A teen warrior

Yosef Elad defended the Old City of Jerusalem until he was captured by the Arab Legion, becoming one of the new state's first POWs.

By LAUREN GELFOND FELDINGER
May 14, 2008 14:36
A teen warrior

yosef elad 224. (photo credit: )

November 29, 1947: The hope In the days when the Jewish Quarter still resembled the Muslim and Christian quarters, but not long before it was razed, Yosef Azulai peered out his small window on Rehov Chabad. The antique, golden stones of the low-rise apartment blocks and cobbled streets around him were obscured by neighbors running and shouting. The sole battery-operated radio in the quarter, now on full blast at the café next door, was muffled against the clamor. Soon a neighbor would burst in the front door and confirm the results of that morning's historic United Nations ballot: Palestine would be partitioned into Jewish and Arab states. Sixteen-year-old Yosef let out a whoop, raced down his stairs, and ran through the Jewish Quarter, past the Armenian Quarter, out the Jaffa Gate and 500 meters to the New City. Jaffa Road was already full of singing and dancing. Yosef jumped on a British armored car, joining a group of rejoicing teenagers, who rode in circles from Jaffa Road to the Jewish Agency Building on King George Avenue and back. They sang Jewish folk songs over and over: "We came back to Zion to build and be rebuilt." In 1967 he would identify himself in that moment in a historic photo published in Haaretz. Atop the armored car, a charismatic young man in a blazer with a dash of dark hair waves to the camera. The photo had captured the happiest moment of his life - and the last moment of his innocence. Later that day, he would learn more about the vote, that Jerusalem would be held under international control. The words took him momentarily by surprise, before he was swept up immediately again in the song, dance and revelry. When he lay down to rest that night besides his brothers and sisters in their crowded two-room flat, the adrenaline of his euphoria drained in a cloud of doubt. "What will be now with our Arab neighbors and with the British leaving? What will happen to the Jewish Quarter?" he asked himself. In the background, boisterous revelers could be heard, celebrating through the night. Late December 1947: Hostilities Yosef dove under a pile of gray and brown blankets sent by the Jewish Agency on a British armored car, hoping to pass through the Zion Gate into the Old City undetected. His mother had gone through, but with underground militias burgeoning, the British guards were turning away or interrogating young men, even those with residence permits. Opposed to the creation of a Jewish state and fearing a Jewish takeover of Jerusalem, local Arab irregular fighters were choke-holding and attacking strategic Jewish areas all over the city. The Old City became quickly isolated from the New City, while Jerusalem itself, with only one entrance, was cut off from the rest of the country. The Jewish communities in Jerusalem, meanwhile, were putting their own operations into action. Reacting to the siege and expecting that Arabs would try to conquer all of Jerusalem after rejecting the partition plan, the Jewish underground forces of Hagana, Irgun Zva'i Leumi and Lehi banded together to fend off attacks and to connect isolated Jewish neighborhoods to the center. The IZL also renewed its attacks against British occupation. By mid-January, the British would report nationally more than 1,000 Arabs, 760 Jews and 120 British dead, and the violence was expected to worsen after the British pullout, especially in the Old City. In those first weeks, Arabs and Jews, who had lived as neighbors and friends in the Old City, were now suspicious of one another. Jewish parents sent their children to stay beyond the Old City walls with relatives, hoping to keep them safe.Under closure, the Old City was open twice weekly to convoys of food and supplies, and Yosef was determined to use the opportunity to get back inside, after staying with his sister in the New City. The underground forces managed to sneak in occasional shipments of arms and ammunition inside loaves of bread or kerosene barrels, so it was not a total surprise that Yosef would get through. Others were also sneaking in as nurses or teachers, he recalls: "We were only teenagers, but if we didn't come back to help, we knew it would be very bad." Back on his turf in the Jewish Quarter, he searched out the Old City Hagana unit to sign on with the Jewish resistance. Just before his 17th birthday, Yosef, the son of a tailor and a seamstress, began five months of intensive training in weaponry, artillery and combat techniques. More than a dozen neighborhood teenagers also joined the Hagana as fighters and runners: "We were kids; some were as young as 14, 15. There was no army; everyone joined to help. We had to save the Jewish Quarter." "It was another planet then," Yosef describes. "There was no crime. When we wanted to talk to a friend, we opened our window and called to them. There was a lot of poverty and a lot of love. The Jews and Arabs lived together in peace. We all lived at the same level with the British over our heads." According to Old City historian Dr. Moshe Ehrenwald, there were approximately 2,500 Jews living in the Jewish quarter in 1947. Most of Jerusalem's Jewish population of nearly 100,000 had long moved out of the Old City walls. In the weeks prior to the British evacuation, at least 800 additional Jewish residents fled. During this time, 131 Jewish men and women, old and young, would join the local Hagana, as the defenders of the Jewish Quarter. At least 10 percent were under 18. Around that time, Arab snipers attacked the transfer of patients from the old Bikur Holim Hospital to the Jewish Quarter, blew up the home of Yitzhak Orenstein, the rabbi of the Western Wall, and shot dead a woman hanging her laundry. Around the city walls, Jewish forces also attacked civilians at the Old City gates and at an Arab bus station. At night, passing around their rationed cigarettes at their posts, the teens of the Old City would wonder: Is backup going to come before it gets any worse? Late March through April 1948: Preparing for statehood - and war Yosef was on guard duty again. Between long hours of daily training in tunnels and underground rooms, the Hagana fighters, now under the leadership of 24-year-old Moshe Rusnak, patrolled the alleys, tunnels and rooftops of the Jewish Quarter, keeping an eye out for roaming Arab snipers. Until the British evacuated, Jewish Quarter residents were staying put, with sandbags at their windows, making do with meager supplies of food and kerosene. Between the Jews and the Arabs, the British stood guard, only some adhering to the official policy of neutrality. On that particular night, Moshe Alsheikh, a friend also on guard down the alley, was acting haughty, Yosef thought to himself. Even though his friend had unusually blond hair and good English, Yosef was horrified when he saw him saunter up to the British guards. From his post, Yosef saw them laughing. But as his friend headed back, cigarette dangling from his lips, a sudden blast of machine-gun fire echoed through the alley. "My friend was cut in half by the British. Since the IZL was murdering the British, they were killing Jews for revenge," says Yosef. It wasn't an all-out war in the Old City - yet. For the time being, says Yosef, "there were moments of quiet and occasional incidents of British vigilantism, or Arab mobs." As the violence in the Old City escalated slowly over the months of closure, Hagana leaders begged headquarters for manpower, arms, ammunition and bandages. A Hagana plane dropped the first package of supplies into the Muslim Quarter by accident. On another try, a plaza was cleared behind a synagogue, a large white piece of fabric laid out and candles lit to help the plane find its target. But the plane flew by. "We realized we were alone, with our ammunition running out," says Yosef. Around that time, the first runner, a young boy, about 14, was shot dead after helping a wounded fighter load his gun. The Old City Hagana members started to fear that they were being isolated on purpose. They wondered what plan the Jewish Agency, David Ben-Gurion and the Palmah had for them. Finally, the Hagana entered into negotiations with the IZL and in late April, after reaching an agreement, invited 28 IZL members to join them in the Old City, Yosef remembers. Their force was still tiny, of course, compared to the Arab armies now lining up to defend the Arabs of Palestine. It seemed like the most unusual war to the young man, who knew nothing of wars, but imagined something more organized. In the Old City, the civilians were not separate from the fighters. There was no real medical unit nor any quantity of supplies, arms or ammunition. What was also exceptional to him was that despite these conditions, the tiny team of fighters never considered giving up. "We had no idea what was going on outside the Old City walls. Inside, we all became one family." May 13: A new beginning After 28 years, the British Mandate of Palestine was over. In late afternoon, the British soldiers packed up and marched out of the Jewish Quarter, bagpipes and Sten guns in hand. On their way out, they handed over the ancient key to Zion Gate to Rabbi Mordechai Weingarten. Rumor has it that the British told the rabbi that it was the first time in history such a key was in Jewish hands, and that the rabbi accepted the key, only after first saying the Shehehiyanu blessing, thanking God for bringing us to this day. As the sound of their bagpipes faded with the afternoon sun, Yosef knew that his life and the destiny of the Jewish people were about to change forever. He took a deep breath, and ran. The Hagana brigade darted in every direction, taking the positions held by the British between the Jewish and Arab quarters. Operation Viper was now in action. Yosef was ordered to take a position in the Armenian Quarter next door. Others there climbed up into the spire of an Armenian Orthodox church, but were quickly ordered down. Despite the strategic significance of the spiral, the Armenian patriarch finally convinced Hagana headquarters that the Armenian holy places must be seen as neutral. "The spire had the best view for a lookout position to the Jewish Quarter. The Christians stayed in their homes; they didn't want to get involved. We didn't want to have any problems with them either," Yosef explains. The Jewish Quarter had its first moment of celebration in months when the first part of the three-part Operation Viper went off without a hitch. But the last two parts - to capture key positions and destroy houses around the Old City to create a security barrier - would prove impossible because of the lack of ammunition and men, and a daytime cease-fire, agreed upon by the UN and Jewish leaders to help find a solution for Jerusalem. A solution, however, would never be found. Initially all the British positions were occupied with only isolated shooting from Arabs, who complained that the Jews were breaking the cease-fire. One Hagana commander shot a machine gun from many positions to give the impression of having a lot of ammunition in every position. Yosef himself had only about 120 bullets left. New orders were issued: Fighters could only use ammunition if they were to come face to face with a sniper. Among themselves they made a pact, Yosef remembers: "We would fight until the last bullet." Overnight, there was a charged, ominous quiet. May 14: A state At 4 p.m., radios in Hebrew and Arabic could be heard in the distance: Ben-Gurion has declared the establishment of Israel, an independent Jewish state. From the Muslim Quarter, thousands of shots were fired and grenades lobbed. The Jewish fighters from the British positions received their new orders: Retreat. There was just not enough ammunition to respond. Yosef and his fellow fighters lowered their heads, said a quick prayer and ran back to the Jewish Quarter. Many of them would not make it. As Shabbat approached, the Jewish Quarter was bombarded for 90 minutes with heavy shelling. By May 16, the war was on full boil. The Old City Arab fighters had occupied the Armenian Quarter and had taken the Armenian Church spire, abandoned by the Jewish fighters three days earlier. From the Armenian and Muslim Quarters, they were lobbying shells. The Karlin Synagogue, the Underground Sephardic school, the matza factory and the field (today the parking lot) would be badly hit. Yosef, from his post, could now see Arab fighters all over Rehov Chabad, where his family's apartment now lay empty. The Jewish fighters were also forced out of their outlying positions at Zion Gate and the Warsaw building. Panicked civilians, including Yosef's sisters, ran to area synagogues to take refuge. Yosef's mother, who had been cooking day and night for the soldiers, ran to the Misgav Ladach Hospital to cook for the wounded and the makeshift nurses, now dressing wounds with sheets. There were no more bandages. With the onslaught of bombs and shooting, panicked residents now feared a massacre, like the one they heard about at Kfar Etzion, and demanded surrender. But the fighters were not ready to give up. They called headquarters again, now begging for backup. Promises were made, and for nearly two more weeks they would hold on. May 19-28: The last battle of the Jewish Quarter Around midnight, Yosef heard that the Palmah was advancing toward the Old City. He took a deep breath. Could it be true? Finally? Around 2 a.m., he heard shooting. Suddenly a force of Palmah members blew a hole in Zion Gate. "Hallelujah" Yosef shouted. "We're saved!" Yosef was ordered to accompany the Palmah soldiers up onto the wall over Zion Gate, where there was now shooting back and forth with the Silwan neighborhood. One by one, over the next two and a half hours, the Palmah soldiers descended from the wall, until Yosef was alone. Looking out, he saw the soldiers turn around, and head back out the gate. He could not believe his eyes. He waited, thinking it was some kind of a bluff, but they did not come back. Yosef ran to tell his commander. The Hagana fighters shouted at him, "Why did you leave your post!" Most of the Old City didn't realize yet that the Palmah had retreated - and that the Arab Legion of Transjordan had arrived on the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Old City. Soon shooting and shelling would commence. Many of the 80 untrained volunteers who stayed behind when the Palmah left were now fleeing into cellars and synagogues. After entering the Old City through the Christian and Muslim Quarters, the Legion also took advantage of the gaping hole in Zion Gate to effectively surround the entire Jewish Quarter. The Jewish fighters could not believe that it was the Palmah in the end that had helped the Legion. The new siege would mark the end of the war of skirmishes with irregular forces and begin a war against a regular army that was 10 times bigger, better trained and with larger and more serious caches of weapons and artillery. Instead of man-to-man battles, the Quarter was now being shelled by canons and mortars, blowing up building after building, and eventually the highest building in the quarter and the last Hagana post, the Nissan Bek Synagogue. The fighters of the Jewish Quarter dug into their few remaining outposts and trenches. "We kept thinking that Ben-Gurion and the Palmah had made an agreement with Abdullah [king of Jordan], because it didn't make any sense. Why hadn't reinforcements arrived? Why were the Jordanians only shelling during the day? Why was it taking them so long to overcome the Jewish Quarter? They could have destroyed us in two days. But they seemed to sleep at night and during the day take their time, bombing us, slowly, slowly." Suddenly Yosef heard an engine. Through a peephole in his trench, he could see that a tank had turned the corner and approached "I tried to shoot at it with my Sten gun," he said. "It was a joke. Then they fired a shell." Yosef and his fellow guard would topple over from their position on mattresses behind a metal wall. Shrapnel would permanently injure him around his eye and the fall would permanently injure his leg. The other fighter, Nissim Mizrahi, broke his leg. But after being bandaged, they came back to another position and waited. It was only luck that he was alive, he would say. So many of his friends and fellow fighters were already dead. The Jewish Quarter was getting smaller every day. The next morning, May 27, reinforcements had not arrived, but the Legion had, onto the Quarter's main street, Rehov Hayehudim. From there, it captured and destroyed the Hurva Synagogue. On May 28, Yosef's head fell to his chest in despair. "The ammunition is gone; even the sheets for bandages had run out," he said. "The Jewish Quarter is dead." Rusnak would go to negotiate terms of surrender with the Arab Legion commander, Abdullah Tell. After the surrender, Tell asked the remaining Jewish Quarter residents to separate from the fighters, and the fighters to separate healthy from wounded. The women and civilians would be escorted to the New City and the fighters would be taken as prisoners of war. Of the fighters, 45 had been killed (39 from the Hagana and six from the IZL), 143 were wounded and 42 remained healthy. Tell told Russnak, "If I had known you were so few we would have come after you with sticks - not guns." By the looks on his captives' faces, Tell understood they feared slaughter. He quietly assured them of their safety. But Yosef, among the wounded, wasn't so sure. June 1948-February 1949: POW After one night in an Armenian school and two nights in Amman, where the wounded were treated, the prisoners were put on pick-up trucks for the nearly three-hour drive to the Jordanian border with Iraq. A soldier pointed his gun at one of the men. "Give me your watch," he said. But the man refused. Yosef was angry. "'Give him your watch; he is going to kill you!' we all shouted. We were shaking, but he didn't care. He said, 'Let him kill me.'" The soldier said nothing and lowered his gun. Yosef closed his eyes. When he opened them, now at the camp, he saw barbed wire. It looked to him like a concentration camp. "I thought about the Holocaust. I thought, 'This is the end; we are dead.'" The 290 prisoners from the Old City - 110 fighters and 180 civilians, men only - had their heads shaved and then in groups of 14 were led to small tents, each about 10 square meters, and thrown down on the sand. They didn't know what to expect, but it was certainly not this. In the next tents, the beleaguered survivors from Gush Etzion would calm them, explaining that this was not a death camp: They would be neglected - but not abused. Years later they would learn how the Jewish POWs who ended up in Syria and Egypt fared so much worse. The Jordanian legionnaires essentially ignored the prisoners. In the mornings they were led to lineup, where they were counted and given a small ration of water. Back in the tent, the religious would sway in prayer. Breakfast arrived. Yosef looked down at the stale biscuits, and saw something move. He picked out a worm or two, and ate with his eyes closed, washing it down with a cold cup of tea. That would be breakfast and dinner for the next six weeks. In the desert, it was a hamsin. The men took off their clothes and sat in their underwear, squished against the side of the tent where shade offered some respite from the desert sun. Afraid to use up the precious water, they sipped slowly, and occasionally dared to wipe their brow with a drop. They were silent. When they waited in line for lunch, the men were hopeful. But it was a soup that was mostly water with one chunk of lamb. The religious, who would not eat the meat, waited in a different line for meatless soup. For all, before they could even get back to their tent, the soup was often full of sand from the desert winds. "We were starving," says Yosef. "We talked about food all the time: Cholent, eggs, bread. Jam was a dream. If a wormy biscuit fell and someone else picked it up, there was a fight." The prisoners were bored. "Every day passed like a week," says Yosef. "There was no radio, no books. It was death. All we could do was sometimes study algebra, history or English from the teachers who were also POWs. We also told lots of stories about our lives - and, of course, about food." What they didn't talk about much was the fallen Jewish Quarter. In the long hours of silence, Yosef became depressed. There was finally time to process what had happened to his home, to his friends. When he closed his eyes, he could see their dead bodies. And he kept asking: Why didn't we get more help from our own people? "In the hard times, you turn to God," says Yosef. "Afterwards you think, he forgot about us." The prisoners became restless. One day one picked up a stick and banged it for hours. "All day long, tuk-tuk-tuk. It could make you crazy. But he wasn't guilty. When you sit in the sand all day, people develop mental problems." After six weeks, the Red Cross sent blankets, canned food, bread, books and finally, mail. Yosef learned that his family had survived. The prisoners sang until the evening curfew at 10. "The Jordanians stole half of the Red Cross packages, but what we had helped so much," he said. One day they even received a gramophone with classical records. Music, says Yosef, is the only thing that really helped. On Rosh Hashana the prisoners received permission to congregate. They sang through the night. Yosef at one such meeting met an unusual POW, introduced as Avraham Cohen. It wasn't his real name. Cohen, he was told, was a defector from the British army, who felt compelled to hide in the Jewish Quarter the day the British pulled out so that he could join the Hagana. His fate was now one with the Jews, though he was a Christian. Years later, Yosef would hear that Cohen had returned to Britain and was thrown in jail for going AWOL. He never learned his real name. There were moments of respite, but never knowing if they were going to make it home weighed heavily. It didn't help that one legionnaire regularly gave Yosef a smack in the face, for no particular reason. Then, after six months, a lone legionnaire on a shooting spree killed one prisoner. "The Jordanians apologized, and told us to dig a hole in the sand for emergencies. From now on we would sleep in a hole. Like a grave. The fear made every thing else worse. Was it going to happen again? We never knew." Eventually the boiling hot days and cold desert nights turned into cold days and freezing nights. Sleeping in the dugout in the cold sand caused Yosef's wounded leg to throb. The leg was turning inward. It was getting harder and harder to walk. One leg even seemed shorter than the other. Yosef was taken to the makeshift hospital in another tent, and put in a cast from the chest down to his ankle. Now he could barely move. Meanwhile, a convoy of Iraqi tanks passed through on the way to Israel. "Our hearts fell. It's the end, we thought." There was one Legion officer who was particularly nice, says Yosef. "He was a Circassian. He was the only one who would let us listen to his radio." Every week one person was allowed to listen and report back with the news from Israel. On this day, there was a moment of silence, before the news seeped in. A prisoner exchange had been arranged and there was a cease-fire. They were going home. Yosef rode back to Israel in an ambulance with Avrasha Tamir, a wounded soldier from Gush Etzion. Tamir was elated all the way, trying to report on the view of the city of Salt and other desert views to Yosef. He tried to look out the window but, in the cast, he could not lift his head high enough. Soon enough, he was told, they were passing over the Allenby Bridge. His first view of the State of Israel would be at Hadassah Hospital on Rehov Strauss. His mother burst in laughing and crying and jumped on his hospital bed. Reporters were swarming, trying to take photos and ask questions, but his mother was too excited to step aside. In the new state, Yosef would change his family name from the Moroccan Azulai to the Hebrew Elad. There would be a brief period of happiness, being at home, with family, being free. But then the memories would come back. Yosef didn't go out much after he came back. He distanced himself from friends and became a loner. There was this overwhelming feeling of "nobody understands." Even after he married and had children, he would never speak about the battle of the Jewish Quarter or being a POW. Only 55 years after the war would he hear about an advocacy group for POWs: Erim Balaila (Awake at Night). There he would discover that the insomnia, the recurring memories, the distancing from loved ones, the depression were all symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome, something every former POWs suffers from. It was only five years ago that Yosef heard about the group and decided to join. Until then, he didn't know he was eligible for POW and wounded veteran rights, or that the other POWs feel just as he does. "Before five years ago, my children didn't know about what happened to me. But Erim Balaila exposed us, we started to talk... I saw that it's okay to talk. When we expose ourselves it helps to lessen the trauma, but the trauma lives on." The POWs meet a lot, but not just to share war stories and learn about their rights. Today POWs from all over the country gather to rally on behalf of the POWs of today, and to encourage the nation and its leaders to take their plight more personally. The organization is very careful not to use the language of "hostages" when describing the POWs to make it clear that this is not only a private matter of families but a state matter of the army and government who sent out these young men and must bring them home and then take care of them. Every other week Yosef tries to join the rally outside Beit Hanassi to bring home Gilad Schalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regav, captured in 2006. He, with other POWs, also rallied for seven months in front of the Knesset on their behalf, as well as other POW/MIAs - Ze'ev Rotchik (1973), Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz, Zvi Feldman (1982), Ron Arad (1986), Guy Hever (1997), and Majdi Halabi (2005). "I identify with the POWs today that are not here. I was a POW in Jordan. That was horrible but easy compared to those that were interned by Syria, Egypt, Hamas, Hizbullah, etc. At least I was interned with other people. Who knows what is with Gilad Schalit. Does he have anyone to talk to? "The state doesn't do enough to bring POWs home." Yosef says Independence Day is a day for remembering how he and his friends helped save the country, so that the Jews could be independent and free. But it's also a day for remembering the Israeli POWs that are not yet free. He closes his eyes and sighs: "They should be home celebrating with us." Until then, he says, this celebration of freedom will always be a day of joy - and a day of heartbreak.


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