interest in not harming arab civilians.

    This warped morality will be the State’s undoing. It is probably too late to undo the effects of 60 years of wrongheaded policy on the world’s expectation of how Jews should behave and a reversal of policy would bring a crushing retaliation on the part most of the ‘civilized’ world.

    Truly, at this point, ein lanu al mi l’hishain ela al avinu shebashomayim.

    G-d does work in funny ways though. WW2 was also brought about by human folly – how the wise nations of the world who were so capable of harnessing all the poweers of the world with modern thought and science, essentially sat by like imbeciles and did nothing while yemach shemo tranformed Germany into a worldpower. And the same thing has happened in Israel.

  6. Minor detail –
    All 35 bodies were literally torn apart. Rav Aryeh Levin ZTL determined that 12 of bodies were unidentifiable, and to use the Goral haGra. He then used it to identify ALL 35 of them. I’m pretty sure this is documented in the famous book about Rav Levin, Ish Tzadik Haya. I also heard this from a first-hand witness – Rav Avigdor Shaag (Zwebner), brother of David Zwebner, who was present at the Goral haGra.