Thursday, April 25, 2013

Surviving the Siege on Jerusalem©


Our return to a united Jerusalem after the Six Day War is remembered every year on Yom Yerushalayim, the 28th of Iyar. On this date in 1967, it was the first time that the Jewish People controlled the entire city since the Destruction of the Second Temple  by the Romans. It is hard to believe, but from 1948 until 1967, we were not able to touch the stones of the Kosel or bring our tefillahs there. The following article about the Arab bombardment of Jerusalem in 1948 helps us appreciate the miracle of our return.

By Vardah Littmann


Stay or Leave?
In 1948, the children of Rav Shmuel Greynerman were in Eretz Yisrael staying with the Chazon Ish, and the war was about to break out. Afraid of the upcoming war, Rav Greynerman sent visas for all his children to come back to the States. He sent a telegram stating his wishes, but he left the final decision up to the Chazon Ish.
The Chazon Ish answered him: “My heart does not think as yours. This is not a question of Reb Yisrael (single individual) but of Klal Yisrael which is the whole community of Am Yisrael. When Rav Moshe Aharon Stern, zatzal, told this story, he added that the passuk about Eretz Yisrael says: “The Eye of HaShem is on her from the beginning of the year until its end,” and Hashgacha Pratis is seen more in Eretz Yisrael than any other land. In the end, the Chazon Ish ruled that Rav Greynerman’s children should stay-- which they did, thank G-d.

A Perilous Time

During the first eight months of the War of Independence in Jerusalem normal life literally stopped. As there were snipers positioned in strategic spots, leaving one’s home meant putting one’s life in mortal danger. They showed no mercy and would target any Jew, regardless of age, and many were killed and wounded.

From the beginning of Iyar (and during the ensuing year), the situation worsened even more when heavy bombardment commenced. The residents of the city went into miclaim (bomb-shelters) and stayed there for days and nights on end.

Arabs blockaded the roads to Jerusalem. Many times even the armored convoys carrying supplies could not reach the City. The Arabs sabotaged the water supply which was brought in exposed pipes into Jewish neighborhoods from the Rosh Ha’ayin Springs. At the outbreak of the war, the Jerusalem reservoir system of cisterns that had been neglected due to the Rosh Ha’ayin Springs, was secretly cleaned  out and readied, British presence notwithstanding.    

Food and water was rationed according to the number of individuals per family. The nights were pitch black and bitterly cold since there was no fuel to be obtained for lighting and heating. The little available fuel was needed for the army’s needs and sparingly, power was allocated to bakeries.

Here are some eyewitness accounts of that era.

Rav Moshe Aharon Stern, zatzal (from a shiur he gave before the Gulf War in 1991 to mechazek people):

“At that time, I was newly married about eight months, and living in Jerusalem. Let me tell you, the majority of you have newer tasted or felt what war is, and I give you all a bracha, my humble bracha that “you should never know war.” It is terrible. No question about it, war is terrible.

“My wife, she should live and be well, was expecting in the end of her fourth month. We were in a miclat of 4 meters by 4 meters, 45 people, day and night, 24 hours a day for many weeks. In half of the room the men slept, and in the other the women. In those days, they had smaller mattresses, about a third the size of a regular mattress, and two people slept on this one third of a mattress, for weeks and weeks.

“Water was rationed at half a pot per person for all the needs of a day. For drinking, for cooking, for washing the body and of-course for netilas yadayim. That was all we had for washing clothes and the floor, and bathroom needs.

“My father sent me a visa for my wife and asked me to come to the United States. I did not know what to do. You cannot imagine, I do not even want you to imagine what it is like when a bomb blows up, even if it is a block away. You feel the world is caving in on you.

“Every explosion shook up everyone, which is very dangerous especially for an expectant mother. I also feared that the army convoy taking us out of Yerushalayim might be shot at by marauding Arabs, for the Arabs shot at convoys even during curfews. This could frighten my wife. I did not know what to do.

“Therefore, I turned to the Gadel HaDor, the Chazon Ish and asked him: ‘What should I do?’ I sent the question to the Chazon Ish on a note  with someone who went in an armored car to Tel Aviv. The reply was: ‘Remain in Jerusalem. I, myself, take responsibility that nothing will happen to yourself, your wife, or the unborn child.’”

Mrs. Yona Rosenbloom:

“I was actually born in Jerusalem a few months before the establishment of the State. I was born on Har HaZofim during a period of a British otzer (blockade). Before my parents left for the hospital, my father had obtained a very hard-to-come-by slice of bread that he wanted my mother to eat so she should have strength to give birth. My mother wanted him to eat it as she claimed she would receive food in the hospital.

“My parents left the house to reach the hospital, but only my mother was allowed to mount the armored bus that traveled to Mount Scopus and the hospital. My father was told he could not accompany my mother. He returned home to find the now dried piece of bread sitting on the table. Only three days later did he even know that I had been born.

“Since I was an infant, I don’t remember the War of Independence, but I will relate what my parents told me about that period and what I heard from others. Many years later when I was a newlywed, my husband and I went looking for an apartment to rent. One of the apartment owners questioned me about my family. On hearing my maiden name, he said, ‘So you were the screamer of our shelter who didn’t let us sleep night and day.’

“This is how the story went. My parents were in the miklat of Yeshivas Chevron. I was about a year old, and I was usually a calm baby. My mother didn’t know why I just kept on hollering and crying non-stop, day and night, from the moment we entered the air raid shelter.

“Only during the next ceasefire when they could leave the miklat and they undressed me for the first times in weeks, (because of the water shortage, people didn’t bathe), they saw that my arm was all swollen and red, full on puss. The vaccination I had received just before we entered the shelter had become infected. Each time anyone passed by me and touched my arm, I would scream due to the pain.

 “A half a pot of water was distributed per person. My brother was a year older then I was and kept on calling in his high-pitched baby voice ‘Mayim, Ima, mayim.’ There was just not enough water to give him.”

Mrs. P. Shlezinger:

“We lived in Makor Baruch on Rechov Elifondrie that is close to the Shneller Army Base on one side and Machaneh Yehudah on the other side. We had Arab neighbors and workers. They knew the area intimately and exactly where everyone lived. Arabs used to come around with their piellas (large metal wash basins) filled with grapefruits for sale. When the war broke out all these Arabs were the same murderers who attacked us. The same had happened in the Chevron Massacres. The ‘good friends,’ the ones who worked in the Yeshiva were those that went in first and killed the bachurim.

“We lived in a courtyard of six neighbors. Each family had a room within a room and the amenities were outside. There were no miklatim in our area. When the war broke out, we did not have a shelter from the bombardments. There was one house that had a second story and it seemed that the upper floor would afford protection for those in the lower level. We all crowded into that home – many large families.

“As the windows were very large, we filled them with sand bags. There were exactly two rooms. One was used by the men and the other was for the women. To make space, all the furniture was put outdoors, except for one sofa with iron springs and straw stuffing. Each one brought a mattress or blanket from home to spread on the floor for resting on.

“When the shelling began everyone ran to the ‘shelter.’ It was then that I realized that my grandfather was alone in his home. So they ran quickly to fetch him and bring him to the miklat. Now, my mother was near the end of her term - waiting any day. She wanted my elderly grandfather to occupy the sofa as she felt it was too hard for him due to his age to lie on the floor. He, in turn, felt that she, being so close to birth, should be on the couch. ‘You lie here.’ ‘No, you lie here.’ ‘No you …’

“In the middle of the deliberations, one of the neighborhood men came over and said that until they decided between themselves who would use the sofa, he would rest on it since his back was hurting. He lay down on the sofa and fell into a deep sleep. It was embarrassing to try to wake him, and the problem was solved.  

“As there was no electricity, a neft lamp that was hung on a nail on the wall was the only light we had. The lamp eventually spluttered out, leaving us in pitch black darkness. In the middle of the night, the person on the couch started screaming, “Help, help. Save me. Save me.” A new lamp was kindled and everyone ran to see what had happened. It was lucky that the owner of the home was deaf and she missed all the excitement.

“The sofa was full of bedbugs and the man was covered from head to toe with them. He begged his children to remove the bugs. As people were lying on the entire floor, each bug needed to be removed and placed in a little bag. People burst out laughing due to the sheer tension in the situation.   

“The lady of the house started shouting at them: ‘What is this-- war all around, bombs exploding, and you are laughing?’

“The man suffering with the bedbugs called out to her, ‘Come, come and see. Your house is full of vansen (Yiddish for bedbugs).’

“She retorted, ‘You brought them from home.’

“Well you can be sure, everyone made sure the sofa was taken out as soon as the day broke.

“The walls of our home where of made of sand. We would think extra carefully before we would knock in a nail. For when we tried to put it in one place, sand started falling out in another place. Therefore, even if our house did not receive a direct hit, any nearby hit caused much debris to fall all over our home.  

“In our courtyard were some cisterns, but they were closed by the municipality so they should not be used up. Each cistern in the area was emptied systematically. The whole neighborhood had to stand in line and draw water from the then designated cistern. This was a very arduous task. The pail had to be lowered on a rope. More than once, it fell off and we were left holding only an empty rope. In addition, the full bucket was extremely heavy and hard to raise out of the cistern.

“Once, our cousin a sturdy young fellow came to visit. We begged  him to draw us up some water. He willingly obliged. As he finished, the person standing in line in front of us said, ‘Oh, thank you so much’ and walked off with the water. Our cousin did not have the strength to draw up another bucket and we had to do it ourselves.

“At first bread was rationed at 250 grams per person a day. Later it went down to 200 grams a day and finally to150 grams per day. We took onions and put them in water. The green stalks that grew out of them were eaten with the bread -“lacham mit zeberlach.”


“The rations were distributed by tlushim (coupons). For each item a different colored tlush was needed - one for sugar, one for flour, and one for eggs, etc. On the occasion of a bar mitzvah, extra flour and eggs were acquired in order to prepare for the celebration. The population complained that girls were being discriminated against and then provisions were also given out when a girl became bat mitzvah. 

“A tragic occurrence shocked everyone. One of the neighbor’s children were on the verge of starvation. The father came and asked the makolet man to open his store on the corner of Rechov Tachkmonie and Rechov Rashi. As he was leaving the store, the grocer he was killed by a bomb.

“Today you can see parts of the convoys that tried to bring food to Jerusalem on Kvish
Babel Vad (Road 1). I remember one convoy that brought in potatoes. People lined the road near Machaneh Yehudah to see it. Some of the vegetables were thrown to them. People literally ran to grab the brown diamonds. Later the rest of the produce was distributed throughout the City.

“As I already mentioned, my mother was at the end of her term and she gave birth to my sister in Bikur Cholim Hospital. The day after there was a tremendous bomb explosion in which many soldiers were injured. All the patients were released to make place for them.

“Mother had been expecting to stay a week as was usual in those days. Yet the day after the birth, she was told, “Madam, home”. She had no diapers and no clothing for the baby. There was no phone to let anyone know she was coming.

“Mother took her newborn and made her way home. Slinking from doorway to doorway to avoid being hit by falling bombs, rocks, and pieces of glass, she laboriously reached our ‘shelter.’  The owner started screaming hysterically, ‘Go back to hospital. The baby will cry and the Arabs will discover us.’ She blocked the entrance, leaving mother outside. We children started crying, ‘Ima, Ima.’

“All the neighbors tried to reason with the woman. However, she stood her ground saying that anyone who did not agree with her should leave. 
The baby and mother were hidden in the men’s room behind some boxes. Care had to be taken that the tiny bundle never cried and revealed their hideout.”   

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