Early casualties in the holy city

As Jerusalem Day approaches, remembering two murders in a pioneering family.

May 29, 2019 17:14
Early casualties in the holy city

AVRAHAM AHARON HERSCHLER did not heed warnings that the roads were dangerous.. (photo credit: Courtesy)


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‘There was once a man named Herschler who was murdered in the Old City of Jerusalem right after the War of Independence began – he was a civilian,” recalls Dr. Moshe Arenwald.

After a short search, he finds the full name: Avraham Aharon Herschler, a haredi man who in December 1947, just days after the UN resolution regarding statehood was passed, was making his way from his home in the Jewish Quarter to visit relatives in Mea She’arim, located outside of the walls of the Old City.”

According to records of the State of Israel’s Victims of Hostile Actions, Herschler – who was known then as Hirschler – did not heed warnings made by his neighbors and family members that the roads were dangerous. Apparently, once he stepped outside of the walls, an Arab man stabbed him with a dagger he’d had hidden underneath his clothes.

However, it wasn’t this man that Arenwald was primarily interested in speaking about, but rather his grandfather, Avraham Aharon Herschler, who had been brutally murdered in Jerusalem some 75 years before his grandson was killed. Born 100 years before Israel’s Declaration of Independence and 25 years before the Zionist Movement was created, the elder Herschler is considered the first victim to fall during one of Israel’s wars.  

“WALLS WERE built for protection,” explains Arenwald, author of The Military Campaign in Jerusalem in the War of Independence. “The moment a person left the safety of the walls, he had to take responsibility for his own protection. There were many options for hiring bodyguards. There was no connection to Zionist ideology – it was purely a way to survive. This was a pre-Zionist era.”

“Living in Israel was extremely important to my family, and residing in Jerusalem was considered of even greater significance,” says Moshe Herschler, a great-great nephew of Herschler. “They were such pure Zionists.”

The elder Herschler was born in 1850 in Hungary. His father, Yosef Shmuel, who was a well-known rabbi in Hungary and Slovakia, left his position and left with his family and headed for Jerusalem in 1865. He purchased a modest apartment in the Muslim Court’s Hungarian courtyard located in the Old City, which made him the Jew living closest to the Kotel.


Herschler was a founder of Kollel Shomrei HaChomos, a yeshiva that supported Hungarian Jews who’d emigrated to the holy land. In later years, the yeshiva relocated to Mea She’arim, and to this day the homes in the neighborhood are still referred to as Batei Ungarin. When Herschler married, he and his wife moved into Batei Tura, homes in Jerusalem outside of the walls that had been built for Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews through donations from Moses Montefiore. This neighborhood, built on the hillside just across from the southern wall of the Old City, became the famous Mishkenot Sha’ananim. The new neighborhood was fortified, but isolated, which was a huge impediment for Jews considering taking the plunge and leaving the relative safety of the Old City. According to official records, this situation led to the construction of a wall surrounding the neighborhood, as well as a partisan network of guards made up by residents themselves. Five buildings for Ashkenazi Jews and five more for Sephardic families were constructed. The Herschlers were among the first families to move in.

“Of course, the level of hostility was incredibly high,” explains Arenwald. “And it just grew as Jewish families began spreading out in the city. The Arabs claimed that they were feeling threatened. So, on the one hand, there were Muslim families who sold their land to Jews, but the Arab leadership claimed it was feeling threatened and tried to incite the masses to violence in reaction to the changes.”

During the winter of 1872, the Land of Israel was blessed with a tremendous amount of rain. According to lore, however, this winter also brought with it a great curse. Because the wells the Jews drew their drinking water from were full, they did not purchase water from Arab residents in Silwan. According to the Jewish residents, these circumstances led to a series of robberies.

On December 31, 1872, the Herschler family residence was raided. In the early hours of the evening, robbers broke into their home, and when Herschler came out of his bedroom, an altercation with the thieves broke out and Herschler was shot a number of times. Six days later, he died in the Rothschild Hospital, which at the time was located inside the Old City.
Hevra Kadisha records from the time include the following statement: “One night, thieves entered the home of a married yeshiva student in one of the Moses Montefiore homes. The man rose from his bed and ran after the thieves, who then proceeded to throw a few arrows at him, after which the man fell down and five days later lay on his deathbed in the Minister Rothschild Hospital where he was gathered back to God on Sunday, the 6th of Tevet, and all of the city was enraged by his death.”
“It is very curious that the Israeli authorities chose to identify Avraham Aharon as the first victim of Israel’s wars,” says Udi Herschler, another great-great nephew. “But I guess it makes sense, since he was the first casualty among the Jews who’d moved outside of the Old City walls. The Jewish families had been living in the Jewish Quarter for many, many generations. In some ways, building this Jewish neighborhood outside the protective walls of the Old City was the first outright Zionist act. Avraham Aharon paid with his life, even though he hadn’t chased after the thieves for nationalistic reasons.”

IF YOU look at the issue from a broader perspective, the murder of Avraham Aharon Herschler was only one small puzzle piece in the larger story of the Herschler-Hirschler family legend. The Herschlers had been intricately involved in the Jewish community in prestate Palestine, and family members were also founders of other Israeli cities, such as Hadera and Petah Tikva.

The Herschler-Hirschler family didn’t make aliyah out of Zionist aspirations, but for religious reasons and as a way to bring about the coming of the Messiah, claims Avi Har-Zahav, another great-great nephew. In 2015, Har-Zahav organized a family reunion to mark the family’s 150th aliyah anniversary.

AVI HAR-ZAHAV, a great-great-nephew of Herschler, in 2015 organized a family reunion to mark the family’s 150th aliyah anniversary. (Credit: Courtesy)

Although the family hadn’t talked about him for many years, Aharon’s name is spoken of often these days.

“He was a young yeshiva student, with a wife and a baby,” relates Har-Zahav. “His father, Yosef Shmuel, had been a rabbi back in Hungary, and they’d moved to the holy land for religious reasons. At first, they lived near the Kotel because they wanted to be as close to the Holy Temple as possible. Later on, they moved to Mishkenot Sha’ananim.”

“There was nowhere for any of the younger family members to live in the Old City, which was such a poor community, and so they began spreading out to different areas,” says Udi Herschler. “Some of them moved to Hebron and only came back to Jerusalem in the 1870s when Jews began moving outside of the Old City Walls. A few brave families were willing to venture outside of the relative safety of the walls and move into new homes in Mishkenot Sha’ananim.”

Aharon Herschler, a water seller, moved to Mishkenot Sha’ananim with his wife Hadassah Weinstein, who was pregnant at the time. They were among the first Jewish residents to live anywhere outside of the Old City. But they soon found out that their Arab neighbors were not very happy with the demographic changes, and tensions between the Jewish and Muslim neighbors rose to a new level.

“My great-great grandparents had been incredibly poor,” describes Moshe Herschler, Udi’s brother. “The Arabs and Jews competed with each other to make a living, which exacerbated tensions and the hatred became palpable. Meir Zvi Herschler, Aharon’s brother, knew about his Muslim neighbors’ custom that if you swear by the Prophet Muhammad’s name, they are required to help you. Meir Zvi had many enemies, and when tensions would escalate, he would run away and take advantage of this knowledge to convince Muslim neighbors to hide him. In this fashion, he succeeded in surviving. It’s not surprising that one of his siblings ended up getting murdered by an Arab.”

Did your father talk much about Aharon Herschler?

“I remember hearing about him. My grandfather would say, ‘Every Arab is hiding a weapon under his clothes.’ I don’t think he ever got over the trauma of the murder. The story about Aharon’s murder has become legend. It’s become a symbol of Arab antagonism to Jewish presence in Israel.”

Your brother, Udi, says that the murder was not nationalistically motivated, but instead a robbery gone wrong.

“Theft was extremely common in those days. But this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill robbery. Aharon was working as a water seller, and by moving into their territory he was threatening their ability to make a living. It wasn’t a robbery – they were there to send a message that they would not let the Jews take business away from them.”

In an interview she gave in 2013, one of Aharon’s great granddaughter’s, Bilhah Shamir, remembers hearing a slightly different account of the story.

“The version I heard is that they were living in Mishkenot Sha’ananim, and apparently the blades of the famous Moses Montefiore Windmill had been installed improperly – facing towards the south instead of to the north, and so the site was functioning as a storage warehouse, and Herschler had been hired to keep watch there. And one night, when he heard a noise and went to find out the source of it, he was suddenly murdered by Arabs.”

ALTHOUGH AHARON was a devout haredi Jew, not all of his relatives kept this lifestyle. Bilhah, in fact, had been a proud fighter in the Palmah. Nowadays, the Herschler family includes Jews all across the religious spectrum from strict haredi, to national religious, traditional, secular and kibbutzniks. They all, however, proudly feel connected to the original Aharon Herschler.

“Many boys in our extended family have been named after Aharon, who was murdered,” says Moshe. “There are lots of Aharons, but I also have a son named Meir Zvi, named after Aharon’s brother, and I’m named for Aharon’s father. This is the third time on record that there’s been a Meir Zvi Ben Yosef Moshe.”

The family doesn’t just remember the tensions between neighbors in 19th Jerusalem, but also positive aspects of their proximity to Arab neighbors, including language acquisition. “On Passover, my family still sings ‘Chad Gadya’ in Arabic,” declares Moshe with a proud smile. “I recently recorded my daughter singing Chad Gadya in Arabic. Since our families lived so close to Arabs, it’s no wonder they learned a bit of the language spoken by their neighbors.”

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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