Albert Elazar, A Personal Memoir of My Father
Daniel J. Elazar
Part One: The Old World
On Rosh Hodesh Menachem Av (July 19, 1993), between the hours of 5 and 6 a.m., my father, Albert (Avraham ben Yehuda) Elazar, passed away. Officially, he had just celebrated his 87th birthday on June 18th, surrounded by his family. Although family and friends were near throughout his illness and three-month hospitalization, he died peacefully in his sleep, alone.
My father was an aristocrat in his soul with an aristocratic physical bearing, who impressed everyone whom he met with those qualities, which radiated from him internally and were not only displayed externally. He was an exceptional father in every respect, a great teacher, a statesman whose major talent was in seeing various points of view and bringing people of differing views together to work on common enterprises or in common institutions, a political analyst of deep understanding, and most of all, someone who could see the consequences of actions several steps beyond the actions themselves. His life was guided by those characteristics and criteria which flowed from them. Indeed, his disappointments with public service came from watching people entrusted with public responsibility unable to develop those qualities in themselves and undertaking actions that belied them. One assumes that his disappointments with us, his children and grandchildren, which were mostly unspoken, had their roots in the same sources, as did his pleasure with us.
Life is a series of partings -- separations and farewells -- punctuated, if one is fortunate, by moments of happiness and achievement. The supreme parting in life is death, a separation that for the living is final, whatever the prospects there may be for an afterlife for the dead themselves. We all live from parting to parting, from separation to separation, from farewell to farewell.
Because we live in time, each of life's partings has its time and the partings recur time after time. Because we live in space we continually part from places from time to time. Because we live within cultures, these partings may take place as we move from subculture to subculture within our culture and between cultures as well. Most of those partings are "light," seemingly inconsequential, the normal comings and goings of people in their various relationships. Others are more noticeable and still others are more painful in varying degrees, ranging from a wrench caused by a temporary parting from a particular loved one or a particular loved place or a particularly loved time or even some combination of two or three of these, to the ultimate parting of life and death. Humans live from parting to parting. In the course of time, most part to a greater or lesser degree from their hopes and ideals as well, as life wears on them -- at best, adjusting both to reality, at worst, abandoning both in the face of pressure or disappointment. Because of the frequency and intensity of those partings, one learns to cherish the moments of happiness and achievement which one is granted, to keep them in memory, to hope that they will last even while we understand the limitations imposed upon them by the inexorable passage of time. Failure to understand the reality and inexorability of these partings leaves people callow, undeveloped, unable to come to grips with the tragic dimensions of life. Thus maturity consists in great measure in learning how to deal with partings. When, as so many contemporaries do, life is presented as resting on love without reference to the additional pain which love brings to partings, this callowness is fostered. At the same time, when we overemphasize partings or try to minimize their significance, we err in the other direction.
My father experienced many partings. Born into the Sephardic Jewish community of Jerusalem, he and those around him parted from the Ottoman empire and the leading role played by the Sephardim in guiding the Jewish community of Eretz Israel under that empire. After World War I he and his family parted from the Old City of Jerusalem. Thereafter, he parted from his family's intense religious observance and then from the family's physical presence. At the end of the 1920s, he parted from the Old World to embark on life in the New, where he also parted from being able to live his Sephardic tradition because he lived in an American Ashkenazic environment. In his case, as in most others, each of these partings contained within them a measure of expectation, of challenge, of opportunity, and perhaps of enlargement, as did the lesser partings as he moved from position to position and from place to place.
At the end of his life my father began another set of partings, from his work, from the United States, from a fully independent life to one requiring greater support, and finally from life itself. Except for the last parting which was his alone, I was close enough to experience his reaction to the others. He took his parting from work and the recognition of at best partial success in his vocation with equanimity. He felt that he had done his share and I think he also felt that he had done his best and knew that no one person can ask for more than that. Being the person that he was, he tried to plan for each parting, to prepare for it, to encompass it in the orbit of his life and the lives of his family, and to make the best of it. The way in which he coped with those partings and the opportunities and enlargements or the contractions they represented teaches us how to live our lives and gives us the measure of the man.
Obviously, my memories of my father over 59 years of my life and in light of his own recollections of his nearly 90 years, are extensive for me as his firstborn son. They are further enhanced by my rather intense involvement in his work during his working years and in his public interests always and his general willingness to talk with me about those mutual interests. I have tried in the following pages, written in the month following his passing, to remember both as best I could. In every case that I have tried to present my father's thoughts and opinions, I have tried to present his, not mine. At times I did not agree with him or had moved in different directions, but while this memoir of necessity has too much of me, I have tried to make it a memoir of his thoughts and ideas, not mine, except where identified as such.
I - My Father and his Family
Avraham ben Yehuda ben Yitzhak and Naama Elazar, from the House of Abulafia, was born in Jerusalem. His official birthdate was June 18, 1906, but this is not certain. He himself told me that the date, like his English name Albert, was given to him by the British during World War I. He indicated, and those who knew him in his early days confirmed, that he was born on Shabbat Nachamu, that is to say, the Sabbath after Tisha B'Av. On any number of occasions when I was younger, he told me that his true birthdate was 1903 and there is some evidence written to suggest that so it was.
Avraham Elhanani, a leading journalist for Davar in his time and also a part of the old Jerusalem Sephardic community, who knew my father when they were both children, told me one time that his first memory of my father was when my father, about four years older than Elhanani, acted in a play in the Old City. Elhanani's recollection would essentially confirm the 1903 date. So, too, did my father's friendship with Yaakov Yehoshua, the late author of a series of books chronicling the life of the Old City's Sephardic community at the turn of the century, who was my father's closest friend at the time. It is not likely that children who were close friends would be substantially different in age.
On the other hand, his brother Yaakov Elazar, who has made himself into the historian of Sephardic Jerusalem, particularly of the Old Yishuv, insists that my father was born in 1908, and so it is recorded in a Humash that belonged to their father in which the latter recorded the births of all his children. However, as my father told me, it was necessary at some point to lower his age to avoid his being drafted into the Ottoman army when the Turks entered upon the dark days of World War I and hence the family record could easily have been doctored to reflect that, either by writing of his birth and those of his siblings anew in a new Humash or by altering the "3" with the easiest of alterations, namely, transforming it into an "8". In any case, he never once suggested to anybody that 1908 was the correct date.
Our first evidence of his use of 1906 comes from the Palestine passport issued him by the British Colonial Office and dated 1926. It is Palestine passport No. 2. He told me that the first Palestine passport was issued to Brigadier Kisch, the highest ranking Palestinian Jewish officer serving in the British army in World Wars I and II until he was killed in the latter. (My father was very proud of having been issued Palestine passport No. 2, which he kept among his possessions throughout his life.) And so he was listed on his entry into the United States and upon acquiring U.S. citizenship in 1933.
If the 1903 date is correct, he would have been two weeks short of his 90th birthday when he died. His memories also suggested that this is the most plausible date, of which more below. It is also the only date that makes possible his service in World War I, a claim which he made in public at least in St. Paul, Minnesota, in the 1930s and in private to me through the 1940s as well.
Avraham Judah Elazar (Sephardim in that period took their father's name as a second name and so did he in his early records and well into the 1930s; for example, he had an old briefcase from that period which he subsequently gave to me with the initials AJE and there were other documents as well) was born into two aristocratic Sephardic families that could trace their ancestry back to Spain at least as far back as the eleventh century. While he himself grew away from Sephardic traditions when he left the Mediterranean world, he always remained quietly proud of his background and communicated that sense of quiet pride to his sons who, upon their return to Eretz Israel, also returned to their Sephardic heritage to which he had introduced them.
Both families trace their earliest appearance on the stage of history to the same two cities: Toledo in Castille and Zaragoza in Aragon, and from the historical, architectural and archeological records appear to have been neighbors in both communities at different times. The main surviving synagogue building in Toledo -- El Transito -- was built by Samuel Abulafia (1320-1361) who was treasurer to the Castillean king and whose home, just up the street from the synagogue, still stands (later it became the home of El Greco and is now a Spanish museum), including its four underground floors where Abulafia kept his and the kingdom's wealth. While the Elazar record is less visible there, my cousin Carmel reports that the name is carved into at least one lintel. In the family records it suggests that they lived there at that time, although they were not so prominent as the very distinguished Abulafia family that included leading rabbis and halakhic authorities as well as government ministers and similar public figures, both in the Jewish community and in the gentile world.
More is known about the Elazars in Zaragoza where they were community leaders mentioned in many documents of the period, cited by the late Professor Yitzhak (Fritz) Baer in his studies of the history of the Jews in Christian Spain. According to the records, in Zaragoza the Elazars were considerably more prominent than the Abulafias, although Avraham Abulafia, the great Jewish kabbalist, apparently came from Zaragoza. The family was involved in every facet of Jewish life and leadership in that community from the time of the first known records (in 1096 C.E.) until the Expulsion. During those years they also moved to Valencia and Barcelona where in the mid-fourteenth century, Don Judah Elazar was leader of the Jewish community of Catalonia and as such took the lead in trying to confederate the Jewish communities of Aragon, Catalonia, and Valencia, a confederation that lasted for only a short time.
My father remembered that in the old Jerusalem of his childhood the old Sephardic community still celebrated the Purim of Zaragoza (most of the community seems to have been descendants of those who were originally from Aragon in any case), marking one of those deliveries, deemed miraculous, of the Jews from the hands of their enemies. As my father told it, the story of the Zaragoza Purim was that every year the King of Aragon demanded that the Jews parade past him with all their Sifrei Torah as a demonstration of fealty. The Jews did so but, since their Sifrei Torah, in the Sephardic manner, were in decorated boxes rather than simply on rollers with decorative coverings, they were able to take the scrolls out so as not to violate Jewish religious belief by the need to dip the Torah before a non-Jewish earthly ruler. Then they would parade and the king did not know the difference.
One year a Jewish convert to Christianity who knew of this, told the king what the Jews did and told him to have the Torah containers opened as they passed him and he would learn the truth. The Jews learned of this and were in deep consternation. Nevertheless, they started out on the parade as usual. As they passed the king, they were called upon to open the containers, and when they did, lo and behold, the scrolls were inside, miraculously, thereby saving them from the king's wrath. This "Purim-like" miracle was marked from then on by the Jews of Aragon including my father's family and others in Jerusalem.
The Elazar family from which we are descended left Aragon and Castille in 1492. Other Elazars did not. At least one branch of the family formally converted and became secret Jews, moving later to Portugal. In 1755, Isaac Elizar, his wife and children, were among the group of Portuguese Marranoes who vowed that if they survived the Lisbon earthquake of that year, they would move somewhere where they could resume the open practice of Judaism. They moved to Newport, Rhode Island, and helped build the community there. Later, the Revolutionary War forced them to leave Newport and they moved to Charleston, South Carolina, where none of Isaac's children seem to have married and that branch of the family passed out of existence, perhaps because they would not marry non-Jews, putting their Jewish commitment before family survival.
Meanwhile, what is to us the main branch of the family moved to Italy briefly and by 1504 an Elazar is recorded as having signed the askamot or articles of agreement establishing a new congregation in Salonika, then part of the Ottoman empire, for Jews from Italy. For nearly four centuries our family was associated with Salonika, although in fact Elazars settled throughout Macedonia. When, as a result of the Balkan wars of the late nineteenth century, Macedonia was divided among Bulgaria, Serbia, Turkey and Greece, Elazars were to be found in each of the new countries.
My father's grandfather was the one who brought his family to Jerusalem. We celebrated the centennial of that event in 1976 with a family reunion at the President's official residence in Jerusalem. Israel's President at that time was Yitzhak Navon and the Navons and Elazars had been neighbors, first in Zaragoza and more recently in Jerusalem where Yitzhak and I worship in the same synagogue, Congregation Yissa Bracha, named after the former Rishon leZion (chief rabbi) of the Eliachar family. This is the synagogue that for many years after 1963, when it was erected, contained the majority of the Jerusalem Old City families, although by now death and population dispersion have ended that. As I write this, only three of those born in Ottoman days remain, all relatives, one by marriage.
My great grandfather, according to the family story, decided to come to Jerusalem on Pesach; after delivering the traditional conclusion of the Seder -- "Next year in Jerusalem" -- he either felt moved or was visited in a dream by the Prophet Elijah (there are two versions) to follow that dictum with his family. Influenced by Rabbi Judah Alkalai, the proto-Zionist leader from Serbia who had a major impact on the Sephardim of the Balkans, my great grandfather decided that the time had come to redeem Eretz Israel and that his family should take a hand in that effort. According to the accounts that have come down from the family, my great grandfather told his wife of his decision by indicating to her that he did not want to go to Eretz Israel to die but to live in the country, raise his children there and build the country up. He was a merchant (export-import) in Salonika and became a merchant in Jerusalem.
* * *
My grandfather, my father's father, was raised with rabbinical training but he, too, was involved in export-import activities for much of his life, hardly ever working professionally in the rabbinate for income. My uncle Yaakov has recorded six different occupations that he undertook at one time or another. It was only when he had to avoid service in the Turkish army that he became the rabbi of the Monastir congregation in Jerusalem, leading the Monastirlis for several years. One result of that was that my uncle became something of an authority in the prayer melodies of the Monastirlis which he subsequently sang for people like Isaac Levy to record in Levy's anthology of Sephardic hazzanut and in other collections.
According to all reports, my grandfather was a wonderful storyteller with a very good sense of humor. The Arabs in particular loved to listen to him tell stories and he loved doing so. Several of his stories came down to us from my father. When asked to explain why there were three monotheistic religions, my grandfather used to tell the story that there was once a king who had a very beautiful ring and who also had three sons. As the king approached his death, he knew that all three of his sons would want his ring as an inheritance so he secretly called in a jeweler, showed him the ring, and asked him to make two others exactly like it, even with the same scratches. The jeweler was surprised but did what the king requested and in the end the king had three exactly identical rings. Then he called in each of his sons individually and said to him: "Here, I am about to die and I want to entrust you with my ring" and presented him with one of the three, so that each of the sons believed that he had the original ring, but all three had exactly identical ones. He does not seem to have said that the true original ring was kept for one of the sons, or suggest that the original monotheism stayed with the Jews, a natural extension of the story, but rather, implicitly, that each has a claim and no one knows for sure.
A second story that my father related to me from his father (whom I never knew since I was born in the United States and he remained in Jerusalem) was based on the question of a father who had a son who had many acquaintances and spent his life carousing with them, always claiming that they were his friends. One day the father, who, being more realistic, knew the difference between good time friends and real ones, suggested to his son that they test the proposition. The son agreed, so the father got a watermelon which he put into a sack. The two of them then went from door to door among the "friends" and presented themselves as having just murdered an attacker and that they had his head in the bag and needed shelter. All but one of the presumed friends turned them away with more or less fear. Only one said that he would help. When they finished making the rounds, the father said to the son, "Now you see how many friends you really have. A friend is only someone who will help in the time of real need."
As it turns out, two had to do with bodily functions. In Middle Eastern fashion, his stories began with questions and he posed two. In the first story he asked why do dogs always raise their rear legs when they have to urinate. The response is that once a dog was relieving himself along a city alley and the retaining wall fell down upon him. Since then every dog has raised his rear leg to keep the retaining wall from coming down and hurting him. The second question was why do camels relieve themselves backward. His answer: once Mohammed the prophet was riding a camel through the desert and it was very hot. Seeking the only shade available, he got off the camel and sat down underneath it. After a while the camel had to relieve himself, but he obviously could not wet the prophet, so he went backward, something which camels have done in tribute ever since.
With regard to attitudes and relations with different groups, my grandfather and his family maintained good relations with the Arabs but always said of them, "Kabdehu v'hashdehu." (Pay them honor but suspect them.)
My grandfather's reputation was as a cheerful person, always with a good word, and a leader of the community. Reportedly, my grandfather was quite a man about town. Various people who remember him or who have studied the matter have reported to me that he, like the other Sephardim in the city, prayed in the four great Old City synagogues of their community -- the Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai, the Emtsai, the Istanbuli, and the Eliahu Hanavi. My father said he normally prayed in the Istanbuli but I have also heard that he often prayed in the Emtsai very close to the door of the Istanbuli. My father himself remembered praying in the Istanbuli, where he also studied as a boy, on a regular basis. My brother tells me that my father told him a story of how on Tisha B'Av when at Mincha (the afternoon service) the men were wearing their tallitot (prayer shawls), he and the other small boys ran around and quietly tied them all together and then waited for the men to get up, with the resultant confusion. When we came back to Jerusalem in 1968 my father took me to visit the four synagogues, then in ruins following the Jordanian occupation when they were used as stables and before they were renovated so nicely. My father showed me where there had been a table in the Istanbuli at which he and his young friends sat studying Psalms. My father did have the kind of classical Jewish education that enabled him to quote profusely from the Bible and with little effort to identify and illustrate the points he was making in his later conversations and speeches.
The Elazar family settled in the Old City, acquiring a hazakah (permanent right) to a hatzer (courtyard compound) overlooking the Kotel HaMaaravi (Western wall) from its two upper windows. Apparently it was both as good and as primitive as any other place in the Old City, that is to say, spacious and comfortable with regard to size, at least according to the standards of the time, kept clean by my grandmother with the help of servants, but with water drawn from a well in the courtyard and stored in a cistern for times of need, no refrigeration except the coolness of the cistern, which was covered and into which they lowered things that required coolness for preservation.
* * *
My grandmother Naama (Naomi) Abulafia, referred to by her contemporaries as Naamachi, was born in Gallipoli, in what is now Turkey, where her branch of the Abulafia family had settled relatively late after first having settled in Smyrna (Izmir). She still had many relatives in Izmir. She was married before she married my grandfather to a man from the Ibn Ezra family and had a daughter by him whom she named Boukas, the traditional Sephardic name for first-born girls and the equivalent of the Hebrew Bechora (in many cases, first-born Sephardic males were given the name Bechor). My grandmother was widowed when her daughter already was grown and engaged to Nahman Yohai, also of Ottoman Turkey. While Boukas accompanied her mother to Jerusalem when she came to marry my grandfather, she soon left to join her fiancee who had gone directly to New York and my grandmother never saw her again. My father remembers his mother sitting at the window and singing the Sephardic folksong "Arboles Lloran k'Lluvia" (Trees Crying in the Rain), a popular lament, as she thought of her daughter so far away.
My grandmother was by all reports a very aristocratic woman, very proud of her family lineage. At that time the Spaniol Sephardim were rather sharply divided along class lines; with a small number of elite families and large numbers of very poor ones. While we did not have the wealth, we had the status, and she certainly believed in yichus. Years later when I was studying at the University of Chicago and had begun to become friendly with Professor Leo Strauss, the great political philosopher who was himself a German Jew by origin, I told him that I was a Sephardi. He said to me, "You may know that I am not so much of a democrat. I believe very much in yichus. You know what is yichus? And the yichus of Sephardim is very much greater than ours (meaning German Jews)." He then asked me how far I could trace back my family. When I told him to the eleventh century, he was enormously impressed, saying that he could only trace his back to the seventeenth. I believe that this established a special relationship between us until his death.
Not only was the Abulafia family from a long and distinguished line, but in my grandmother's day it was also very distinguished. Her brother was Gedalia Abulafia, one of the leaders of the Young Turk revolution in 1908 and a member of the Young Turk government. My father often told me the story of how, as a minister, his uncle was not placed in the line of ministers according to his rank, which would have made him number three, but at the end of the line because he was Jewish. As a result, when he went into the new Sultan he ended up not third from the right but, sitting in a semicircle, immediately on the Sultan's left. The Sultan noticed that he was out of place according to the rank on his uniform (at that time all Ottoman officials, civilian as well as military, wore uniforms with the appropriate insignia of rank and decorations) and asked him about it. He more or less hinted that it was the result of discrimination against his Jewishness. The Sultan very deliberately placed his hand on my uncle's shoulder and said to him: "It is better this way. This way you are closer to me." The jacket that the Sultan touched immediately became an object of veneration for the Turkish peasants and so it was displayed.
We had two other ranking Ottoman officials in our family in that generation. One, apparently another brother of my grandmother, was the commissary general for the Turkish army in northern Iraq (or at least that is what I was told by my father) with the rank of Pasha which was the equivalent of major-general in Western terms. He retired to Jerusalem and my father described to me his remembrance that when his uncle arrived in the city, he was given an official reception and parade by the local Turkish authorities. This was upon his retirement and he stayed in Jerusalem after retirement for the rest of his life. My uncle tells me that he opposed the 1908 Young Turk revolution, that he was a conservative who thought it was better for the Jews if the status quo remained. Since my father remembers him coming here and he must have retired either before or as a result of the 1908 revolution, this is some additional evidence that my father was born in 1903.
The other official was my great uncle Toledo, who married my grandfather's sister. He was a very handsome man and his photo (in full uniform) hangs in my office. I have another photo of my grandmother's brother in the same uniform (they are in exactly the same dress and pose). Toledo was an Ottoman official locally and active in the Vaad HaEdah HaSepharadit, the governing body of the Sephardic Jewish community, by tradition since 1268 when it was founded by Ramban (Nachmanides) when he revived the Jewish community of Jerusalem. It was the overall Jewish communal governing body under the Ottomans and by their authority.
Both my uncle and my father told me how the Sephardic notables in the city saved Eliezer ben Yehuda, considered by the Zionists to be the founder of the modern spoken Hebrew language, who came to Jerusalem in the 1880s and settled here to undertake his pioneering work. Ben Yehuda, who was from Russia, was rejected by the Ashkenazic Old Yishuv, Perushim and Hassidim alike, and persecuted by them or at least by the Perushim. The Sephardim tried to help him. When he was denounced by the Ashkenazim to the Turkish authorities and arrested and sentenced to death, the Sephardim were asked to intervene; that is to say, Ben Yehuda's supporters went to the Sephardic leadership and asked them. The Sephardic leadership in turn turned to my grandfather's sister who brought her husband into the picture. Toledo then organized a dinner for the senior Ottoman officials where they were hosted by the Sephardic notables. At the dinner there was an expensive gift by the place of each Ottoman official. During the course of the evening, without saying anything directly, the Jews bemoaned the fact that Eliezer ben Yehuda was going to be executed, stating that he was innocent and a fine man; that he certainly was not disloyal to the Ottomans and caused no trouble. The next day Ben Yehuda was released.
* * *
My grandfather spoke Hebrew with my father from the beginning or at least from very early childhood, but my grandmother, whose mother tongue was Ladino, spoke Ladino with him, so he learned both. He always remembered his mother's proverbs, some of which he passed on to us. For example, his mother used to insist that he always be well-dressed, clean, and his clothes in good order, saying "Panos dan honor" (clothes give dignity); or she would say to him "Lo que no tiene mehoya tendra pachas" (those who have no sense must have strong feet) whenever he would go to get something and forget to bring everything that was required. My father also described reading to his mother and her friends on Shabbat afternoon from that great encyclopedic work of the Spaniol Sephardim, Meam Loez, an encyclopedic commentary on the Torah, weekly portion by weekly portion, which summed up the general knowledge popularly expected to be known by everybody (including women) in the eighteenth century and which became a classic Sephardic women's work.
My father was very close to his mother and she was very proud of her first-born son. He frequently described to us how she would be invited to all the Ottoman official receptions in Jerusalem because of her family's position in the Ottoman government in Istanbul and would take him with her so that she would have somebody whom she could send on errands or to deliver messages or whatever she needed there. Thus my father met Jamal Pasha, the Turkish Governor of Jerusalem during World War I, and all the other Ottoman officials of the time, at least until the situation so deteriorated that relations between the Ottomans and the Jews were poisoned. It was then that the Jews became British sympathizers and even the Sephardim wanted the British to conquer the country.
My father had many expressions from those times that he used with us. Some were Sephardic Hebrew usages such as haham b'layla (intelligent in the dark) to refer to an act (or person) that (or who) was too clever by half or not clever enough, or Ladino ones such as pishu de viejas (the urine of old women) to describe tea or coffee or some other drink that was too weak, or ben porat Yosef, a kind of a term of praise. He also used other expressions such as finito l'historia (obviously from the last act of Palliacci) when some matter or story came to an end. He referred to David and me as his bambinos. A person who did not behave in a civilized manner was usually referred to by my father as behema b'tsurat adam (an animal in the form of a man). Early on I understood that this was an expression he had learned from his father and hence had a rich background in Jewish tradition.
After the war the family moved from the Old City to Nahalat Shiva, to a hatzer just north of Jaffa Road. Later on, the Central Bus Station was built between it and Jaffa Road. Today there is a line of single-storey shops along Jaffa Road with an entrance into a large parking lot where the Egged buses used to park. At the back of the parking lot is a wall and just over the wall is the hatzer or what is left of it. The building in best repair used to be the family's synagogue where my grandfather was rabbi. It was at some point named Degel Yehuda (the Banner of Judah) after him.
II - Life in Turn-of-the-Century Jerusalem
My father had many memories of Jerusalem before World War I. He often described the presence of the great Sephardic rabbis of the past, usually when making comparisons with Ashkenazi rabbis who rarely impressed him or the Sephardi rabbis of the present who did not impress him either. In particular he mentioned Rabbi Panigel who was the Rishon LeZion or Chief Rabbi of Eretz Israel from 1907 until his death in 1919 (Eliahu Moshe Panigel, 1850-1919). He also spoke of Rabbi Panigel's successor, Rabbi Yaakov Meir, and Rabbi Ben Zion Chai Uziel who followed him as men of greatness, "presence," and dignity, as well as great scholars.
My father told us of his Zionist experiences. For example, he was involved in scouting from childhood and later became a scout leader. He even was at an international scouting jamboree where he met Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the world Boy Scout movement. The scouts in Israel were a Zionist organization and were troops in the battles between the Zionists and the Old Yishuv in Jerusalem. He described how he once had a confrontation with Rav Sonenfeld of the Perushim who heard him speaking Hebrew in the streets as a little boy and grabbed him hard by the earlobe to stop him. In the end, his father came to his defense against Sonenfeld. He remembered being set upon by packs of yeshiva students from the Ashkenazi community, he and his friends, for the same "offense," to the point where they arranged an ambush and sent a few of their friends on ahead while they hid on the rooftops and when attacked they counterattacked, taking the yeshiva boys by surprise. My father remembered lifting one of them up off the ground by his peyot. My father also remembered his tiyulim, frequently pointing to a field near Nes Ziona when we would drive by and remembering how he and his scouting friends camped there one night and listened all night to the irrigation sprinklers going tic-tic-tic.
My father always was acutely conscious of Israel as a semi-arid country located in an arid region. He had apparently painful memories of periodic droughts in the Jerusalem of his childhood and was honestly pained by the waste of water that he found in Israel when he returned in the 1970s and after. Israel at that time was even more wasteful of water than today, when there is a somewhat greater awareness of the problem. He used to comment constantly on how the people here did not understand that their water supplies were limited and that if they wasted water they would not have it. He operated his own household on strict conservationist principles and was upset with all who did not.
My father's reminiscences often came during the seasons of Jewish holidays, many times in response to elements of the religious life around him that did not please him. Then he would describe how his father and the Sephardic community celebrated or observed in the Old City, something which apparently impressed him greatly. For example, he described how during the month of Elul, the shamash of the synagogue used to come around to the homes of every one of the yechidim (members) before four in the morning to wake them up with the call, "Selichot, selichot." He also described with what joy and innate dignity his father and the other men danced with the Sifrei Torah on Simchat Torah.
My father described to us various other events. For example, once as Sukkot was approaching, etrogim were not delivered from Jaffa for sale in Jerusalem and the Jerusalem-ites were afraid that they would not receive them in time. As the holiday came closer his father sent him by train from Jerusalem to Jaffa to pick up a case of etrogim for him and his friends and to come back the same day. It was a sensation in town that somebody actually went to Jaffa and came back to Jerusalem in one day. My father says he remembers walking in the morning darkness to the train station in order to catch the train and then returning in the evening darkness.
My father had an encounter with folk medicine that greatly impressed him and that stayed with him all of his life. When he was a boy, somehow one of his fingers became infected and continued to get worse. The doctors wanted to amputate it but before agreeing, his parents took him to two older women in the Old City who were known as healers. They took a look at it and prescribed a poultice which included the eye of a bull and a certain kind of soil. His folks wrapped the poultice around his finger and, sure enough, within three days it began to improve significantly and in a very short time was entirely cured. My father still had his finger working normally. He never forgot the experience and frequently told people about it later in his life.
In general my father constantly praised the life wisdom (hochmat haim) of his parents' generation and those before them whom he knew, saying that there are so many things that the academics, especially the academic psychologists, get mixed up because they do not have wisdom or life experience, only book knowledge. He, of course, was a man with a great deal of wisdom that came out of his life experience and relatively little in the way of formal academic education, but he was right about that.
My father would frequently tell us stories that he had obviously heard from his father to press home various moral lessons, for example, in trying to teach us about honoring parents. He told us about the son of a storekeeper who was minding the store one afternoon when a potential customer came in and saw a very beautiful gem that they had to sell. When the customer asked him the price, the boy had to confess that he did not know, that only his father did, so the potential customer asked him to go ask his father. When he went to where they lived at the back of the store, he found that his father was sleeping and he came back and told the customer that he could not wake his father who was sleeping and the customer left, so that the boy honored his father by not disturbing him. My father would then add that when he told that story to his Hebrew school class in St. Paul, one of the students said to him, "Boy, if that happened in our store and I didn't wake my father up, would I be in for it," to illustrate the difference between our times and former ones.
* * *
My father's educational experiences left their own impression. He studied for a while at the Sephardi Talmud Torah but apparently only on a supplementary basis. When he started school his father sent him to the Lemel School, run by German Jews, in which instruction was in German, since at that time the language struggle was still going on. The first day in class the children were ordered to stand and to sing the German national anthem. My father did not. The next day he was ordered to again, and when he did not, the teacher called him up to his desk, took a ruler with a sharp edge, had my father put his hand on the desk, and then came down with the sharp edge on my father's knuckles. My father was so startled that he knocked the teacher's glasses off and then fled from the school. When he told his father about the incident, his father told him clearly that they were Ottoman subjects and did not have to sing the German national anthem, and removed him from the school.
His general education was obtained at the school of the Alliance Israelite Universalle, the favorite school of the modernizing Sephardic elite in Jerusalem. He was an Alliance product as were his two younger siblings, Yaakov and Rachel. There he learned French, in which he remained skilled all of his life, among other things. Years later, in 1948, when as a family we visited Quebec City during our summer vacation and stayed in a pension within the old city walls, he became quite friendly with the brother of the proprietress. They would take long walks talking in French and the native Quebecois was always admiring of my father's "French" French.
Later he went to the David Yellin Teachers Seminary which, from what I gather, was more like an upper level high school-junior college at that time. He studied with David Yellin and graduated as a licensed teacher. At various times he told me that he had also studied at the Sorbonne in the 1920s but I have no more details about that. As far as I know he had no further formal education.
* * *
My father recalled that a relative of ours was the resident manager of PICA, Baron Rothschild's organization for settlement in Palestine in those years. He remembered going with that relative by diligence, a kind of carriage, from Jerusalem to Jaffa, then up the coast to Haifa, on to the Lebanese border at Ras-al-Nakara, and across it to Beirut, a three-day trip each way. That must have been his first trip outside of Eretz Israel. He also remembered going with his family to Kever Rachel in Bethlehem and Hebron on various occasions. They apparently used to go regularly to Kever Rachel for picnics and visiting the shrine, and not infrequently to Hebron which was already a two- or three-day trip. They went by donkey. He remembers needing water on the way back to Jerusalem while they were traveling on donkeys and going up to the gates of the Mar Elias monastery where his mother knocked on the door and asked the monks for water, which they were given. My uncle tells a somewhat similar story, that in the middle of the night my grandmother or somebody with her wanted a smoke but had no matches, and they were passing Mar Elias. She remembered that some of the monks smoked, so she knocked on the door late at night and the monks opened it and she asked for matches and they gave them to her. Apparently the idea of a woman doing that in those days was quite daring.
My father told us many stories about relations with the Arabs. For example, he believed that the Arabs had a capacity for self-delusion that was unintelligible to Westerners. He illustrated this for us by frequently telling us the Arab story of the Arab man who wanted to take a nap under a tree but whenever he tried to fall asleep, noise from the children playing nearby prevented him. He hit upon an idea, called the children over and told them that he had learned that there was gold buried under a tree some hundreds of meters distant. As he had hoped, the children all grabbed shovels and ran off to look for the mythical gold. He then settled back to take his nap but suddenly sat up and said to himself, "Stupid, there is gold under that tree and here I am napping while others look for it," and so he, too, jumped up and ran off. My father always watched how Arabs with the utmost sincerity could sell Westerners a bill of goods because they themselves had come to believe it.
On the other hand, my father never thought that the Arabs were any less intelligent or able than anybody else. In fact he frequently gave them all the credit that they deserved for intelligence and skill in diplomacy. He always said, "Do not underestimate them; do not make the Western mistake of thinking that they are primitive and therefore unintelligent." He could appreciate their culture as a high culture as well as a popular one and he always told us that the upper class Arabs were truly committed to their culture, that they adapted Western styles when in the West as a tool, but were not really convinced. Over and over again he would tell us that we should not be fooled by the fact that Arabs seem to do well in becoming Westerners while studying in the West. He said, "they simply learned how to behave in a different environment, but when they go back home they return to their old environment with pleasure and preference." Every experience that I have had with that kind of situation has confirmed my father's wisdom.
In other words, he, like the other old-time Sephardim in this country, considered the Arabs a smart and dangerous enemy who have to be treated as such and he, like the other Sephardim, were often chagrined by the inability of the Ashkenazim to do just that. He had been exposed to the Arab nationalist movement as a youth in Jerusalem and had considerable first-hand contact with it. For example, he told us of a member of the Nashashibi family, once the leading Arab family in Jerusalem, who married one of our relatives. As frequently happened at the time, the marriage provided that she could raise her children as Jews and so she did. But after World War I, when the Arab nationalist movement became strong, apparently about the time of the 1921 riots, Nashashibi sent his wife and two sons off to Paris so that he and they would be safe. They never returned. Shortly thereafter the Nashashibis, who were moderates, in favor of cooperation with the Jews, were pushed out by the Husseinis who took over Arab leadership from them and still have it.
My father also told me of the experience of the Sephardic leadership with the Zionist leadership immediately after World War I when the Arabs began to assert themselves. The Sephardi leadership, including his father, requested a meeting with Weizmann and the other Zionist leaders sometime around 1919. They met with them to talk with them about the Arab problem, to alert them to it and to get them to take some preventative actions. Weizmann casually dismissed them by saying, "The Arabs? Oh, the British will take care of them." And so it ended. The Zionist leadership, all Ashkenazi, never used the Sephardim, with their experience in the region, in any way. Instead the Zionists either ignored the Arabs or jumped in as Russians, bluntly, both absolutely the wrong tactics.
My father also studied Arabic with a young Arab Jerusalemite of the same age whom he had first met in a cafe in Jerusalem. They agreed that each would help the other to learn the other's language and they did, enjoying each other's company until one day his Arab "friend" said to him that they would have to stop exchanging language lessons because it was becoming too dangerous for him, an Arab, to be seen with any Jew. That was the end of that. Still my father had learned some Arabic which he used occasionally, especially when engaging in debates with Arabs in the United States to prove his bona fides as an authentic indigenous Middle Easterner.
My father had interesting opinions on the Christians in Jerusalem as well. For example, he took the Turkish side against the Armenians although, of course, he regretted the massacres. The Armenians, as Christians, had been anti-Semitic in Jerusalem in the old days, identifying the Jews not only as Christ-killers but as allies of the Turks, and he had no particular sympathy for them, having himself lived through the struggle between the two peoples.
Similarly, despite his broad general tolerance, his memories of both the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches and their branches in Jerusalem were bad. He saw them all as basically anti-Jewish in the medieval Christian way, which was transformed into anti-Zionism in modern times because Zionism threatened to give the land back to the Jews which would be a violation of Christian theological expectations. Nevertheless, he used every opportunity he had to visit Christian sites while he was a boy, once sneaking into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre on Easter and watching the rites there. When his father found out, he was livid, mostly because of the danger that his son had incurred in disguising himself and going into the Holy Sepulchre to watch the crowds within being whipped up to anti-Jewish fervor by the anti-Semitic sermons of their religious leaders. My father himself was plenty terrified. My father also disguised himself to sneak into the mosques on top of the Temple Mount, an equally dangerous activity.
My father often described to us the quarrels between Christian denominations over who had rights to what, much later the Israeli authorities encountered those quarrels after 1967 when they took rule over Jerusalem's Old City and of Bethlehem; fights over who was to sweep what steps, when, and thereby gain some recognition of ownership over some part of some Christian shrine. My father and mother did go down to Bethlehem for a Christmas eve mass the first year they were here. They claim to have found it interesting but once was enough.
Despite those childhood experiences, my father welcomed his contact with Protestant Christianity where attitudes and at least overt behavior were very different. He very much welcomed the spirit of tolerance and pluralism which animated Americans and, unlike so many other immigrants, he could distinguish between the anti-Jewish Christianity of the Old World and the openness of Christianity in the United States. Neither he nor my mother ever conveyed to us any anti-Christian feelings. Nor did they expect us to discover any in our ordinary day-to-day contacts with Christians. We didn't either.
* * *
My father had clear memories of Arab hostility in Old Jerusalem. For example, he remembered that every year in the spring the Arabs in Hebron, the Halilis, would come to Jerusalem to go to the mosques on the Temple Mount. The Jews would be terrified and stay in their houses while the Halilis worked themselves up into a state of frenzy and, if not stopped, begin mini-pogroms in the Jewish Quarter.
On other occasions he would describe how a gang of Arabs entered the Jewish Quarter on such a mini-pogrom where they first encountered one of the Jewish "toughs," a butcher who could defend himself. The latter took a chair from a nearby cafe, broke off a leg, and began to whale away at the Arabs until they withdrew. When we bought our apartment on Jabotinsky from the two contractors, Lifshitz and Bibas, my father recalled Bibas as a boy in the Old City; he was one of those Jewish toughs who was part of the Old City's self-defense and how he used to defend ordinary Jews from Arab assaults, very vigorously. Bibas must have obviously recalled that family connection as well since he was especially kind to us during the purchase and construction of the apartment (he was "Mr. Inside," responsible for the construction crew), although he was a man not known for his gentility.
My father's best friends in Jerusalem when he was a young boy were Yaakov Yehoshua and Aharon Russo. Yehoshua later became an author and wrote numerous volumes of reminiscences of Sephardic life in Jerusalem in the last generation of the nineteenth century and into the 1920s. He was the father of A.B. Yehoshua, the very distinguished Israeli author of our times who, along with Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld, is considered to be one of the three world class Israeli writers. After his return to Israel, my father saw Yehoshua from time to time in our synagogue where both attended periodically, but they never resumed their friendship. Yehoshua was an acerbic man and apparently my father was not all that interested but Yehoshua frequently spoke to me about their earlier relationship. He also made no particular effort. When his son and I met years later, we hit it off instantaneously and have become friends without spending a great deal of time together.
Russo was another story. A quiet, gentle man, my father and he did resume their friendship in the 1970s and remained friends until Russo's death in the 1980s, the couples visiting back and forth socially and occasionally doing things together.
There are other older men whom I found in our synagogue who remembered my father from those early days. Avraham Elhanani, who became a journalist of some local note as the Jerusalem correspondent for Davar, the Histadrut's newspaper, and in that capacity an actor in the struggle for Israel's independence, remembered my father as being an older boy. In particular, he described watching my father in a school play. On the other hand, Franco, a former hazzan who somehow was married into our family, remembered my father as younger than he in those old days.
III - World War I
My father had clear memories of World War I. He saw the first airplane land in Jerusalem at the outbreak of World War I. It was a German plane and it landed in a field between Derech Hebron and Talpiot, what later became Allenby barracks under the British. He remembered the German officers there to receive it and the pilot stepping out of the plane and being greeted by them. He also saw the first anti-aircraft weapons in the city which the Turks set up in the Russian Compound. At first the Turks used regular artillery so that when they would fire upward the shells would simply fall down on them.
My family had numerous other connections with the war. As I have already indicated, because of my grandmother's family background, she and through her my father came in contact with all of the Ottoman high command, civil and military, and many of the Germans as well. In addition, there were the Jewish soldiers from Turkey and elsewhere in the Ottoman empire sent to Palestine to fight. These included a young lieutenant, David Abulafia, a cousin of my grandmother, who was a frequent house guest. After the war he stayed in Jerusalem and already trained as an attorney, established a law practice and entered politics. For many years in the interwar period he was the leading Jewish municipal office-holder, a vice-mayor under a regime in which the British allowed only Arabs to be mayors. My father had fond memories of David Abulafia as a charming and vivacious young man full of humor and intelligence.
His clearest memories include the famine in Jerusalem during the war as the British drew closer and relations with the Turks deteriorated. Many times he described the shortage of food and how some of his friends and neighbors in the city were literally starving. He also remembered an incident of gratuitous German cruelty which in retrospect did not seem in the least bit out of place. Once he saw two German officers walking through the streets of the Old City eating an orange and throwing the peeling on the ground. Hungry Jewish children went to get the peeling and before they could reach it one of the German officers ground his boot heel on it so that it could not be eaten.
My father and his friends visited the battlefield at Nebi Samwil just after the end of the battle between the British and the Turks in which the British opened the way to Jerusalem. He often described it for us, the dead humans and animals, the horrible smell of rotting flesh, the carnage and the chaos with wrecked equipment strewn all around. It made a tremendous impression on him.
* * *
Our family has had a long association with Nebi Samwil. My grandfather, his father, was one of a group of Jerusalemites who set up an association to establish a settlement there on the slopes, toward what is now Ramot, in the 1890s as part of the Zionist pioneering effort. They actually raised money among themselves and acquired land at the site, plots which are registered in the Tabu (land registry) in Ramallah, as my brother found out after 1967, but they were never able to get the support necessary from anyone, including the Zionist authorities, to actually settle the site. My uncle Nahman Yochai also invested in land there, undoubtedly at my grandfather's suggestion, and my brother David was asked by Nahman in his later years (after 1967) to inquire into the matter. In that way we found the original records in Ramallah. But the Israeli government, in this as in other cases, has shown no interest in restoring the property to its original owners.
The failure of the settlement was not only sad but a reflection of a lack of strategic understanding of the Zionist authorities. Nebi Samwil is the high point that commands the western approaches to Jerusalem. On the top there is a mosque and an Arab village, but a Jewish settlement on the slopes would certainly have helped the Jews later during the 1948 siege of Jerusalem. Both my father and my uncle were quite bitter about the failure of the Zionist movement to help their father and his friends in their effort. Today the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot is growing up the side of the mountain and is beginning to extend into the territory that included that property. My uncle, with his usual persistence, got the City of Jerusalem to name a square or major crossroads part way up the slope in memory of my grandfather. Today my uncle lives not far from there.
My father vividly remembered General Allenby entering Jerusalem in 1917 after the battle at Nebi Samwil, when he got off of his horse at the Jaffa Gate and walked through it. He also remembered British troops, particularly the Australians, marching into the city. The Australians apparently made a special impression on him as being tall and friendly and new-worldish, unlike the more reserved British or the Gurkhas from Nepal and northern India whom he also remembered. He described how the British taught the Arabs to clear the streets so that British troops could move through, by sending down advance parties calling "Alla yamina, alla ismaila," that is, "Move to the right, move to the left."
Until his dying day, my father was always particularly moved when he passed the British military cemetery on Mt. Scopus where so many of the ANZACS (Australia-New Zealand army troops) who died in the struggle for the liberation of Palestine from the Ottomans lay at rest, and he almost never failed to comment on it. In the end, he, too, died only blocks from that cemetery.
* * *
That was on the home front. Earlier in his life, in the 1930s and 1940s, my father talked about his own service in World War I. I have never found this documented in his papers or elsewhere after what, admittedly, were cursory searches, for example, in the American Jewish Year Books of those years, for lists of Jews who had won medals in the Allied armies in World War I, which he claimed to have done. But while I was growing up we did have his Sam Browne belt and two decorations -- the British Victory Medal and the King George V Cross -- in an antiquated World War I-style box which he kept in his drawer as evidence of his service.
According to his story, he fled to Egypt at the age of 14, that is to say, in 1917, sent by his father when it seemed that the Turks would draft even younger boys to help defend the country against the British invasion. There in Egypt, tall for his age, he applied to the British army recruiter to enlist in the British forces. It was there that the army recruiter gave him the name Albert, as he used to tell it, "in honor of the Prince Consort," namely, the late Queen Victoria's husband. My father had to give the recruiter his birthdate, and, rather confused about the relationship between the Hebrew and Gregorian calendars, thought that June 18 was more or less the equivalent of Shabbat Nachamu rather than being two months earlier.
According to my father's account, he was then assigned to the Jewish Legion for three days, after which he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps, later the RAF. There he learned to fly and was the pilot of a Sopwith Camel. He flew a few combat missions, my recollection is two, and shot down two enemy airplanes. My recollection is that he told me that he did so over Syria, and was wounded in the chest. He managed to fly back to his base where he was hospitalized. The bullet hole remained with him for the rest of his life and was easily visible.
According to his account, he reached the rank of lieutenant and he stayed in the British army for a few years after the war. He claimed, for example, to have been in the room when Peake Pasha founded the Arab Legion and made his well-known statement explaining why: that "it takes a thief to catch a thief." He himself, according to that claim, spent some time with the beduin of Transjordan. He remembered the British introducing the Transjordanian Arabs to paper money. Needless to say, the Arabs, like other traditional peoples, believed that the only real money was specie and the British wanted to pay in notes, so they had to convince the Arabs to accept the latter. This they did by some ruse my father described but that I no longer remember.
He also became friendly with Vladimir Jabotinsky and was somehow connected with Jabotinsky's self-defense effort in the Arab riots of 1920-21. Sometime in the 1920s, according to this account, he was seconded to the British diplomatic service and served as a British military attache while he was in Greece. He claimed that he spent one day in Russia, in Odessa, which he had reached by ship, but that the Soviets deported him as a British officer. He claimed to have left British service when the British posted him to India and he wanted to stay in the Middle East. It was at that point that he came to the States, according to the account, on leave from British service. After he and my mother were married he indicated that he was prepared to go back into the service if he could be posted in the Middle East. As they both told me, he received a telegram in response, indicating roughly that His Majesty's government would post him wherever His Majesty chose. He then resigned.
My father's account of his service is not confirmed and, while there is some physical evidence of it as well as his story, more is needed since at some point it contradicts other records and even some other recollections. Nevertheless, he told his students about it in St. Paul in the 1930s and they wrote about it in admiring biographical essays of him. He told me about it and he also told my brother, although in somewhat less detail. He also has pictures of himself in uniform with medals and that Sam Browne belt which he showed me in the 1940s, and which we found carefully put away with his records after he died.
The question that remains with me is to what extent were these army experiences real ones and to what extent were they stories designed to impress impressionable young American Hebrew school students. For example, he claimed to have been a member of the 109th squadron while he was in the RFC. Once, while doing research in Minnesota history, I discovered that the National Guard squadron in Minnesota in the 1930s was the 109th squadron. On the other hand, part of the record seems to be clearly real and not something that could have been developed later on. Moreover, my father always had a military bearing and an extensive military interest and understanding. He was a horseman who apparently rode regularly, going back to his days in Jerusalem and continuing through his time in St. Paul. He and my mother even owned riding outfits including boots and special clothes, and we have pictures of them riding in the Twin Cities area and in northern Minnesota.
IV - Travels in the Twenties
The 1920s was a confused time in my father's related memories. He apparently did not want everybody to know all that had happened to him in those years. We know several things:
1) He travelled quite a bit in the eastern Mediterranean as far as Odessa at the northern end of the Black Sea, down to Alexandria, and at least as far west as France.
2) In 1923 he apparently spent six months in Alexandria, Egypt, as a Hebrew teacher. We have his correspondence with the head of the school there indicating that he was hired for six months and that a furnished room had been found for him to live in for the same period. In his stories to us, my father frequently mentioned that he often visited Alexandria and that his father had good friends there who were also distant relatives, the Arditis, who later went to Paris to live. This may have been his first post after graduating the Yellin Seminary. From the letter it seems clearly to have been designed as a visiting position, perhaps to give him a chance to see some of the world outside of Eretz Israel.
3) He spent at least two years in Salonika as a Hebrew teacher and shaliach to the Maccabi movement. Again, he did save at least some of the correspondence regarding his appointment there. The correspondence was apparently with the head of the Salonikan Jewish community who did the hiring. My father told me that he was sent to Salonika by the Vaad HaLeumi as a shaliach and teacher. The correspondence indicates that the community had to hire him, which they did. The correspondence is in Ladino and French, mostly in Ladino with French words, with a few letters in French. He served in Salonika for those years and was very active in the community and in exploring northern Greece.
In 1912, there were 90,000 Jews in Salonika, about 40 percent of the total population. They controlled the city's commerce and its port. Even the stevedores were Jews who did not work on Shabbat so that the port was closed Saturdays.
Those were the years in which Greece was consolidating its rule in Salonika which it had acquired in the Balkan War of 1912. The Jews had been pro-Ottoman, of course, because they lived much better with the Muslim Turks than they did with the Christian Orthodox Greeks who were noted for their anti-Semitism by comparison, so the Greek government very much suspected them and made every effort to replace them with Greeks in key positions and in commerce from the very beginning.
The Greeks, of course, forced the port to remain open and also began to favor Greek merchants to replace the Jews in commerce. Their efforts were slowed down by World War I when the British occupied the city. Arnold Toynbee was stationed there with the British army and wrote a pamphlet about the British occupation of Salonika which I found in a used book store somewhere. In it he describes a flourishing Jewish life including nine daily Jewish newspapers, in French, Ladino, Greek, and Hebrew. Then in 1919, after the war, there was a huge conflagration in the city which burned most of it, including most of the Jewish structures, both public and private, to the ground. These great fires were common in the Middle East in the modern period, but this one led to a devastation which permitted the Greeks to come in and rebuild and truly push the Jews out.
Jews had been leaving Salonika and the Balkans area for the United States since the end of the 1890s and several tens of thousands reached the United States even before World War I. After the war, in the interwar period, of the 80,000 Jews of Salonika, 40,000 left -- 20,000 to the West, mostly to the United States but also to France and Spain, and another 20,000 to Eretz Israel -- so that there were 40,000 Jews left in the city when the Nazis came in 1941. They were all deported in 1943 and hardly 2,000 survived the camps.
Thus my father saw the last days of the Salonikan community and, indeed, many of his students were among the olim to Eretz Israel in the 1920s and throughout the 1930s. He found many of them later when he returned to the country after 1971 and had several nice reunions with them. Most are gathered in the Tel Aviv area and are connected with the Salonikan congregation in Tel Aviv. Mahzor Saloniki, which they reprinted, was photo-offset from my grandfather's set of mahzorim, of which I have several of the remaining volumes.
After the Greco-Turkish war of the early 1920s, the Greeks living in Asia Minor and other parts of Turkey were driven out of their homes by the Turks and took refuge in Greece. There tens of thousands of them were resettled in Salonika, giving the Greek government a chance to change the population balance of that city and to make it a Greek city. When my father came to Salonika many of them were still living in camps and he remembered them as refugees and was witness to the last stages of their displacement and resettlement.
My father often described to me the Greek government of those days, essentially a succession of military dictatorships of a very poor country, incapable of governing and plagued by corruption. He often described how, while he was there, the Greek Finance Minister embezzled half of the national treasury and fled the country. The Greeks sent their fleet up and down the Mediterranean looking for him, to no avail, and in order to continue the operations of their government had to require all residents of Greece to bring in their banknotes, which were promptly cut in half and half taken by the government as a forced loan. My father kept some of those half banknotes throughout his life and they are now in my possession.
On another occasion he described the Greek national police response to workers striking for better wages. He was in a small city in the north of Greece where the workers were striking. They were demonstrating very peacefully in the city square when the mounted police moved up through the streets behind them. When the workers were completely surrounded, the police on horseback drew their sabers and, on signal, charged the crowd, swinging their sabers right and left, killing and maiming dozens of people. This was the Greece that my father got to know. A natural democrat, he abhored it all, however interesting it was to observe. I do not know when my father became a democrat but as far as I could see he always was. In today's terms he would be referred to as a liberal democrat in the spirit of Spinoza, that is to say, he believed in individual freedom to choose but also in public authority and the necessity to maintain standards. He was not a socialist and never was, but he believed equally in the right and duty of all citizens to participate in their own government and to be treated as equals before the law.
My father also explored many of the backwoods villages and most of the Jewish communities of northern Greece and perhaps of the rest of the country as well. He often told me that he visited Ioanina where there was still a Jewish community that antedated the Sephardic settlement in Greece and retained the old Romaniot customs and language of Byzantine Greek Jewry. Of course that community too was destroyed in World War II. After she moved to the United States, my aunt Rachel became friendly with a number of the Ioanina survivors who had also managed to get to the States and I got to know several of them and learned first-hand of their customs.
My father got to know the Jewish community of Salonika very well. He frequently told me how they had invited a German Jew to be chief rabbi, feeling that their own rabbis did not have enough scholarship. He came and tried to impose Ashkenazi strictness on them. He also counselled them to cooperate with the Germans after they invaded because he could not believe that the Germans would be so vicious and cruel, thereby hastening the demise of Salonikan Jewry. The chief rabbi discouraging all resistance to the Germans, which was uncharacteristic of the tough Salonikan Jews who would have fought back had they known what to expect and had not received the wrong counsel. As we know, they later did resist in Auschwitz where fifty years ago they even staged a revolt against the Nazis in the concentration camp, led by captured Jewish officers of the Greek army, with some success. Of course there were members of his family in Salonika with whom he became acquainted in those years, most of whom perished in the Holocaust.
My father frequently told stories of his travels in the Mediterranean. For example, once during a Greek general strike the only ship available to take him back to Palestine was a Soviet freighter and to get to it he had to be taken out of Piraeus in a small boat through large, choppy waves. They made it to the Soviet ship and he sailed with them. On board, the crew was constantly drinking very hot tea even though it was summertime and my father, to be sociable, had to sit with them and drink cup after cup of hot tea, all the time perspiring profusely.
On another occasion he was on a ship, on one of the upper decks and would do his constitutional by walking around the ship. The first few days that he did so he saw an Englishman doing the same thing, only walking in the other direction. Finally the third morning or thereabouts, as they passed, my father said to him "Good morning," and the Englishman stopped and looked at him and said, "Have we been properly introduced?" Still another time, leaving Palestine, he went down from the middle deck to a lower deck of the ship and there he found a group of Zionist leaders headed by Menachem Ussishkin. When he asked them why they were travelling in such a low class, Ussishkin drew himself up and looked at my father and said, "Caspei haUmmah" (the nation's money), a story my father frequently told to indicate to people what he expected of them with regard to the expenditure of public funds on matters which involved their personal comfort.
My father described to me how he once visited Germany in the 1920s and was close to where Hitler was scheduled to speak. He went to hear him and reported to me that, with great stage effect, Hitler arrived precisely at the moment that he was supposed to and proceeded to spellbind the audience. His memories of Mussolini also had to do with promptness but were more of fascist youth that he knew who were inspired by the vision of a new Italy.
My father frequently spoke of his travels in the Mediterranean Basin during those years. They sounded so romantic to all of us, with an exciting variety of peoples, cultures, and experiences. My father explored a good part of the Balkans, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria as well as Greece. He visited Turkey and he apparently visited Italy and France as well. I envied him when I was growing up until in my early twenties I realized that I had already covered far more distance than he had while traveling around the sprawling North American continent. My envy thus assuaged, I could enjoy his tales from a different perspective.
During all of this time my father had apparently been interested in visiting America and applied for the appropriate visa. I do not know exactly what kindled his interest but it is not hard to assume that anyone who liked to travel would be interested in seeing the colossus of the New World. To start off, he had a sister in New York. After my father's death, both my Uncle Yaakov and my Aunt Rachel told me that there was something about a girl as well, some romantic disappointment, and that his parents wanted him to go on that trip to get away. They claim they do not remember the details so that is all I know.