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The Girl Who Took On the British Empire

Esther Cailingold was disillusioned with the British Empire’s treatment of Jews after the Holocaust. So she joined the Jewish resistance in Palestine.

Rosie Whitehouse
January 27, 2020
Original photos courtesy Asher Cailingold
Esther Cailingold with a fellow fighter on the eve of battle in the Old City of JerusalemOriginal photos courtesy Asher Cailingold
Original photos courtesy Asher Cailingold
Esther Cailingold with a fellow fighter on the eve of battle in the Old City of JerusalemOriginal photos courtesy Asher Cailingold

On May 8, 1945, when the war ended in Europe, 19-year-old Esther Cailingold and her younger brother Asher danced the night away in London’s Trafalgar Square. “We youngsters had never felt so happy,” he said. “But when we got home in the early hours our father greeted us with a doom-laden warning that dark times were ahead for the Jews. We didn’t understand what he meant, but the reality was soon to catch up with us.” Three years later, Esther lay dead in Jerusalem’s Old City, after a battle that Reuters reported was reminiscent of Stalingrad.

The Cailingold siblings grew up in a closed Orthodox society in an atmosphere that Asher, 89, said “retained the feel of Eastern Europe.” But this was still “London—the heart of the British Empire on which the sun never set,” he recalled. “When our teachers pointed to the pink shaded masses on the map of the world our little chests puffed out in pride.” But in the months following the end of hostilities, Asher watched as his sister was transformed from “a prim trainee schoolteacher into a frontline fighter who traveled alone to a strange land and changed into someone we never knew.”

Esther Cailingold after her arrival in Jerusalem
Esther Cailingold after her arrival in Jerusalem

Along with millions of British cinema goers, the siblings spent the summer of 1945 watching newsreel images of emaciated Holocaust survivors and skeletal corpses. It had an enormous impact on Esther. “We were both members of the religious Zionist movement, Bahad, now Bnei Akiva, and when they asked for volunteers to go to Germany to work with the survivors Esther was determined to join them, but our father refused to let her go,” Asher recalled. Then one day in August 1945, she “stomped out of the house” without telling the family where she was going.

Days later, when 300 child Holocaust survivors who had endured slave labor, concentration camps, and death marches stepped out of RAF bombers at an airport near Carlisle in the north of England, Esther Cailingold was waiting to greet them.

The children, mostly teenage boys, were brought from the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia by the Central British Fund, now World Jewish Relief. Their story is retold in a major docudrama for BBC and Germany’s ZDF, The Windermere Children, to be broadcast later this month as part of the U.K.’s 75th anniversary commemoration of the end of the Holocaust. It is being sold as a redemptive feel good story of British generosity, but it fails to tell the whole story. It is a tale that will not mention 22-year-old Esther and how meeting child Holocaust survivors in England’s Lake District turned her into a radical Zionist with a gun in her hand.

The story of the collapse of British control in Palestine is rarely discussed in the United Kingdom and does not appear in school textbooks. It is odd that such a seminal moment in history seems to have fallen through the cracks, as it links two crucial events of 20th-century history—the Holocaust and the founding of the State of Israel. So I recently met with Dave Rich, an expert on anti-Semitism, in a coffee shop in north London.

The fact it has been brushed under the carpet has, Rich told me, had a negative impact on Britain. Rich said it has allowed the hard left to present an incorrect “narrative which sees Jews before World War II as anti-fascists, during the war as victims of fascism, and after the war as fascist oppressors.” He said the topic is too uncomfortable even for the Jewish community to counter, with many unwilling to speak about it, almost as if it were as bad as “homegrown ISIS terrorists today. British Jews were going to Palestine to fight the British Empire.”

Rich was right; finding someone who was willing to talk about this was not an easy feat and I almost gave up. But at the 11th hour, I stumbled across an unexpected lead while at Kibbutz Lavi in northern Israel, not far from the Sea of Galilee. It was founded by Bahad in 1949 and I came to find out about its founders who cared for the child Holocaust survivors. But Lavi’s British side is fading fast. The hotel lobby was full of characters who look like they have stepped out of an episode of Netflix’s Shtisel and the buzz of conversation was Hebrew and English with an American twang. The United Kingdom seemed very far away. There wasn’t a single person from Britain in sight until I walked into the old people’s home.


Edi Maagan, 99, was one of the founders of Lavi. She and her late husband, Shalom Marcowitz, one of Bahad’s leaders, ran a hostel for young survivors in London’s East End. As we took tea in the sunny dayroom, I hoped to discover details of the day-to-day running of the hostel when to my surprise, she described how her basement was a hub of activity for the London branch of the Haganah—the underground force that would later become the Israel Defense Forces. Those who had joined up spent their last night in the United Kingdom in Edi’s home and were given their final briefing, but she was reticent to go into details and suggested I visit her friend Sheila Kritzler, also at Lavi.

Kritzler, the widow of another of the Bahad leaders, was busy watching the classic British quiz show University Challenge when I knocked on the door. She was keen to tell me she was a graduate of University College London and remembered the Bahad members who staffed the hostels where “the Boys” lived and who settled in Lavi. “It’s important that someone tells their story,” she said but added, “I don’t know anything about it.” It was obvious she did as she winked while saying this. It was this chance meeting with Kritzler that led me to the Cailingold siblings, as it is her who sent me to meet her old friend Asher. He would tell me the story of the three years in his sister’s life that he said “encapsulates an entire period of history from the ashes of the Holocaust to the birth of the State of Israel.”

Cailingold ushered me to a chair the moment I arrived in his apartment in a sheltered housing commune not far from Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum. Earnest and a little breathless, he was in a hurry to tell his story and that of his older sister. That story began in August 1945, he said, just weeks before the child Holocaust survivors arrived in Britain.

Asher Cailingold in his Jerusalem apartment (Photo: Rosie Whitehouse)
Asher Cailingold in his Jerusalem apartment (Photo: Rosie Whitehouse)

In the summer of 1945 Labour had won a landslide in the general election, and during the campaign the party had promised to repeal the strict limitations that had been placed on Jewish immigration to the mandate territories in the 1939 White Paper. Yet, by the time Esther left the Lake District to return to university it was clear that the new foreign secretary, Ernest Bevin, had no intention of offering a helping hand to the thousands of survivors now trapped in displaced persons camps in Europe. Fearful of upsetting the Arabs and mindful of Britain’s oil supply, he kept the doors of Palestine firmly closed.

According to Asher, it was a decision that set British Zionists and the empire on a collision course, propelling Esther to believe in her new calling. “The 100,000 British troops garrisoned in Palestine soon found themselves in the frontline fighting a Jewish insurgency,” he said. “Off the coast the Royal Navy were boarding illegal immigrant ships crammed to the brim with desperate Holocaust survivors who were promptly interned on arrival in Haifa.” Esther felt betrayed by the government’s “soulless indifference to their plight,” he said.

While the Central British Fund was hoping to integrate its new charges into British society by teaching them English, dressing them in suits, and encouraging them to put milk in their tea, British policy in Palestine was placing British Jews on a new frontline at home. Tabloid headlines reported attacks on British soldiers in Palestine, which inflamed public opinion and would eventually lead to widespread riots in British cities.

As the country struggled through the immediate aftermath of the war, food and fuel were in short supply. Cailingold was himself so unnerved by the level of anti-Semitism in Britain that in the early summer of 1946 he opted for a secret rendezvous with a “Mr. Gross” in a back room behind a shop in London’s Charing Cross Road. Mr. Gross was signing people up for the Haganah. “The recruiters were all called Mr. Gross, I later realized,” he laughed. “In the swearing-in ceremony, a senior officer concealed by a curtain took his oath of allegiance. I was sworn in with my co-agent Sheila Kritzler, that’s why she sent you here. All we could see were his boots,” he said, laughing. “We were told not to say anything to anyone, but I think it’s time we did before people forget what really happened.”

Cailingold would work as a guard outside synagogues, screen recruits for spies, and was also involved in the theft of two Spitfires that were secretly flown out of Britain by the Haganah. It was his job to drive the boxes full of cash that paid for them out of London and leave them for another agent in a designated hedge in the countryside. Meanwhile, Esther carried on working with survivors at the Jewish Temporary Shelter in the East End of London while she took her final examinations to qualify as a teacher.


On June 29, 1946, the crisis in Palestine deepened when the government ordered the arrest of Jewish leaders as part of Operation Agatha. The following Sunday, Jews took to the streets of London in their first large-scale public protest. Many of the teenage survivors, even those living outside the capital, took part and their black-and-white photograph collections usually include snaps of the protest that culminated in Trafalgar Square. Esther and Asher marched with them.

Days later, a serious pogrom broke out in the Polish city of Kielce. It left 42 Jews dead and thousands of Holocaust survivors began to flood out of Poland, desperate to reach safety in the Jewish homeland. “It was a turning point,” Asher said, not only for Esther but for many of the Bahad youngsters and the survivors they had befriended.

The vast majority of the concentration camp survivors Esther worked with were also Zionists. After the liberation, when the Red Cross in Theresienstadt had asked them where they would like to start a new life, nearly all had said Palestine. Many had signed up to come to Britain in the hope it would be the fastest route there.

Esther Cailingold learning to use a Sten gun
Esther Cailingold learning to use a Sten gun

Geoffrey Paul, a friend of Esther’s and later editor of the Jewish Chronicle, also volunteered to work with them at the Temporary Shelter, and later wrote that they “wanted to go out into the streets and punch every passing policeman as a protest against the actions of the Palestine Police. There was a most provocative recruiting poster for the Palestine Police right opposite the Shelter and the kids had to be restrained from defacing it.”

In November 1946, Esther left for Palestine, where she had found a job as a teacher in a British school in Jerusalem. But marking books and checking registers was of secondary importance, as she soon joined the Haganah.

Asher said, “It is difficult for British people to understand just how quickly she became so angry with Britain. Jews were being killed by British soldiers on the streets of Palestine and the callous treatment of the survivors by the British who attacked the illegal immigrant ships heading for Palestine served to erase her last vestige of trust in the British and she began to turn against the country she had been born in.”

The Bahad-run hostels where the teenage survivors lived were, according to Asher, recruiting grounds for volunteers willing to join the Haganah struggle in Palestine. “Young Jews who were abroad to complete their studies acted as recruiting officers,” he said. Bahad leaders like Edi Maagan and her husband were idolized by the survivors that they cared for and soon became role models. Many decided that joining the Haganah was the logical next step.

One of them, David Hirschfeld, volunteered without telling his brother Moniek, the only member of his family who had survived the Holocaust. “It was an illegal activity and I didn’t want to influence him to take a similar risk,” he wrote later. “It might be difficult to understand why people like us who were barely saved from extermination would volunteer,” he admitted, but felt it was “essential for the Jewish people to have a place of their own, where they can protect themselves and have their own armed forces.”

Sam Freiman was the sole survivor of not only his family but the entire Jewish community of Jeziorna in Poland. Before his death in December 2019, he was proudly showing visitors to his apartment in southwest London a grainy picture of him in his first IDF uniform. “I felt I had an obligation to fight for a Jewish state as my father had been a staunch Zionist,” he recalled. “If he could have seen me fighting, he would have been so happy and gone straight to heaven!”

Like the other Haganah volunteers, he left Britain claiming he was taking a short holiday in France. His eyes twinkled and he laughed at the trick. In Calais he was met by agents who took him to an office on Boulevard Haussman in Paris. He was treated to dinner in a fancy restaurant before boarding the night train for Marseilles. Dotted around the Mediterranean port city were a number of camps where the Jewish underground gave the recruits basic weapons training before they sailed for Haifa.

It was a journey that Asher Cailingold was hoping to take. In May 1948 he was on the London Underground on his way to give his last report to Mr. Gross when a man from Bahad approached him holding out a newspaper. “He pointed at a Stop Press headline,” he recalled. The shock of the moment still played across his face. “It read: TWO LONDON GIRLS DIE IN BATTLE. It was Esther. She had been killed fighting in the Old City.” She was only 22 years old and a Haganah soldier.

Asher went home immediately and postponed his own departure to comfort his parents. He read from Esther’s last letter home, which landed on the doormat the day after the family learned of her death. “Please, please, do not be sadder than you can help—I have lived my short life fully if briefly, and I think it is best that way, ‘short and sweet,’ very sweet it has been here in our own land.”

“The following week I received my call-up papers for the British Army,” he laughed and shook his head in disbelief at the turn his life took. “I was so angry I wanted to run away, but a rabbi persuaded me not to.” Furious, he told his commanding officer that his sister had been killed by British-led soldiers of the Arab Legion and, to his surprise, he said that the officer replied that “he had just returned from Palestine and had a lot of sympathy for the Jews. Britain was divided—Jews and non-Jews were split as to how to respond—and that is why people prefer not to talk about it, but I think it is important that we understand what turned my sister into a sniper in the Old City of Jerusalem.”


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