“Will you not understand, my dear, that the length of my life is not normal…Will you walk by my side in this hard life? Think well before you decide.”
These moving words were written by Michael Ashbel, of the Israeli pre-state underground military force Etzel, to his love, Bilha. He sent the letter from the British prison where he was held after taking part in an attack on a British military camp in Tzrifin (then Sarafand) in 1946.
“I have been alone long enough, and now I want to walk on the road of my life with you at my side…and when I leave for work, your kiss will accompany me. And I want a warm heart to wait for me when I return for lunch. Can you understand this feeling?”
This letter, kept in the Jabotinsky Archive, recently appeared on the website Otzarot, a new project of the Zalman Shazar Center, which aspires to gather Israel’s “national collection of letters.” Some 450 personal letters have been collected so far.
To mark the Tu B’Av holiday (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Av, which has become known as the holiday of love in Israel) the project has showcased some love letters that were written around the time of the establishment of the state. “Think well and answer me in a few words, ‘agree’ or ‘no.’ Even if not, I won’t be angry with you, and we will continue our friendship as in the past,” Ashbel wrote. “I kiss you hard-hard,” he concluded.
In 1947, Ashbel was killed trying to escape from Acre Prison, which his underground comrades had broken into. Archivist Miri Yahalom found other items he had written in his file in the archive, and says they read like a “real soap opera.” Before he declared his love for Bilha, he rejected her younger sister, Talma. “I do not want to give my love to any man or woman. My love is for my homeland! And this sacred love has no physical substitute,” he wrote.
Later, Talma died of an illness and Ashbel was filled with guilt. “I did what I did only to release her from these bonds called ‘love’…and now what do I have left? The one who felt close to me, who gave me her innocent heart – without me making any effort – has left me forever,” he wrote. His journal reveals that this was not the first time his heart was broken. His first love, Rachel, was murdered in the Holocaust.
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“My emotions were deeply wounded. The first wound had not healed and another blow struck me. I don’t know today who to believe in, God or Satan. Only two girls have loved me and they were both taken from me in the flower of their youth,” he said.
The love story of Azriel Ben Dov and his girlfriend Shoshana, on the other hand, had a happy ending. In the War of Independence, Azriel was in a group captured by the Jordanians. “I believe that the word ‘longing’ can’t express the power of my yearning for you. Not a night passes that I don’t dream about you…Wait for me and I will return,” he wrote Shoshana from captivity. When he returned, they got engaged and were married on Tu B’Av, 1949. They raised a family on Kibbutz Massuot Yitzhak, but also knew pain – one of their sons and one of their grandsons were killed in car accidents. Another grandson was killed in a military action. Azriel died recently, three years after Shoshana.
Longing and love at the time of the establishment of the state are also found in a letter written by Shulamit Haviv, whose husband Zerubavel was sent in January 1948 by the leaders of the pre-state Jewish community to raise money in South America to purchase weapons and military equipment. When he left, he wrote Shulamit how much he missed her, adding: “I am trying to contact you over the distance…a strong and cold wind has been blowing here since this morning and the sky is covered with heavy clouds and my heart is full of worry and anxiousness over your fate.” Zerubavel did return safely, but their son, Amnon, a fighter in the Palmach military underground, died in the War of Independence. Shulamit died in 1974, nine years before her husband.
The head of the Otzarot project, Shira Meirson, said it is meant to shed light on the everyday life of ordinary people at that time by means of letters people may have stored away over the years in their homes.
“The people who made history, along with the great leaders, are everyday people: the grocery owner, the doctor, the kindergarten and the school teacher.”