The Human Spirit: Right before independence

The back-story of one of the Jewish defenders of the communities between Jerusalem and Hebron.

April 24, 2008 12:30
4 minute read.
barbara sofer 88

barbara sofer 88. (photo credit: )

What would make a young man rise from a sickbed, his arm in a cast, leap onto a truck and head for battle despite terrible odds? Shot in the arm two days earlier in the battle for Atarot, no one would have faulted him for not joining the reinforcements who headed south to the beleaguered men and women of Gush Etzion. This is the story of one man: David Shalti. It's unlikely that you've heard of him. You won't find him in Wikipedia. He died fighting for the Jewish people two days before Israel declared independence. The enigmatic David Shalti grew up in the Bukharan neighborhood of Jerusalem. Even in the black-and-white photos, one sees that is he devastatingly handsome, with dark hair, a narrow mustache and a devilish glint in his eye. Articulate in English and Hebrew, he had a facility for making friends, which he turned into a talent for acquiring crucial intelligence and for mediating conflicts. According to his family, he somehow managed to serve both in the British army and to fight in the underground movements that opposed the British Mandate. He owned a ladies' hair salon. He married twice. He fathered a daughter in his first marriage and his second wife was pregnant. All this before he turned 20. HAD DAVID Shalti turned down the ride to Gush Etzion, he would be turning 80 today. He might have been a Knesset member or owned a chain of hair boutiques. We'll never know. Instead, according to the testimony of survivors, Shalti fought with one arm. When the battle was lost, he used his experience to negotiate a surrender for the overwhelmed Jews in the villages between Jerusalem and Hebron. But the moment the Jews put down their weapons, they were attacked with submachine guns and grenades. Those who managed to escape to the cellar of the old German monastery were massacred. At the end of day, more than 150 Jews were dead, David Shalti among them. The following day, while David Ben-Gurion was reading the Declaration of Independence in Tel Aviv, Shalti's second wife, Rivka, gave birth to their son, Shimon. Consequently, Shalti left two children and two single mothers behind. Elana Cohen, the daughter from his first marriage, was a year and eight months old when her father was killed. "My father was a fighter," she says. We're speaking Hebrew, but she uses the English word to emphasize his intrepidness At first, she and her mother lived with her grandparents. But at 10, she entered the Weingarten Orphanage, a legendary home for homeless and needy in Jerusalem. "I didn't think of myself as a poor soul for living in an orphanage," said Cohen. "Quite the opposite. I had a lot of friends and was good at school. I never really knew my father, but I believe I inherited my strength from him." She married. She and her husband brought up three children - grown now and with children of their own - on the site in East Talpiot where her late father took part in military training. Cohen works as an alternative therapist, helping families. "I still mourn for the father I hardly knew," she says. "Imagine growing up without a father like that. What a heavy price we have paid for our state." Elana's half-brother, Shimon Shalti, shared his birthday with the State of Israel. Like his father he married twice. "Shimon Shalti grew up without a father, with a very young mother who after the shock she suffered and because of her young age was not really able to take care of her new baby. As a result, his lifestyle as an adult caused his passing away in tragic circumstances," says his widow, Chava Kamenetsky. Despite the hardships of her own life which she traces back to the death of her father-in-law, it's Kamenetsky and her daughter Mika Shalti - the youngest of David Shalti's six grandchildren - who have been taking the lead in publicizing his story. "IT WAS the Alamo of Israel," says Mika Shalti, 27, of the failed defense of Gush Etzion. They live in Waco, Texas, where people know what the Alamo is. She inherited his good looks, is a student and model whose face graces a recent issue of Waco's local magazine. "We should all appreciate the sacrifice of these heroes and pay tribute to their memories." Last year she took part in the celebrations of the 40th year of the reestablishment of Gush Etzion. At the recent 65th anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto rebellion, President Shimon Peres coined a term: Jewish revenge. "Revenge, of course we seek revenge," he said. "But a different kind of revenge, not a Nazi type of revenge, but a Jewish revenge. And we have attained it." The opening of the gates of the State of Israel, he said, was the "revenge" for the closing of the world to the Jews of the Holocaust. But the equation leaves out the enormous sacrifice of the 6,000 dead - 1 percent of the population - in the War of Independence, and the tens of thousands who have followed them. Their loss is immeasurable to the generations of their families. Their manifold talents and energies are a loss to us all. The descendents of David Shalti also suffer that loss, but are not bitter. They recognize that without the heroism of men and women like David Shalti and the example of their heroism that has inspired generations of fighters, we could never have had a Jewish state. "I know from talking to family members that there was nothing second to his love for Israel and the Jewish people," said granddaughter Mika. David Shalti - one man, one story, one family. Far from a saint, but a genuine hero. As we first mourn our dead and celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary, our debt is so great to those for whom no effort was too great. One man, one story, one family - the family of Israel.

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