For decades, no one took an interest in the seven letters, handwritten in Polish and kept in the home of Priva and Jacob Bendet. They had been sent in the 1930s to Priva, at her home in Tel Aviv, by her sister Lusia, from Warsaw and from Paris.
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“One letter led to the identification of a photograph, a newspaper clipping led to an old book, a last discovery was found in a new exhibition, and little by little the puzzle of the life and premature death of a young woman, a seeker of justice, a special woman, came together,” relates Yaron Mehulal, an Israeli lawyer who is Priva’s grandson.
Lusia’s story begins in the large house on Muranowska Street in Warsaw where she was born in 1911, the youngest of 10 children in a wealthy family of strictly Orthodox Jews. Despite the family’s stringent observance of Jewish law, “Lusia grew up as a free young woman with a strong sense of social justice,” Mehulal says, adding that a few of her sisters also “deviated” from the traditions of their father’s home and became socialists or communists.
After Priva emigrated to pre-state Israel, in 1924, the two sisters kept in touch through correspondence. In one letter, Lusia complains that she cannot obtain the “certifikat” that would allow her to immigrate to Palestine because “the Zionist government gives them to older unmarried women and their fiancés and when it got to me, there were none left.”
Eventually Lusia did immigrate.: In a photograph from 1936, she is on the roof of her home, on Tel Aviv’s Florentin Street. “A strong girl, gregarious, more sabra than Polish,” Mehulal says.
But she did not stay for long. In December 1936, Lusia and her partner, Abrasha, set off to join the anti-fascist forces in the Spanish civil war. Around 160 volunteers from Palestine took part in the war in Spain. They stopped in Paris, where they learned that Lusia would not be able to join the fighters. She remained in France, where she helped the families of the volunteers.
From her home in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement, in a letter dated September 24, 1937, Lusia wrote to her sister in Tel Aviv: “Priva! I’m happy that Abrasha and my friends are where everyone who wants and fights for democracy should be. Now there are two camps, two fronts in the world. One, the blackest outcome of brutalism – Fascism. And the other: the people who want to fight for freedom, for bread and for peace. If I hadn’t wanted him to go, if I hadn’t understood the fighting in Spain, I would not have the strength to endure our separation. I love Abrasha and these nine months have made this stronger. They have connected us, because not a day goes by without a letter, not a day that he doesn’t prove to me what we are for each other.”
Ten months later, she expressed her concerns about the Arab revolt in Palestine, writing to Priva on July 22, 1938: “It’s sad there’s no end in sight. The time has come for the Jewish people to find a common plan with the Arab people in the country without harming each other.”
In a letter from August of that year, she questions Priva whether the Florentin area is “safe enough” and asks after their parents, who by now were living in Jerusalem. “I often think about going to them and taking them to Poland, but now is not the time,” she wrote.
In the event, Mehulal says, the parents remained in Jerusalem; six of their children died in the Holocaust.
The last letter from Lusia arrived in December 1938. “I am forcing myself to hold my nerves together. For some months now Abrasha was to have arrived any day and he hasn’t … but I have great patience and I am happy that he’s returning healthy,” she wrote.
Mehulal learned about Lusia from “Héros juifs de la Résistance français" (Jewish Heroes of the French Resistance), published in Paris in 1962 and obtained through Itamar Levy, who has a bookstore in Haifa and is famous in Israel for tracking down “lost” books. From the book, he learned that after the Nazis invaded France, Lusia joined the resistance. She was arrested by the Gestapo in 1942, after someone informed on her, and was subsequently sent to Auschwitz, where she died of typhus.
And what happened to Abrasha? It was not until in 2012, while viewing an exhibition at Tel Aviv’s Eretz Israel Museum on Jewish volunteers from Palestine in the Spanish Civil War, that Mehulal learned that his full name had been Abrasha Margulies — Avraham Margalit.
The exhibition’s curator referred Mehulal to the Institute for Labor Research in Memory of Pinchas Lavon. There, Mehulah found three documents mentioning Abrasha — each with a different ending. According to the first, Abrasha died in Spain. The second said his whereabouts were unknown, while according to the third, he died in Auschwitz.