Teddy Kollek was one of the most handsome and talented of Israel’s operatives I have ever met. His charm was matched by a giant appetite to succeed and an enormous capacity for work, and a quick, even anticipatory intelligence. This Austro-Hungarian sophisticated charm added to his chameleon quality. With the British, he could be British, with the Americans, as I saw firsthand, he could be American, and always, always Teddy: Zionist, Israeli.
While a youth leader in Central Europe he developed a coterie of outstanding followers.
He had either a daredevil impulse or very, very strong nerves. Yekutiel (Xiel) Federmann, also a legendary Zionist operative in pre-World War II Europe, and the founder of the Dan Hotel chain and other important enterprises, illustrated this at a memorial function at the Israel Museum. This was in the late 1930s. Jews were now barred from crossing many borders.
Teddy, though, had to smuggle one of his people out of the Reich. On the return train, Teddy knew he would be checked by the Gestapo. He left his passport, with the telltale ‘J’ for Jude stamped inside, in full sight on the table in the train compartment. The inspector entered, Teddy breezily chatted with him. His document was there, unopened, in full view; the Nazi saw no need to check it.... A storybook encounter.
Xiel still spoke with excitement and pride as he recounted – relived – the story.
Teddy’s loyalty extended to his old friends, his former followers in the youth movement in Central Europe, and to his staff. He would drive (like a daredevil, until he was forced to have a driver). I once had the misfortune to get a lift with him from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Well, wherever Teddy would be in Israel in the early ’60s, he would detour to pop in on an old friend. There was scant building north of the old Tel Aviv, and the roads were twolane, bearing even scanter traffic, Teddy drove at what seemed a thousand miles an hour. I have been known to speed as well, but this seemed egregiously daring. Or just plain meshuga. (Such a useful word, it is even adopted into German as meschugge.) Avi-hai, timorously: “Ahh, ahh Teddy, aren’t you driving too… fast?” Kollek, decisively, “If you don’t like it, I can let you out here!” Well, gentle reader, we were in the middle of nowhere and I had not seen another car, and certainly not a bus, for at least 10 fearful minutes. I did what you would do. Shut up, closed my eyes, and stayed. It seems we survived.
The young Teddy Kollek – he was in his mid-40s when we first met – had many sides to him – as most leaders do. Most obvious was his personal devotion to David Ben-Gurion.
Influenced by studying a smattering of history and psychology, I once asked Teddy whether Ben-Gurion’s diminutive height could be a key to understanding him.
Teddy exploded. “What are you talking about? He is a great man.”
Analyses were unnecessary. B-G’s greatness was a cast-iron fact. There was no need to look for reasons.
In a memorial tribute, I wrote that in a way Teddy remained a madrich, a youth movement leader, all his younger life. His loyalty was rewarded with the same blind loyalty. Is there anyone today who would protect his people like Teddy did, as illustrated in this case: Until 1964, Israeli prime ministers were not invited officially to visit the US, and were neither welcome or welcomed at the White House. Prime minister Ben-Gurion was about to go to the US, and “happen” to meet president Dwight Eisenhower in New York. The excuse for the trip was an invitation to receive a honorary doctorate from Brandeis University.
In those days, a state secret was a state secret. I had not been let in on it: There was no need for me to know.
I was having lunch with a American Jewish leader at the King David Hotel. He, Sam Rothberg, was in the know. I was not. Teddy happened by, asked me to step out for a minute, and said, “I want you to know what Sam knows: B-G will be going to America.”
In a minute, he briefed me, I returned to Sam and we never touched on the proposed visit. But Sam knew Teddy had filled me in.
Only a youth movement leader would protect his followers like that.
Today, I believe “leaders” take an almost fiendish joy in not sharing information with those who need to know and too often using the media to leak what none of us should know.
Probably Teddy’s most well-known role was that of mayor of Jerusalem. More on that in the next column.
Avraham Avi-hai was appointed by Teddy Kollek to senior positions in the offices of prime ministers David Ben-Gurion and Levi Eshkol. Dr. Avi-hai is author of a number of books, his latest being the novel A Tale of Two Avrahams.