Vanished Like Smoke

"K'zohar Harakiya - Hayeiha V'kitveiya shel Zahara Leviatov" ("The Glow of Heaven: Zahara Leviatov"), edited by Ofer Regev, Porat Publishing, 465 pages, NIS 89.

"K'zohar Harakiya - Hayeiha V'kitveiya shel Zahara Leviatov" ("The Glow of Heaven: Zahara Leviatov"), edited by Ofer Regev, Porat Publishing, 465 pages, NIS 89.

Zahara Leviatov, whose revised book of letters has just been published, has been at the heart of the national-heroic stage for many years. The trajectory of her life is typical of her generation. She was born in Tel Aviv, spent her early years at Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim outside of Jerusalem, and moved with her family as a child to live in Tel Aviv; her father had a senior position in the Histadrut labor federation. When she was 10 years old, she joined the northern "nest" of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement and attended the Beit Hinuch school - established by the admired educator Tony Helle and "based on innovative pedagogical principles and modern learning methods." Apparently "it was made for girls like Zahara, whose intellectual ability is greater than their ability to adjust to rigorous frameworks." During her high-school days, the first love story of her brief life unfolded, involving Amichai Kleibner of Rehovot, "the son of a family whose life was channeled by a sense of mission."

After completing high school, she decided to enlist in the Palmach underground strike force, and joined the training program at Ein Harod. During her service she participated in the heroic and tragic mission of blowing up the Al-Kazib Bridge, near where Kibbutz Gesher Haziv was later founded, on the "Night of the Bridges" (whose aim was to destroy all bridges between Palestine and neighboring territories) on June 17, 1946. There, for the first time, the triangle was drawn that determined the path of her life and the myth of her heroism: heroism - participating in that mission as part of the Night of the Bridges, which was "engraved in the Israeli heritage"; death - this was the only incident that night during which there were losses - 14 were killed; and love - her first boyfriend, Kleibner, was among the casualties.

To a large extent, the story of the Al-Kazib Bridge was a "dress rehearsal" for her brief and intense story: It preceded her death by two years and two months.

After a brief recovery, Zahara returned to Ein Harod, where she met Shmuel Koifman of the Jerusalem Platoon, which was seconded to the Ein Harod Battalion. This is how the meeting is described: "The air was charged with romantic electricity. They sat at the entrance to the tent and talked, and in the meantime night fell on the valley and when they looked at their watches they could not understand how the hours had slipped by unnoticed."

Inevitable end

Thus the famous romance of the fallen began. There were other well-known romances of this sort, but none as tragic and intense as theirs. In May, 1947, Shmuel was killed in a training accident, and of her expression of despair at the sight of his crushed body it is said: "Zahara's heart-rending cries came from the cooling room and shook the skies of the valley. It was half an hour before it was possible to take her out of there."

After his death, her life moved at a faster pace - traveling to the United States to find some small consolation in the midst of the family of Shmuel's sister Bruria; undergoing a pilots' training course for Israelis in southern California; having a brief romance with Amnon Berman, a pilot she met on the course, who died when his plane crashed a short time later; and joining the air force. Then, the inevitable end: her death on August 3, 1948, in a plane crash over the Valley of the Cross in Jerusalem. Some people said that the reason for the accident lay in her suicidal tendencies. The editor of the book believes that the reason was very prosaic: One of the bolts in the plane was not fastened correctly.

Leviatov became a national heroine for several reasons. The first was that she was a heroic woman. A number of women have joined the pantheon of national heroism, but most of them did their heroic deeds in Europe: the parachutist Hannah Senesh, who was executed in occupied Budapest; Haviva Reik, who was killed in Slovakia; and the ghetto heroines, some of whom survived the inferno in Europe and reached the shores of Israel, and some of whom perished there. These included: Chaika Grossman, Rozka Korczak, Toussia Altman and Zvia Lubatkin, about whom Natan Alterman wrote, when the false report of her death came through, that she had fallen on "One of the thresholds of the history of Israel / The threshold of death and the threshold of hope."

Here, no outstanding heroines arose: Devorah Drechler and Sarah Chizzick fell at Tel Hai, but their memory is dwarfed in the shadow of the huge memory of the one-armed hero Joseph Trumpeldor. Bracha Pold, to some extent, was an accidental heroine: She fell in Tel Aviv in October, 1946, as she stood guard over the disembarkation of illegal immigrants from the ship Wingate.

In the War of Independence there were no heroines. In the 1950s there was only one heroine: Varda Friedman, of Kfar Witkin, who helped absorb immigrants at Moshav Patish and was killed in 1955 in an attack by infiltrators in the moshav. During all those crowded and tempestuous years, Zahara Leviatov, then, was almost the only heroine.

The second reason for her entry into the pantheon is the memoir about her, "Zahara's Life and Writings," which included her letters to Shmuel Koifman during his lifetime and after his tragic death. This for many years was a well-known book, very popular among young people. In the genre of memorial books for the fallen, which were published before and after the War of Independence, this one takes pride of place in the center of the front row. When it was published, then prime minister David Ben-Gurion wrote to her bereaved father: "I do not know whether there is any other book so loving, so glorious and so mournful" (Jerusalem, January 1, 1952).

The reason was that Leviatov was the daughter of a family rooted in and connected to the heart of the Labor and Zionist establishment, and to key events in the history of the Yishuv (pre-state Jewish community in Palestine). In an illuminating introduction, the editor, Ofer Regev, gives her parents' history: They decided to immigrate to the Land of Israel after a meeting with Joseph Trumpeldor and sailed here on the Ruslan, the mythological ship that opened the Third Aliyah - the pioneering immigration. Afterward, they were among the founders of Kibbutz Kiryat Anavim in the Jerusalem hills. Zahara's father was among the heads of Hever Hakvutzot, the kibbutz movement that was associated with Mapai (precursor of today's Labor Party), and a head of Meshek Ha'ovdim (the workers' economy section) in the Histadrut.

Yishuv elites

Her background was not an incidental element: Every one of the symbols of heroism were born and raised in families connected to the elite of the Yishuv: Rafi Maltz of Ein Harod was the son of David Maltz, the author of a book that caused a tempest in the kibbutz movement; Aharon Shemi, known as "Jimmy," was the son of the famed sculptor Menachem Shemi (Schmidt); Danny Mass, the commander of the Lamed Heh (the 35 Hebrew University students who were slaughtered in an attempt to resupply Kibbutz Kfar Etzion in the spring of 1948), was the son of Reuven Mass, the founder of an important publishing house; Tuvia Kushnir was the son of Shimon Kushnir of the Aliyah Bet (the second wave of immigration); and my uncle, Yechiam Weitz, was the son of Yosef Weitz, one of the heads of the Jewish National Fund and a father of the settlement project.

Among the true heroes there were also "others," such as the recipients of the Heroism Medal, Emil Brig or Siman-Tov Gana, but the symbols of heroism were native born, Ashkenazi and from good families, who followed the accepted course (a suitable school, preferably the Hebrew Gymnasia in Jerusalem or the Reali in Haifa, a pioneering youth movement, training at a kibbutz and the Palmach). To a large extent, the elite perpetuated itself in this way. These symbols were not "born of the sea," as author Moshe Shamir depicted his brother Elik in his book "With His Own Hands," but came from a specific and clearly defined social and cultural background. This distinction (which as far as I am concerned is rather subversive) applies to both Elik Shamir and Zahara Leviatov.

The fifth - and key, and ultimate - reason for her entry into the pantheon is that hers is a story in which there is the kitschy combination of a heroic death and a heartbreaking love story. It is not by chance that of all the tens of thousands who have died in Israel's wars, writer Devorah Omer has written only about her: In her story there is a plethora of fascinating and moving materials for a book for young readers. The book entitled "To Love Death" came out in 1980, and four years after its initial publication, it had been published in seven editions. This ingredient is the strongest element in the book.

In volume No. 3 of "Hebrew Literature, 1880-1980," Gershon Shaked argues that the books of the fallen are not uniform in quality and their authors should not be seen as a crystallized group. Some of them, like Rafi Maltz, were already "skilled in the treasures of music and literature," while others had "narrower horizons." How should Zahara's book and letters be evaluated with respect to this judgment? The book is not deep and it is devoid of cultural richness and complex contexts - and no wonder. She was a very young woman, almost a girl, who fell when she was less than 21 years old. Some of the things that have been included in the book are indeed the thoughts of a high-school girl. The things she wrote about Hannah Senesh, for example, are intelligent and worthy, but it is difficult to identify in them any special brilliance or insights ("Among her poems there were a few that I liked ... in their simplicity, their sincerity and the way they were on target. And the whole affair of the mission to its very end is truly shocking. Everything shows that before us is an extraordinary person.").

The power and the beauty, then, are in the letters she sent to Shmuel, during his life and after his death. In the letters she sent him while he was alive, a clear line emerges: overflowing love. In one of these letters (Ein Harod, December 27, 1946), she wrote: "And what are you doing at this moment, my Shmulik? Are you asleep, or are you perhaps awake and also writing a letter to me? The feeling that tomorrow we shall see each other gives me so much more courage, that the desire to sleep is overwhelming, and the thought - the more quickly I will be less without you, because certainly in my sleep I will fly to you, and tomorrow morning I will travel to you immediately. And therefore, my Shmulik, I shall bid you good night and sweet sleep. S-h-m-u-l-i-k!"

In the letters to him after his death, a tendency emerges that is mainly desperate longing. On the 30th day after his death (June 2, 1947), she wrote: "My Shmulik! Thirty days have gone by since that terrible and strange day. Thirty whole days. Is it possible? Today we stood again in silence and tearful next to the rectangle of stones and heap of sand, upon which there is a small tin sign: Shmuel Asher Koifman. Are you really lying there, my child? Did the dreams really speak in vain and will you really never return to me? How did it happen, my child, that you suddenly disappeared from life, and left me alone, full of plans that have been shorn and have vanished like smoke?"

And what were the reasons for the publication of the revised edition? In the introduction, the editor gives a personal and private reason: The book accompanied his mother in her youth, "during her first years in this country after she immigrated, imbued with Zionist consciousness, from Tripoli in Libya." I myself add another reason: The book might well bring a generation that did not know Zahara and Jimmy and Danny Mass closer to the days in which they lived and to the spirit and the values for which they sacrificed their young souls, thousands of light-years distant from this generation.

Prof. Yechiam Weitz's book "From Fighting Underground to Political Party" was published by the Ben-Gurion Research Center of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.