The day the 'Post' was bombed

In February 1948, two consecutive bombings struck the capital - one targeting the 'Post', the other Ben-Yehuda Street.

By BY ALEXANDER ZVIELLI
February 15, 2010 22:49
Palestine Post office after the blast

post buliding bombed 1948 311 archives. (photo credit: Jerusalem Post archives)

 
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On February 24, 1948, Gershon Agronsky (Agron), the founder and first editor of The Palestine Post, the predecessor of The Jerusalem Post, walked from his home on Rehov Rashba in Rehavia to the Post's offices at 9 Rehov Hasolel, just off Jerusalem's Zion Square. It was almost noon. Agron rarely took a taxi, or the Post's single car and driver available to him. He liked to walk, waving his cane graciously at the passersby, stopping here and there.

He kindly greeted the Civil Guard men checking pedestrians trying to enter the broken glass-covered Rehov Ben-Yehuda. They allowed him to pass through. "All the main streets are closed," an acquaintance told him. "We won't let this happen to us ever, ever again."

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Agron stopped for a while at the corner of Rehov Mordechai Ben-Hillel to watch the rubble and wreckage of the bombed site, where members of the Hagana, Civil Guard and Fire Brigade were still working, having searched frantically for the past two days for survivors or fragmented bodies. Others were busy clearing the buildings damaged in the shattering explosion which destroyed nearly all of Rehov Ben-Yehuda, the heart of the residential and business center of Jerusalem.

Agron read the latest Hagana bulletin pasted on the still exposed wall of one of the buildings. The casualty list was growing each hour. It now listed 51 dead and 126 wounded, of whom 57 were still in the hospital.

He had by now little doubt who had done this, even if in the previous day's Post's "Column One," David Courtney (Elston) asked: "Who did this terrible thing?" As if this would have been impossible. "Unbelievable," Courtney wrote.

But this word was no longer surprising to anyone after the Hagana disclosed that this murderous assault on a thickly-populated area had been carried out by a group of men in British army uniforms. They drove to the site in three vehicles, lit their deadly load and then
scuttled away in a waiting armored car, shooting down two watchmen and leaving helpless, unsuspecting men, women and children to die or be maimed as the violent blast brought down three- and four-story buildings, and shattered dozens of shops and houses over a radius of
several hundred meters.

Agron crossed Zion Square and turned into Hasolel, planning the night's lead article. At the entrance to the building, he inhaled deeply the deadly smell of the Post's building, which had been bombed only three weeks earlier. There, too, a five-ton army-type truck drove up late in the evening and parked outside. A shattering explosion at 11 p.m. destroyed the two adjacent buildings and set fire to the Post's press and offices. It was a miracle the building survived the blast, perhaps because it was built in 1933 following an earthquake, and the owner had invested in an especially reinforced steel construction. However, the sheer power of the blast, the flying pieces of lead and shattered glass and the ensuing fire killed and maimed many of the editorial staff and press workers.



It was also sheer luck that the main rotary press, situated below street level, needed little attention and could be repaired quickly. Acting editor Ted Lurie swiftly arranged for the lead story to be set at two other presses in town, and for the set-up pages to be brought to the rotary press by hand. (Agron was in Tel Aviv.) Thus the Post appeared as usual in the morning. The edition was smaller, only two pages. But it was an important victory in the newspaper's main objective - not to be silenced - even for a single day.

The deadly enemy had lost the first round. Thus he had chosen Rehov Ben-Yehuda for a deadly second round in the vain hope of forcing Jerusalem's Jewish citizens into submission.

AGRON ENTERED his burned out office on the first floor and asked about the health of the wounded. Haim Farber, the linotypist, had already been buried, but a number of workers were still in the hospital, three partially blinded. Once more Agron surveyed the extensive damage, and then enquired about the health of Fitzhugh Turner of the New York Herald Tribune who had climbed the stairs of the burning building in search of victims and then had to jump some three meters out of the window, when heavy smoke cut off the stairs.

He also called John Donovan, the Jerusalem correspondent for NBC, who had greatly helped in the rescue work. This was Agron's most serious dedication, a task he carried out wholeheartedly: meeting the foreign press and explaining the current Palestinian and Middle Eastern situation to them. Very often, long after midnight, he would meet foreign correspondents and influential guests in his office, sharing with them, over good brandy, the latest developments and his hopes and fears in his usual, lighthearted manner.

He did this wholeheartedly, but was not always successful, and now he felt a certain remorse. This was the sad outcome of his less fortunate meeting the night before with Richard Williams, the BBC representative in Jerusalem. He must have been very tired, and the tragedy of the
Ben-Yehuda bombing must have affected him deeply. He sat down and wrote:

Dear Mr. Williams,
The Mejelle, the ancient Ottoman legal code, instructs us wisely that
if a judge feels tired, or is hungry, or if he doesn't feel well, he
has to stop his legal proceedings immediately. This order should apply
to journalists as well. I was very tired, deep in thought, between 2
a.m. and 3 a.m. last night, due to what happened and some technical
press handicaps (electricity breakdowns). And, I am sure you must have
been just as tired as well. You have been tired because of Eretz
Yisrael, tired of the anger that this country spreads sometimes among
newcomers. And thus our conversation, instead of being polite, as
grown-ups do, had turned into an angry dispute according to the
formula: "I falsify, you falsify, we are all falsifying." I was left
feeling that we haven't reached a suitable level to discuss the really
important issues.

I had asked, therefore, to see the BBC folder in our archives. It
begins in June 1938 and ends in November 1948. I will quote only your
latest comments.

On December 4, 1947, we heard on the BBC an interesting sentence: "The
British police acted very well during last Tuesday's riots." We
published this sentence word by word, even if we were fully aware that
on this day the Arabs opened fire at Jewish Jerusalem, robbed and
burned the entire Industrial quarter. The British police indeed
behaved very well by escaping as fast as it was possible. We left it
to our readers, who know the truth, to decide.

On December 10, 1947, one of our readers protested against the opinion
expressed by BBC representative Nixon who quoted the Arabs as saying
that they will fight the Jews until the last drop of their blood. The
same reader added: "Nixon is wrong. Both Jews and Arabs are simple
people. They don't want to fight to the last drop of blood - they want
to live in peace."

There are also a number of quotations that point out that the BBC was
too hasty in discovering that the people who threw a bomb at The
Palestine Post offices (on February 1, 1948) were either Arabs or
Jews. But the Post quoted the BBC news item from London that some 300
British citizens left England to join the Arabs. This news item was
never denied, even after it was proven to be false.

But this February we were the bad boys again. The BBC announced that
"Jerusalem was quiet after a great Jewish anti-British demonstration."
This was the day after Ben-Yehuda Street was bombed. Jerusalem was not
particularly quiet on this very day and night. A search was going on
for the bodies of the 66 persons killed in this bombing. To show that
in Jerusalem only the British are killed is a sham. But this was,
perhaps, what the British listener wished to hear.

All this indicates that everybody falsifies and some do it on purpose.
The British try to show that each murder (isn't this a norm?) was
committed by Jews. And why? Because the particulars of the murder do
not explain what happened before. It may be understood that somebody
wishes to see himself to be just in his own eyes. But why claim that
this is the whole truth, and not something that depends on other
factors?

If we arrive at a day when we all agree that the Jewish nature will
show the way to the Jewish people, exactly as the British try to
square things according to the British point of view, we will be able
to live in peace, each respecting the other in this not entirely easy
country. As one of my friends said yesterday that "only in peace we
will find confidence and mutual prosperity."

Yours,
Gershon

AGRON LOVED to write letters, notes, reminders, addressed to one and everyone. It was obvious that he was not a little upset by this late evening dispute with the BBC representative. He rested for a while and noted that this deadly smell of the exploded TNT didn't bother him any more. The more he worked, the better he felt. Right now he felt young again as in 1917, when he was Sgt. Gershon Agronsky, Number 4004/10, Royal Fusiliers, Egyptian Command, and volunteered for the Jewish Legion to get the Turks out of Palestine. Now it was the Arabs and the British and he was still fighting for his home.

He read and reread his letter once more, and concluded that there was no need to be too critical. He had just said what he wanted. The war for Israel's independence was just beginning, and the BBC was a vital source of information and misinformation at the same time. As a matter of fact, no one was perfect; the Post had its own policy of presentation of important developments. And yet the tiny, beleaguered Yishuv needed special protection and consideration. A lot of work remained to be done, and what happened was only a bloody, tragic
beginning. It was a pity that there were only 24 hours in his working day, Agron concluded. He looked at his watch and saw that it was
already 3 a.m., so he picked up his cane and slowly walked home.

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