Passover 1948

Passover in Jerusalem in 1948

JEWISH FAMILIES in Safed in 1948.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
JEWISH FAMILIES in Safed in 1948.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After making aliyah with my family in 1977, I was always looking for stories about Passovers in Jerusalem. The earliest one I found was about British Princes Albert Victor and George, grandsons of Queen Victoria, arriving in Jerusalem in March 1882 and camping outside the city in a very regal tent. They celebrated the Seder with Jerusalem chief Rabbi Albert Panigel. George even became king and Melech George Street named after him. However, that seemed too far away, so I focused on Seders here in Jerusalem in April 1948, a few weeks before Israel became a state.

Throughout March and during the beginning of April, convoys bringing food from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem were halted by Arab attackers in the Judean Hills. Civilian and military groups effectively closed the road to Jerusalem with only a few battered trucks able to make it through. These siege conditions prompted articles in The New York Times and other papers abroad stating that Jerusalem’s 106,000 Jewish inhabitants faced starvation. The Times correspondent wrote, “Bread is rationed to a quarter of a loaf per person daily and there is little meat, poultry, fish, milk, butter, eggs or vegetables for the ordinary public.”


The Jerusalem residents waited anxiously to see whether a convoy would get through the Arab siege and bring supplies for Passover to the city. Two days before Passover, the convoy arrived with all types of food. On the night of the Seder, April 23, the main guests in the city were the 100 drivers who had brought the last pre-Passover supplies into Jerusalem. They were separated from their own families this Seder night, but having helped to provide Jerusalemites with food for the holidays, they were warmly welcomed everywhere.
On the night before Passover, chief Rabbi Isaac HaLevi Herzog – who lived in Jerusalem – made a moving broadcast over the secret Hagana radio. He labeled the women and men in the armed forces of the Yishuv as “makers of history” and called upon them to draw courage from the Passover festival while invoking God’s blessing upon them – “Go in this your strength and redeem Israel forever.”

The military outpost at Yemin Moshe was the site of a dramatic Seder. One of the unexpected guests was Malka Raymist, an enterprising reporter. Raymist was covering Jerusalem during this tumultuous period and was determined to be with Jewish troops for the Seder. She pulled strings – going through an ex-air force American-Jewish chaplain, an ex-army chaplain and the head of the Menorah Club for ex-servicemen eventually led her to the district Hagana headquarters. There, after a number of phone calls, she got a signed pass permitting her to enter Yemin Moshe.
Completely surrounded by Arab and British military camps, it had become a Jewish stronghold for Hagana soldiers. After filing her last story on Friday evening at the Public Information Office just off King David Street, she crossed over to a British sentry post, had her pass checked and walked on toward the windmill. At an unmanned roadblock, she shouted aloud, but when no one answered, she slid under the barbed wire. Only then did a soldier appear to check her pass and clear her entrance.
As they made their way through a trench, they had to duck quickly when shots whizzed by their heads. Finally, after walking through winding Streets and through buildings with large gaping holes, she and her escort got to the command post.
After quizzing her briefly, the commander welcomed her. Arriving at the Seder, a long table set with a white tablecloth, matzot and flowers was fully visible. There were many bottles of wine, mostly gifts from Jerusalem inhabitants to the front line Yemin Moshe neighborhood.
The soldiers began to arrive – Orientals, Germans, Poles and Hungarians. The few remaining Yemin Moshe civilian residents appeared, including a patriarchal figure with a long white beard, dressed in a festive robe that contrasted with all the khaki uniforms. The Seder had a flavor, “full of merriment despite the place and time,” according to Raymist. Between Haggada selections, a violinist played, adding an unusual touch. With patriarchal grace, the old Yemin Moshe resident blessed all assembled.
The traditional Four Sons had their own personification in the soldiers present: the intellectual, the malingerer, and the one who cannot ask questions. Each one had a turn, the highbrow using only very long words, the ailing one complaining of every possible disease – including those of sheep and plants.
Between the third and fourth cups of wine, the phone rang. The commander grabbed it and called for silence. As soon as he hung up, he announced. “Twenty men – outside, with me.” Grabbing their rifles, they left quickly. Firing could be heard.
After everyone had eaten, the commander made a speech, as unforgettable today as when it was first made. “We are celebrating our liberation from the Egyptian yoke. But at the same time, we are fighting to liberate ourselves and our country from other yokes. The odds are against us,” he stressed. “Have no illusions. The worst is yet to come. When Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and saw what rotten material he had on his hands, he decided to get rid of it by remaining with them in the desert and letting them die out.”
“However,” he continued, echoing the Passover message that was heard throughout the country that year of 1948. “Moses had time. We have no time – only a few weeks. And we must do our utmost right now. Have no illusions. Be prepared to give everything. We are fighting the final battle to free ourselves forever from all yokes. We are fighting for a Jewish State.”