One of the best-known stories of heroism leading to the creation of the State of Israel is that of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, who took their lives hours before they were to be hanged at the British Mandate prison in Jerusalem. Recently, a Bible belonging to Feinstein resurfaced after 60 years, shedding light on the courage of these young men, who were often inspired by biblical heroes.
Last night a ceremony took place at the Museum of the Underground Prisoners with the participation of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Mayor Uri Lupolianski. Feinstein's Bible was returned to his nephew, Eliezer Feinstein, at almost the same time Feinstein and Barazani exploded themselves on the second of Iyar in 1947.
The event, organized by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, was attended by former underground members and prisoners, members of the British Goodwin family, and families of the Olei Hagardom (those sentenced to death by the British Mandate and executed on the gallows). Feinstein's Bible, with engravings of French illustrator Gustave Dore, was given to the British warden Thomas Henry Goodwin as a token of appreciation for his kind behavior.
His identity was discovered recently with the appearance of the Bible. Feinstein penned an inspiring dedication in his final moments. Goodwin was the last person to be with the two men.
The Defense Ministry's Museum of Underground Prisoners is located in the Russian Compound on the premises of the Russian pilgrims' center which converted into the central jail of the Mandate between 1917-1948. By the end of the Mandate the prison held over 550 prisoners. The number of Jews among the criminal prisoners was small, but they comprised the majority of the political prisoners. Many were members of the Etzel and Lehi underground groups that avenged Arab attacks and fought the British rule by attacking their army and government centers.
"The British preferred to hang the Jews in Acre Prison rather than in Jerusalem, because Acre was then an Arab city," says Yoram Tamir, the museum's director. "Feinstein and Barazani were the first scheduled to be hanged in Jerusalem."
Feinstein, born in the Old City in 1927, was an Etzel operative who was wounded and caught during an attack on the Jerusalem railway station in October 1946. His arm was amputated.
Iraqi-born Lehi member Barazani came as a child to the Old City. He was caught in March 1947 with a grenade, intending to assassinate a senior British officer. The two were sentenced to death on the gallows.
Although prisoners awaiting death were in solitary confinement, an exception was made for Feinstein because of his maimed arm. He shared his cell with Barazani. They received a note from underground members about a plan to take their own lives while killing some British policemen during the moments preceding the hanging. It was termed "Shimshon Operation" after the biblical Samson who brought down with him the crowded Philistines temple claiming "let me die with the Philistines."
Barazani and Feinstein were eager to carry out the plan. Eliezer Ben-Ami, an imprisoned Lehi member, made hand grenades from pieces that were smuggled into prison separately. Two grenades were concealed by orange peels without arousing suspicion since the prisoners regularly received oranges.
Rabbi Aryeh Levin, affectionately known as "Reb Aryeh," was a regular visitor to prisoners for 20 years during the Mandate. His personal interest in their plight and his encouragement to their families were deeply appreciated.
"Reb Aryeh was distraught and shaken by the verdicts of Feinstein and Barazani," relates his grandson Rabbi Benji Levine. "He was asked to smuggle in grenades for them. He was willing to do anything for them but that."
He heard about their plan from an Etzel commander and refused to do it. Asked to remain with them for the vidui (confessional prayer before death), he felt weak. "He eulogized the two at the funeral on the Mount of Olives and said kaddish. He then walked back home and observed the mourning period," says Rabbi Levine.
Rabbi Yaakov Goldman replaced him in the final hours. In 1946, Rabbi Goldman was appointed by the National Council as rabbi of the prisons and detention camps abroad, not before ascertaining that Reb Aryeh would continue his visits.
Tuvia Goldman, the rabbi's son, a teenager in those years, heard the following story from his father immediately after it happened and many times since.
Barazani and Feinstein were to be hanged towards dawn on the second of Iyar. Being traditional, they sought rabbinical approval for their plan in a roundabout way. "Feinstein asked my father if the fact that they didn't appeal their sentences can be seen as committing suicide, since there was a chance to perhaps save their lives. "
Rabbi Goldman answered that not every instance of ending one's own life is considered suicide by Halacha. For example, King Saul fell over his sword, rather than at the hands of the Philistines. King Saul was praised for this by the Sages. "My father would recall the smiles of Barazani and Feinstein when they heard this. It gave them courage."
Rabbi Goldman insisted on being with them at the gallows a few hours later so the last person they would see would be a Jew. "They tried unsuccessfully to persuade him not to return, without letting on to their plan," says Tuvia Goldman. They changed their plan to avoid killing Rabbi Goldman.
The two condemned men sang Adon Olam as the rabbi left. They told him to "thank the Sergeant. He's a fine fellow, he treated us fairly."
They were referring to their warden, Goodwin. At this point Feinstein gave Goodwin his inscribed Bible and told him to quickly go down the corridor. "Goodwin was trembling as he met my father, relating that he had never seen men condemned to death singing like that. My father's reply was that people face their death like this when they are at peace with their conscience."
A minute later, two explosions were heard from the cell. Barazani and Feinstein embraced. The grenades concealed in the oranges were held between them, at the level of their hearts. One-armed Feinstein ignited the fuses held by Barazani with a cigarette.
"Feinstein's inscription was thought out," maintains Tamir. "In Hebrew he addressed Goodwin as the 'British soldier' rather than 'policeman.' Feinstein saw himself as a soldier, not a criminal prisoner. In addition, he rewrote the last sentence a few times. He then wrote it in English. The sentence 'It is good to die with ammunition in your hands than to stay alive surrendered' is a special declaration."
The inscribed Bible and the name of the British policeman were unknown in Israel until three months ago when the Prime Minister's Office received a request to locate the Feinstein family to return the Bible. The request from the Goodwin family came about a year after Thomas Henry passed away. The Prime Minister's Office contacted the Museum of Underground Prisoners which quickly located nephew Eliezer Feinstein.
"It came as a total surprise. It was shocking to have this step out of history," says Eliezer, a resident of Armon Hanatziv, where street names commemorate the Olei Hagardom. "I received a copy of the inscription, and compared the handwriting to other notes from my uncle. I recognized the handwriting."
Meir liked to read the Bible. The illustrated Bible was probably a gift he received from his father.
Eliezer's father would tell him about two wardens who guarded his uncle's cell. One was kind, while the other was nasty.
Eliezer Feinstein decided to lend the Bible to the Museum of Underground Prisoners for educational reasons. "Many young people visit the museum. This Bible is proof from a generation that is passing on. It is another aspect of what transpired moments before the heroic act."