History comes alive

A chance encounter on the light rail leads to a meaningful history lesson and a very Jerusalem story.

Shalom Zaken, (fifth from right) poses with his fellow fighters. (photo credit: JERUSALEM POST ARCHIVE)
Shalom Zaken, (fifth from right) poses with his fellow fighters.
You never know whom you’re going to meet in Jerusalem.
I recently had this message hammered home to me, four years after making aliya from New York City.
Happily settled in beautiful Katamon, I knew my neighborhood was historic, as it was the site of battles during the War of Independence.
Katamon’s street names tell that tale, with monikers attesting to famed groups of fighters – “Hapalmah,” “Halamed-Heh” and “Haportzim” (which means “those who break through” and recalls the battalion that broke through into Jerusalem) – as well as military words such as “Hashayarot” (convoys).
My own apartment in a charming old Arab building is a product of that time, replete with traditional high Arab ceilings, tiled floors, and bedroom doors and windows painted a pleasing light blue against the evil eye – as well as bullet holes in the building’s façade, a souvenir from the 1948 battles.
My wish to learn more about the area’s history was granted when I had a chance encounter at the Haturim light rail stop across from the Jerusalem Capital Studios building, where I work. Randomly getting into conversation with a middleaged man who sat next to me as we waited for the train – as often occurs in Israel – I happened to mention that I lived in Katamon.
“Well, the man replied, “My father fought in battles there during the War of Independence. He wrote a book about it – I can show it to you.”
“I would be happy to see it,” I promptly replied, having learned in my relatively few years of living in the Holy City that its residents often have fascinating personal treasures.
“Just bring it to my office in that building,” I said, pointing across the street and providing a few details.
The very next day, he came to drop off a bound manuscript with old photographs, brown and curling at the edges. Leafing through the Hebrew-language memoir with an Israeli coworker, I realized that the man, Yoel Zaken, had indeed dropped off a story worth telling – that of his father, Shalom Zaken.
The following are highlights of his personal recollections of that time, along with remembrances of friends and family members lost.
Pheirsstoonrayl Shalom Zaken was born in 1920 and grew up in Tel Aviv.
Life there was relatively fine, but in 1936, when he was 16, issues with Arabs began. A ship was transferring cargo in the city’s port when one of the canisters broke. Everyone there – including the Arabs – saw that it was full of weapons. Inflamed by anger, the Arabs perpetrated violent acts against the Jews there, killing seven.
Because of the port violence, neither Zaken nor his father could find work. They also worried about what the future would bring. As a result, they decided to move to Jerusalem.
It was not an easy journey, with Arab threats along the way. The family traveled in a convoy, in bulletproof vehicles.
The thoa rwda rroad The period of 1936-1940, dubbed the “Me’ora’ot” (events or disturbances), was very hard economically. In 1937, Zaken joined the police; his then-girlfriend, who was born in Jerusalem’s Old City in the 1920s and became his wife in 1943, joined the British Army.
In 1945, he joined the Hagana; he would participate in their weekly exercises.
Jerusalem was small, but they would go to places where the British wouldn’t find them – Kiryat Anavim, Ramat Rahel, Neveh Ya’acov, Atarot. They also had to pass through Arab neighborhoods, and they wore the khaki uniforms of the Scouts to hide who they were.
In 1947, the situation with the Arabs worsened, so the Hagana – and to a lesser extent, the Irgun Zva’i Leumi – created some military posts throughout the city. The author’s post was in Katamon, near Misgav Ladach Hospital (which is still standing today).
Btahcek dWraorp otfo TIenrdreopre nadtetnaccek:s Before the official start of the War of Independence in 1947, there were a number of provocations, some of which Zaken details.
In the first, an Arab who worked at the American Embassy and brought letters to the Jewish Agency left a car full of explosives at the agency, killing 12 people.
In the second assault, a large vehicle also filled with explosives was left on Ben- Yehuda Street – with British collaboration, Zaken stresses. It was a strong explosion, leaving half the street destroyed and more than 50 people dead. “I never saw anything like it in my life,” he remembers.
A month later, another car filled with explosives was left on Havatzelet Street, near the original office of The Palestine Post (today The Jerusalem Post) – also with the aid of the British.
It resulted in a huge fire, which the paper in the printing press fed; the flames persisted for a week because there was no water to put them out.
On November 29, 1947, the UN voted to partition Palestine between Arabs and Jews. Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq all attacked the nascent Jewish state, which declared a state of emergency, and everyone went off to fight in the army, including Zaken.
There was cooperation between the Hagana and the Irgun; the Irgun had control over two of Jerusalem’s army posts, with the rest under the Hagana. It was at this time that Zaken’s friend Gershon, who belonged to the Irgun, was killed.
JSeireugsea loefm From the start of 1948, there was a siege on Jerusalem, lasting for half a year. Thanks to each household having a cistern for drinking water and a pit for sewage, there was water to drink. Each individual also received regular rations of 100 grams of bread and a provision of drinking water.
It was during this period that the writer’s cousin was killed by a sniper.
Another terror incident that Zaken details involves Mount Scopus, which at the time was somewhat far from Jerusalem proper, and there were Arabs living in between. Some of these Arabs shot at a convoy of Jewish doctors and nurses coming from Mount Scopus, and 72 were killed. The British, nevertheless, did not get involved – because, according to Zaken, they knew they would soon be withdrawing from Israel.
Shortly after the end of Passover, Zaken’s Hagana unit took Katamon (these were the “Kovshei Katamon” – the conquerers of Katamon – for which a neighborhood street is named) and the nearby Greek Colony. Occupying Iraqi army forces and area inhabitants fled.
His unit then conquered Kiryat Hayovel, where Shlomo Gila, who Zaken notes was a brave man and a good friend of his, was killed. In happier news, it was during this action that they found a lot of food and water, which they then distributed to many of the city’s residents.
After that, there was a 10-day lull in fighting, during which Jewish forces received weapons from Czechoslovakia. The Arabs started up the fighting again, and the Israelis took the areas that today are Ora, Aminadav, Ein Kerem and Malha. Malha was particularly hard to conquer, since the Jordanians there had good weaponry.
Three members of Zaken’s unit were killed in this fighting.
All this time, discussions were going on in Rhodes among Israel’s commanders, those of the other side, and UN mediators, to work out a solution to the conflict. In 1949, the war ended, and Zaken finished his army service.
In this war, he explains, the Israelis were successful in their fighting. It was then that the somewhat ragtag bands of fighters became a true army – the IDF.
IThser aSelt agter oowfs and develops During the war, a lot of Jews had attempted to enter Israel, but the British had refused them entry. The Jewish Agency later procured ships and succeeded in bringing many olim.
Some of these new immigrants lived in homes that had once belonged to Arab inhabitants who had fled.
Others lived on moshavim and worked in agriculture, which needed rejuvenating since the war had depleted supplies of fruits, vegetables and eggs, and people were still relying on rations.
In 1952, the hostile Fedayeen fighters began entering the country. The IDF busied itself with blowing up their strongholds. Zaken’s brother, Arye, served under Capt. Motta Gur – the famed commander of the division that penetrated Jerusalem’s Old City during the Six Day War and broadcast the immortal words, “The Temple Mount is in our hands!” Arye was wounded in one of these operations – blowing up the Fedayeen police station in Khan Yunis.
Fatmhiel ya rkmeyep s tradition alive Life went on, and the State of Israel grew and flourished – as did Zaken’s family.
During the Six Day War, his son Amiram continued his father’s tradition of service, fighting with the Paratroop Division. All five of Zaken’s children, including Yoel, fought in the Yom Kippur War.
The tradition continues: Yoel’s youngest son is today a commanding officer in the IDF.