“By January 1948, the settlement of Neve Yaakov was under siege. The thirty families were under attack by the Arabs of Shuafat, who blocked the road to Jerusalem and cut the water lines. Supplies could only be obtained by giving large bribes to the British police. That is how we got matzah for Pesach.”
So wrote Abraham (Wexler) Timor, Hagana commander of Neveh Ya’acov, many years later in a newsletter to his eight children and 120 grandchildren and great grandchildren.
I found it on the coffee table in his modest house in Moshav Nehalim, a place he’d helped to found, during a shiva call. A few days earlier, Abraham had passed away peacefully in his bed at the age of 96.
I was one among hundreds who gathered to mourn and pay tribute to a quiet giant of a man, a true Jewish hero, microcosm of all that was best in that generation to which we all owe so much, a generation that demanded, expected and needed nothing less than superhuman heroism to achieve the miraculous goal of creating anew an ancient homeland to shelter and revive a ravaged and decimated nation.
Like the Biblical Abraham, Abraham Timor was a man of faith, courage and strength who rose to every challenge.
Trained as a book publisher, he became a Hagana commander in his early 30s and went on to found the religious Moshav Nehalim. An autodidact with a massive library that included books of the Talmud alongside the novels of Oscar Wilde and books on history, philosophy and art, he was a talented calligrapher. Next to his books there is a shelf of awards bearing witness to decades of selfless volunteer work.
But perhaps his greatest enterprise was his family. On the wall is a photo collage of eight grandchildren in IDF uniforms, all serving at the same time.
Born in Latvia in 1915, he and his devout Jewish family made their way to Hamburg to seek greater educational opportunities.
After graduating Talmud Torah Reali, Abraham entered a program to become a book publisher and editor, all the while cooking and cleaning and working to help his sick mother. He completed his degree in 1934, the year his mother succumbed to her illness.
In that same year, the Nazis made it impossible for a Jew in Hamburg to graduate.
So Abraham went to Bremen to take his exams, earning his certification. But he was finished with Germany. The next day he boarded a train to Florence to join a religious, Zionist training program run by Brit Halutzim Dati’im (Bachad), a forerunner of B’nei Akiva.
In between courses in agricultural technology, the repair of farm instruments and Jewish history, the tall, strikingly handsome young pioneer met a lovely young baby nurse named Naomi Zilberschmidt from Hungary, who had trained in the famous children’s home run by Bertha Pappenheim.
The two fell in love. But Abraham already had his “certificate” from the British to move to Palestine, and Naomi did not. He had no choice but to board the Galila ship to Haifa in September 1935, leaving her behind.
Members of Poalei Mizrahi met him in Haifa and took him to the Rodges training camp, members of which eventually founded the religious communities of Tirat Zvi, Kfar Yavetz, Sde Eliahu, Ein Hanatziv and Kvutzat Yavne. Three months later, Naomi finally arrived. They were married by the rabbinate in Jerusalem the day after her arrival in Rodges, and immediately returned to the camp, where they received a tent, two bed frames and two bales of hay from which to make mattresses. Two years later, expecting their first child, they decided to join a pioneering settlement in northern Jerusalem called Neveh Ya’acov.
Founded in 1925 by devout families from the Old City and Mea She’arim, it was abandoned by the original settlers in the wake of murderous Arab riots and repopulated by German Jewish immigrants who created a new agricultural cooperative and residential housing, where scholars, writers and artists from Jerusalem came to settle, including the composer Karl Solomon.
Finding work in the local quarry, Abraham was soon put in charge of establishing a gravel factory. In 1937, following the birth of their first child, Yedida, the quarry closed and Abraham was forced to scramble to support his growing family. He tried his hand and succeeded at building, plumbing and electrical work, while also terracing the hillside to plant apple and plum trees (the glory of Naomi’s famous cakes), and maintaining coops for hundreds of chickens, 40 geese and four goats he had brought by train from Beit She’an.
Naomi, in no less heroic efforts to support her family, worked as the yishuv’s nurse, made goat-hair slippers, coconut-soled sandals, raffia ribbons and oil lamps, and sewed gloves and clothing to sell in Jerusalem stores. On top of that, she established a soup kitchen in her home to feed members of the Hagana who arrived secretly to practice shooting and grenade-throwing in the abandoned quarry. During all this, she managed to give birth to four more children – Uri, Yael, Gideon and Shiraleh.
In the meantime, the Hagana sent the young family man to numerous training courses, entrusting him with establishing secret weapons caches in places like the Hebrew University at Mount Scopus, Sdom and the Hulda forest. At the age of only 33, Abraham was appointed commander of Hagana forces in Neveh Ya’acov.
His firsthand description of events following the historic UN vote on November 29, 1947, reveals the heavy burden of that responsibility: “The Arab Legion sent foot soldiers and a fleet of armored vehicles to attack us. The situation was dire. One of our men was killed, and twelve were injured. Their canons destroyed our fortressed positions.
“The houses nearest the gate were evacuated, and the Legion entered with locals who looted everything. Just then, I saw someone raise his head outside the armored truck giving soldiers the orders to advance. I took aim and shot him. As fate would have it, he turned out to be the company’s top commander.
“His death ended the attack, and the Legion retreated. This didn’t stop Radio Ramallah from announcing Neve Yaakov had fallen ‘after the Jews attacked our forces.’”
Things only got worse. By May 1, 1948, the Hagana ordered women and children evacuated from both Neveh Ya’acov and Atarot. Pregnant Naomi and their five children left with only her sewing machine, clothes and a few mattresses, finding shelter in Katamon in a house hurriedly abandoned by a fleeing Arab family. Abraham and the other men remained behind to defend the yishuv. They were soon joined by the men of Atarot, who had been ordered to abandon their yishuv.
On May 14, the State of Israel was declared. The final battle for Neveh Ya’acov took place the following Sunday. At 7 a.m., two divisions of the Arab Legion and seven armored vehicles and artillery struck the yishuv, once again reaching its gates. Abraham told the fighters that reinforcements were on their way. It was a lie. The truth was, the Hagana had told him they had no one to send, and he should surrender.
But surrender was the last thing in the world the young commander was prepared to do. Only several days earlier, Naomi’s brother, Moshe Zilberschmidt, had been killed as he heroically led the defense of the Gush Etzion bloc. Desperately outnumbered, the Hagana had raised the white flag.
In response, the Arab legion slaughtered them all.
By 8 p.m., Neveh Ya’acov was still standing, but at a terrible cost. Out of 100 fighters, four had died and 18 had been seriously wounded. There was a lull in the fighting. At 1 a.m., the decision was taken to evacuate under cover of nightfall. After burying the dead and the Torah scrolls, the exhausted fighters piled the wounded onto mattresses and carried them all the way to Mount Scopus.
Along the way, there were those who were tempted to leave the wounded behind.
“We are not leaving anyone behind,” Abraham insisted, taking out his gun and threatening to shoot anyone who refused to continue shouldering the burden. As a result, everyone arrived together safely. Among the evacuees was Supreme Court Justice Tsevi Tal, who also paid a shiva call, telling Abraham’s family that he owed his life to the intrepid commander.
But there was to be no rest for Abraham, who was next put in charge of defending Mount Scopus. During a lull in the fighting, he heard the news that his sixth child, Efrat, had been born.
She was destined to be the mother of my son’s wife, Anat.
This article was first published in the Jerusalem Post on February 24, 2012.