During our long history in the diaspora, others shaped
destiny for us as we, the Jewish people, produced many martyrs. The moment we
took our future in our own hands the names of martyrs gave way to the names of
heros. These heroes were simple men and women, but their names mark the
beginning of a new era in our history.
Shlomo Ben Yosef in an example of such a hero for
generations to come. His name became a symbol for the Jewish struggle for
liberation and freedom. Yet he did not die on a battlefield, but on the gallows
of Palestine - the first Jew to receive the death sentence in Eretz Israel for
nearly two thousand years.
He was Born Shalom Tabachnik in the Polish town of Lutzk in
1913. From his father he inherited his modesty, his quietness, his stubborn
will, and his strong character. As a son of a very poor family, the conditions
of his childhood were difficult, but these difficulties helped strengthen his
character. Even as a child he kept himself back from the general jokes of his
friends at the cheder - the Jewish religious school. He was always quiet,
dreaming, and reserved.
His study days were over soon after his Bar-Mitzvah. He now
had to help support his poor family and worry about his future. A period of
hard and bitter work to earn a living set in as he took positions as a clerk, a
waiter, as well as many others to support his family.
He joined Betar Qen of Lutzk in 1928 and from that moment
his life took on new meaning. In Betar he learned how to love his homeland,
Eretz Israel. There he also learned to dream of a new life for himself and his
people. He was taught that he was not a "Zhid", "a poor dirty Jew" - the
epitaph that had been flung at Jewish youth by the gentiles till they no longer
questioned or even resented it.
While working he learned more about the world around him. He
saw how he, his parents, and all the other Jews around him were called Zhids.
He saw the torment in the eyes for fellow Jews. He saw how the Poles made
pogroms on them. But most of all, he saw something better in his heart.
That young heart burned with protest as his young fists were
clenched in sorrow. He entered Betar through an instinctive feeling and the
movement enriched his life.
Here he felt a new spirit. He studied the history of the
Jewish nation. He heard about the Jewish heroes of the past. He found out that
Jews were not always enslaved, insulted, and oppressed. He was taught that he
was not a weakling who had to be afraid of all around him. He learned that he
was the son of kings, the descendant of prophets, and a brother of the
Macabees. He yearned to go to Palestine where there would be no more Zhids, but
a free nation in a free "Kingdom of Israel." And here, in Qen Lutzk, he learned
his first Betar song - The song which he sang ten years later with so much
courage on the gallows of Akko.
When his father died in 1930, the seventeen year old boy
took it upon himself to support his whole family. Yet he never missed an
evening in the Qen, and he became one of the most active of it's members.
When the Polish Government gave permission for a military
Hachshara, he was he first on the drill field to study the "Torah of the gun."
He was always the first one, whether for a hike or a meeting. The
broad-shouldered youth could be seen everywhere, a fiery glance in his eyes -
always the first one.
Everyone in the Qen knew him - from the youngest Nesher,
lion, to the oldest Mifaked, officer, and he in turn knew everyone. When
anything had to be done, from the smallest thing like lighting of the stove in
the Moadon, the meeting place, or distributing of pamphlets from town to town,
he could be relied on to volunteer his services.
In 1931, a Betar Hachshara was founded in the town of
Kazhitz. Shalom Tabachnik left home, despite the difficulties which faced his
family, and arrived at Hachshara. He completed his Hachshara and returned to
Lutzk in 1932, where he then completed his term of Hachshara Haganatit,
military hachshara, and took charge of the Mazkirut HaQen. He also organized a
Plugat Aliyah, an Aliyah platoon, which prepared to go to Palestine.
At that time, no certificates were available for Betarim to
go to Palestine. Despite that obstacle, he joined a group of "illegal
immigrants" and without a penny in his pockets left for Eretz Israel in August
1937. After smuggling himself across borders and as an "illegal" immigrant
aboard a ship that landed in Beirut, Lebanon, he climbed aboard a Greek fishing
boat heading south. When he asked to be taken further, they demanded money from
him. Having none, they began to quarrel and he was cast overboard. He swam the
stretch of water and finally, after crossing the Galilee hills, arrived at
Naharia, thus fulfilling his life-long dream to be in Eretz Israel, and the
Betar group of Rosh Pina.
The many months he spent on the way, and the hardships which
he and many others endured has formed an undying part of Jewish Legend.
After he arrived safely in Eretz Israel, he immediately
reported to the Plugat Ha-Giyus, the service platoon for Eretz Israel, at the
settlement of Rosh Pina. Here he began cultivating the fields of the Galil.
He arrived in the midst of bad times in palestine. For two
years, the Arabs had been rioting and terrorizing the Jewish population. Women
and children were killed, settlements were raided, fields were burned and Jews
were attacked at will. In the face of all this, Jewish youth remained silent.
But that did not deter Shlomo Ben Yosef, the Hebrew name
Shalom Tabachnik adopted and was known by in Eretz Israel. He worked hard in
the fields to help support the Maon. When the pogroms got bad, he went to the
port of Haifa were he worked to send money back to Rosh Pina. It was dangerous
to work in the open fields and he wanted to guarantee his fellow Betarim would
not go hungry. When one days work in the Galilee would feed one person, His
single days labor in the ports would feed twelve. Thus he supported his fellow
Betarim, and with the extra money he earned, he purchased weapons to protect
The Jewish leaders had proclaimed the policy of Havlaga,
self restraint. This was a policy the British Government not only favored, but
encouraged. The British did not want to have a Jewish majority in Palestine,
else they may loose control of the land. The Arabs could therefore attack
whenever they wished, but the "Jews had to prove that their intentions were
The Palestine Police and Government were "unable" to find
the Arab terrorists who would shoot Jews, such as Leiberman, the young Betari
from Rosh Pina who was murdered while working in the fields. At the same time,
Jews could not venture from one city to another, they were hostages in their
To Shlomo Ben Yosef the way was clear. If the Government
would not police this country, the Jews would protect themselves.
On April 21, 1938, news was received that a contingent of
Arab terrorists was on its way to attack Rosh Pina, but the report didn't say
when. Preparations were being made in the near by Arab village of Djani. Open
preparations in the Arab Village proved more and more evident of an imminent
attack. Although the were exhausted from working the fields for sixteen hour a
day and then spent six hour a night on guard duty for months at a time, they
knew they had to do something. They could not just sit back while fellow Jews
were about to be murdered.
In desperation, three of the youngest Betarim at Rosh Pina,
Abraham Shein, Sholom Djuravin, and Shlomo Ben Yosef went out on the Taberias
road. Perhaps they may get there before the time of the attack. Perhaps they
might intercept the Arab terrorists in time. Perhaps they might frighten them
A car approaches. It was an car filled with Arabs who did
not live in the neighborhood. The three young men stepped out into view to stop
the car headed for Rosh Pina.
These, thought the youngsters, must be the terrorists. They
fired a single shot in the air. The Arabs gained speed and within a few seconds
vanished from sight. Shein, Djuravin, and Ben Yosef then waited until the a
Jewish bus had safely passed, and with elated feelings that they had prevented
a tragedy, returned to the Betar Maon in Rosh Pina. This time the police were
not long in arriving.
The first was a Jewish policeman who suggested that Ben
Yosef throw away his weapon. He refused to do this and within a few minutes,
Shein, Djuravin, and Ben Yosef were led away in chains to Akko prison. They
were proud of their actions. They did not resist.
The trial opened May 24, 1938. On a very late Friday
afternoon, June 3rd, with a face as pale a ghosts, the President of the Haifa
Military Court pronounced the verdict. Shalom Djuravin was to be placed under
medical observation, Abraham Shein and Shlomo Ben Yosef were to hang by the
neck until they were dead.
The tense electric silence of the court room was broken by a
dreadful shriek from Shein's sister. She understood no English, and for ten
days she had been listening - a pitiful, hopeless, bewildered creature - to the
evidence that would decide whether her little eighteen year old brother - now
standing so proudly in the dock - was to live or die. This friday afternoon,
she could see from the see of blurred faces around her, which it was to be. She
collapsed in a fit of uncontrollable sobbing.
In a voice that stammered and shook, a Jewish interpreter
tired to read out the verdict in Hebrew. He sat down, overcome before he got to
The prisoners were led out. Ben Yosef stood up and shouted:
"It is good to die for the Jewish State on both sides of the Jordan" and he
went out with his two fellow Betarim - the only cool, detached and unaggravated
people in the entire court-room.
After that came three and a half weeks of unceasing attempts
to secure a reprieve. Appeals to the British Government and the Palestine
Administration came from the Jewish national organizations, from the Chief
Rabbi of the British Empire, from two Anglican Bishops, The Lancaster Guardian,
from the Polish Government, from Chief Rabbi Herzog of Palestine, from British
Members of Parliament, newspaper editors, churches, and synagogues,
The cries of Ben Yosef's aged mother in Poland, who begged
only that her young son's life be spared until she could reach Palestine to see
him for the last time, went unanswered. Jabotinsky himself went to plead with
Britain's Colonial Secretary, Malcolm McDonald. In thousands, the petitions
came, but only in vain. Shein's sentence was commuted, but Ben Yosef was to be
Ben Yosef was executed in June, 1938. The entire Jewish
world was shocked by this injustice and was deeply moved by the heroism of the
young man in the face of death.
A Betari Until the End
On the morning of Wednesday, June 29, 1938, Shlomo Ben Yosef
rose early. It was the day after he had told his last visitor "I will die like
a man and a Betari. I am proud to be the first to be sacrificed for the Jewish
People." He kept his word. Calmly, without haste, he washed, brushed his teeth,
combed his hair, and dressed in the white clothing supplied to him.
The British refused to give him his simple blue trimmed
Betar uniform, even though they promised him he would be allowed to wear it. He
told them he would not go willingly if not in uniform. After much deliberation,
he agreed to go without it as long as he was able to apologize to his fellow
Betarim for not having it on. "Very well," he said, "I will go. Let it not be
said that a Jewish soldier is afraid of death."
He took a final glance at himself in a mirror, made sure
that he looked as smart and clean as if he were in a Betar parade. He then
walked out unflinchingly toward the scaffold. On the way, he heard the
terrified shriek of an Arab murderer about to be hanged, He smiled
contemptuously, and remarked to the escorting guards "It appears that we will
even have to teach them how to die."
Shlomo Ben Yosef could then be heard throughout the prison
singing Hatikvah. He climbed the scaffold fervently singing Shir Betar - "Lamut
o Lichbosh et Hahar, to die or conquer the hill," - the first song he had
learned in the far away Plugah at Lutzk. On the gallows he faced the
executioner. Pride and defiance shone in his eyes, as he spoke his last
"I die with the name of Jabotinsky on my lips, sacrificing
my life in the hope that the Jewish nation may learn the lesson that Havlaga,
Self-restraint, is fatal.