Recollections of '48

As Israel celebrates its 61st birthday, veterans of pre-state J'lem tell of a fraught, remarkable era.

zipporah porat 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
zipporah porat 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
On Friday, May 28, 1948, at 4 p.m., Moshe Rosnak, the last officer in command of the Jewish Quarter, signed the capitulation decree of the neighborhood and its defenders to the Arab Legion. A few minutes later, the first group of fighters and residents left, walking in a row toward the Jewish Quarter and the Old City and marched toward Zion Gate, where trucks of the newly born State of Israel - hardly two weeks old - took them (despite the fact that it was already Shabbat) to the Katamon neighborhood, itself liberated just a few hours before. This painful episode is one of the most vivid War of Independence memories of Ahuva Luz, then 11 years old, a resident of the Jewish Quarter who now lives in Kibbutz Deganya Bet. Luz and her neighbor Malka Nathanson, the then-fiancée of her brother, remember, more than 60 years later, details of their daily life inside the walls of the Old City. "We had a very normal life," recalls Luz. "We played in the large central square and around the wells that were there like all children of our age. Of course, due to the situation, we had to play with a rag ball instead of a real one, but we were not really aware of it. Sometimes we even played late at night. We had some shops in the Jewish streets - and although I realize that we didn't have too much food or choice, we still had some items considered to be delicacies, like tehina with honey, and we sometimes had tomatoes and cucumbers." Luz's brother was the first victim of the war against the new state, when a bullet hit him in the heart on the May 15, a memory she still recalls with much emotion. The years immediately before and after the declaration of independence of the State of Israel were particularly hard in Jerusalem. Away from the rest of the country's towns and villages, at the end of a road often blocked and with very few resources, especially a water supply, those days are still vivid in the minds of elderly residents who lived here then. But daily life was also, for those who were children, relatively normal. They played with other children, went to school, and for quite a few of them, the war was something vague. "It took me years to understand the magnitude of lack and distress we were living in. For us, the kids, at least until the beginning of the siege of the Jewish Quarter, we didn't realize how bad the situation was," says Luz. "I was born in the Old City, the seventh generation born there of my family," recalls Luz, today aged 70. "We went to the Girls' School Bet in the Jewish Quarter, in what used to be called the Weinberger Yard, today Kikar Batei Mahaseh. My family was religious but not haredi, and I was a very mischievous little girl. For example, when the men were undergoing drills, I used to get close and to try to do all the exercises. We didn't have electricity at home - very few of the houses inside the walls were connected in those days. My father worked in a butcher shop in Beit Hakerem, and every morning I could see him taking the No. 2 bus from the Jewish Quarter down to the Mahaneh Yehuda market. From there, he had to take another bus to reach his work. We had an aunt in Sha'arei Hessed, and one of my older sisters got married and lived in Mekor Baruch - both outside the walls. We didn't really have contact with the Arab residents, but we often walked through the Armenian Quarter to reach the Jaffa Gate from the Western Wall, and we had some friendly relations with them. My grandmother had a shop just in front of the Hurva Synagogue. Sometimes, when I went with my mother to visit her, we would go a little farther, as far as the vegetable market of the Arabs, inside the shuk. We did it many times, but my mother would always say that 'When you go through there, you can feel the knife in your back.' I still remember that," says Luz. A yekkish childhood in rehavia Architect and scholar of Jerusalem architecture David Kroyanker was born in the western part of Jerusalem. He lived with his family, of German origin, in Rehavia and went to the Leyada school in Givat Ram. Kroyanker, 70, says he has a lot of memories of the life during the War of Independence and even the end of World War II in 1945. "I was born in June 1939. I would call my childhood and my family's path a typical yekkish dinosaur one," he laughs. "On the day celebrating the end of the war, my mother took me to the city center. It was Victory Day, and at the large Fullworth shop (not to be confused with Woolworths) located then at the corner of Jaffa Road and Rehov Heleni Hamalka, people came to buy flags of all the Allied nations. I received a British flag, and there was an improvised parade of British paratroopers, with their red berets in their armored cars. People in the streets, Jews, showered them with candies and flowers! For me it was a real spectacle, and a little below, at Zion Square, people spontaneously danced in circles. Years later, my mother told me that the joy and the relief upon hearing the end of the war was even greater than upon the announcement of the UN decision in November 1947 or the day of Ben-Gurion's declaration of independence. I was, of course, not aware of it then as a child, but the victory of the Allies saved us, Jews from Eretz Israel, from the horrible fate of the Jews in Europe, because we all know that their plans were clear - to sweep through the land and go on with their genocide plans." Kroyanker says that a few years later, during the War of Independence and the siege of Jerusalem, he could feel, even as a child, the precariousness of the situation. "I remember the shelling, especially at nights. I remember the shortage of food, of water. The water supply was delivered by special tankers, which arrived in every neighborhood. Every resident would come down to the street with a basin, a bucket or any other container to get his share of water. Some of us, especially the kids, used to run after the truck with little buckets to collect the few drops still pouring down from the tap of the water tank," he says. "My mother had someone to help her with the laundry once a week or so. That woman was not very young, and she lived in the Nahlaot neighborhood. In those days, the British soldiers stationed some guards on the roof of the Biderman House, a large apartment building near our house, where they also placed two huge cannons taken from their navy. One day she came to my mother and told her she was not coming anymore. My mother asked what had happened and she answered that she could no longer bear the behavior of the soldiers: they used to whistle at her, and she was offended. My mother had to explain that, in their way, it was a compliment, to calm her." The cannons were used only once, he says. One night, about 2 a.m., the whole neighborhood was woken by a terrible sound. The British soldiers had decided to shell a house held by several Arab fighters across the hill. It stood at what today is Rehov Aluf Simhoni and Hapalmah streets. They fired once, and the whole house was totally destroyed, he recounts. "As children, we were not really aware of the dangers around us. We had meager rations of bread, but we ate other things, whatever we could find. For example, for quite a long period we ate lots of custard. Later on, we had a lot of beef in rectangular cans. The reason behind it was very simple. The Hagana raided the supply warehouses of the British army in the Allenby Camp (located on Hebron Road, today a new neighborhood), and that was what they found there and supplied to the shops. We hardly ever had eggs or vegetables. As for cheese, we had to make do with some Australian cheese, a kind of cheddar, also found in the Allenby warehouse. There was, of course, also a black market, and almost everybody used it as well. Our grocer, Mr. Palacheck, whose store was on Rehov Aza, sometimes had chocolate. Not real chocolate but the kind used for baking - that was the only type available. He always said he didn't have any at the moment; but one day, I decided to go over the counter and look for what was inside. I found a large block of chocolate and said to him aloud, with the hutzpa of a child: 'Here you have chocolate. Why do you say you don't have any?' And he was obliged to sell it to my mother." In 1952, four years after the war and deep into the austerity period, Kroyanker had his bar mitzva. His mother decided that, despite the situation, he should have a cake for the occasion. So she got a few eggs from her friend Anna Ticho, the artist. "I guess they probably had some eggs because of the optical clinic they ran," says Kroyanker. "In general, we had very few cultural events, but we had a lot of cinemas downtown," he says. "There were no Middle Eastern restaurants. Most restaurants served European food - if at all. But we already had a few felafel stands here and there. The felafel of those years was very different from today: it was without humous or tehina, barely a spoonful of salad and perhaps a slice of pickle, nothing more. Most of the falafel places were simply counters, using a primus stove. And in the summer, lots of kids sold boiled corn in large pots. There were kiosks where one could buy newspapers, cigarettes, sandwiches and chewing gum; we only had the Alma brand then. And in every kiosk there was a tap from which the owner could pour you a glass of gazoz, or soda." Anything for a hot shower Zipporah Porath was a young American Jew who came to Jerusalem in 1947 on a stipend from the Hebrew University. Here is what she says about it, more than 60 years later: "I arrived in British Mandatory Palestine in October 1947 as an American student for what was intended to be a year of study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. But, caught up in Israel's War of Independence, I joined the underground Hagana defense forces, served as a medic in the siege of Jerusalem, and later in the nascent IDF and the fledgling Israel Air Force. In letters I wrote to my family at that time, I described vividly the historic events as they were happening. The letters were found many years later and published in a book entitled Letters from Jerusalem 1947-1948." In a phone conversation from her home in Savyon, Porath says that for her, coming from a very Zionist American family, it was the perfect opportunity to see and feel the experience for herself instead of going to Zionist parlor meetings in the living rooms of New York. With Porath's permission, here are a few of the letters published in her book. Dear All, Am just beginning to get into the swing of things here, such as like learning to order a meal in the local language. My biblical Hebrew is rather quaint and not very functional if you want to eat anything interesting. What I already really miss are some of the comforts of home, like HOT WATER. Yesterday, I had my first real shower/bath since my arrival, and that by the sweat of my own brow. You won't believe this, but to warm the water I had to build a wood fire at the bottom of the boiler. It took me half an hour, but it was well worth the effort. Jerusalem is thick with barbed wire and barricades. I registered at the American Consulate and had to go through the business of British-controlled security zone passes and identity inspection. I still haven't gotten used to the idea of being frisked every time I go into a public building, even the post office. It seems senseless to me. Anybody who really wanted to blow up the place wouldn't walk through the front door in broad daylight. More likely he'd toss a grenade through the window. It's just that the British are jittery - and rightly so - because despite their declared mandate to help create a Jewish National Home, they have bowed to Arab pressure and are barring Jewish immigration and denying Jewish national rights. Jews are not permitted to bear arms in their own defense - on penalty of death - nor to protect their lives and property against Arab violence. Small wonder that the Jewish community secretly - which is no secret - began to develop its own security set-ups, first Watchmen, now Home Guard units and the Hagana. The extreme activists - the Irgun (Etzel) and the Stern Gang (Lehi) - are fed up with the policy of passive resistance adopted by the official heads of the Yishuv (the Jewish community in Palestine) and are escalating sabotage and retaliation to a high pitch. To protect themselves, the British have divided the city into security zones - called A, B, and C - and have barricaded themselves behind barbed wire. They venture forth to send trigger-happy Tommies to patrol the streets and armed columns to descend on Jewish settlements in searches for forbidden arms. And, when called upon to protect Jews from an Arab onslaught, they stand by vigilantly, enforcing a policy of rigid non-intervention. So who can sleep peacefully at night? I am hungry for news of the rest of the world. I read the Hebrew press with difficulty, and the English newspaper The Palestine Post [now The Jerusalem Post] is only four pages in all. Can you imagine trying to squeeze the entire universe, along with events in Palestine, into four measly pages? Any chance of a subscription, to the Sunday edition of The New York Times? Love, Zippy Tragedy on ben-yehuda The young student soon also experienced the terrorist attacks that became all too familiar to the residents of Jerusalem. Here is a letter in which she describes a bomb exploding on Rehov Ben-Yehuda: Jerusalem, February 22, 1948 Dearest Family, I was awakened by a shattering explosion at about 6:45 this morning, turned over and dreamed the noise into a restless dream. Then, the awareness that it was real hit me full blast. I hopped out of bed, pounded down the stairs to the telephone and got through to a friend who was in such a state of shock she could hardly tell me what had happened. It seems the damn British, or Arabs dressed in British uniform, drove up in three lorries filled with explosives, which they set off in the center of Jerusalem's downtown section, Ben-Yehuda Street, the busiest and liveliest street in town. This, at an hour when people go to work or are still at home, in an area crammed with crowded apartments, office buildings and shops. Everyone coming from town assures me that it's better to stay home because you can't get within a yell of the place and only interfere with efforts to clear the debris and find survivors. No way of knowing yet the number of casualties. [It was reported later that there were more than 50 dead and some 170 wounded.] Later the same day... I went to town this afternoon. What devastation! What destruction! Even several blocks away, on King George V Street, the roofs are a shambles, entire store fronts are blasted away, the streets are a mass of glass and debris. Standing in the middle of one pile was my groceryman, collecting mazal tovs for being alive. Not a window, not a sign, not an undamaged building in the entire area. It is frustrating to think that these are the very same windows and the very same buildings that were repaired barely two weeks ago after the blasting of the press room of The Palestine Post, not three blocks away. Every main street, with the exception of two blocks on Jaffa Road, is cut off to the public by the linked arms of Mishmar Ha'am, volunteer Jewish Home Guard units, who form a cordon to protect the stricken area. This is one day when British soldiers and policemen scarcely showed themselves in the streets of the city. They would have been attacked by mobs of furious people. I might have been among them myself. What kind of a crazy war is this? Who are we fighting? Who is neutral? Who is on our side? How much provocation are we supposed to take before retaliating? We know the price of paying back, but how long can it restrain us? We are like sitting ducks in a shooting gallery. And there is so little we can do about it. Not even permitted to protect ourselves. The people who live here have superhuman guts and patience to absorb blow after blow - from the Arabs, from the British, from all sides. I know that on shmira (guard duty) tonight I'll be gripping the Sten gun just a little bit more firmly, for it is events like this that ignite the kind of burning anger which can transform even a peace-loving person into a fighter, a soldier. Jerusalem is very small, so that anything that hits, hits everything indiscriminately - residential, commercial areas, hospitals and schools. If you glance at a map of the city, you'll notice that Jerusalem proper, the new city, is only 10 or 12 blocks in circumference. It is bounded to the south by Bevingrad - nicknamed after Britain's foreign secretary Ernest Bevin. This is a huge compound, encircled by barbed wire, containing not only all the important British administration offices, police headquarters, the courts, the prison, hospital, banks, the broadcasting station, but also the Jewish commercial area, the Arab sector and the general post office, which services everybody. To the west is Rehavia, a lovely residential quarter, where the Jewish Agency building is located. To the north is Mahaneh Yehuda, the less affluent part of the city where there is a bustling marketplace that overflows into the Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox communities. Continuing farther in this direction is Romema, a mixed Jewish/Arab sector - previously predominantly Arab - and then round the bend is Kiryat Moshe, New Montefiore, where we live, and Beit Hakerem, where other student quarters are. Spread out behind Kiryat Moshe, there are two Arab villages - Deir Yassin and Lifta - and the Jewish suburb Givat Shaul. Come to think of it, we are actually closer to the center of the city than our house on 83rd Street is to Times Square. Only passing through Romema on the bus - at least, until recently - was a nerve-racking hit-or-miss affair, spiked by snipers. It bore no resemblance to a Fifth Avenue bus ride. Strategically, we are more or less safe. The only thing we have to fear is an out-and-out full-scale attack by the Arabs, which isn't likely because they know how strong and united we are, and we know their every movement. I am stressing the geography so that when you read all sorts of disturbing and frightening news about Jerusalem, you should realize that the city is made up of 100 or more suburb-like communities and, at this stage, only some of them are under constant or sporadic fire. It doesn't necessarily mean that we students are in the thick of things all the time. Jerusalem is a difficult city to live in and to protect. The Jewish sections are not exclusively Jewish, nor the Arab sections entirely Arab, nor the British zones strictly British. The hardest part is getting about from one section to another and trying to protect the Jewish inhabitants who happen to live in a mixed section. And a major overall problem is to protect ourselves from the British, who are free to come and go as they please. Jewish Home Guard roadblocks can stop and examine a car or a truck that looks suspicious, but they cannot intercept a British army or police vehicle even if there were proof positive that it contained explosives destined for detonation in a Jewish area. And, that's the background on how The Palestine Post building and Ben-Yehuda Street got bombed. Love, Zippy