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Who Attacked Jascha Heifetz in 1953?

Nothing seemed amiss when a car dropped Jascha Heifetz back at the King David Hotel on April 16, 1953, after a recital at Edison Hall in Jerusalem.

Heifetz had played the program, which included Richard Strauss’s E flat violin sonata, to his usual exacting standards and to thunderous applause.

A lone doorman greeted his car, sandwiched between two police Jeeps, when it arrived at the hotel just after midnight. Having safely ferried Heifetz and his entourage — his bodyguard, his son, his accompanist — to the King David, the Jeeps drove away.

The bodyguard got out of the car first and went through the hotel’s revolving door. Heifetz, carrying his violin case, was next. But before he could enter, the doorman rushed up to him, speaking Hebrew words Heifetz couldn’t understand.

This was no doorman. He held an iron bar in his hand and brought the weapon down on Heifetz’s right arm, smashing his hand.

Though Heifetz’s violin case deflected the blow, he clutched his hand in pain. As he entered the lobby, his bodyguard ran in pursuit of the attacker but found only the bar, wrapped in newspaper, a few feet from the hotel.

Seventy years later, the man who attacked Jascha Heifetz has not been identified. A faction called Han oar Haivri (or Hebrew Youth), later linked to several right-wing extremist groups, took responsibility, but no one has ever been held accountable.

Later, one man said he knew the assailant’s identity. This man, a future speaker of the Knesset, had good reason for his knowledge, having direct ties to the underground group that had sent Heifetz a threatening note about his choice of repertoire.

An unsolved mystery involving a world-renowned violinist, the State of Israel’s early years, the shadows of collective trauma, and the uneasy mix of art and politics — this story ticked all of my professional and personal boxes.

Figuring out what happened — through interviews with historians and those who knew Heifetz, looking at contemporary newspaper accounts and digging in archives — helped me make sense of this historical moment at a time when Israel is once again at a critical inflection point.

HEIFETZ WAS ATTACKED because he had dared on this tour to play the sonata by Strauss, a composer then banned in Israel for his Nazi collaborations. In 1953, the State of Israel was just five years old and the Holocaust was still a very live memory. Playing the work of German composers — particularly Wagner — could still provoke extreme emotional reactions.

A week before the Jerusalem concert, Heifetz had received a letter from an underground terrorist group: “You ought to know, as we do, that you dared play a Nazi melody in the Holy Land on the eve of Yom Hashoah” — or Holocaust Remembrance Day — “music composed by a partner to the destruction of our people.”

The note warned: “Beware and never again repeat this crime.”

Read entire article at New York Times