Ben-Zion Solomon spent almost half his life on the battlefield as a soldier, a wounded man, a refugee and a prisoner of war. Last year, at a conference marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, he proudly displayed the many medals he earned during his 102 years of life, making him one of Israel’s most decorated soldiers.
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Solomon was born in 1913 in Daugavpils, Latvia (Dvinsk in Russian) – then part of the Russian Empire. He was one of seven children born to Avraham Yitzhak Solomon and his wife Tovah.
One year later, following the outbreak of World War I, the family was deported to Kazan, Russia, where the toddler experienced anti-Semitism and hunger, and lost all six of his siblings to disease.
In 1917, the 4-year-old Solomon was wounded in the October Revolution, when the Bolsheviks overthrew Russia’s czarist regime. “Once, I was overcome by curiosity,” he said. “I peeked out the window to see what was happening. I was hit in the hand by a Bolshevik bullet.”
As a teen, he joined Beitar, the right-leaning Zionist movement founded by Ze’ev Jabotinsky, where “they taught us to defend ourselves,” he recalled. “I protected Jews from anti-Semitic thugs and even served as Ze’ev Jabotinsky’s bodyguard during one of his visits.”
His mother died when he was 17. A few years later, in 1934, he moved to pre-state Israel. He settled in Ramat Tiomkin, near Netanya, and joined Beitar’s work brigades as well as its affiliated militia, the Irgun. “I worked to dry out the swamps of Nahal Poleg,” he recalled.
Tales of Acre Prison
During the Arab Revolt of 1936-39, he was sent to defend Rosh Pina on behalf of both a rival militia, the left-leaning Haganah, and the Jewish guard brigade of the British police. At that time, the British ruled the area.
He was also involved in facilitating the illegal immigration of Jews from Syria and Lebanon and in establishing Kibbutz Hanita. “We defended the Galilee and built the northern fence,” he said.
He continued his militia activities as well. “I hid illegal weapons from the British government,” he added.
Some of his friends were arrested by the British and jailed in Acre Prison. One, Shlomo Ben-Yosef, was sentenced to death for throwing a grenade at an Arab bus to avenge the murder of Jews. Ben-Yosef was executed in 1938.
When World War II began, Solomon deliberated over whether to continue his underground activities or join the British army. When he stopped getting letters from his father, who had remained in Europe, he decided to fight the Nazis. He was one of the first Jews from pre-state Israel to enlist in the British army.
In 1940, he was put into a combat engineering unit that was sent to the front. There, he built fortifications, paved roads, built railroads and disarmed bombs and other weaponry. He ended up serving in Libya, Egypt and Greece.
Facing the Gestapo
When German paratroopers attacked his outpost in the Greek port of Kalamata, he was wounded by gunfire for the second time in his life. The bullet hit his arm and was extracted at the field hospital with a rusty pair of pliers, he said. After recuperating, he rejoined the fight, until he and hundreds of other soldiers were taken captive by the Germans on April 29, 1941.
“When the Gestapo asked me why I enlisted in the British army, I answered that I came to fight the Germans, who are slaughtering my people,” he said.
As a prisoner of war, he was sent to Poland to do forced labor in the coal mines. Toward the end of the war, in January 1945, he and his comrades were sent on a 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) death march, during which they suffered from cold and hunger. But he stayed alive and in April was liberated by the Americans – and promptly rejoined the fight in their ranks until Germany surrendered.
In January 1946, he returned to pre-state Israel. He set up a factory in Afula that made cement blocks, but two years later, he enlisted again – this time to defend Israel during its War of Independence. “I fought in Afula and the Jezreel Valley,” he said.
After the war, he became one of the founders of the Border Police, in which he served until 1975. He spent his entire adult life in Afula.
Over the course of his career, Solomon earned many medals including those from the Irgun, the Haganah and the British army. There were also those he earned fighting in Israel’s wars, including for his service during the Sinai Campaign (1956), the Six-Day War (1967), the War of Attrition (1967-70) and the Yom Kippur War (1973).
On his 100th birthday, he said: “I never dreamed that I, virtually the sole remnant of such a large family that was wiped out, would once again have the privilege to have such a large and loving family, which is a source of pride to me.”
This past February, he died at 102, still “clear-minded and alert,” according to his daughter Tovah. To his dying day, he went for a walk three times a week and attended lectures and dances at a nearby senior center.
After his death, all the medals he won were affixed to his gravestone, which was also inscribed with the emblems of all the military units in which he served. He is survived by two children from his wife, Rachel, along with grandchildren and great-grandchildren. They were raised, he said, “on Zionism and love of the land and of others.”