On May 15, 1948, the morning after the declaration of Israel’s independence, a ship arrived in Tel Aviv carrying 300 young people, among them Holocaust survivors and volunteers from South Africa, Russia and Finland who had come to enlist in the army of the new state.
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Among them was David Teperson, 21, of South Africa, who passed away last month at the age of 89.
Upon disembarking he joined the nascent Israel Defense Forces and was sent to the front. First he was assigned to the Alexandroni Brigade, but later he “defected” to the Palmach’s 9th Battalion, known as the "Negev Beasts." “I was looking for action,” he explained.
He participated in the conquest of Be’er Sheva and Eilat, and ended up winning medals in several wars, eventually reaching the rank of colonel. He became the IDF’s oldest and longest-serving reserve officer.
Teperson was one of the 4,500 members of Mahal, the Hebrew acronym for Mitnadvei Hutz Laaretz (Volunteers from Abroad), who arrived during the War of Independence from dozens of countries and contributed to the building of the IDF and to its victories. Most volunteers returned to their homelands after the war, but hundreds, Teperson among them, stayed and made their homes here.
Teperson, a native of Cape Town, was the third child of Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to South Africa. His parents, Abe and Edith, ran a hotel. When he was 6 he was sent to live on his uncle’s farm. He would later be thrown out of several schools (he eventually learned he had dyslexia), until he found his place in an agricultural school, where he was the only Jew in his class, and periodically subject to anti-Semitic taunts.
At 1.96 meters and weighing 110 kilograms, Teperson was not one to avoid a fight, and once even hit a teacher who slurred him. “No one was going to call me a ‘bloody Jew,’” he later told an interviewer.
In his memoirs Teperson described how his childhood in Africa had prepared him to fight in Israel, noting that he hunted barefoot, learned how to sleep anywhere in the savanna, and knew how to find water, track animals, trap snakes and find his way home. He knew how to use a rifle, boxed and played rugby, and could carry 100-kilogram bags of wheat.
On May 16, 1948, the day after his arrival in Israel, he was assigned to the 34th battalion of the Alexandroni Brigade and joined the armored vehicles unit. He fought at Tantura, Rosh Ha’ayin and Kfar Sava, and was a member of the IDF’s first officer’s course.
When Yitzhak Moda’i, his company commander and later an MK and government minister, refused Teperson’s request to join the Palmach, he defected from Alexandroni and ended up in the Negev Brigade’s jeep company. The jeeps were stolen by Teperson and his comrades from other IDF units and local United Nations forces.
In addition to his role in taking over Be’er Sheva and Eilat, he guarded the southern kibbutzim’s water pipelines, patrolled the Egyptian border, set ambushes on roads between Rafah, Khan Yunis and Gaza, and blew up an Egyptian railway nearby.
Teperson’s youth in the South African deserts made him very useful in the Negev because he noticed things his comrades were unaware of. For example, when Egyptian Spitfires sought his unit out, he was able to hear them coming before anyone else could see them.
Although his comrades-in-arms often warned him that because of his height he would get shot in the head, he emerged from the war with only minor shrapnel wounds.
Teperson met his wife, Shoshana, in 1949 in Tel Aviv. They were among the founders of Moshav Habonim on the Carmel coast, and later moved to Ramat Gan, where he launched a construction and renovations business.
To augment their income in the early 1950s, he and his wife would go out to a large puddle in Tel Aviv’s Kikar Hamedina and catch frogs, which they sold to the health funds, which needed them in order to conduct the only pregnancy tests available at the time. (These involved injecting a woman’s urine into a female frog. If the woman was pregnant, the frog would produce eggs within 24 hours.)
In 1961, Teperson and his family moved to Kfar Shmaryahu, and his construction business boomed. He was also dedicated to preserving Mahal’s legacy, and served in the IDF reserves for nearly 70 consecutive years.
“A person can fight until he’s 100,” he told Maariv six years ago. “I have no problem sitting today with a machine gun and firing. A division of reservists is worth two of young people, because of their experience.”
Shoshana died in 2010. Teperson leaves three children, Gadi, Asaf and actress Idit Teperson, along with six grandchildren.