Hadassah marches on

Sixty years later, relatives of victims of the Hadassah convoy massacre commemorate the tragic event.

hadassah convoy 88 (photo credit: )
hadassah convoy 88
(photo credit: )
On April 13, 1948, a medical convoy left the Hadassah clinic on Rehov Hasollel (today Rehov Hahavatzelet), with doctors, nurses, patients, Hebrew University staff and students, making its way to the Mount Scopus enclave. Accompanying the armored ambulance, two armored Hamekasher buses and supply trucks were armored cars at either end of the convoy. British policemen assured the convoy that the route was safe, but at close to 10 a.m. the convoy was ambushed by Arabs in Sheikh Jarrah. The attack went on for hours, with some armed convoy members defending the passengers. Five of the vehicles managed to extricate themselves to safety. The buses were set afire by the Arab attackers, and passengers who escaped were shot. Of the initial 106-strong convoy, 78 were killed. Although 60 years have passed since the Hadassah medical convoy massacre, those attending the day of commemoration ceremonies held recently on Mount Scopus speak as if it happened just yesterday. "I wasn't in school that day," recalls Tamar Fuchs, who was 12 at the time and lived nearby. "At about 10 a.m., a neighbor burst in shouting, 'They're attacking the convoy to Mt. Scopus.' From the roof, we saw black smoke and passing British cars which did not offer help. The sharp smells of burnt flesh drifted with the eastern winds in our direction. Until 2 p.m. we saw smoke and heard explosions. My friend's sister, nurse Ziva Barazani, was in the convoy. Her remains were not found." A recent Romanian immigrant in 1948, Fishel Yosef, who is still alive, was scheduled to go on the convoy for an examination of a leg injury sustained in Europe. However, he missed the convoy because he woke up late, relates his son, Efraim, who came from the North for the ceremony. Less fortunate was Rivka Aharanov, who was on her way to Hadassah Hospital in an ambulance as a patient. Her sister, niece and nephew came from Petah Tikva to attend the memorial ceremonies. Hadassah Hospital on Mount Scopus was dedicated in 1939 following an earlier decision of the Hadassah Organization to build a hospital near the Hebrew University. It became the first teaching hospital in the country. "Considered then the biggest and most modern hospital in the Middle East, it served Jews and local Arabs, as well as Arabs from other countries when they couldn't travel to Europe during World War II," says Judith Steiner-Freud, a young nursing instructor in 1948, and director of the H. Szold Hadassah Hebrew University School of Nursing from 1968-1983. In the wake of the UN partition plan of November 29, 1947, travel to and from Mount Scopus was endangered by Arab snipers along the route. Hadassah and Hebrew University personnel commuted in armored convoys. Steiner-Freud clearly remembers the visit of a British high officer to the hospital a couple of days before the massacre. "He promised the director-general that the road to Hadassah would be kept safe. Promises are one thing, reality another." During the recent commemoration ceremonies, she spoke at the naming of a street on Mount Scopus in memory of Dr. Chaim Yassky, the Hadassah Medical Organization director-general killed in the convoy attack. Steiner-Freud was teaching on Mount Scopus that fateful day: "We would stay in the hospital for two to three days to avoid the risky route to work. We were used to hearing explosions. It was only a few hours later that we heard from a survivor who escaped from an ambulance about the plight of the convoy. When we heard about Dr. Yassky, we were terrified. It was like a knife in the heart. Hadassah was like a family." Among the victims were four of her students. Following the massacre, hospital functions ceased at the Mt. Scopus premises, yet 500 people, including Hebrew University staff, celebrated Pessah there 10 days later. "We were evacuated on May 11 by the Red Cross," recalls Steiner-Freud. "We continued to work despite everything." Thereafter, hospital staff set up makeshift hospitals in temporary quarters around Jerusalem. This year was the third that an official state ceremony took place in the hospital's Convoy Garden. Among the attendees were Health Minister Ya'acov Ben-Yizri and US representatives of the Hadassah organization. Instrumental in obtaining state recognition was Yehoshua "Shooky" Levanon, the son of Zvi Levanon, a victim of the convoy attack. Zvi, a welder at Hadassah and field commander of the hospital, was often not home. After celebrating Shooky's second birthday, Zvi became sick on his furlough but insisted on returning to his position, saying: "All my comrades are no longer around, and I'm on leave!?" Zvi Levanon and another passenger were the only security personnel on the bus. Shooky Levanon, a journalist and today spokesman of the Movement for Quality Government, outlines the many oversights throughout the six-hour ordeal. "It's a complicated story. Jerusalem was extremely tense following Deir Yassin [massacre] four days earlier, yet British Col. Webb repeatedly stated that the route was safe. British forces saw the Arabs assault the convoy and stood by without helping. Palmah forces, like the Nahshon convoy, could have sent help but didn't; they were worried that the British would take their few armored vehicles." The one British officer who offered help was Major Jack Churchill, says Shooky Levanon, risking his life to convince the entrapped passengers to board a British armored vehicle. They refused, replying that help was on the way from the Hagana. Another sore point for the families of the victims is that only 31 bodies were identified and buried. Body parts of those not identified are buried together in the Sanhedria Cemetery. Twenty-two victims, including Zvi Levanon, were not found and are considered missing. His son, however, says he has evidence that they are buried together in a Muslim cemetery near the Lion's Gate. According to Shooky Levanon, he met an Arab whose father was among the attackers. The Arab recalled the night following the attack, when body remains were taken to the Muslim cemetery, with Jews among them. Shooky Levanon and Arye Kerner, whose father Dov was also a victim, appealed to the High Court in the 1990s to open the graves. Over 40 other relatives of victims supported them. The appeal failed, as did the request for permission to check the DNA of remains at the Sanhedria Cemetery, due to family objections. Nonetheless, Shooky Levanon was pleased with the many commemoration events this year, which included the street naming after Yassky, an unveiling of signs displaying the convoy's story at the entrance to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, and the state ceremony. The day started off with a symbolic completion of the convoy's journey. Hundreds of Jerusalem high school students led a march - starting from the site of the former Mandelbaum Gate via the convoy's memorial in Sheikh Jarrah and on to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus. "The commemoration this year was special. The march of Jerusalem youth on the route is important since they learned about the Hadassah convoy," says Shooky Levanon. Rehov Ha'ayin Het (the Hebrew alphabet numerical equivalent of 78) in the Morasha neighborhood (near Kikar Safra) also commemorates those killed in the convoy attack.