Zionist Icon Trumpeldor Was an Eligible Bachelor. Why Did He Die Childless and Alone? – Israel News – Haaretz


Newly uncovered personal letters and short stories written by Joseph Trumpeldor provide a new insight into the charismatic romanticist who died defending Tel Hai in 1920
“One cannot establish the cause of the breakup,” determined historian Shulamit Laskov 50 years ago in her biography of Joseph Trumpeldor. Laskov was referring to one of the key questions in the tempestuous life of the one-armed fighter from Tel Hai: Why did he break off his engagement to the woman he loved, Fira (Esther) Rozov, after four years?
In other words, how is it that one of the greatest Jewish heroes of the new era, who taught generations of fighters that it was ‘good to die for one’s country,’ died a bachelor, leaving no descendants who could carry his legacy forward.
'The existing research around Trumpeldor emphasizes his Gentile look, arguing that he came from an assimilated home. It was said that his mother tried to persuade his father to convert in order to advance in life.'
As befitting stories relating to mythical figures, the last 102 years have seen multiple explanations relating to this issue. “I encountered one version according to which Trumpeldor asked Fira for a private conversation upon his return to British-controlled Palestine, telling her he was annulling their engagement since he had fallen in love with someone else while in Russia,” says Oshrat Assayag-Lopez, a Ph.D. candidate in Hebrew literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Be’er Sheva.
Assayag-Lopez has devoted the past few years to a comprehensive study of Trumpeldor’s life. The fruit of her labors appear in a new historical novel called “On my Bed at Night” (in Hebrew), published by Kinneret Publishing House.
'He turned out to be a romantic and charismatic person, attractive, a sensitive yet heartbreaking lover.'

“There were people who claimed that this other woman came here with him. They probably meant a young woman from the Halutz (‘Pioneer’ in Hebrew) youth movement he had befriended,” the author says. But the real reason for the breakup is apparently unconnected to physical love and instead to Trumpeldor’s love of country.
Assayag-Lopez managed to find a letter Rozov sent to Trumpeldor on October 28, 1919, following their separation, in which she suggests the reason for the breakup was his commitment to the Zionist cause.
The letter, written in Russian, has just been translated into Hebrew for the first time.
“Dear Osya,” she writes, using his Russian first name. “I’ve been thinking about our conversation this morning and I’ve concluded that the time and circumstances demand that I obey, and I am. Work for the happiness of our suffering brothers in Russia and for our Palestine, which is being reborn,” she wrote. She signed the letter “Your friend, Fira.”
“One can glean from her letter that Trumpeldor clarified to her that he was unavailable for a family life and home – at least not in the coming years,” Assayag-Lopez says.

‘Just like an investigation’
Assayag-Lopez was one of the winners of a short story competition held by Haaretz in 2014 and 2015. Her short stories have been published elsewhere as well. Before turning to literature, she spent 20 years working as a criminal lawyer. When she fell under Trumpeldor’s spell and started collecting material for her doctorate – which reveals for the first time a collection of short stories he wrote – she drew on her forensic skills.
“I went to archives and asked to see all the material connected to him, just like in an investigation or in the collection of material for preparing an indictment,” she recounts.
To her surprise, despite the key position of Trumpeldor in the Israeli narrative, many writings by and about him had remained in the original Russian, inaccessible to Hebrew readers.
Assayag-Lopez looked at diaries, letters and records, as well as official and personal documents related to Trumpeldor. Her work brought her to the private archive of his family, whose descendants live in Saint Petersburg. She obtained private family correspondence and a family memorial book. She also read love letters he received from and sent to various women, short stories he wrote, and military records related to him from the czar’s army and Red Army.
What did you learn about the man behind the legend?
“He turned out to be a romantic and charismatic person, attractive, a sensitive yet heartbreaking lover. 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.”
One example is a 1908 letter he wrote to his friend Liza Geshlin, whom he met while studying law in Saint Petersburg. “Their relations grew stronger for a while, and Joseph hoped Liza would join his commune ahead of immigrating to Ottoman Palestine. But ultimately, she left the group, remained in Russia and became a doctor,” Assayag-Lopez says.
Trumpeldor was later to write to Geshlin: “I can’t study on my own, since as soon as I have a free half-hour, almost instinctively my hand reaches for the quill and I write you. At the beginning of the letter, before your name I put some dots, in my mind attaching thousands of fond descriptions to each one.”
He later writes: “What can I write you? Sometimes, I like to imagine things, sometimes deliberately creating illusions so that the world around me becomes better and more beautiful; so that there is something to rest on from time to time, to ease the soul. … Often, I imagine you, so nice and full of light, so radiant; we walk together side by side, joyfully and happily, along an illuminated field of life; the happy chirping of birds welcomes us. … Other, sadder visions greet us on our way: darkness, violence and bloodthirsty evil, but we continue walking in confidence, without deviating, sowing light, humility and love everywhere. Things have reached a point where I see you in my dreams.”
Two years later, Trumpeldor received a letter from another woman, Roza, also from Saint Petersburg. “If the star rolled far away, the heart contracts and is filled with concerns, the heart shrinks a lot. Osya, do you remember how you sang about love for the stars? Often it was good being with you, you know how to warm one’s soul, gentle and caressing,” she wrote.
“Allow me to give you some advice: Don’t analyze your relations with people, no one is perfect. We are all good and bad to the same extent; don’t search, Osinka, for why my caresses didn’t find a response in your soul,” she added. She later invited him to visit. “We’ll climb really high, close to the stars, where the wide sky envelops everything. Will you come?”
Another letter Assayag-Lopez found was sent to Trumpeldor in 1917 by a woman called Lilly, in English. The letter was written as a story: “Once upon a time (all stories begin this way), not long ago, there was a little girl. … She lived in a good house with good parents, but her soul was restless. … She grew up and looked for answers in books, in music, art, philosophy. She started losing hope and life became black. One day, in a room full of people, she discerned a man talking to a group. He spoke in a language she didn’t know, but his soul was in his eyes and she looked at him, riveted. As she looked at him, her hopes revived. Life was good, and gradually, his personality took over her entire soul. … My heart aches for that little girl, I can’t go on writing! Maybe you could finish the story?”
In another letter Lilly writes: “I think that most of all I’d like to grasp your face between my palms and look straight into the depths of your blue eyes and see you smile. … Sometimes I have a small desire to hurt you, maybe it’s not that small. You, unknowingly, cause me emotional agony. And I, subconsciously, begrudge your immunity from the pain I feel … therefore, my vengeful passion is to make you feel. … Now, I’m full of soft and friendly feelings toward you. I harbor no bitterness.”
1,769,867 kisses
Trumpeldor had no direct descendants, but his ties with his nephews and nieces were warm and very close. “I send you the same number of kisses you sent me, times 99. Uncle Osya who loves you,” he wrote to one of his nieces. “I kiss you 1,769,867 times. Osya, who loves you,” he wrote to another.
Reading the family letters allowed Assayag-Lopez to dispel some of the claims made about Trumpeldor.
Your impression, based on material you’ve translated for the first time, is that Trumpeldor didn’t really grow up in an assimilated home, as described in earlier studies.
“It’s interesting that Trumpeldor – a prototype of the ‘new Hebrew man’ – was depicted as someone who was distant from Judaism. It was written that he didn’t look Jewish, didn’t sound Jewish and was not raised as a Jew, which is why he ‘didn’t act like one.’ The existing research around Trumpeldor emphasizes his Gentile look, arguing that he came from an assimilated home. It was said that his mother tried to persuade his father to convert in order to advance in life, and that Joseph was the only Zionist who came from that home, moving away from his assimilating siblings. But the translation of his family letters reveals a different picture.”
Such as?
“The house had a nationalist, Jewish flavor. His ‘assimilating’ family write that they expect to see him at Passover, otherwise the holiday would not be a holiday. Trumpeldor took an interest in games played with walnuts by his nieces on the festive dining table. He turns out to be someone for whom the Jewish tradition and religion were close to his heart, incorporated into his nationalist and Zionist ideology. His sisters write about their and their mother’s wish to immigrate to the Land of Israel. There’s also a letter his mother wrote in Yiddish.”
The basis of your doctoral research is short stories Trumpeldor wrote during his studies, most of them untranslated and unpublished. How do you explain the fact that that we’ve never heard of them until now? What did you find there?
“Few people know that he wrote short stories. The reason for this, in my view, is that these do not advance the Zionist ethos. Other than one ‘Zionist’ story, all the others are devoid of religion or nationality, with their topics not contributing to the mythos that was built around him. Their protagonists are regular people. There is a story about the last night of two prostitutes, before they commit suicide, or a story about a first kiss, as well as one about being a vegetarian due to penury. The stories 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.”
Using archival material, Assayag-Lopez discovered a possible and intriguing explanation for one of the more famous pictures of Trumpeldor – taken after he was captured by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Trumpeldor is shown with his one surviving arm behind his back.
Assayag-Lopez’s theory for this? It turns out his family had asked him to send a photograph to his mother that would not show that he had lost his other arm after being wounded in battle.
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