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Joseph Trumpeldor

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Joseph Trumpeldor
Joseph Trumpeldor in the uniform of a British Army officer but without visible badges, c. World War One
Birth nameJoseph Vladimirovich Trumpeldor
Born21 November 1880
Pyatigorsk, Russian Empire
Died1 March 1920(1920-03-01) (aged 39)
Tel Hai, Occupied Enemy Territory Administration
Battles/warsRusso-Japanese War

World War I

Intercommunal conflict in Mandatory Palestine

AwardsCross of St. George

Joseph Vladimirovich (Volfovich) Trumpeldor (Russian: Иосиф Владимирович [Вольфович] Трумпельдор, IPA: [ɪˈosʲɪf trʊmpʲɪlʲˈdor]; Hebrew: יוֹסֵף טְרוּמְפֶּלְדוֹר, IPA: [joˈsef tʁumpelˈdoʁ]; 21 November 1880 – 1 March 1920) was an early Zionist activist who helped to organize the Zion Mule Corps and bring Jewish immigrants to Palestine. Trumpeldor died defending the settlement of Tel Hai in 1920 and subsequently became a Jewish national hero. According to a standard account, his last words were "It's nothing, it is good to die for our country",[1] but that he ever said these words has been challenged.[by whom?]

Early life

Joseph Trumpeldor in Japanese captivity, c. 1905. Trumpeldor sent this photo to his parents from captivity. Above him is a sign of the Jewish prisoners society "Bne Zion Hashevuyim beYapan" ("Sons of Zion captives in Japan") that he helped to found.[2]

Joseph Trumpeldor was born in Pyatigorsk in the North Caucasus of the Russian Empire. His father, Wulf Trumpeldor, served as a cantonist in the Caucasian War, and as a "useful Jew", was allowed to live outside the Pale of Settlement. Though proudly Jewish, Trumpeldor's upbringing was more Russian than traditionally Jewish. Originally in training as a dentist, Joseph Trumpeldor volunteered for the Russian army in 1902. During the Russo-Japanese War, he participated in the siege of Port Arthur, where he lost his left arm to shrapnel. He spent a hundred days in the hospital recovering, but elected to complete his service. When he was questioned about his decisions and told that he was heavily advised not to continue fighting given his handicap, he responded "but I still have another arm to give to the motherland." When Port Arthur surrendered, Trumpeldor went into Japanese captivity. He spent his time printing a newspaper on Jewish affairs and organized history, geography and literature classes. He also befriended several prisoners who shared his desire of founding a communal farm in Palestine. On return from captivity, he moved to Saint Petersburg. Trumpeldor subsequently received four decorations for bravery including the Cross of St. George, which made him the most decorated Jewish soldier in Russia.[3]

Due to his handicap he began to study law. He gathered a group of young Zionists around him and in 1911 they immigrated to Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire. At first he joined a farm on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and then worked for a time at Kibbutz Degania.

World War I

Joseph Trumpeldor 1918 (seated 2nd from right)

When World War I broke out, he was, as a Russian subject in the Ottoman Empire, an enemy alien. He went to Egypt, where together with Ze'ev Jabotinsky he developed the idea of the Jewish Legion to fight with the British against common enemies and the Zion Mule Corps was formed in 1915, considered to be the first all-Jewish military unit organized in close to two thousand years, and the ideological beginning of the Israel Defense Forces. He saw action in the Battle of Gallipoli with the Zion Mule Corps, where he was wounded in the shoulder.[a] The Zion Mule Corps remained in Gallipoli through the entire campaign and was disbanded shortly after being transferred to Britain.

Political activism

Joseph Trumpeldor in 1917

In June 1917, Trumpeldor returned to Russia in order to convince the Provisional Government to form a Jewish regiment in the Russian army. According to his plan, the regiment would break through the Turkish front in the Caucasus to Eretz Yisrael. Additionally he organised Jews to defend themselves and established the HeHalutz in Russia, a youth organization that prepared immigrants for aliyah, and returned to Palestine himself.[citation needed]

Battle of Tel Hai

Path from the Tel Hai courtyard
Up to the Kfar Giladi courtyard

On 1 March 1920, several hundred Shiite Arabs, from the village of Jabal Amel in southern Lebanon, gathered at the gate of Tel Hai, one of four Jewish farming villages in an isolated bloc at the northern end of the Upper Galilee's Hulah Valley. Gangs ('isabat) of clan-based border peasants, combining politics and banditry, were active in the area of the loosely defined border between the soon-to-be-established British Mandate of Palestine, French Mandate of Lebanon and of Syria.[6] The Shiites believed that some French troops had taken refuge with the Jews and demanded to search the premises. The Jews generally tried to maintain neutrality in the chaos, occasionally sheltering both Arabs and French. On this day there were no French soldiers, and the Jews assented to a search. One of the farmers fired a shot into the air, a signal for reinforcements from nearby Kfar Giladi, which brought ten men led by Trumpeldor, who had been posted by Hashomer to organize defense.[7]

It is unclear exactly what happened once Trumpeldor assumed command, but an early report speaks of 'misunderstanding on both sides'. Ultimately, a major firefight raged in which seven Jews and five Arabs were killed outright; Trumpeldor was shot in the hand and stomach, and died while being evacuated to Kfar Giladi that evening. The eight Jews were buried in two common graves in Kfar Giladi, and both locations were abandoned for a time.[7]

Last words


The last words attributed to him, "Never mind, it is good to die for our country" (En davar, tov lamut be'ad artzenu אין דבר, טוב למות בעד ארצנו‎), became well-known in the pre-state Zionist movement and in Israel of the 1950s and 1960s. According to Aviel Roshwald, the authenticity of Trumpeldor's final utterance is well-attested and not questioned by historians despite a widespread belief that they are apocryphal.[8] Other historians state that these words have been under dispute for decades.[9] In the wake of scepticism in the 1970s, a counter-version to the official legend, perhaps starting as a joke, suggested that his last words were in fact a pungent curse in his mother-tongue Russian, reflecting frustration with his bad luck.[10][11] Trumpeldor spoke only broken Hebrew; in his last hours he mumbled requests in his native Russian to have his wounds bandaged, and the American doctor, George Gerry (or Gary[12]), who attended him, and Abraham Harzfeld were the two first-hand sources for this declaration.[13]

These words, which quickly spread throughout the Jewish immigrant community in Palestine, are similar to the Latin apophthegm[14] Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, the line from the Roman lyric poet Horace's Odes (III.2.13), which can be rendered in English as "It is sweet and honourable to die for one's country", or "It is sweet and fitting to die for the fatherland" and which inspired numerous nineteenth- and twentieth-century nationalist patriots internationally.

National hero


After his death, Trumpeldor became a symbol of Jewish self-defence, and his memorial day on the 11th day of Adar is officially noted in Israel every year.


Joseph Trumpeldor's memorial, the "Roaring Lion" sculpted by Avraham Melnikov in Tel Hai; photo by Beno Rothenberg, c. 1953

Both right-wing and left-wing Zionists regard Joseph Trumpeldor as a hero. The Revisionist Zionist movement (the precursor to Likud) named its youth movement Betar, an acronym for "Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor", while the left-wing movements remember Trumpeldor as the defender of the kibbutzim and have established memorials in his honour. In the same year that he died, the Joseph Trumpeldor Work and Defense Battalion (Gdud HaAvoda) was founded, which established several kibbutzim. The town of Kiryat Shmona ("City of Eight") is named after Trumpeldor and the seven others who died defending Tel Hai.

Israeli rap group Hadag Nahash have a song about Trumpeldor on their debut album Ha-mechona shel ha-groove (2000). The song "Gabi ve Debi" from the 2003 followup Lazuz also mentions Trumpeldor and quotes his famous last words.

The 2015 novel, Joseph's Dream, by Elana Beth Schwab, is based on Trumpeldor's life.[citation needed]

The 2017 Russian-language documentary novel Moi drug Trumpeldor ("My Friend Trumpeldor") by the Saint Petersburg-based author Aleksandr Laskin narrates Trumpeldor's story through the eyes of his friend David Belotserkovsky.[citation needed]

See also



  1. ^ The Zion Mule Corps under Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Patterson, landed at Helles from 27–28 April, four weeks after being raised, having been stranded at Mudros when its ship ran aground. The corps was embarked in the same ship as the 9th Mule Corps bound for Gaba Tepe and so a detour to Helles was ordered. The mule corps was disembarked under artillery fire from the Asiatic shore, with help of volunteers from the 9th Mule Corps and began carrying supplies forward immediately.[4] In May, Private M. Groushkowsky prevented his mules from stampeding under heavy bombardment and despite being wounded in both arms, delivered the ammunition, for which he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. Captain Trumpeldor was shot through the shoulder but refused to leave the battlefield.[5]


  1. ^ Idith Zertal, Israel's Holocaust And The Politics Of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 2005 p.14
  2. ^ "Postcard Sent by Joseph Trumpeldor to his Parents from Japanese Captivity / Postcard with a Dedication by Trumpeldor in Hebrew / Real-Photo Postcard from Japanese Captivity | kedem Auction House Ltd". www.kedem-auctions.com.
  3. ^ Kessler, Oren (March 2, 2020). "The Long Shadow of Joseph Trumpeldor". Mosaic. Retrieved November 29, 2021.
  4. ^ Alexander, H. M. (1917). On Two Fronts: Being the Adventures of an Indian Mule Corps in France and Gallipoli. New York: E. P. Dutton. pp. 146–148, 154.
  5. ^ Patterson, J. H. (1916). With the Zionists in Gallipoli. London: Hutchinson & Co. pp. 210, 123–124, 204.
  6. ^ Henry Laurens, La Question de Palestine, vol. 1, Fayard, Paris 1999, p. 502
  7. ^ a b Segev, Tom (1999). One Palestine, Complete. Metropolitan Books. pp. 122–126. ISBN 0-8050-4848-0.
  8. ^ Aviel Roshwald, The Endurance of Nationalism; Ancient Roots and Modern Dilemmas, Cambridge University Press. 2006, p. 148.
  9. ^ Silver, Matthew. "Fighting for Palestine and Crimea: Two Jewish Friends from Philadelphia during the First World War and the 1920s". In Peter Y. Medding (ed.). Jews and Violence: Images, Ideologies, Realities. Studies in Contemporary Jewry, vol. 18. Oxford University Press. pp. 201–218, p. 215, n. 43.
  10. ^ Yael Zerubavel, "The Historic, the Legendary, and the Incredible: Invented Tradition and Collective Memory in Israel", in John R. Gillis, Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, Princeton University Press, 1994 pp. 105–126, 115.
  11. ^ Yael Zerubavel, Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition, University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 159–160, 167.
  12. ^ Silver, p. 215, n. 43.
  13. ^ Idith Zertal, Israel's Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood, Cambridge University Press, 2006 p. 14. Gerry said that his last words were "It is worth dying for our country", and this was later emended. Zertal records that Pinhas Schneourson testified he had heard Trumpeldor, just before his death, in reply to the query: "How are you?", say: "It is good to die for our country." (n. 14)
  14. ^ Anita Shapira, Land and Power: The Zionist Resort to Force, 1881–1948, Stanford University Press, 1992, p. 101.


  • The personal papers of Joseph Trumpeldor are kept at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem. The notation of the record group is A42.