Who Stole Trumpeldor's 1915 Letter to a Bereaved Father?

Auction house is offering rare letter by the early Zionist military leader for $100,000, but Jabotinsky Institute has filed police complaint claiming that it is the owner

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Letter from Trumpeldor scheduled to be sold at auction in Jerusalem.
Letter from Trumpeldor scheduled to be sold at auction in Jerusalem.Credit: King David Auctions

A 1915 letter from leader Joseph Trumpeldor is scheduled for sale next week by Jerusalem's King David Auction House, which says it is the early Zionist military leader's only extant letter written in Hebrew.

The letter by Trumpeldor, who is perhaps best known for saying "it is good to die for our country" just before dying at Tel Hai in northern Israel in 1920, was written to a bereaved father whose son had been killed in what is now Turkey during World War I. "Your son fell as a hero for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel," Trumpeldor wrote, in lines that in some respects, foretell his own dying words. 

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The letter was written to the father of Benjamin Wertheimer, the scion of a Jerusalem ultra-Orthodox family, who was enlisted into a Jewish volunteer battalion established by Trumpeldor and was killed in the Gallipoli campaign. The letter, the contents of which were previously known but which has attracted particular interest because it is in Hebrew, was put on sale at the price of $100,000.

In a new twist, however, it is now not clear that the letter will go on sale. The Tel Aviv-based Jabotinsky Institute filed a complaint with the police this week claiming that it owns that letter and that the letter had been stolen.

"The Trumpeldor letter looked familiar to us and in consulting your website, one can indeed clearly see that the Trumpeldor letter bears the stamp of the Beitar Museum, the former name of the Jabotinsky Institute," the institute's director, Gideon Mitshnik, wrote. "From an investigation that we conducted, the Trumpeldor letter was in the possession and ownership of the Jabotinsky Institute's archives … Now we understand that, in a roundabout manner, it got to you. From our understanding as described above, it is stolen property belonging to the Jabotinsky Institute."

The King David Auction House said in response that it is not a party to the dispute between the Jabotinsky Institute and the seller, who – as is usually the case in such circumstances – has remained anonymous. The letter left the museum about 60 years ago, the auction house added.

"It is very difficult to know with certainty what adventures the important item underwent from then to now, and perhaps it was sold legally at some stage, or had only been lent to the archives from the beginning, or something similar," the auction house wrote. "It is possible that through litigation between the parties, at the appropriate court levels, it will become clearer what transpired with the item during this period, and it's possible that due to the many years [that have passed], we will never know. The auction house expresses its confidence in the two sides, both the honest seller, who had provided the item to us for sale, and the Jabotinsky Institute."

The letter is not the only item over which there are suspicions that it was stolen from the Jabotinsky Institute. The catalogs of other auction houses feature letters from Trumpeldor bearing the Beitar Museum's stamp.

It may be some time until the ownership of the letter is sorted out. In the interim, however, here is an English translation of what Trumpeldor wrote to the bereaved father: "Please hereby accept my respect that you have been able to learn through this that your son was a good man and a good Jew and a good soldier. I understand that you have a lot of pain in your heart, but please know that that your son fell for the Jewish people and the Land of Israel."

The letter had been sent in response to a request from the father, Yehoshua Wertheimer, for assistance in getting his son's tefillin (prayer phylacteries) returned. "Among the items that have remained are his tefillin and I would very much like them, which were so dear to him, as a memento. You are assured the love of man nesting in your heart for making efforts for asking that they be returned to me, and I will never forget you and this favor. Written and sealed with a tear."