The Silver Matchbox That Saved a Life

Comments3

MyHeritage Founder and CEO Gilad Japhet cannot resist a family history challenge. That’s exactly why, when he read a post calling for help on an Israeli Facebook group for people who love history, by a woman named Elda Bivas Gambash, he was intrigued. In her post, Elda described her lifelong detective quest that she had never been able to accomplish, to find the descendants of the original owner of a silver matchbox that her grandfather held so dear. It was given to him by the soldier who had saved his life. Gilad accepted the challenge and promised Elda that he would do his best to help solve her family mystery. Gilad eventually succeeded. After 100 years, Elda was finally able to honor and to thank the generous soldier’s family.

Here’s how this fascinating story began:

Elda’s grandfather, Eliahu Gambash, was a Jewish man from Istanbul who was recruited into the Turkish army, just before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. He was sent to Palestine some 100 years ago (1917-1919) to fight against the British. In one battle in the city of Lod, Eliahu was taken captive by the British army. This battle led General Allenby to a quick conquest of the Land of Israel.

Eliahu Gambash in his later years.

Conditions were harsh, and many prisoners suffered from disease and deprivation. Eliahu was guarded by a British soldier, Shimon Lurie, who was also Jewish and who volunteered to serve in a special British military unit called the Jewish Battalions.

Shimon Lurie from the Jewish Battalions, c1917-1918.

The British soldier and the Turkish soldier soon realized they were both Jewish and forged a special relationship. Shimon would give Eliahu extra food and water, along with canned goods. He took special care of him and essentially saved his life. The two bonded from two opposing enemy armies.

The Matchbox

At the end of the war, before they parted ways, the British soldier, Shimon, gave Elda’s grandfather, Eliahu, a souvenir of their friendship. It was a hand-carved silver matchbox engraved with Shimon’s name and details. It included the emblem of the first battalion of Judah — a menorah with the word Kadima (onward or forward in Hebrew) and a Star of David on the other side.

The two soldiers planned to meet after the war, but that never materialized. “Thanks to him I survived captivity,” Eliahu later told his family.

Eliahu returned to Istanbul after the war, and for the next 47 years, he kept the matchbox in his pocket. It passed to his children after his death.

When Eliahu’s granddaughter, Elda Bivas Gambash, was 13, she moved to Israel. Soon after, her family, including her grandfather Eliahu, joined her. When he died in the winter of 1970, the family found the matchbox that he had always kept so close. Elda then decided to locate the descendants of the Jewish-British soldier who had made the matchbox.

“When we emptied his pockets, we found the matchbox there, and then I promised myself that I would try to reach the descendants of Shimon Lurie.”

The Search

Elda wanted to find the man who saved her grandfather’s life or his descendants, to thank them.

She began her research by looking into the Jewish Battalions, founded by Trumpeldor and Jabotinsky, in WWI. She found that Shimon Lurie was born (c1893-95) in Chernigov, Ukraine and immigrated to Argentina. He traveled with 53 other men from Argentina to Israel (via England) to join the Jewish Battalions and fight the Turks with the British Army to liberate Palestine. Here Shimon’s tracks went cold. Elda was unable to trace him further or determine his fate.

38th Battalion of the King’s Regiment [Courtesy, Museum of the Brigades House, Ministry of Defense]
For years, Elda searched for clues, read books, and talked to researchers, but she still could not find a trace of Shimon’s family. Then she turned to Facebook to harness the power of social media. She posted a photo of the matchbook with a short summary of her search in an Israeli Facebook group for lovers of history. That’s when Gilad Japhet, MyHeritage’s Founder and CEO and also a member of that Facebook group, saw the post and offered his help. Elda shared with Gilad two photos of Shimon Lurie that she managed to locate during her research.

Gilad personally researched all people named Shimon Lurie who had ever lived in Israel. There were only 13 men with the same name. Only one of them lived during those years where he could have been involved in the story and Gilad thought it possible that he was the man who fought in WWI. Gilad turned to MyHeritage’s SuperSearch, our treasure trove of historical records, to search for Shimon Lurie in digital gravestone records. He was successful and reported back to Elda.

“By virtue of a project we made to document all the graves in Israeli cemeteries, we found the grave of a man named Shimon Israel Lurie, and the year of birth was possible in terms of the story.”

The gravestone, in Tel Aviv’s Kiryat Shaul cemetery, was erected in 1964, and it stated Shimon’s full name, Shimon Israel Lurie. This fit with what was known from the carved matchbox, that the British-Jewish soldier’s full name was Shimon I. Lurie.

Gilad located Shimon’s grandson, Roy Shimon Luria, who lives in the United States and Gilad related the whole story. Although Roy was named after Shimon (his middle name), he was not aware of the story. But he confirmed the details for Gilad.

“The picture you sent me does seem to be my grandfather. For comparison, I am sending you an old picture that I found in my mother’s house when we cleared it when she passed away. I believe it is my father’s family portrait and my grandfather is the one sitting. His picture, as you can tell seems very similar to the picture you sent over. Also, the little girl on the left is my aunt Rina (Lurie) Shalgi, who is still alive in her mid-eighties in Israel.”

Photo sent to Gilad by Shimon’s grandson, Roy Luria.

Gilad was convinced that the photos showed the same person.

The photos that Gilad sent to Roy (left and right), and the photo sent by Roy (center).

Gilad was pleased to hear that Rina, 86, the youngest daughter of Shimon was alive and living in Israel. Rina confirmed that her father Shimon Lurie was born in Ukraine, during the Communist revolution, and fled to Argentina, where he joined the Baron Hirsch farm where some Jews who had fled from the Eastern European pogroms volunteered to fight in the Jewish Battalions. He joined the 38th Royal Battalion in 1918. The men arrived in Israel and fought for the conquest of parts of the country. After the war, Shimon served in Sarafand, the British military camp.

Nearly a century after their ancestors first met, Elda, granddaughter of Eliahu Gambash, visited the home of Rina Shalgi, 86, the daughter of Shimon Lurie, in Israel. Watch their emotional meeting here:

“My name is Elda and I have been looking for you for many years, and from the moment he returned from British captivity in 1919-1970, my grandfather kept the matchbox he had given him in captivity, an English Jewish officer who saved his life. If he did not help my grandfather, who knows what would have happened.”

Rina, who had not known all the details of the story before meeting Elda, couldn’t believe their luck at finding one another.

“All these years you lived next to us in Tel Aviv, and I remember hearing something vague about the subject, but I did not know anything else. How did you possibly find me?”

Rina’s eyes were filled with tears, and Elda also could not contain her excitement:

“I’m going crazy, it’s very exciting for me. Two enemy armies but two Jews.”

Their conversation revealed that after the war, Shimon Lurie remained in Israel and built his home in Tel Aviv. Eliahu, who returned to Istanbul after the war, later also immigrated with the family and settled in the same city, Tel Aviv. It turns out that the two men lived only several hundred meters away from one another for many years, and they had no idea.

Rina revealed more photographs of her father Shimon Lurie showing that he was a beautiful person both inside and out:

Elda and Rina had a hard time agreeing on who would keep the matchbox going forward (eventually Elda continued to keep it). But, for the Gambash family, it was a very happy ending. They were thrilled to finally put faces to the family of the courageous soldier who had saved Eliahu Gambash’s life. One small momento, saved for over 100 years, connected two soldiers from enemy lines and helped reunite their descendants, not too far from where it all began.

Leave a comment

The email address is kept private and will not be shown

  • Charleen Frantz-Irby


    October 12, 2018

    Very interesting information, thanks for sharing it!

  • Gretchen Jennings


    November 14, 2018

    What a beautiful story about the two lives that were crossed and continued to stay alive, because of the love of the families. Thank you for sharing the story and it makes me feel a closer part of the family of My Heritage. I have loved learning more about my past and family members.

  • Peter Stokes


    November 15, 2018

    This is a beautiful story