Unsung heroines

Buried on Mount Herzl are women of courage.

The Defenders of the Old City of Jerusalem memorial (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
The Defenders of the Old City of Jerusalem memorial
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM)
Yaffa Gracia Harush was born in Jerusalem.
Kind-hearted, generous and bursting with talent, she trained early on as a signaler for the Gadna (youth military services). During the War of Independence, she was assigned to help defend the Old City.
On May 16, 1948, she was stationed at one of the positions when it was captured by troops of the Jordanian Legion. Although she managed to reach another post, the Jordanians advanced to this position as well.
Harush picked up a grenade and prepared to cast it at the enemy. At that exact moment, she was hit by an Arab bullet, and the grenade exploded in her hand. She was killed instantly – just two days before her 16th birthday.
As far as I know, there aren’t any songs about the girls and women who gave their lives in the service of this country during the War of Independence. Articles about them are rare – and tales of their heroism and courage are known only to a few.
That’s why I suggest that this year on Remembrance Day for the Fallen of Israel’s Wars, you take the time to walk around the well-kept grounds of the National Military Cemetery on Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. You may be astonished to discover how many tombstones and memorial plaques are engraved with their names.
Here are just a few of their stories: Hannah Zuta was 19 when she joined the Palmah. A year later, in 1942, she volunteered for the British army’s Women’s Corps and drove an army truck in Gaza and Cairo. Unusually stubborn and independent, she shared a tent with three other girls – two of them also named Hannah. Our Hannah was nicknamed “Blondie.”
When released from the British army, she returned to Israel. Slated to begin teaching in a Haifa grade school, she decided instead to continue her studies at the Hebrew University.
But during her stint in the Palmah, she had served in Samaria and in the Galilee. When war broke out on November 30, 1947, she returned to active duty and volunteered to photograph enemy positions in east Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood near Mount Scopus. On January 7, 1948, she was shot and killed by an Arab sniper.
Born in 1928 in Jerusalem’s Old City, Shulamit Kobi worked as a secretary. But her true passion was art, and she spent all of her spare time decorating clothes and hats with flowers.
Although the British still ruled the country, the Arabs began attacking Jewish Jerusalem right after the War of Independence began. Kobi soon began volunteering to work with the wounded at Misgav Ladach Hospital inside the Old City walls. As she cared tirelessly for wounded soldiers, she thought constantly about her brother Shimon; he was fatally wounded in the Old City in January 1948, when the British blew up the outpost he was defending from an Arab assault.
Kobi, who was to be married in June, helped fortify positions, sewed sacks of sand and moved wounded soldiers into the hospital. On May 17, 1948, as she left the hospital to visit her parents in a nearby shelter, she was cut down by an Arab bullet.
On November 29, 1947, the United Nations declared its intention of dividing Palestine into two states. The Jews agreed, but the Arabs vehemently rejected the plan.
Warsaw-born Nehama “Netka” Hacohen-Zlotowski worked as a lab technician in Hadassah’s pathology department. But she was also attached to the Hagana’s medical services. And although she was on leave in Binyamina when the UN declaration was made, she worried that there might be riots in Jerusalem.
So very early the next morning, she boarded the first bus headed for the Holy City. When it was ambushed by Arabs, she became one of the first victims of the War of Independence. She was 47 years old.
Zuta, Kobi, Hacohen-Zlotowski and Harush were all buried in temporary cemeteries in west Jerusalem. After the Six Day War reunited both parts of the Holy City, they were re-interred on the Mount of Olives. Their memories are honored in plaques on the walls of the Jerusalem Jewish Quarter Memorial, not far from the entrance to the military cemetery.
DOZENS OF other heroic girls and women are buried on Mount Herzl itself. Malka Weinberger’s haunting story begins in Hungary, where she was born in the early 1920s to a haredi family. When the Nazis took control of the country, she tried to flee. But she was caught and sent to Auschwitz.
Immediately after her release, she joined a religious pioneer movement and began preparing for her future as a farmer in Israel. When she finally reached the Promised Land, at the end of April 1948, she immediately headed for the Negev settlement of Be’erot Yitzhak.
But the Negev was under siege by the Arabs, and very soon after her arrival, the children and their mothers were evacuated. Weinberger, however, remained to help defend Be’erot Yitzhak. During the first, brutal attack by the Egyptian army, she took an active part in the battle.
Weinberger, who had somehow survived the Holocaust, became the settlement’s first casualty: On April 15, 1948, she was hit in the head by a shell and died on the spot. She is buried on Mount Herzl, not far from the Jewish Quarter Memorial.
Born in Jerusalem in 1928, Tamar Pitovski was an unusually talented artist, musician and dancer. She also took leadership roles in the Scouts, and joined the Hagana at a very young age. Early in the War of Independence, she began escorting convoys bringing supplies to besieged Jerusalem and, when needed, she guarded lonely outposts.
In 1948, there were just two Jewish settlements north of Jerusalem: Neveh Ya’acov and Atarot. As the Jordanian Legion prepared to attack, and rumors spread that a massacre was in the wind, it was decided to remove the women and the children from danger.
After the women and children were evacuated from Atarot, Pitovski remained to help defend the settlement.
And when even the soldiers were told to leave, she made a point of keeping their morale high. Yet she had a feeling she would never see her parents again, and wrote them a letter of farewell.
On May 16, 1948, their trucks stopped at Neveh Ya’acov to pick up the remaining soldiers. That’s when the Jordanian Legion attacked, killing and wounding several of the defenders. Bullets flew everywhere. Pitovski ran into a field to help a comrade who had been hit, and she herself took a fatal bullet.
AT THE onset of World War II, Hadassah Lempel’s Polish family fled to Russia. She attended a school for Polish refugees until the family was sentenced to hard labor in Siberia.
Although she was very slight, the 14-year-old Lempel worked along with her parents in the forests. But soon afterward, she became one of what are known as “the Tehran Children” – youngsters without families who traveled to the Land of Israel by way of Iran.
She ended up at Kibbutz Givat Brenner. Enchanted with the country and her new life, she sent excited, optimistic letters to her parents and waited for them to join her.
As soon as she completed 10th grade, she joined the Palmah and began preparing for the war in the making. She trained as a radio technician and, like Pitovski, was assigned to escort convoys going to Jerusalem. Right after the establishment of an armored unit – the 7th Armored Brigade – she was attached to its soldiers as their radio technician.
When the British left the country in May 1948, they handed the heavily fortified police station at Latrun over to Arabs determined to prevent food, water, medical supplies and weapons from reaching Jerusalem. Israeli forces attacked Latrun, and failed miserably. During the second attempt, radio technician Lempel rode with the commander in the lead half-track.
But the Arabs were ready for them. When the commander was hit, 19-year-old Lempel took over his seat and rallied the forces. But they didn’t stand a chance. And the cheerful, always optimistic girl with thick black braids was killed three months before her parents finally reached the Promised Land.
Miriam Osaya, Tamar Baumgart and Leila Yosef lie close to one another in adjacent graves. Osaya, born in Alexandria, reached Israel at the age of four. After high school, she joined the Palmah and became part of the Yiftah Brigade. She participated in the successful battle for Safed, fought in the battles for Sha’ar Hagai and Tzrifin, and was eventually sent to the besieged Negev.
Baumgart showed great promise as a teacher. When the Palmah sent her for training to the settlement of Ein Gev, she worked as a nursery school teacher, and the children were wild about her. Known for a rare combination of modesty, depth and innocence, she was attached to the Yiftah Brigade, fought in battles in the north and was finally sent to the Negev as well.
The daughter of politician Dov Yosef, Leila Yosef was an unusually motivated youngster. At 14, she began spending her summers working on farms – her contribution to the country. She dreamed of becoming a pioneer. Within the framework of her training in the Scouts, she made a point of keeping up with the boys as they hiked excruciatingly difficult trails – even crossing the border into Syria.
When the war broke out, she joined the Palmah and took part in the conquest of Arab Safed, Lydda and Ramle. Although obvious officer material and given command of other soldiers, Yosef insisted on retaining her rank of private.
On the eve of campaigns meant to end the siege of the Negev, she was chosen for an IDF mission to the United States. But she refused to leave the men and women in her unit, and she was with them when they made their way to the Negev.
Osaya, Yosef and Baumgart were killed on the same day – September 10, 1948 – near Kibbutz Dorot, during a massive bombardment by Egyptian planes. Osaya and Yosef had just barely turned 20; Baumgart was 19 years old. All three were buried in the Negev, and re-interred on Mount Herzl two years later.
AT THE age of 18, on October 9, 1945, Bilha Tziversky took part in the Palmah rescue of Jewish “illegal” immigrants at the Atlit detention camp. But when her comrades decided to settle in a new colony, Tziversky decided instead to begin realizing her dream of helping problem youngsters. So she registered for psychological and pedagogic studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
The War of Independence broke out at the beginning of her third year at the university. She immediately joined the Hagana and was stationed as a wireless operator in several Jerusalem outposts. As the war progressed, she volunteered to serve at the Tzuba quarry, on the road to besieged Jerusalem and the target of continual Arab fire.
Tziversky arrived in late February as the situation worsened, with Arabs firing heavily all day and all night. One day the enemy got close enough to demand that our soldiers surrender. For nearly a week, Israel’s forces had neither eaten nor slept, but were ordered to mine the area and to retreat to a different position.
Soon afterward they were sent in a convoy to Jerusalem. Ambushed on the road, they still managed to continue moving toward the Holy City. Then, three kilometers from Jerusalem, they were hit again.
Tziversky’s vehicle was forced off the road and rolled down into an abyss 100 meters deep. Although many of the people in the vehicle were severely injured, Arab fire made it impossible to extract them.
Tziversky was in terrible shape. Nevertheless, somehow, she found the strength to drag herself up the slope. On April 4, 1948, after two days and nights in Shaare Zedek Hospital, she breathed her last.
Heartbreaking circumstances kept Rahel Zelzer and her mother, Ada, apart for many years – and now they lie beside one another for eternity. Zahara Levontin lost one beloved after another. But she somehow pulled herself together to become the first female pilot in our fledgling air force – only to crash while on a mission to bring supplies to besieged Jerusalem.
Tragic and valiant figures from the War of Independence, along with many other unsung heroines, are buried on Mount Herzl and other cemeteries around the country. Honor them, remember them – for their sacrifices helped bestow upon us the country that we cherish today.
Buried on Mount Herzl:
Malka Weinberger: area Bet, plot 6, row 2 Tamar
Pitovsky: area Bet, plot 1, row 1
Hadassah Lempel: area Bet, plot 1, row 5
Tamar Baumgart, Leila Yosef and Miriam Osaya: area Alef, plot 7, row 10
Bilha Tziversky: area Alef, plot 2, row 26
Rahel and Ada Zelzer: area Alef, plot 9, row 2
Zahara Levontin: area Alef, plot 8, row 2.