Jerusalem - British Beneath the surface

A tour of the legacy of the British Mandate in present-day Jerusalem

Bers (photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )
(photo credit: SHMUEL BAR-AM )

Thomas James Wilkin was the scourge of the Jewish underground in Palestine. Decorated several times by the Crown for his services in the Holy Land, Detective Constable Wilkin was blessed with an excellent understanding of human psychology. He also spoke fluent Hebrew - taught to him by his Jewish girlfriend. Wily as a fox, he knew exactly how to trick Jewish men and women into confessing their connection to the underground.

In 1944, two years after he took part in the Tel Aviv murder of Lehi commander Avraham 'Yair' Stern, Wilkin was appointed head of the Criminal Investigation Department's (CID) Jewish Affairs bureau in Jerusalem. This was Lehi's chance to get revenge; in Tel Aviv the intelligence officer had managed to lie low, but once he moved to Jerusalem he was easy to find.

On September 29, 1944, two young men trailed behind now Assistant Superintendent Wilkin as he walked from his lodgings inside the Romanian Orthodox Patriarchate in Mea She'arim to the nearby CID headquarters in the Russian Compound. Wilkin was waylaid and shot.

It's been 60 years since the British decided to forgo their mandate in Palestine. Why did they leave? Many people are convinced that the British might have remained here indefinitely - were it not for violent actions by the underground (Etzel, Lehi, and the Hagana). Forbidden to carry weapons and banned from protecting their fellow Jews from Arab assaults, the underground saw no other way to fight the despised British than to organize and attack.

An unusual two- to four-hour jaunt begins outside Wilkin's refuge at the Patriarchate on Rehov Shivtei Yisrael and continues on to local sites connected to the Jewish revolt. For a fitting end to your circular jaunt, take a riveting tour of the Museum of Underground Prisoners - formerly, the British Central Prison.

Your stops are far apart, giving you the chance to enjoy all kinds of attractions along the way, including interesting architecture from the Thirties, gardens and historic sites. Just look up and around you as you walk!

You may find Mea She'arim a strange location for an Orthodox Patriarchate. However, by 1927 when the Romanian Church was anxious to gain a foothold in Jerusalem, the choicest sites inside the Old City walls had already been taken.

Instead, it bought property on Rehov Shivtei Yisrael, which was close to the Old City and nearly empty; only later did the street fill up with haredim.

Stand back to look at the reddish tint of the Patriarchate's beautiful stone structure and to note its stately lines. The entrance to the church is hidden around the corner behind the gas station, a gesture to the area's religious residents.

Walk past Rehov Hanevi'im, to 27 Rehov Shivtei Yisrael. You have reached Remar (a new, delightfully restored Spanish Christian guest house). It was here, right outside the gate, that Wilkin went to meet his Maker.

Next, return to Rehov Hanevi'im and turn left, then right onto Rehov Devora Hanevia. At the next corner (Rehov Salant) turn left, then left again at Ethiopia Street (now Rehov Hahabashim). Look for a blue sign at No. 15 indicating that this was the Hagana's Jerusalem headquarters during the British Mandate.

Now head for Bank Tefahot, at 9 Rehov Heleni Hamalka. Turn left at the end of Ethiopia Street onto Rehov Hanevi'im and right at Rehov Monbaz. Continue straight ahead, then turn right again at Rehov Heleni Hamalka and walk down to the bank.

Although the 1917 Balfour Declaration specifically approved the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the 1939 White Paper published to appease the Arab population severely limited Jewish immigration. It also demanded a complete immigration halt by 1944, even though the British were fully aware of the horrors of the Holocaust. Incredibly, this knowledge did nothing to deter them from sending refugees back into Nazi territory.

This building housed the immigration office. And it was here that the British almost invariably denied Jews the certificates they so desperately needed for immigration to Palestine.

Two months after Menachem Begin was chosen as commander of the Irgun Tzvai Leumi (Etzel, or Irgun), he chose the despised immigration office as his first target. On February 12, 1944, Etzel fighters simultaneously attacked immigration offices in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa. While no one was hurt, the buildings were severely damaged.

WALK DOWN to Jaffa Road, turn left and stop at Rehov Heshin. You are standing at the edge of the Russian Compound, built during the reign of the last Russian czar. The enormous structure before you, better viewed from across the street, stretches all the way up Rehov Heshin. Constructed in 1903 as a hostel for Russian pilgrims, it was large enough to hold 1,200 guests!

Today it houses the Bailiff's Office, at one time British intelligence headquarters in Palestine.

A month after the immigration blast, 20 of Begin's men donned British police uniforms and infiltrated the massively fortified intelligence headquarters. The sappers were in the midst of setting explosives when a British sergeant caught them in the act.

During the ensuing gunfire, the sergeant and one of the underground were fatally wounded. Nevertheless, Etzel operatives - with their wounded comrade - managed to reach the sidewalk before a huge blast ripped apart the intelligence headquarters.

On November 27, 1945, soon after the building had been repaired and special security arrangements had been introduced, Etzel and Lehi fighters penetrated it a second time. They entered, set the charges and watched the intelligence headquarters collapse once again.

Follow Jaffa Road to Safra Square and turn in. Immediately to your left, climb steps that lead you to the front of Avihail, built in 1863 to serve as a hospital. Unlike the English-, German- and Jewish-run hospitals, where anyone could receive care, this Russian hospital was exclusive to Russian pilgrims, clergy and the local Arab Orthodox population.

The British later took it over and used it as a prison hospital. It became known as Avihail during the War of Independence when it served as a military hospital for Israeli soldiers.

In 1946, Lehi member Geula Cohen was in the middle of an underground radio broadcast when she was apprehended by the British and sentenced to nine years in prison. Cohen was sent to the women's facility in Bethlehem, and soon afterward participated in an escape attempt. Wounded, she was hospitalized at Avihail. From here, disguised as an Arab, she was able to escape and return to her underground activities.

Return to Jaffa Road, passing the municipality's unusual Archimedes Screw Fountain. You should now be walking through Gan Daniel, Jerusalem's oldest public garden, which was far larger when first developed in 1892 than it is today. The park is named for Daniel Auster, who served as the city's first Jewish mayor after the establishment of the state.

In its very early years Gan Daniel hosted colorful outdoor concerts featuring a Turkish orchestra in striking regalia and conducted by a Russian Jew.

Some years ago, with the addition of benches and attractive lamps, the now tiny park was restored to a remnant of its former beauty. Missing from the scene, however, are the ladies of easy morals who once strolled its lanes.

DIRECTLY ACROSS the street, at 17 and 19 Jaffa Road, are two lovely buildings. They were constructed by the Armenian Church at the beginning of the 20th century on property purchased for commercial use. No. 19 housed the British Mandatory government's income tax offices, which were attacked by Etzel underground forces on February 27, 1944.

An income tax law had been introduced in Eretz Yisrael in 1941 and, as anticipated, had proven highly unpopular - particularly since most of the burden fell on the Jewish population. As a result, even moderates who objected to the underground's violence against the British were unlikely to complain about the attack. Everything went smoothly, and although the building was damaged, no one was hurt.

Turn right at the end of Jaffa Road and walk down and to the left, to King David Street. Ascend to the splendid YMCA - a Jerusalem landmark like the King David Hotel across the street.

In June of 1946, the British decided it was time to relieve those stubborn Jews of their weapons. Operation Agatha, carried out with precision on June 29, has gone down in Israeli history as Black Saturday. For on that day, in an unprecedented move, British soldiers and policemen searched for weapons and papers by smashing through walls, busting open office safes, tearing up floors and storming through Jewish settlements.

Top-secret documents were seized from the Jewish Agency building and nearly 3,000 Jews - including moderates like Moshe Sharett - were arrested and incarcerated without trial.

Furious, the underground planned a major attack on British military and administrative headquarters located inside the King David Hotel. Although they hoped to destroy the southern wing of the hotel, which contained intelligence records concerning the Hagana, Etzel and Lehi organizations, there was no intention of taking human life.

On July 22, 1946, members of Etzel planted explosives in milk containers. Then, disguised as Arab workers, they delivered the churns to the hotel. Multiple warnings were received to evacuate the building, phoned in by Etzel's Adina Nissan (who also called the French Consulate and The Palestine Post, which telephoned the police). But British officials apparently scoffed at the idea, and many believe that the major in charge actively refused to let personnel exit the premises.

Ninety-one people were killed by the ensuing blast, which completely demolished the hotel's southern wing.

Although the Hagana had sanctioned the King David bombing, world-wide condemnation caused the organization to distance itself from the attack. As a result, the blast signified the end of a period known as the United Resistance, in which the Hagana, Etzel and Lehi more or less worked together in an attempt to oust the British.

From that time on, the Hagana confined itself to its other activities: Jewish settlement and illegal immigration.

Etzel and Lehi, however, continued the armed struggle. One of Etzel's first acts after the collapse of the United Resistance was an attack on the Jerusalem train station. The railway station was considered a legitimate objective because the trains were used by the British to redeploy their forces.

Continue down King David Street and turn onto Rehov David Remez to pass the Khan Theater and reach the colorful walls of the old train station.

On October 30, 1946, two taxis pulled up at the station. One contained two Jews disguised as Arab porters, the other an elegant young couple on its way to a honeymoon. Sitting in their cab were three Etzel guards and driver Meir Feinstein, with a trunkful of explosives hidden in suitcases.

At the train station the two 'porters' joined the honeymooners. One member of the group set the fuses, another bought tickets and the young 'bride' put a sign bearing the Etzel symbol on top of the suitcases that read 'Danger, mines' in Arabic, Hebrew and English.

After an Arab policeman became too suspicious, he was shot by an Etzel fighter. Then everyone ran for the taxis, which came under heavy British fire. A British sapper lifted one of the suitcases, which exploded, killing him and destroying much of the building.

By now the Jewish revolt had become so daring that in 1947 anarchy reigned - especially in Jerusalem. Here, the British holed up in fortified zones equipped with armed guards and masses of barbed wire, and soldiers patrolled the streets in armored cars.

Locals called the zones 'Bevingrad,' after infamous British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin who ruthlessly turned Holocaust survivors away from the shores of their ancestral homeland.

British police and soldiers felt safe, only when inside the enclosures. On January 31, non-essential personnel, along with wives and children, were sent back to England.

As if to prove to the British that nowhere in Jerusalem could they really feel secure, Etzel planned a new assault - this time on the Officers Club at 45 King George Avenue, located in Zone B.

Head back toward King David Street, but instead ascend Rehov Keren Hayesod. This street eventually becomes King George Avenue, home of the Great Synagogue and the National Institutes complex (on your left). A relatively new building at No. 46 replaces Goldschmidt House, once home to the British Officers Club.

On Saturday, March 1, 1947, at a time when there would be few civilians about, Etzel fighters in British uniforms drove a van rapidly through the surrounding barbed wire. When asked for an entry permit, they opened fire that provided cover for the sappers who ran inside with three bags of explosives (some say tins of combustible gasoline) and ignited the fuse.

Soon afterward there was a loud explosion and the three-storied Goldschmidt House tumbled down. Seventeen British officers were killed in the explosion - among them several senior intelligence officers - and 27 injured.

Turn left onto nearby Rehov Shmuel Hanagid and stop at the Ratisbonne Monastery.

After preparing the explosives, the retreating resistance fighters ran to Ratisbonne, slipped through an opening in the fence and removed their British uniforms. They then went their separate ways.

Follow Rehov Shmuel Hanagid to Rehov Ben-Yehuda, and as you descend to King George Avenue, look to your right. Known as 'the hole' to Israelis (and today the site of public restrooms), it is here that the British held hundreds of Jerusalem Jews on Black Saturday.

Walk down to Kikar Zion and gaze at the balcony of the Jerusalem Hostel Guest House. On August 3, 1948, Begin announced that he was disbanding Etzel, and his soldiers were joining the Israel Defense Forces.

Continue up Jaffa Road, to Kikar Safra. Then cross through the square to the Museum of the Underground Prisoners.

Remember the train station bombing, with Feinstein driving one of the cabs? When the British started shooting, Feinstein was severely wounded in one arm. The trail of blood he left behind while heading for a house in nearby Yemin Moshe led the British to the neighborhood, where he was arrested. He was sentenced to hang, and placed here, at the prison, on death row.

Feinstein was to be put to death together with cellmate Moshe Barazani of Lehi. To avoid giving the British the satisfaction of watching them die, and because they were hoping to take at least one British policeman with them to the next world, they got hold of explosives. On the morning of their execution, the two blew themselves up.

Return to your starting point by descending from the museum to Rehov Shivtei Yisrael and turning left.