No matter how you treat – or do not treat – Yom Hazikaron and Yom Haatzmaut, there is something in the story that follows that should tug at our heart strings.
We should remember the contempt and sneers that oppressors had for us for two thousand years.
We should reflect that we cannot fathom the debt we owe to those who sacrificed their lives so that we could enjoy our holy land.
We should ponder the pain of parents who lost children.
And we should mourn for the time not so long ago when the reaction of a simple mother crushed by the loss of her child was to seek out an Aron Kodesh to adorn with a paroches.
We have much to thank Hakadosh Baruch Hu for.
[Many thanks to the author, Ilene Bloch-Levy, for granting permission to post her work.]
This is a story that involves a valiant fighter, a grieving mother, a Rabbinic court, the Bohusch Rebbe, a collector of Judaica, a librarian,a butcher, a jeweler, a retired museum director, a docent, a tapestry restorer, a former Member of Knesset, and a community. This is a story that courses through 60 years of modern Jewish history but takes place within a mere 20 kilometer radius.
But a few months shy of his 80th birthday, Naftali Dresner, historian, educator, museum director and former Irgun (pre-State Jewish underground) fighter has certainly accumulated a multitude of stories, yet his quest to redeem a parochet (Ark cover) bearing his late brother’s name has added a story to his rich lexicon that generations after will revel in retelling.
As Director of the Tel Aviv-based Jabotinsky Museum, it was natural that when the docent for a group of visiting librarians had to leave mid-stream, Naftali would step into the breach. At the conclusion of the tour, while standing beside the plaques commemorating the fallen Jewish underground fighters Tehilla, a librarian from Bar Ilan University, fired out a series of questions to Naftali. Was his last name Dresner? Did he have a brother named Yehiel? Was his brother executed by the British? Did he know of a parochet in memory of his brother that had recently appeared on the internet?
When Menashe and Zvi Dresner, the two older sons, threatened to walk to Palestine from Poland, the parents finally agreed to pack up the family of six and make aliyah in 1934. Initially, they settled in Jerusalem, where 11 year old Yehiel joined the Betar movement. The family’s struggle to financially survive induced the good-hearted Yehiel a few years later to quit school to help support them.
Following in the footsteps of his older brothers, Yehiel decided to join the Irgun when he was 16 years old, eventually rising to the ranks of a commanding officer. The parents knew that their sons were active in some capacity in the Jewish underground, but the details, such as Yehiel’s involvement in the attacks on Lydda airbase, the Yibne railway station and the Ramat Gan police station remained vague.
With Tehilla’s help, Naftali was able to view the picture of the parochet on-line. There appeared before him a tattered, threadbare cloth. A cloth whose existence now for some 50 years he estimated, was unknown to him. He could just barely make out the fading letters…
Dedicated to the eternal soul of my son, the holy and good one, Yehiel Dov Donated by the grieving mother
On the evening of December 29, 1946, while returning from an operation in Petah Tikvah, Yehiel, together with fellow Irgun fighters Alkehi, Kashani and Golovezki was captured. Yehiel, along with Alkehi and Kasheni were armed. With his false identity card naming him Dov Rosenbaum, the British never knew that they had Yehiel Dresner, one of a number of `Jewish terrorists’ that they had been pursuing, in their grasp.
Naftali contacted the individual in whose possession was the parochet, where upon he was invited to meet him in his Bnei Brak home. For Naftali, the velvet cloth with its faded gold stitching revealed a story that he had never known. A grieving mother who had secretly and painfully saved lira after lira to memorialize a son, whom she could not acknowledge for years, and whose death she had to bear in silence.
Naftali explained his interest in the parochet to the collector, and the latter listened sympathetically to his tale uttering oohs and aahs in rhythm with the story of a brother, who had been executed when Naftali, now standing before him, had been but 20 years old. When Naftali asked for the parochet, the collector’s answer was swift and clear. No.
Incarcerated in Jerusalem Yehiel’s family was forbidden to visit him. To reveal that he was Yehiel Dresner would have endangered the lives of his three other brothers. So, he withstood the torture and threats and went to the gallows in Akko, on April 16, 1947 under the name of Dov Rosenbaum, together with his fellow cellmate Dov Gruner, and Mordechai Alkehi and Eliezer Kashani. At home, the family who had been deceived by the British in believing there would be a stay of execution, learned of his death from a neighbor who casually reported the news of the hanging of Dov Rosenbaum.
The collector was a Bohusch Hassid, descendant of the famous Rozhin Hassidic dynasty. Naftali decided that the most efficacious way of redeeming the parochet was to appeal to the collector’s Rabbi. Accompanied by his nephew, Naftali was granted an audience with the Rabbi late one evening. Once again he shared his tale of the parochet. The Rabbi listened attentively. He was sympathetic and would have willingly handed the parochet to Naftali, had it been in his possession. However, with this Judaica collector, you will need a lot of help from the One Above.
While the fictitious `Dov Rosenbaum’ was languishing in the Jerusalem prison the British continued to pursue the elusive Yehiel Dresner. Yet, with no picture or description of him, they were severely hampered. Naftali knew he had to do all in his power to protect his family, so, as painful as it was, he destroyed all pictures of Yehiel and any and all items that carried his name. No remnants or mementoes of Yehiel remained in the possession of the Dresner family.
With the help of friends and neighbors from his community, Sha’arei Tikvah, Naftali petitioned the Rabbinic court on 32 Rashi Street in Bnei Brak. Revered among his colleagues and friends as a man of great integrity, the soft-spoken Naftali understood the difficulties the dayanim (judges) were facing during the many sessions over several months that were held. After all, this parochet was not his personal property. It had been donated by his mother to a synagogue in Tel Aviv, and was technically the property of its worshippers. It had not been willed to him, nor had it been part of her estate.
Where would this parochet hang? Naftali, now joined by members of his community’s central synagogue, assured the Rabbis that the parochet would cover the front of the ark during specified times of the year: Yehiel’s yahrzeit, Israel’s Remembrance Day for its Fallen Soldiers and Israel Independence Day. What guarantees would the court have of this? A letter, stating the above, was drafted, signed and delivered within one hour to the Rabbis. Not enough, they said.
After a brief, four hour trial held on February 10, 1947, Yehiel was condemned to death by the British military court. His final words to the judges:”You will no longer flagellate the citizens of this land, not Jews and not Arabs, for we, the soldiers of Israel, have rebelled against your reign and your shameful policies.” Yehiel was led back to his cell.
How do we know that what is written in this letter will be upheld. A call was made to Avi, one of the signatories and sexton (gabbi) in the synagogue. Working at his meat store within a few blocks of the court, he raced over, affirmed his signature and restated that all would be executed as explicitly written. The rabbis handed Avi the parochet. Gingerly, he placed the parochet on the front seat of his car, drove home to Sha’arei Tikvah, and delivered it directly to Naftali’s outstretched hands.
It wasn’t until shortly after the establishment of the State that Yehiel Dresner’s — and not Dov Rosenbaum’s — execution was made known publicly. For Efraim Zalman Dresner, Yehiel’s father, it was too late.
Only two months after Yehiel’s hanging, before he was able to finish saying Kaddish, Efraim passed away. The death of his son was simply too much pain for his heart to bear.
The parochet was in desperate need of professional restoration. Who could recreate the eloquent lettered embroidery which enshrined his brother’s life?
the son of Efraim Zalman Dresner (Z’l) who was executed by the British enslavers May he be avenged May his memory be for a blessing
After an extensive search, Naftali found, a talented tapestry restorer whose magical hands weaved and reweaved wonders.
Yehiel’s official yahrzeit is the 26th of Nissan. That very same day, 59 years later, the parochet that carries his name was hung in the central synagogue in Sha’arei Tikvah, a mixed community of some 1200 families in the Shomron. It will continue to grace the raised platform on the eastern wall where the ark stands through Holocaust Remembrance Day, Israel’s Remembrance Day for its Fallen Soldiers, and Israel Independence Day.
Naftali’s quest to redeem the parochet was almost over. Embraced by members of his family, community residents, the Rabbinic judges from the Bnei Brak court, the gabbis, former members of Etzel and Lehi, former Member of Knesset Geula Cohen, Tehilla the librarian, colleagues and friends, Naftali gazes out at the hundreds who have gathered — those who fought alongside Yehiel, those that Yehiel fought for, and those who Yehiel never lived to meet, but carry his soul forth with them.
Just one last task to accomplish. “Blessed art thou, L-rd our G-d, King of the Universe, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this day.” Naftali kisses the parochet where the opening verse reads:
“Let the tribes of His nation sing praise, for He will avenge His servants’ blood…”
This verse, excerpted from Moshe’s last discourse to his people concludes with: “He will bring vengeance upon His foes, and reconcile His people to His land.”
This is for you, Yehiel.