First Gathering of Tel Hai Descendants Sheds Light on Lesser-known Israeli Heroes

Tel Hai Courtyard Museum brings together descendants of those who settled in Tel Hai at the beginning of the period of Zionist settlement in Palestine.

The Cohen family doesn't know exactly which rock it is, but somewhere in or near the Tel Hai courtyard, it is said that there is a rock that their grandmother, Yehudit Tzenter-Cohen, dissolved with her tears. As a young woman and mother in Tel Hai, she endured dire times.

The grandchildren and great grandchildren of Tzenter-Cohen and her husband, Kalman Cohen, descendents of Tel Hai, carry with them the myth of the small northern farming settlement in the upper Galilee that is now part of Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. But their myth is not the same one that has been seared into the national memory: the heroic story of the one-armed fighter, Tel Hai resident Joseph Trumpeldor, who along with seven comrades, died defending the site from Arab attackers in 1920 (and whose final words, according to the legend, were: "It is good to die for our country." )

Tel Hai Descendents - Yaron Kaminsky - 28122011
Yaron Kaminsky

"Until now Tel Hai belonged to [Joseph] Trumpeldor, and on the way they forgot those who lived and held onto the place under extremely stressful conditions," says Orna Pundak, the granddaughter of Yehudit and Kalman Cohen. "People lived here out of a sense of mission and lofty ideals, in terrible poverty. Even living here - and not only dying here - was an act of heroism."

Pundak was one of the descendants of the settlers and defenders of the place who gathered in the Tel Hai Courtyard Museum last week for the first meeting of its kind.

"The idea of bringing the families together was born out of the desire to make room for those people who lived here, to bring them back home, to hear about the old stories that were handed down from one generation to the next," explains museum director Tali Feigelson. "We want to bring them close to the place, to the courtyard, and to show them what has been done here."

Over the years the museum managed to put together partial lists of the families of those who settled in Tel Hai at the beginning of the period of Zionist settlement in Palestine, but these lists were not updated. Names disappeared and were added. In preparing for Tuesday's meeting, museum employees tracked down about 90 descendants. Feigelson says that over the years, as the battle legend of Tel Hai spread, there were some who tried to find a family connection to the place. When asked whether there were people who tried to join the gathering without proof of a family connection, Feigelson answers diplomatically that "we didn't insult anyone."

In addition to the well-known battle heritage, the museum has made efforts lately to emphasize, through displays, the daily life of the settlers, in particular, the significant role played by the women who lived there.

When museum guide Tamar Shaki is showing the families an old food storage cupboard donated by the Cohen family, which dates from the period of the "courtyard," she turns to those present and asks: "If you have items, objects, writings of those who lived here, give them to us. I emphasize the word 'lived,' because you don't necessarily have to look for a pistol," says Shaki, alluding to the stories of those who died fighting.

Among the less familiar stories that were told Tuesday was one about the many settlers who left in 1926, because of their fierce opposition to the decision of the Gdud Ha'avoda (Work Brigade ) to have the members of Kibbutz Tel Hai join Kibbutz Kfar Giladi. The decision was opposed by then-Histadrut leader David Ben-Gurion. The group that left described the act as an "expulsion." The searing experience stayed with them throughout the years, and influenced the attitudes of their sons and daughters as well.

"Since then there has been great tension between Kfar Giladi and the Tel Hai veterans who were forced to leave," says Amnon Levin, the former director of the Tel Hai Museum. He says that the day they left was so hard for those "expelled" that a comment made by one of the girls, Ora Cohen, is still remembered: "Come and see, grownups are crying."

Several of the "expelled" families established Moshav Be'er Tuvia, in the southern coastal plain, and decided to settle there precisely on the 11th of the month of Adar, 1930, which was 10 years after the battle in the Tel Hai courtyard. "Grandpa and Grandma didn't talk much about the 'expulsion,' but I know that they were very angry," says Pundak. "We live with a feeling that they stole history from us. Our mission is to revive it by strengthening the myth of the struggle for life in Tel Hai, and not only the story of the famous day of battle."

"Now they are beginning to repair a historical injustice," says Michael Yitzhar, the son of Zalman Belchovsky, who was a senior at the Gymnasia Herzliya high school in Tel Aviv when he answered the call to defend Tel Hai. Yitzhar's father lived at Tel Hai for a year- and-a-half and even fought in the famous battle. "For years, the invitation to the ceremony on the 11th of Adar read 'Trumpeldor and his friends.' Didn't his friends have names?" asks Yitzhar. "They also forgot that this place symbolizes the sanctity of the living and not only the sanctity of the dead."

Yitzhar, who is the chairman of the association of friends of the Tel Hai Courtyard, is disturbed about the erosion of the myth of Tel Hai in contemporary Israeli society. "It hurts me that they are trying to shatter a nice myth of love of the land; after all, people with great ideals lived here, who left behind wealthy families, lived here modestly, and came to establish a state and a new society here. I think that those values exist today only among religious Zionist youth."

Moshe Cohen, whose father Yossik was born in the courtyard and was named after Joseph Trumpeldor, regrets that over the years "they took the wrong lesson from the myth of Tel Hai." He says that "not all risk-taking is wise. After all, [Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev] Jabotinsky himself said that they should evacuate Tel Hai. You have to fight with determination for the important things, and to win. But you also have to take calculated risks, and not always to be passionate and to remain stubborn until the end."