Staff members at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion House faced some embarrassing questions in late October, after love letters from Israel’s first prime minister, already married with three children, to a woman 21 years his junior were published in local media outlets.
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Instead of the usual questions about David Ben-Gurion’s extensive library or the tiny kitchen of his wife, Paula, visitors to the house museum on Ben-Gurion Boulevard wanted to know about the great statesman’s illicit love affairs.
“People talked about it and asked questions the entire weekend. If people ask, we answer. There’s nothing to be done, we don’t deny it. I have nothing to hide,” says Ben-Gurion House director Hanni Hermolin in a conversation with Haaretz. “So what. He was a human being, it’s uncomfortable to admit, flesh and blood. To us it’s a bit of interesting gossip, “yellow” but not necessary. I don’t think it takes away from what he did for the state,” she concluded.
This new curiosity was stoked by the announcement that 50 letters sent by Ben-Gurion in the 1930s to a Viennese medical student are to go up for sale by Jerusalem’s Kedem Auction House on December 2. The minimum bid is $20,000 for the lot, which has a low estimate of $25,000 and a high estimate of $40,000.
When Ben-Gurion and Regina “Rega” Klapholz met, at the 1929 Zionist Congress in Zurich, he was 43; she was 22. Their relationship, consisting of correspondence and meetings during Ben-Gurion’s trips to Europe, ended when Klapholz immigrated, in 1935, to pre-state Israel, where she married and practiced medicine.
“She wasn’t really interested in the past,” says Kalpholz’s granddaughter Dr. Dorit Raz-Prag. Klapholz died in 2007 at the age of 99, 34 years after Ben-Gurion. “She put her past far behind her, particularly the affair with Ben-Gurion,” Raz-Prag said. “I thought she felt threatened, as if her privacy had been violated, and she didn’t want to talk about it. We understood she had an affair with him while he was married, and it was clear to me that that’s why she was reluctant to talk about it, so we didn’t push her.”
But Klapholz did tell family members, years later, that she asked and received Ben-Gurion’s assistance in arranging for “certifikats” that allowed her parents to escape from Vienna at the last minute after the Nazis came to power, Raz-Prag said.
The letters turned up when Klapholz’s adult children were packing up her household before a move, some 30 years ago.
“... I held the stack of letters from Ben-Gurion in my hand. I was excited to be touching his handwriting, but I treated them as someone else’s personal belongings. I realized I had no right to examine them,” says Shaike Raz, who is married to Klapholz’s daughter Edna. He simply packed the letters away and moved them to his mother-in-law’s new home.
Raz was surprised to hear about the auction and wondered how they made their way to the seller.
“The only thing that bothers me is that someone is going to make money off something I saw in a different light and treated as private property,” Raz says, adding that Klapholz herself felt that the letters were hers and no one else’s. “She didn’t want to involve the world in her relationship with Ben-Gurion,” he said.
“We wouldn’t have sold it or made money off it. It’s personal, something that should stay in the family. These are letters addressed to my grandmother.” Raz-Prag says.
Kedem Auction House co-founder and co-manager Meron Eren says the letters, which he calls an “exciting piece of history,” were acquired legally. He declines to name the seller, in keeping with common practice by auction houses.
“Among Zionist leaders, Ben-Gurion is definitely the most sought-after” in the world of auctions, Eren says. Defending the decision to accept the letters for sale, Eren says there have been items “I’ve deemed too revealing regarding public figures, and I preferred not to sell them so as not to harm reputations, particularly if they were from this generation,” he said. “But here we’re talking about letters from the 1930s.”
He notes that some of the letters to Klapholz have been published previously in books about Ben-Gurion and the family even permitted his biographer, Michael Bar-Zohar, to write about Klapholz and other lovers.
“When Ben-Gurion died I asked his children if I could publish details of their father’s love affairs,” Bar-Zohar told Haaretz by phone from the United States last week. “Their answer surprised me — they responded emphatically ‘yes, yes, yes. Publish, so people will see that our father was human.’”
Ben-Gurion’s children are no longer alive, but a grandson, Yariv Ben-Eliezer, spoke about the sale this week. “My grandfather was a great man, but he has rights to privacy despite his status. If he wrote to some woman, loved her or not, it’s nobody’s business. And I support him, because I loved him very much,” Ben-Eliezer says.
“If someone took these letters that he wrote years ago and wants to sell them — go for it. I’m not responsible for the taste of anyone in this country. If someone wants to take intimate, personal matters and sell them. ... This state operates as a free market, sometimes too free. I’m the last person who would try to stop the sale,” says Ben-Eliezer.
Biographer Bar-Zohar put Ben-Gurion’s extracurricular activities into the context of what he said was a certain fundamental incompatibility with his wife, Paula. Ben-Gurion “was a very, very lonely man, and very romantic. He really looked for love, which he didn’t get at home,” says Bar-Zohar, adding, “He wanted a woman who would be a helpmate, with her own opinions, with whom he could argue about ideology. A woman who would share his political vision.”
Paula didn’t meet these criteria, according to Bar-Zohar. “Paula was not Zionist, and she wasn’t pretty. When he wrote her reports from the Zionist Congress, she replied: ‘The children are sick. It rained.’ She was petit bourgeois and loved her husband and family greatly. But he was looking for something else. There’s a letter to her in which he writes that he feels as if he is in an empty, barren desert of ice. And then he started to look around,” Bar-Zohar says.
According to the biographies of Ben-Gurion published by Bar-Zohar and by Shabtai Teveth, as well as chapters from a forthcoming biography by Yossi Goldstein, Ben-Gurion conducted affairs with women other than Klapholz over the years. Bar-Zohar says he learned a lot about Ben-Gurion from the letters to these women. “He was much more sensitive than we thought. To the public he showed one side, but inside he was all teeming emotion. It gives him a human dimension, for better or worse.”
Ben-Gurion’s first love interest was Rachel Nelkin, described by many as “the prettiest girl in Plonsk,” Ben-Gurion’s birthplace. “They were very much in love, but in Israel, when he was dealing with founding a party and neglected her, another young man who was working in the field with her was struck by her beautiful eyes, and married her,” Bar-Zohar says, adding, “Ben-Gurion never forgave himself for this mistake.”
A few months before Ben-Gurion died, Bar-Zohar sat with him for a long talk at the former prime minister’s home in Sde Boker. Paula had already died. “I asked if he missed Paula, and he opened up in a surprising way,” recalls Bar-Zohar. Ben-Gurion told him, “My entire life I loved one woman. Rachel.”
Doris May, Chaim Weizmann’s private secretary in England, was another of Ben-Gurion’s lovers. “David, my dear, I don’t know if it’s ‘safe’ to write to you, but if not, you will certainly find a way to warn me. Your departure left London very empty. Yours, always, D.’” she once wrote him.
Then there was Miriam Cohen (later, Taub), Ben-Gurion’s secretary during his trips to the United States in the early 1940s. They used code words in their correspondence.
And there was Rivka Katzenelson, who related that he would arrive at their encounters “hungry, in a hurry, huffing and puffing,” and said he “was looking for an outlet — nothing more.” She says the two met at a party function in Tel Aviv in 1929 that she attended with a friend. “Instead of sitting at this boring function, come take a walk with two girls,” read the note he passed to her.
Where was Paula in all of this? Letters she wrote to him clearly imply that she knew what was going on. “Dear David, your letters are becoming increasingly rare. What’s the deal, have you found new attractions?” she asked in 1930. A decade later, she threatened to commit suicide over his affairs.
The collection of Ben-Gurion’s letters to Klapholz includes a photograph of David and Paula Ben-Gurion at the Dead Sea, on the back of which is the inscription, “To Rega, from Paula,” and the date July 9, 1935. The story is that when Klapholz immigrated to Israel she went to the Ben-Gurion home. It was Paula, who knew about their relationship, who opened the door. She chose to give the visitor the photograph, presumably in order to remind her that Ben-Gurion was a married man.