Streetwise: Woman of valor

A look at a 19-year-old heroine who fought and died for Israel's independence.

rehov bracha fuld 88 224 (photo credit: David Deutsch)
rehov bracha fuld 88 224
(photo credit: David Deutsch)
Bracha Fuld was a heroine of the battle for independence and was killed by the British on March 24, 1946. Holed up in an apartment on Rehov Marmorek in Tel Aviv, her assignment, together with that of the six Palmah fighters under her command, was to stop the British soldiers who would be expected to approach should the landing of the refugee ship Orde Wingate, carrying 238 Holocaust survivors, go ahead as planned. Unknown to Bracha, the ship had been intercepted by the British and diverted to Atlit. The signal to abort the operation never reached her and her fighters, and when the British armored vehicle approached, she opened fire. In the exchange she was shot and badly wounded. Bleeding profusely, she was taken to Jaffa to be interrogated, and was later transferred to a hospital where she died. She was 19. The story of Bracha Fuld was told to me by writer and conductor Sam Zebba, who knew her well and exchanged many letters with her during the struggle, while he was stationed in a British army camp in Egypt. Many questions were posed after her death - why did she not receive the signal to abort, did she really have an affair with a British officer as her mother claimed, and did she identify specifically with the struggle to bring in illegal immigrants because she thought her father might be among them? Perhaps her mother had never told Bracha that her father committed suicide after Kristallnacht, so disillusioned had he been at the actions of his beloved Germany for which he had fought in World War I? Fuld was born in Germany on December 26, 1927, to a wealthy assimilated family who named her Barbara. She was a good student who excelled in sports and until 1933 was a happy child. Anti-Semitic incidents became increasingly common until her mother, now widowed, fled to England in 1938. The older daughter, Petra, had already been sent to the United States. Unable to acquire a work permit, Lotte Fuld decided to immigrate to Palestine in the spring of 1939. "Lotte was very German," recalls Zebba. "She remained untouched by the Israeli spirit and language. She lived on Rehov Pinsker and opened a modest but attractive candy store on Mendele nearby, where I often went as a child. You only heard German on the street in those days, around what was dubbed 'Ben-Yehudastrasse.'" Barbara became Bracha and, after graduating high school in 1944, enlisted in the Palmah. She was assigned to H company and stationed in Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim, near Jerusalem. There she met her boyfriend, Gideon Peli, who was caught by the British, imprisoned in the Russian Compound prison and sentenced to seven years. After the British left, Peli was released and killed in action almost immediately in the battle for the Castel near Jerusalem. As she was well established in the Palmah, Fuld was sent to a strenuous course for section commanders. She was transferred to E company and given command of a section of women soldiers in Kibbutz Givat Haim. She was known as a thorough and exacting officer, demanding much of those under her command but even more of herself. She told close friends that her dream was to study medicine in the United States. What was she really like as a person? Zebba tells me he liked her very much and they became good friends. "As children we went to the same piano teacher," he recalls. "Bracha was pretty with steely blue eyes. She became an excellent soldier, always reporting on time, always neatly dressed, always following instructions meticulously. She was popular but there was also something distant about her." Zebba joined the British army and Fuld wrote to him while he was stationed in the Egyptian desert. He had the impression that she was not wholly at peace with herself as an underground fighter and had bad feelings about the eventual outcome. "Toward the end her letters became increasingly despondent," he says. "Her last letter arrived a few weeks after the news of her death had become known even at my outpost. It was written the day before her death." Zebba has never spoken of Fuld's self-doubts, feeling it would be wrong to expose her state of mind since she was a national icon whom one would expect to be steadfast and tenacious. But he did pass the letters on to Lotte, together with an English translation, as Lotte had never mastered Hebrew. Zebba remained close to Lotte and was astonished when, about 15 years after Bracha's death, she told him of her daughter's secret love affair with a British officer. To Zebba it was preposterous. "I refused to believe it," he said. "I wondered if Lotte, vanquished by grief, was beginning to lose her mind." Zebba sensed that whenever Lotte spoke about the alleged affair, it seemed to comfort her and at some point she asked him to write a story based on it, if only to give her long-dead child some retrospective if imaginary happiness. He accepted the challenge and wrote the story for, as he says, "a readership of one." The official biographer, Sari Gal, rejected the hypothesis totally. On the other hand, Zebba met a woman one evening at the Israel Philharmonic and in conversation she claimed that Fuld had met the British officer while visiting Peli in prison. Not yet ready to give up, Zebba put Fuld's name into a new search engine and was startled to come across a book, written by spy writer Kurt Singer, called The World's Thirty Greatest Women Spies. He found a copy through the Internet and there, to his amazement, was the whole Bracha Fuld story complete with the added love story he had thought was a figment of Lotte's imagination. Could it then have been true and the whole love affair was a ploy to get information? Was Fuld in fact a spy? Just a week ago, Zebba got one answer to the many questions when he received an e-mail from Fuld's nephew in the United States, Petra's son. Yes, Lotte and Kurt Singer knew each other well. She must have been his source for the love affair with the British officer. As for the street, it lies one block away from the spot where Fuld was cut down, a small tree-lined memorial to a heroine of Israel.