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Sunday, April 28, 2013

Sixty-Five Years Since the Fall of the Old City of Jerusalem©

An eyewitness account by Rebbetzin Chava Rom, wife of the Rav of Mekor Baruch and Kerem


Each year on 19 Iyar, the day the Rova [the Jewish Quarter] fell to the Jordanians, memories overtake me and I feel as if I am experiencing the whole episode again. Even after so many years, I still relive the experience.

The End of a Legacy

We had lived in the Old City for five generations. The famous Rav Velvel of Pinsk, the father of my mother’s grandfather, arrived in Yerushalayim with his two sons. They had run away from Pinsk-Karlin to escape the Cantonist decree. On arriving in the Old City, they began building it up.
Rav Velvel, known as the shamashof the Kosel, took care of the Wall with unbounded mesirus nefesh and devotion. He made sure there were benches to sit on at the Kosel — each evening they needed to be removed and then in the morning they needed to be returned. As a child, when he was still alive, my mother, (Aleta Zelzer) may she rest in peace, used to wash the lempalach (little lamps) used to light up the area of the Kosel.

For generations we lived at the address Rechov Hayehudim mul [opposite] haChurvah, that is no
more. The top floor of our building has remained, but the bottom level is now part of the Cardo. The entrance to there is through Rechov Chabad.

My father, who was a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim, refused to leave the Rova. Many offers were presented to him that would have allowed our family to live in other places. He refused, saying he wanted to be next to the Kosel — close to the place of the Mikdash. The place has kedushah and he was not going to leave it.

My parents ran a grocery store. During the day Mother worked in the shop, and at night Father
worked on the accounts. He would copy the debts that accumulated daily into a large ledger.
We never, ever heard a word spoken about anyone, in our home. Never! They had many [debt-ridden] accounts, yet never a word was said about others. I never even knew one could talk about others. I had no concept of forbidden speech, as it just was not found in our home. We did not learn the laws of lashon hara — we just lived by the laws of not speaking lashon hara.

The period of the siege on the Old City was extremely difficult. Just the fact that one could not come and go as one pleased, one could not bring in and take out things, was suffocating. I was twelve and a half at the time. I had spent a long time with my married sister who lived outside the walls and I wanted to go home. I missed my parents dreadfully and longed for the Old City. I returned to the Rova on Erev Pesach, in the last English convoy into the Old City.

By this time, many of those who lived in the Rova had left. The population was down to about half of its previous size — around 2,000 people. I was astounded; the formerly bustling, lively Rechov Hayehudim was now almost deserted. This was not the Old City I had left a few months previously. Everything had changed.

The End of the British Mandate

On May 14, 1948, the British left the Old City. The British were meant to be the neutral peacekeepers between Jew and Arab in Palestine. However, since England needed oil — and the Arabs had lots of it — all throughout the Mandate the British were heavily biased on the side of the Arabs.

They allowed the Arabs to possess arms, yet if any Jew possessed a weapon, it was confiscated and he could receive the death penalty, or if not that, a stiff prison sentence.

In the days of the Mandate, one of the underground groups harmed one of the British soldiers. In revenge, the English went from Jewish home to Jewish home. On that bitter day, they broke into the homes of Batei Machseh. They killed Rav Chesin, a cheder rebbi, and his daughter Malka, a kallah, when they entered their home. All the other members of the house had hidden under the beds. Such were the English.

On the same day, my sister was at her workplace. She worked as the cashier in a type of laundry store. The old woman who did the washing by hand was with her. They heard a great commotion outside and fearfully locked the door. Suddenly, loud banging nearly broke the door down. The older women started crying, “They will kill us! They will kill us!” Both of them started praying and beseeching the One Above. By a sheer miracle, the Brits left

My sister hurried home. While all this was happening, my mother had been taking an afternoon nap. She had no idea of the mortal danger her daughter was in. Yet she dreamt of her own late mother, who seemed deeply agitated, crying and davening as she paced up and down. Mother had never seen her mother so and felt helpless. Suddenly, for no apparent reason, my mother’s mother calmed down. Already greatly disturbed by her dream, Mother — after my sister entered and recounted her near-escape — cried in relief.

On the day that they left, the Tommies stood in a straight line and marched out. I saw them leave. As they left, Rechov Hayehudim was almost empty of Jews. The parting impression the English tried to leave was, “After we depart, the Arabs will finish you all off in a second.”

I saw the boys of the different underground groups steal out from behind the buildings to capture the now-deserted English outpost. It was an outright miracle that the Jews captured these stations.

According to international law, in a “holy place” one cannot fight or carry arms. There was a church in a high place that overlooked the Old City. It was captured with ease. However, Ben Gurion sent a message to evacuate it. (As a result, from that place many Jews were shot and were wounded and/or lost their lives in the following weeks.)

Ben Gurion had promised Jordan’s Abdullah that we would give in easily. He had no interest in keeping the Old City, with its antiquated type of religious Jew. He and his band did not care about the ancient connectionof our nation to the Makom Hamikdash. The Kosel was not in their blood and meant very little to them.

Final Days in the Old City

Right from the start, the ability to protect the Old City was curtailed. The capture of the English outposts was not an order given by Ben Gurion. Two weeks before the English left, the Hagana had changed the commander of the Rova to one who was not familiar with the area.

On the same day of the British departure, we needed to pack a few possessions and leave our ancestral home. Until that point, we had been the sole family to remain on Rechov Hayehudim. We moved in with Chacham Alseeyeh, a mekubal and shochet. Besides running her makolet, Mother also sold poultry. Chacham Alseeyeh used to come to our courtyard and slaughter two, or at most three, fowl. He would say the blessing and cover the blood. A number of families would buy one pullet together; one family took the feet and neck, others took a quarter, or part of the underside. Usually, chicken was bought only by families where someone was ill and it was needed to strengthen the invalid.

There is a lady who is now close to a hundred years old who told me my mother offered to sell her a quarter- chicken as she was after birth and extremely weak. “I told her I needed to ask my husband. We could just not afford it,” she related. People lived this way then.

The miklat, bomb shelter, we were in was opposite Batei Machseh and Kever Achim. The Tehillim and prayers said there split the heavens. Cries of deep anguish accompanied “Mizmor l’David … in a day of trouble …” said over and over again.

As we sat there, we heard the bombs whizzing by. There was no way of knowing where they had fallen. We had nowhere safer to go. We davened that we should not receive a direct hit. A bomb hit a building I had entered and, thank G-d, I miraculously emerged (all covered in dust and little stones). The loudspeakers of the Arabs called continually, “Surrender! If you surrender we will let you live.”

Then a rumor spread around the Rova, “The tigboret(reinforcements) is on the way.” Anticipation was palpable; it filled the air. If we today would wait for Moshiach the way the people of the Rova then waited for the tigboret, believe me, he would come.

Soldiers kept on falling, and the death toll among the civilians was not any less. There were only two machine-gun stands and a number of rifles. If there was an attack from Porat Yosef, the fighter ran swiftly to that side and fired in that direction. If it came from Nissan Bak, he ran to that side and fired. When it came from Rechov Hayehudim he flew in that direction and started shooting there. As there was a severe lack of bullets, the command was to not fire at the enemy if he was more than three meters away.

Hakadosh Baruch Hu engineered pure miracles for us, allowing us to hold out. Each second we stayed alive was a nes. We were so few and they were multitudes.

Our store was empty, as Mother had already distributed all the contents. She never even considered
hoarding food for later. Everything she had, she gave away. When we were in the miklat, I was about to eat a box of sardines. Just then, an old man came begging for food. Mother told me, being that he is old, he has precedence, and she gave the fish to him.

Mother said to me, “Let us go home and bring the lentils.” The maidelach (some unmarried sisters who had had a store in the Rova and had left) had given her some lentils.

We went to Rechov Hayehudim. It was deserted; not a soul was there. Wood lay scattered all around. The gateway to our home was wide open. On entering the house, we saw that things had been moved. Arabs had already paid a visit. We hastily carried the lentils out of our home and gathered wood from the street. As we were leaving Rechov Hayehudim we met one of the fighters. He was shocked to see us. “Why are you here? There are Arabs here. Leave quickly!” We had not known that the Arabs were there. But then, we saw them running on Rechov Chabad. We even saw a dead Arab lying in the gutter.

When we reached our shelter, Mother, without wasting time, kindled a fire from the wood we had collected, cooked the lentils and distributed the broth.The food lasted a few days even though many people ate, even those from other miklatim. On one occasion when Mother left the shelter, she found a whole bag of pitot the Arabs had abandoned. These she also distributed, causing much simchah.

We were advised to seek shelter in the Misgav Ladach hospital. It was felt that as the Red Cross flag  adorned the building, the Arabs would respect the fact that the sick and injured were housed there. Well, the Arabs had no respect for the Red Cross flag, and even less for the Jewish wounded. The night we spent in the hospital pharmacy was too terrible for words. The glass windows rattled and broke. Bombs fell all around. The wounded screamed in pain, and in the room next to us, the dead lay. We left as soon as we could. We tried another place (which was also very frightening), and returned to our first miklat. Wherever one went, it was just escaping from the frying pan into the fire. There was no safe place to go to.

Then we received news that reinforcements had entered the Rova through Zion Gate. The reinforcements had indeed arrived. The rejoicing was ecstatic. However, the great happiness experienced only made the disappointment greater when they left. They had not intended on staying. They left behind a number of elderly men from “mishmar ha’am.” One of them, a man of about 60, looked around and saw what was happening in the Rova and told us he could not believe it — and post-haste ran away. This showed us all that we can rely only on Hashem. Salvation comes only from Him.

One time, a neighbour of mine asked me to do her a favour and deliver a tin can to the end of Shaar Hashamayim St.. I innocently agreed, not realizing this was one of the dynamite cans used of necessity instead of real weapons. I went from Kever Achim all the way to the end of Shaar Hashamayim, where I gave the can to a boy with a wounded arm. He took the can in his good hand and I wondered how he would manage to light the wick with only one hand. I will never forget how desolate the whole street was.

As the days passed, more and more people were killed. The bodies were put in a communal temporary grave — Kever Achim. After a few days, the smell that reached our miklat was horrendous. Disinfectant was poured to prevent disease. People got ready for the worst.

 Our neighbor, the father of Rabbi Nachum Cohen (a well-known lecturer) instructed his children,
“If they come to slaughter us, first say Shema Yisrael.”

On Lag BaOmer, in a tiny tin-box containing neft, a fire was lit to commemorate the hilula of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai, that his merit should protect us. People quietly moved around the “bonfire,” singing. It was so reminiscent of the Holocaust. Almost immediately they were stopped, for fear the Arabs in the very next building would hear the singing. This shows how desperate the situation was.

However, the command from above was “Do not surrender. Do not dare to surrender.” But no help was given; we were told to wait. “Hold on, do not give in.” It was not possible to “hold on.” All around were dead, wounded, and dying. There was almost no area to “hold on” in. The Arabs had advanced and closed in on us from all directions.

Harav Yisroel Zev Mintzberg, a prominent Yerushalmi Rav, asked Moshe Rusnak, the commander of the defending force, to surrender. Rusnak said he had no orders to surrender. The Rav told him that if he feared being killed for insubordination, the Arabs would kill him anyway.

What was the intention of the higher-ups? The atmosphere and the motto of the time was “It is good to die for our Land.” It was intended that the residents of the Old City would serve as an example and symbol of this ideology. We would become a second Masada. Just as the people of Masada all died, we too were meant to give up our lives in defence of the Land. The whole world would be thunderstruck: “The Jews of the Old City of Jerusalem fought until their last drop
of blood. What outstanding bravery!”

But this is not what daas Torah mandates. In Judaism the value of life is above all. The ideological slogan is not what the Torah requires of us.

Rav Mintzberg, and the Sephardic Rabbi, Harav Benzion Chazan, went out waving a white sheet.
When we had left our home, for some reason my mother had taken this American sheet along. I saw the Rabbis setting out, waving the flag. We knew this was the requirement of the hour and this is what Hakadosh Baruch Hu wanted of us now. Even so, though, it was painful.

The Arabs kept one Rav as hostage, and the other returned to inform Moshe Rusnak that the Jordanians required an army person to conclude the deal.

At first it was decided the Jews would continue living in their homes under Arab rule. But very shortly afterwards, a mob of Arab riffraff assembled and demanded our death. Soldiers of the Arab Legion stood guard, not allowing the rabble to attack us. They were red- and blond-haired and blue-eyed — yes, English soldiers who had joined the war on the side of the Arabs. There was exactly one English man who joined the Jewish forces: Avraham ben Avraham.

It was a nes that the masses of Arab gangs were stopped from killing us. Their blood-curdling battle cries filled the air.

That Friday, men were told to assemble on one side of Batei Machseh, and women with the children on the other. The fighters were told to congregate in a third place. There were 36 soldiers. When the Arabs saw that there were only 36 soldiers, they could not comprehend that only 36 soldiers had resisted them so long.

They claimed that if they had known it was only 36 soldiers, they would have come into the Jewish area with sticks and not have waited as long as they did. Their manly pride was severely injured and they took (nearly) all the other men into captivity — even the old (some of them ancient) and also the wounded. They couldn’t face saying, “Only 36 soldiers withstood us.”

My father intended to join the men on their side. But an Arab came up to him and forced him into the women’s group. This Arab handed my father the book of Yirmiyahu that he had taken out of the Churvah shul before they blew it up. This act saved my father from imprisonment.

It was so symbolic that book of Yirmiyahu accompanied us out of the Old City. I, and I am sure all the others, felt the great churban upon us. Fires burned on all sides. Each home the Arabs ransacked, they
then burnt. They could have led us out of the city by a short route, but they purposely took a long one.

My mother told me not to help take anything out. I was to lead the blind Lulu Mizrachim, guiding her so she could leave with us. The departure through Shaar Zion was dreadful. They set up a barbed wire pathway for us to pass through. This meant all our parcels had to be left behind.

One who was not there cannot judge and will not ever understand what we went through. A woman after birth with a few small children, whose husband was taken into captivity, put her newborn down as she tended to her other toddler. Another woman asked her where the baby was. They turned and saw an Arab making off with the tiny bundle. They ran after him and, for a hefty bribe, redeemed the tiny girl. My mother found another baby that had fallen out of his mother’s arms without her realizing.

On that Friday night we needed to descend Har Zion. At that time it was steep and rocky. The army called in boys from Yeshivas Chevron and others to help women and children. They did not tell them that it was for the evacuated of the Old City.

One boy helped me to lead Lulu down the hill. Stones rolled and she almost fell a few times, but with the help of Hashem we got her down. Katamon had been captured a few days before and we were settled there.

Years later, when my husband and I were discussing our war experiences, he related how he had come to help those evacuated from the Old City. He said “I helped a little girl lead a blind woman down Har Zion ...”

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