Independence Day, 1948

"Our state - what's its name?" The violinist stared back blankly. "I don't know. I didn't think to ask."

independence day 1948 88 (photo credit: )
independence day 1948 88
(photo credit: )
May 14, 1948, was a Friday, and unbearably hot. A desert wind blew from the east, fanning the countryside like a blow-dryer. For three consecutive sun-grilled days we had been hacking trenches out of a Jerusalem mountainside on the city's western edge - where Yad Vashem now stands - overlooking the Arab village of Ein Kerem. There were about 25 of us, armed with pickaxes, shovels, and a dozen World War I rifles - an inglorious bucket brigade of diggers, fortifying a narrow sector of Jerusalem's western front. In truth, there was no real frontline where we were, and, other than sporadic sniper fire and an occasional mortar shell, it was quiet. But rumor had it that Iraqi irregulars were infiltrating into Ein Kerem to join up with a Jordanian brigade coming up from Jericho, to launch an offensive that night against besieged western Jerusalem. We were supposed to stop them, but nobody knew how, least of all the man in charge, a fellow called Elisha Linder. With 12 obsolete rifles and a motley, untrained crew like ours, what was he supposed to do? One insuperable problem was his lack of communication with the outside world - no field phone, no intelligence, not even a radio. So, in the absence of solid facts amorphous rumors mushroomed: Ben-Gurion had capitulated to Washington not to declare independence; the British were not quitting Palestine; Arab armies were invading; Arab governments were suing for peace. In truth, thirst, not Arabs, was our foe that day. I was delegated as a water-carrier with another fellow, lugging drink from a distant well for the diggers. The other fellow was a Holocaust survivor named Leopold Mahler, grand-nephew of the composer, and himself a violinist. Mahler was a craggy, disillusioned sort whose most cherished possession was his violin, which he carried strapped into a knapsack on his back. With the mountainside cisterns contaminated, the nearest water was in an abandoned orchard a mile away. To get to it we had to run a snipers' gauntlet, up a steep zigzag path to the crest of the mountain, and then sprint down to the orchard on the other side. There, in the shade of the trees, was the well, its water murky but cool. We hauled it back in jerry cans, two to a man. And the only way to drink it was through a handkerchief so as not to swallow the bugs. Clambering up the zigzag path on that late Friday afternoon, a sniper's bullet whistled past Mahler's face and sliced clean through a tree branch as thick as salami, just above his head. With a brittle crack, the severed bough struck his violin case so sharply it forced him to his knees. He looked up at me dazed. "My violin," he gulped. "It's shattered. I'm finished." I GRABBED him by the shoulders and exhorted him to pull himself together. But he pushed me off, raised himself onto a rock, unstrapped the knapsack, and very gently pulled out his wooden violin case. It was cracked. Cautiously, he opened the lid and lifted out the instrument, turning it this way and that, sliding his eyes very slowly over every inch of it. To me, it looked as exquisite and delicate as a butterfly. Mahler pursed his lips to blow off the grime, took the violin under his chin and, with closed eyes, meticulously tuned each string. Delicately he replaced the instrument, and returned the cracked case to the knapsack and strapped it onto his back. While so doing he said, "My violin is perfect. If I don't survive, give it to the Philharmonic." "That's daft talk," I said, and we picked up our load and, stumbling over rocks and tripping through thickets of dry thistles, we sprinted back to the diggers on the mountainside. There, Linder filled us in on the latest batch of rumors to come his way: the Arabs were plundering downtown Jerusalem; a coordinated Arab offensive was under way; the British were siding with the Arabs. "We're totally blind up here," he groused, and he instructed Mahler to hitch a ride into town by whatever means, and find out what was actually going on. "Come back with hard news," he commanded. As the sun went down grimy, exhausted diggers assembled in the glow of a hurricane lamp hanging on the door of a stone ruin, hidden from enemy view, to recite the Sabbath eve prayers - Kabbalat Shabbat. It was a heavenly pause; Shabbat stillness seemed to reign over everything. But then a shell shrieked and blasted the lower reaches of the mountainside, and a headlight briefly cut through the cypress trees at the approaches to Ein Kerem, and we all rolled, crawled, and scrambled for cover. Utter silence followed, broken only by the crunch of rushing feet, panting breath, and the winded cry of Leopold Mahler running out of the blackness into the light of the hurricane lamp by the stone ruin, shouting, "I have news. I have news." TO A man we scampered back into the flickering glow where Linder grabbed him by the arms and snapped, "Well - talk. What did you find out? Are the Arabs plundering downtown Jerusalem?" Mahler wheezed not. On the contrary, the Jews had taken over the whole area. And to vividly substantiate his claim he opened his shabby coat wide and began pulling from its bulging pockets forgotten luxuries like triangles of Kraft cheese, Mars bars, and Cadbury chocolate. Then, he unstrapped his knapsack, and from its side pockets spilled out cans of peaches, jars of Ovaltine, and a bottle of Carmel wine. We watched, eyes popping, as Mahler told how he had come by his booty: It was from the abandoned officers' mess of the British police headquarters near Zion Square. The English had evacuated the whole area that morning. Moreover, all Union Jacks throughout the country had been hauled down preparatory to midnight when British rule of Palestine would end. "Has Ben-Gurion declared independence, yes or no?" asked Linder, beside himself with impatience. "David Ben-Gurion declared independence this afternoon in Tel Aviv. The Jewish state comes into being at midnight." There was a dead silence. Midnight was minutes away. Even the air seemed to be holding its breath. "Oh, my God, what have we done?" cried one of the women diggers, fitfully rubbing her chin with the tips of her fingers. "What have we done? Oh, my God, what have we done?" and she burst into tears, whether in ecstasy or dismay I will never know. Then cheers, tears, embraces. Every breast filled with exultation as we pumped hands, cuddled, kissed, in an ovation that went on and on. Nobody wanted it to stop. "Hey, Mahler!" shouted Linder cutting through the hullabaloo, "Our state - what's its name?" The violinist stared back blankly. "I don't know. I didn't think to ask." "You don't know?" Mahler shook his head. "How about Yehuda?" suggested someone. "King David's kingdom was Yehuda - Judea." "Zion," cried another. "It's an obvious choice." "Israel!" called a third. "What's wrong with Israel?" "Let's drink to that," said Elisha with delight, grabbing hold of a tin mug and filling it to the brim. "A lehaim to the new state, whatever its name." "Wait!" shouted a hassid whom everybody knew as Nussen der hazzan - a cantor by calling, and a most diligent volunteer digger from the ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim Jerusalem quarter. "It's Shabbos. Kiddush first." Our crowd gathered around him in a hush as Nussen der hazzan clasped the mug and, in a sweet cantorial tone began to chant "Yom hashishi" - the blessing for the sanctification of the Sabbath day. AS NUSSEN'S sacred verses floated off to a higher place of Sabbath bliss, some of us sobbed uncontrollably. Like a violin, his voice swelled, ululated, and trilled in the night, octave upon octave, his eyes closed, his cup stretched out and up. And as he concluded the final consecration - "Blessed art thou O Lord, who has hallowed the Sabbath" - he rose on tiptoe, his arm stiffened, and rocking back and forth like an ecstatic rabbi, voice trembling with excitement, he added the triumphantly exulted festival blessing to commemorate having reached this day - sheheheyanu, vekiyemanu vehegiyanu lezman hazeh." "Amen!" The writer is a veteran diplomat.