The one-armed Russian veteran and Zionist pioneer Joseph Trumpeldor distinguished himself for his courage in fighting in the Jewish Legion during World War I; he may be best known in Israel today for his death defending the Galilean village of Tel Hai from Arab attack in 1920. According to legend his final words were, “It is good to die for our country.” But less well known is the story of how Trumpeldor’s commitment to Zionism was shaped by his experience in the Russo-Japanese war (1904-5). As Dor Saar-Man writes, Trumpeldor was captured by the Japanese in the battle of Port Arthur, during which he had been hit by shrapnel and Russian doctors had amputated part of his arm:
The Japanese physicians re-operated on his amputation injury and managed to prevent a life-threatening infection. Wishing to demonstrate [to the West] their proper treatment of Russian prisoners of war, . . . the Japanese allowed the Jews among them to have a somewhat autonomous community life within the [POW] camp. The Jews resided separately and held their own events and cultural activities, including some Zionist activities.
Trumpeldor had been drawn to Zionism even before the Russo-Japanese war, but [his attraction to the movement] intensified during his captivity. Until then he had been exposed primarily to assimilated Jews. . . . But in captivity, surrounded by Jewish and Zionist comrades, he became a zealous Zionist. He devoted his energies to establishing and maintaining a Jewish community in the camp, and began correspondening with Zionist leaders.
He arranged various activities: Trumpeldor had the prisoners publish a newspaper in Yiddish, which was distributed inside and outside the camp and was quite successful; he [also] organized a school for Jewish soldiers. Though he was not religious, and was not particularly concerned with holidays and prayers, Trumpeldor made sure that all the prisoners’ religious needs were met. This included prayers, holidays, kosher food for Passover, Rosh Hashanah cards, and the like. . . .
When the war ended, Trumpeldor was released. He was determined to come to the land of Israel to continue Zionist activity.
Sign Up For Our E-Mail List Get the latest from Mosaic right in your inbox
Sign up now for unlimited access