The Man Who Immigrated to Pre-state Israel by Jumping Off the Deportation Ship

David Ben David, who died this month at 98, foiled the British and later fought in a legendary losing battle during the War of Independence

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War of Independence veteran David Ben David, who died in August 2018.
War of Independence veteran David Ben David, who died in August 2018.Credit: Toldot Yisrael
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

David Ben David once said that “to be a Jew is a constant and endless struggle.” As he put it, “Let nobody deceive himself that to be a Jew is a peaceful life.”

The life of this War of Independence veteran who died this month at 98 helps prove this assertion. Time after time he overcame obstacles that defeated his friends, sometimes narrowly saving his skin. Peleg Levy, of the Toldot Yisrael project that has taken testimony from 1,100 members of Israel’s 1948 generation, says Ben David’s life story is one of the most amazing he has heard.

Ben David was born in 1920 to the ultra-Orthodox Davidovic family in a village in Czechoslovakia. As a child he studied at a heder, an elementary school for Jewish studies, and at a yeshiva, growing up in an anti-Zionist milieu. But at 17 he rebelled, realizing that “we have to get to the Land of Israel and redeem ourselves and the Jewish people.” He parted from his parents, whom he never saw again, and joined the agricultural training program of the religious-Zionist Bnei Akiva youth movement.

When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, “What happened was exactly what we, the young people, had foreseen, and the older generation hadn’t foreseen,” he said. In October 1940 he immigrated on the SS Pacific, which embarked from Romania on the way to British Mandatory Palestine. “Nazi Germany behind us, the Promised Land in front of us, we were the happiest people in the universe,” he said.

The British arrested the new immigrants and put them on the deportation ship the SS Patria. Ben David escaped by jumping into the water, diving and swimming back to shore. And so, with nothing to his name but his shorts, Ben David began a new chapter in his life. He spent the first night hiding in a cement mixer, but was finally arrested. At the British police station, he pretended to be mentally disturbed and was thrown onto the street.

But the British later once again searched for the Jewish illegal immigrant who had jumped off the Patria. "They turned Haifa upside down to try to find me, a Jew who had fled the Holocaust,” he said. To leave the city he hid in a vehicle belonging to the Jewish burial society, which didn’t have to undergo security checks.

Several days later the Haganah, the pre-independence army, hid a bomb on the Patria to prevent it from setting out. This ended in tragedy: The ship sank and more than 200 people were killed. In 1941, Ben David joined the British army, first in the Engineering Corps and later in the Jewish Brigade. He used his military service to meet Jews in Damascus, Alexandria and Libya, and later Holocaust survivors from Europe.

“I was almost the first Jew from the free world to reach the Holocaust survivors and bring them the news of the redemption of the Jewish people,” he said. “I accompanied many of them to the gates of the country.”

In 1947 he returned to British Palestine and joined Kibbutz Kfar Etzion, where he was appointed village head. In August 1947 he married his girlfriend Adina there. Their parents weren’t present; they had been murdered in the Holocaust. The wedding was performed by Chief Rabbi Isaac Halevi Herzog.

The security situation deteriorated after November 29, 1947, when the United Nations voted in favor of the partition plan and Gush Etzion — communities in the Judean Hills — came under siege. From then on travel there was conducted only in convoys that left from Jerusalem.

On December 11 one of them was attacked and 10 passengers were killed. A month later Gush Etzion suffered another disaster when 35 fighters were killed on the way to resupply the local kibbutzim; the so-called Convoy of 35. Ben David helped dig their graves.

On May 13, 1948, Kibbutz Kfar Etzion fell and was captured by Jordan. “Terrifying shelling that’s hard to describe,” Ben David said. Hundreds of residents and defenders of Gush Etzion were killed in battle or massacred by the Arab forces. Ben David was seriously wounded and later taken prisoner by the Jordanians for nine months.

In October 1949, with Rabbi Shlomo Goren, Ben David returned to Gush Etzion, now in Jordanian territory, to collect the bones of the Jews who were killed there, and to bring them for burial at Mount Herzl in Jerusalem. “We started to dig a little, we found skeletons,” Ben David said. “The tears erupted. I fought. I didn’t want them to see a Jew crying here.”

In 1950 he was one of the founders of Moshav Nir Etzion on the Carmel near Haifa. “We were the only 13 men who remained from Kfar Etzion, and were joined by dozens of widows and orphans,” Ben David said. “Many didn’t want to join the community where there had been so much bereavement and sadness.”

Ben David lived there until his death on August 14, and was buried in the prayer shawl that accompanied him throughout his life. In Czechoslovakia he rescued it from a synagogue that the Nazis had set on fire. Around a decade later it was extricated from the sea when it sank with the Patria. Later it survived the fall of Kfar Etzion.

Ben David’s wife Adina died in 2011. He is survived by his children, grandchildren and many great-grandchildren.

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