Books: A man with no shadow

The life story of the man who became Menachem Begin’s friend and protector also recounts an important era in the history of our nation.

Menachem Begin with Ted Kennedy, Yehiel Kadishai and Simcha Dinitz . (photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
Menachem Begin with Ted Kennedy, Yehiel Kadishai and Simcha Dinitz .
(photo credit: MOSHE MILNER / GPO)
"WHERE is Yechiel?” was an often heard plea in prime minister Menachem Begin’s office. Within seconds Yechiel Kadishai, his confidant and soul mate, smiling and helpful, was at his side.
Kadishai’s parents were good Jews – not exactly halutzim who build roads and drained swamps, but shopkeepers, small manufacturers and hoteliers of the Third Aliya who helped build Tel Aviv. It was their children who joined Betar, Irgun Zva’i Leumi and the Stern Group – making history.
The Kadishsohn hassidic family – as they were then known – had roots in Poland going back for generations. Yechiel, born in Warsaw in 1923, was the fifth child of Ze’ev Velvel Kadishsohn and Zipporah Feige (née Beckerman). He was three months old when his mother, with four other children, rejoined her husband in Tel Aviv, where he had arrived earlier, against the instructions of his rabbi, but blessed by another.
Ze’ev ran the Vershevsky Hotel until 1936, when his Orthodox clientele could no longer suffer the view of the swimsuits worn by women frequenting the nearby beach and smoking on Shabbat. It was up to Yechiel, a graduate of a night school for clerks, to support his family. In 1940, he left Betar to join Irgun Zva’i Leumi, and began his revolutionary career by hanging posters.
One showed the portrait of the British high commissioner, Harold McMichael, with the word “WANTED” written in large letters underneath.
The author, Menachem Michelson, senior editor of Yediot Aharonot, follows Kadishai’s ideological progress systematically, showing how he was deeply influenced by poems by Uri Zvi Greenberg and the writings of Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Here Michelson pays tribute to all those young men of the Irgun, the heroes of Israel, who suffered torture, were hanged, blew themselves up in prison and fell in the cruel battle against the British occupier.
The deep division between the Israeli Left and Right accompanies the reader throughout the biography. There was always plenty of competition, outbursts of hate and occasional betrayal between the Hagana and the Irgun, and just a few instances of a fragile cooperation, despite a common purpose.
Thus, when Kadishai joined the 22nd Company of the Palestinian British Army Buffs to fight Hitler, he also “loaned” – at great risk – arms and TNT for the Irgun. He was sentenced to 28 days’ incarceration and forced labor in a cruel military prison for flying the white and blue flag outside the British officer’s tent. His Hagana comrades were against such demonstrations. Jewish soldiers had to struggle for their full national recognition, until Churchill formed the Jewish Brigade in 1944.
Serving in Europe, Kadishai witnessed the tragedy of the Holocaust. His Irgun orders were to go AWOL, organize, teach and induce the Jewish spirit to survivors.
The IZL instructors trained youngsters as if they were Palestinian soldiers, gave them their own uniforms and army papers to be discharged in Palestine, assisting “illegal” immigration. One of them called, after his discharge, upon Kadishai’s mother and introduced himself: “I am Yechiel.” She looked and answered: “I know you are not Yechiel, but welcome home.”
The different outlooks of the Hagana and Irgun divided the Jewish emissaries – there was much competition for gaining souls, fights and denunciations, but the good work continued unabated. After two years of hard, educational work, Kadishai went to Rome to aid in blowing up the British Embassy. In 1948, Kadishai and his beloved Esther Brown, nicknamed “Bambi,” a Holocaust survivor, returned home on the Altalena. At Kfar Vitkin, the newly formed Jewish Army “welcomed” them with sporadic fire. The tragedy of the brotherly conflict continued at Tel Aviv’s shore.
Kadishai and Bambi got married in a simple, quiet ceremony, and spent their honeymoon in Ramat Gan. He started working at the Office for Fighters and Soldiers, abandoned and ostracized by Mapai and David Ben-Gurion. In 1949, Herut established the Shelah Fund (Rehabilitation of Freedom Fighters), for this purpose.
Eventually, Kadishai and Bambi opened a successful office selling cinema and theater tickets.
In Shelah, Kadishai worked closely with Begin, and in no time became his Knesset secretary and close friend. Kadishai’s connections, experience, wit and friendly attitude became Begin’s treasure.
Aliza, Begin’s wife, and Bambi became good friends. They celebrated when Begin joined the Unity Government on the eve of the Six Day War and at the subsequent emergence in 1977 of the Likud-led government.
On June 20, 1977, Kadishai was appointed chief of staff of Begin’s Prime Minister’s Office.
Separate chapters describe Kadishai’s work with Begin in the Knesset, at the signing of the peace treaty with Egypt, at the Nobel Prize ceremony, at Camp David, during their frequent travels to the US, work for Israel Bonds, up to the painful days of the Lebanon wars. Begin’s health – ruined at Gulag, the vicious campaign of the opposition, and above all, the large number of soldiers who fell in Lebanon – was affected deeply.
However, it was Aliza’s death in 1982, while Begin was on a mission in US, that broke him completely. Overwhelmed with grief, Begin resigned and went into seclusion in August 1983.
Kadishai remained his friend and protector until Begin’s death on March 9, 1992, when he presented Begin’s testament to his children, Bennie, Hassia and Leah. He did not remain idle and exploited his excellent connections by gathering huge donations for the Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Tzrifin and as the director of the Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem. He died on November 16, 2013.
Bennie Begin, Menachem’s son, described Kadishai as a “man without a shadow.”
Many friends who attended the funeral and the Israeli press expressed similar opinion.
The author recalls Kadishai’s life story and many important little-known details about Begin in a light, day-after-day manner, and shares many original quotations from Jabotinsky and Uri Zvi Greenberg.
There are also good full-color historical illustrations and a large names index – a practical who’s who of our times – accompanies this well-edited volume.