December 1947. Two young soldiers stand looking out of the window towards Mount Zion in the Old City of Jerusalem from their outpost in St John’s Eye Hospital.
They are waiting for dusk to fall.
They are in the operations room for the newly designed cable car called Avshalom’s Way, which it is hoped will help their besieged compatriots stranded in the Old City only 200 meters away across a deep valley.
The Jews living there were under attack by the forces of the Jordanian Arab Legion under its British commander Glubb Pasha (Lt.-Gen. Sir John Bagot Glubb), which had superior weaponry and numbers compared to the ill-armed and tiny group of Jews battling for survival. Conditions were appalling and they had resorted to eating mallow leaves to obtain basic vitamins. Nothing could get through to them, neither food, nor medical aid nor equipment.
This new cable car was their only hope. To call it such was something of a misnomer, it was more like a metal coffin – a simple oblong box that could carry a maximum load of 250kg. The “lift” had been loaded with essential supplies and weapons and it was a question of waiting for dark to fall so that it could be sent over to Mount Zion.
It could only operate at night. During the day it was lowered to the ground and hidden in undergrowth so that it could not be seen by the Jordanian forces. The lift was operated by two soldiers.
They grasped the handles that worked the machine and began to winch it across the valley.
Slowly it creaked into action and, unseen by their enemies, made its way across to the other side, the journey taking two minutes. On arrival it was emptied and reloaded, this time with a wounded soldier who was carefully lowered onto a stretcher and placed in the box. Medical personnel and transport were waiting on the other side to rush him to the hospital.
It is easy to imagine the tension, particularly when they were transferring the sick and injured, and the relief when their precious cargo reached relative safety.
How many times it crossed the valley each night is not recorded, but it operated regularly for six months until the truce in July 1948. The cable car was then hidden, but maintained should it ever be needed again.
The car only became public knowledge in 1973, when its inventor, Uriel Hefez, was awarded the Israel Security Prize. He was an outstanding and courageous soldier who rescued wounded while under fire. He was also involved in the efforts to save schoolchildren from a terrorist attack on a school bus in Ma’alot in 1974, during which action he was seriously wounded.
A small museum devoted to the cable car is located in the Mount Zion Hotel on Hebron Road in Jerusalem. I visit this place often. It has a profound and palpable sense of history. I rarely see anyone else there, and to stand alone in the room where such significant historic events took place, is deeply moving. For me it evokes the spirit of those heroic times and brings into sharp focus the atmosphere and drama of what happened more than 65 years ago.
Ruth Corman, who lives in both London and Jerusalem, is an art consultant and photographer. Her next book, Unexpected Israel, should be published later this year.