Hero of Modern Jewish History Was an Amputee

Joseph Trumpeldor lost his arm fighting for Imperial Russia and his life
defending a Zionist settlement in Palestine.

Trumpeldor was “one of the greatest heroes of modern Jewish
history,” according to the “Save Israel: Articles and Thoughts on the
Jewish State” website. According to the website, a monument of the lion of
Judah was erected in his honor over his grave at Tel Chai, Israel.

Trumpeldor was born in 1880 in Pyatigorsk, in Russia’s far-flung
Caucasus Mountains. Persecution of Jews was widespread in czarist Russia. Jews
were beaten and killed and their homes, businesses and synagogues were
destroyed in pogroms, or anti-Jewish riots, which had at least tacit government

  Wikimedia Commons: Known old photo
of Joseph Trumpeldor (d. 1920)

Trumpeldor’s father was drafted into the army, where anti-Semitism
was also rife. He served 25 years, all the while maintaining his Jewish
identity and influencing his son “in the spirit of Judaism,”
according to the website.

Zionist foundation

As a youth, Trumpeldor became a Zionist, or supporter of a Jewish state
in Palestine where Jews could go and live independently. Nonetheless, he joined
the Russian army in 1902. Trumpeldor explained that “he felt obligated to
fulfill his duties as a citizen; and, what was more important he wanted to
prove by his action that the charge of ‘Jewish cowardice’ was
false,” the website says.

Trumpeldor became a hero while helping to defend Port Arthur against the
Japanese in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Port Arthur was a heavily
defended Russian naval base at the end of the Liaotung Peninsula in Manchuria.
The siege of Port Arthur was the bloodiest battle in the war.

Trumpeldor volunteered for the commando forces, “which bore the
brunt of the Japanese attacks,” according to the website. “His name
was soon the pride of the regiment. Once the commanding officer expressed the
hope that as he had no Jews in his section there would be no cowards or
traitors. Trumpeldor immediately stepped out of line and announced: ‘I am
a Jew, sir.’”

In August, 1904, fragments from an exploding Japanese shell shattered
his left arm, which had to be amputated. He insisted on going back to active
duty after he left the hospital. According to the website, he wrote his
commanding officer, pleading: “True, I have now but one arm, but it is the
right one capable of handling a sword or rifle.”

Trumpeldor returned to his regiment and earned promotion to sergeant.
“He displayed such outstanding heroism that he received all four of the
highest decorations for bravery — the only Jew in the Russian army to
receive such honors,” the website says.

From prisoner to hero

The Japanese captured Port Arthur in January 1905, following a siege
that began in August 1904. Trumpeldor was among approximately 24,400 Russian

“He…spent a year in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, where he
organized five hundred fellow Jewish prisoners into a Zionist society,”
the website says.

The loss of Port Arthur led to Russian defeat in the war. Yet Trumpeldor
came home to a hero’s welcome. In 1906, he met the czar’s wife and by
royal order was commissioned the first Jewish officer in the army. “But he
was more interested in preparing a group of Chalutzim (pioneers) to go to the
Land of Israel,” according to the website.

In 1912, Trumpeldor and the pioneers immigrated to Palestine, the future
state of Israel. The territory was part of the ancient Muslim Turkish Empire.

When World War I began in 1914, Turkey joined the Central Powers
(Germany, Austria-Hungary and later Bulgaria) against the Allies (Great
Britain, France, Russia and later Italy and the United States). Turkish
authorities expelled Trumpeldor and other Jews, many of whom went to
British-occupied Alexandria, Egypt.

The Mule Corps

He and another Jew, Ze’ev Jabotinsky, wanted to recruit a Jewish
Legion from among the refugees. The men would be front-line fighters in the
British army, Jabotinsky and Trumpeldor proposed.

The British were cool to the idea. Instead, they suggested the formation
of the Zion Mule Corps, which would support British combat troops by carrying
ammunition, food and other supplies to the front lines.

Jabotinsky rejected the idea, claiming it was demeaning to the Jews.
Trumpeldor agreed to serve in the corps because he said it would give “the
Jews…the opportunity to help liberate Palestine and thereby share in the
sacrifices,” Leslie Stein wrote in The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of
Modern Israel.

Trumpeldor accepted the rank of captain under the corps commander, John
Patterson, a British colonel. The corps soon found itself part of one of the
bloodiest and most ill-fated campaigns of the war.

In April 1915, the Mule Corps accompanied a large British army to the
Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. The army, aided by French troops, was to capture
Constantinople, Turkey’s capital, and force open the strategic Turkish
Straits, which controlled access to Russia’s vital Black Sea ports.

The Turks fought fiercely to defend their homeland. In January, 1916,
the British and French withdrew after suffering 220,000 losses — men
killed, wounded, captured or listed as missing.

Alhough they were support troops, the Mule Corps volunteers found
themselves in harm’s way, too. Eight were killed in action and
approximately 55 were wounded, including Trumpeldor, according to Stein.
“He was shot in the left shoulder with the bullet projecting out on the
other side. Once it was removed, he continued as if nothing untoward had

The website quotes Patterson: “During all the time of that terrible
war, this gentle Captain showed an unparalleled valor and unflinching
determination. By his devotion to duty he set an example to all. When bullets
were showering upon us, I warned him to take heed, but Trumpeldor, with his
charming, simple smile answered ‘never mind (ein davar), I am all

Jewish Legion

Later in the war, Jabotinsky convinced the British to organize a Jewish
Legion of combat troops. Trumpeldor tried to join, but British brass turned him
down, according to the website. The Legion helped the British capture Palestine
in 1917.

Meanwhile, Trumpeldor went to Russia and tried to form a Jewish Legion
there. The czar abdicated in March 1917; a provisional government took over.
The Communists seized power in November 1917, and pulled Russia out of the war,
which ended in 1918.

Trumpeldor organized a Jewish self-defense unit against possible pogroms
encouraged on by pro-czarist reactionaries in Petrograd. But it disbanded after
the Communists came to power, the website says.

With Russia sliding rapidly into civil war, Trumpeldor encouraged Jews
to leave for British-occupied Palestine and help create a Jewish state. He
returned there in 1919, the website says.

Fighting broke out between Muslim Arabs, who opposed a Jewish state, and
the Jewish emigrants. Trumpeldor became leader of the Haganah, a paramilitary

He was helping defend the remote Tel Chai settlement near the Syrian
border on March 1, 1920, when several hundred Arabs struck, according to the
website. He was shot trying to close the gate against the attackers.

“When his comrades found him, he smiled and said ‘Ein davar
(It is nothing) I only want a bandage,’ the website says. “He then
calmly directed the bandaging of his wound.

‘These are my last moments. Tell our comrades to defend the honor
of our people until the last.’”

A doctor arrived, but too late to save Trumpeldor. According to the
website, his last words were “‘Ein davar, tov lamut be-ad
artsenu.’ (It does not matter, it is good to die for our land).” He
was 49 years old.

Many Israelis now know his last words by heart.

For more information:

  • Save Israel: Articles and Thoughts on the Jewish State. Available
    at: http://www.saveisrael.com. Accessed Dec. 28, 2011.

  • Stein L. The Hope Fulfilled: The Rise of Modern
    . Westport, Conn: Praeger Publishers; 2003.

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