New archive will document life in Old City from 1917-48

Moskowitz-funded initiative to gather testimony from dozens of Jews who grew up in the neighborhood.

Irving Moskowitz 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Irving Moskowitz 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
If walls could talk, the walls of the Old City in Jerusalem would tell a million stories.
In an effort to capture the stories that took place within the Old City from 1917 to 1948 – a unique period, often overlooked by the drama of the War of Independence – a new initiative called the Moskowitz Jerusalem Archive was launched on Thursday in the Old City.
Funded by American millionaires Irving and Cherna Moskowitz (whom also finance a variety of controversial Jewish-building projects in predominantly Arab neighborhoods), the project aims to gather the testimony of at least 50 people from across the spectrum of communities.
Those interviewed will be videotaped walking around the Old City, and explaining what the neighborhood was like growing up.
“The fact that we are here – and will be here – cannot be taken for granted. Awareness is very important,” said MK Benny Begin (Likud) at the project’s official launch on Thursday afternoon in the Hurva Synagogue courtyard of the Old City. “It is important to guard the memory for future generations.”
In addition to the project launch, 85- year-old Meir Shalum, who grew up in the Old City, gave taped testimony and a tour of his old stomping ground, where he was involved in the fight against the British Mandate as an 18-year-old. Shalum can still point out areas where he and his friends had altercations with British officers.
Despite living just a few kilometers from the Old City in the Katamon neighborhood, Shalum said he’d only been back a handful of times since 1967, and was continually amazed by the changes in his old neighborhood.
“This isn’t the Old City that I know!” exclaimed Shalum, as he identified his old house, now part of the Yeshivat Hakotel complex. He added that just down the street, on what are now the stairs leading to the Western Wall, was a dairy that used to produce milk for the entire neighborhood.
“As we go back over our history, usually what we remember are the big events,” said Dr. Hagi Amitzur, the academic consultant overseeing the research. “We don’t look at so much of the daily life of the people: What did they study, how did they live, where did they walk on the narrow alleys and stairs?” “Most of the research in the Old City is connected to the War of Independence. Here we had an opportunity to trace people who came here to Jerusalem, to find out what is the meaning of Jerusalem and the meaning of Zionism,” he said.
The project has made contact with over 300 old residents, and has already interviewed 37 at their homes and in the Old City. (Because the project was conceived to document Jewish history in the Old City, Arab residents will not be interviewed.) Many of the testimonies describe the close quarters, with entire families of six to 10 children crowded into a single room, and Arab and Jewish families living in the same house.
“Imagine how we would feel if we could find films and stories from the 1880s – imagine if we could have that information about how people lived,” said Cherna Moskowitz, who has numerous real-estate projects on contested land that belonged to Jewish families in the 1880s, now inhabited by Arab families.
“We hope in the future people will see this archive and understand the period from 1917 to 1948, that was traumatic in some aspects, and beautiful in others. And it’s important to have an understanding of how those people lived,” Moskowitz added.
The chief rabbi of the Western Wall, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovich, recalled how his family also lived in the Old City during this period, and that his father was six years old when the family was forced to leave in 1948.
“These people are talking about the basis of the Jewish soul – they lived in very difficult conditions in the area that was the center of Jewish sovereignty,” he said. “It is forbidden for us to forget these times.”