The 37th siege of Jerusalem

Excerpts from the diary of a journalist written in the spring of 1948 in the midst of Israel’s War of Independence.

By ERIC GOTTGETREU, TRANSLATED BY PETE
February 19, 2012 11:06
Corner of J'lem's King George, Ben-Yehuda streets

Corner of J'lem's King George, Ben-Yehuda streets 1949 521. (photo credit: Marli Shamir/JP Archives)

 
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May 20, 1948

The thunder of cannon fire can be heard from the Old City. This has been going on for eight days.

The day before yesterday our men broke through the walls near Zion Gate. Their mission was to bring help to the 1,500 hard pressed Jews of the Old City.

But they were forced to withdraw. The Transjordanian Arab Legion’s counter-attack was too strong.

“It seems as if we simply do not have enough soldiers in Jerusalem,” a woman told Sonja today.

They had been standing on the corner of Ramban and Usishkin Streets, across the road from our apartment, waiting patiently for the arrival of the water truck – two ladies in a line of some two hundred housewives, girls, a few elderly men and many children. Next to them was an equally long line of silvery or enamelled buckets sparkling in the midday sun.

THE WATER queues which form every day all over Jerusalem remind me of the days of our matriarch Rachael when man and beast alike found refreshment at the well. Today Jerusalemites gather next to the municipal water trucks which move about the city street by street, house by house, distributing the ration of ten litres per head per day – for mothers and babies a little more. The water service is interrupted only when the bombs are actually falling.

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The 1948 Rachael does not wait for ‘Jacob to roll away the stone from the mouth of the well’ so that the flock can drink. But today’s Jacob may win a little affection or even find a way to Rachael’s heart by carrying the heavy buckets up the steep steps to her apartment and by offering to pour the precious load into the waiting water tank. All this assumes, of course, that a mocking enemy shell has not holed the tank. And that is exactly what happened to the water tank which stands on the roof of our home.

From this roof we are able to look out over the Bethlehem hills where Rachael of old lies buried inside a simple stone building. These hills are now occupied by the Arabs, but in more peaceful times the tomb was a popular place of pilgrimage for the faithful and a destination for weekend strollers.

The water truck moves on to the next corner where another line of buckets is waiting. The head water deliveryman shouts “Mayim, Mayim. Ein Pagazim” which is Hebrew for ‘Water, Water. No bombs right now.’ For the moment the street is safe and he wants to be certain that all the residents come out from their apartments to receive the daily water ration.

May 21, 1948

In this Spring of 1948 not only the Biblical water story seems to repeat itself. The age-old struggle for our daily bread is being waged once again in the battle-scarred hills of Judaea.

If, whenever the firing dies down, Sonja or I look out from our roof over the northern part of the city, we are confronted by countless columns of blue and grey smoke climbing up into the sky. We can, however, never make out whether the smoke indicates that people are burning their rubbish (The city has long since ceased to collect rubbish because the municipal disposal plant is situated in the Arab-held area) or whether they are baking bread in small private stoves.

Jerusalemites do of course receive a daily bread ration – about three slices per mouth per day – but those who have managed to obtain a little flour are able to increase their bread ration by home baking.

Prudent housewives anticipated a bread shortage several days before the end of the Mandate, on the historic 14th May. Women from Rehavia, where we live, went to visit those parts of the city where there live greater numbers of Oriental Jews, in order to learn the secrets of baking pittot, their famous round flat bread. Often enough, and certainly in Rehavia, this new water and bread pastorale is often accompanied by the sound of falling bombs and shells. The cannon and the artillery of Fawzi el Kawkji’s Arab irregulars are responsible.

[Fawzi el Kawkji was the field commander of the Arab Liberation Army during the 1948 Arab-Israel War and a rival of the principal Palestinian Arab leader, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseini.] Rehavia is a favourite target because the Jewish Agency building stands at its highest point. This imposing structure, which is visible from all sides, is the nerve centre where for years, and even decades, political and operational plans have been prepared for the establishment of the Jewish state – now just eight days old.

Our troops answer the enemy artillery with whatever modest means are at their disposal. At his news conference today Gershon Hirsch, the Jewish Agency spokesman, explained that the aircraft which flew over the city last night were Jewish bombers on their way to attack Arab positions at Shuafat. Since when do Jewish bomber aircraft exist? And how did we obtain them? ...FOR US journalists a frustrating and depressing side effect of the isolation of Jerusalem is that it is impossible to send dispatches to our newspapers. This morning at dawn Carter Davidson, chief Palestine correspondent of the Associated Press, made a desperate effort in his Roadster to break through to the Tel Aviv Road. He had hoped to drive as far as Bab el Wad [now known as Sha’ar Hagai where the main road from Tel Aviv starts to climb to Jerusalem]. He planned to leave his car there and then walk over the hills to the nearby Jewish positions from where he would be able to reach the coastal plain.

And once there he planned to walk into a telegraph office and send the full story of the destruction taking place in Jerusalem, and especially of the bitter fighting taking place in the Old City, to London, to New York and to the whole world The Haganah, as we out of habit, still called the Jewish army, refused to let him through. A few kilometers before Bab el Wad he was informed that ‘minefields start here.’ As he turned his vehicle around, with all the press telegrams still in his pocket, he was threatened with arrest for having driven through a military zone without permission.

ON 12TH May, three days before the end of the Mandate, Cable and Wireless, a British Company, moved its Jerusalem facilities to Amman, the capital of Transjordan, west of the River Jordan. From then on they operated only out of Tel Aviv and Haifa. Between 12th and 14th May the British permitted us to send dispatches to Haifa by military courier. From there they were telegraphed to the outside world. And now even this channel was closed.

The Haganah has built a small transmitter in the Jewish part of Jerusalem. The idea was that we would be able to use it to send messages to Tel Aviv. But things have not worked out that way.

Perhaps there are still technical problems. Perhaps the station is always busy with military messages. From the point of view of the Tel Aviv government the war effort is even more important and more urgent than the 400 words per day which the Haganah has allocated to each news agency and the 200 words per day ration issued to foreign daily newspapers who have their own special correspondent here. Unfortunately even this meagre quota does not get beyond the paper, or rather the telegram forms, on which the messages are written – because up until now the dispatches have hardly ever been sent out.

At any event, for the first three or four days after 14th May we carried on writing, although our writing was to be for the sole consumption of the cat which lurked near the censor’s table in the Public Information Office in Ben Yehudah Street. On 19th May it was agreed that our dispatches would be taken to Tel Aviv by air in the light aircraft which could land and take off from the tiny landing strip five hundred metres from our house.

But since that date no aircraft has arrived. Day and night we dream that Israel’s two small aircraft would somehow grow into a large fleet, but in the meantime they were presumably very busy dropping ammunition, bread, medicine, vitamin tablets and even water to isolated Jewish outposts in the Galilee or Negev desert.

Carry on writing. Do not give up hope….

My colleagues who write for Tel Aviv newspapers are equally affected by our inability to send the news to the outside world.

Nevertheless most of us continue to investigate, to research, to check out and note down everything of interest. Every morning we attend the Jewish Agency press conference and at 10 p.m. we go to Hanoch Givton’s briefings on behalf of the Haganah. And then we write our reports – living in a kind of make-believe world where miracles occur and dispatches are sent out.

This is what I wrote for the Associated Press in my last dispatch of the day:

While candles are lit in Jewish homes and prayers are recited in praise of the Sabbath day the sound of artillery and rifle fire can be heard in every street and alleyway of the Holy City. This has been going on continuously for the whole week since the end of the British Mandate. From that moment on Jerusalem has faced an uncertain future.

A spokesman for the Jewish military authorities explained that he was satisfied with the week’s developments. A number of attacks by the Arab Legion have been beaten off. Most of Jerusalem apart from the Old City is in Jewish hands. Contact is still maintained with the Jews of the Old City despite the fact that they are besieged. Food and water supplies are being maintained even if they are strictly rationed, and of course the supply of electric current is severely rationed.

“However,” the spokesman added, “the Jewish population is showing great patience and confidence despite all the hardships caused by the bombings and the gunfire.”

As I write these lines a group of 14 or 15 year old boys and girls are passing our house. They are singing. Carrying pickaxes and shovels, they are on their way to some part of the city boundary to help to build up the defence wall.

July 1, 1948

During the past few days we have been allowed to store three kilograms of potatoes per person and also certain other vegetables.

And Asher Lazar, the thoughtful chairman of the local journalists’ association, arranged for a large consignment of food to be sent up to Jerusalem for members. The consignment even included chocolate, cigarettes and halva.

Meat and fat are still in extremely short supply. There is no milk for adults, and as for eggs we have been allocated just two during the entire twenty days of the ceasefire. Sonja has made the calculation that the one hundred thousand Jerusalemites have altogether lost five hundred thousand kilograms of weight during the siege – if one assumes that the average weight loss is about 5kg per Jerusalemite. This weight loss can be explained not only by the food shortage but also by the increased physical activity which we have undertaken – by carrying water, for example.

July 5, 1948 – from Tel Aviv

During our first day in Tel Aviv a provocative article about Jerusalem appeared in the newspaper. [Negotiator Folke] Bernadotte’s latest suggestion was that our city should be entirely absorbed into the Arab zone, the whole of the Galilee would become part of the Jewish state and, in exchange, part of the Negev would be returned to Arab control. Did Bernadotte seriously believe that the government of Israel would agree even to discuss the Jerusalem part of his idea? EVERYONE HAS said that we must first of all visit the Kirya, the seat of the government, which is situated in the ex-German Templer village of Sharona on the road between Tel Aviv and Ramat Gan.

However Sonja and I were more interested in a stam walk through Tel Aviv. Stam is a very precise but completely untranslatable Hebrew word which means “only,” “without any particular purpose” or “just because one wants to.” It can be fitted into every sentence.

...We went into a number of grocery shops. Sonja wanted to take some provisions back to Jerusalem in case the siege started again.

She plans to return home in a few days. From the security point of view there were plenty of arguments for and against. In Jerusalem more Arab shells could rain down but in Tel Aviv there was a greater danger of raids by enemy aircraft. Which was better, or worse? On the other hand if Bernadotte’s efforts bear fruit, then he might be able to extend the duration of the ceasefire at least in Jerusalem if not in the whole country.

The variety and quantity of goods in the shops is less lavish than in the hotels. We have not, for example, found meat or eggs in the shops. Margarine and oil are in short supply. But there are plenty of vegetables and tinned goods and there is as much chocolate as one could wish for. Sonja talked a little to a sales attendant and was given special service as soon as she allowed a mild “I am from Jerusalem” to escape her lips. Suddenly she was offered coconut margarine.

It seems that here not a single kiosk or book shop suffered bombdamage.

One can buy newspapers and magazines whose existence “up there” can only be dreamed of. There is a one page issue of The Palestine Post which is printed in Tel Aviv. Whenever the Jerusalem edition was sent down via the Burma Road it arrived far too late and of course it cannot be delivered by air – we do not have enough aircraft. In addition there is a daily mimeographed news bulletin in French. And also issue No. 7 of the Israeli Official Gazette is available in Hebrew.

July 18, 1948

Hesitatingly the second ceasefire came into effect today. Sonja’s remarks about last night read:

For the first time in many nights I slept really well for a few hours. I was upstairs in our own flat. So well did I sleep that I did not even hear that a mighty battle was taking place despite the ceasefire.

It began, I was told, around 1 a.m. I woke up only shortly after 5 am.

I think I was awoken by machine gun fire. I had laid down on the settee in the library because the place next to the wall crammed with classical volumes was relatively well protected against the risks of gunfire. But I learned that they had fired the heaviest of the cannon and not even the thickest classical volumes are any use against a direct hit. So I took my pillow and blanket and went down to the Bachs. Nobody was asleep any more.

Still exhausted I went back upstairs at around 8 o’clock. The city was staggering around, exhausted and suspicious. The whole time shells were being detonated. They resounded and whined all around. The Beit Israel district had seen a lot of the action. At the corner of Ora’s chemist shop there were two dead and one man was wounded.

IN THE evening Sonja wrote again:

People are grumbling. We could have gone on to occupy the Old City but we thought that we would have to stop fighting yesterday morning The Haganah had advanced as far as Mount Zion and the Irgun Zvai Leumi and the Stern Group had penetrated the New Gate when the order to withdraw was received.

It has just been announced that the Arabs have once again promised to stop fighting at 7 p.m. this evening – not only in Jerusalem but throughout the country.

According to my watch it is ten minutes to seven.

It is already somewhat quieter.

About the author

Eric Gottgetreu was born in Chemnitz in Saxony in 1903 and went on to study literature, drama and journalism in Berlin. He wrote for several German newspapers. In 1929 he joined the editorial board of the Luebecker Volksboten newspaper and from January 1930 to March 1933 he was editor of the Berlin-based Social Democratic Press Service.

After Hitler came to power Gottgetreu was immediately arrested but by some miracle he was released equally quickly.

Taking advantage of his good fortune he immediately left his native Germany and immigrated to Palestine.

Gottgetreu began to report on events in Palestine for newspapers outside Germany and also for those Jewish periodicals which were still permitted to be published inside Germany, until the infamous Kristallnacht in 1938. The reports filed during his first year in Palestine were published in book form by Richard Lanyi in 1934 under the title Das Land der Soehne (The Land of the Sons). His very first article was entitled “Vom Kurfuerstendamm nach Ein Harod” (From Kurfuestendamm to Ein Harod).

Between 1935 and 1938 Gottgetreu was Palestine correspondent for the Cairo based French language newspaper La Bourse Egyptienne. From 1942 until his official retirement in 1968 he was Jerusalem correspondent for the Associated Press, the international news service. Even after his retirement, however, he continued to write on a freelance basis for a large number of mainly German language newspapers and periodicals in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and the US.

Eric Gottgetreu died in Jerusalem on November 13, 1981.

– Peter Reich

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