Going underground

A visit to Jerusalem's Mandate-era prison offers sensational stories, original artifacts and a history lesson.

prison uniforms (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
prison uniforms
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
One Friday evening in 1946, British guards carrying out Binyamin Kimhi's sentence dragged the 16-year-old from his cell in Jerusalem's Central Prison and lashed him 18 times. But instead of flogging him in the exercise yard in front of the other inmates, prison authorities thrashed him in private. This in the futile hope that they could keep it secret: Palestine's Jews were already enraged that young Kimhi had been condemned to 18 long years in prison for carrying a weapon. Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground, was livid when he heard about the incident. Jews had been continually shamed and degraded in the Diaspora, and he was not about to permit the same kind of humiliation in the Jewish homeland. Earlier, the Irgun had published a warning whose upshot was "a lash for a lash" - but it was ignored by the British. After the Kimhi beating, IZL fighters kidnapped an officer and three sergeants, whipped them 18 times and released them. Flogging was never again carried out under the British Mandate. For decades after the founding of the state, its history forgotten, the prison provided office space and storage for different institutions. Later, former inmates transformed the building into a shrine for Hagana, IZL and Lehi fighters hanged by the British and called it Heichal Hagevura (Hall of Heroism). Eventually, recognizing the underground's significant part in the establishment of the state, the Defense Ministry restored the prison. Today, as the Underground Prisoners' Museum, it tells the spellbinding story of the underground's relentless struggle to oust the British and help create a Jewish state. A two-hour circular tour of the Underground Prisoners' Museum takes visitors to the bleak cells from which patriotic young fighters - desperate to participate in the struggle for a Jewish homeland - dreamed of escape. View the flogging corner in the courtyard, examine the prisoners' unique artwork, discover an exciting escape, and enter the somber chamber that held the gallows. Begin on Jaffa Road at Kikar Safra. Descend in the direction of Rehov Shivtei Yisrael through the Russian Compound and stand outside the gate of the squat building to your left to read the original sign that announces the British Central Prison in three languages. As you enter, you pass large cement cones. Although utilized by the British to fortify their secured areas in Jerusalem, the cones first appeared during World War II and were dispersed throughout the country to protect British installations against German attack. The armored car on the lawn was used by the British when they patrolled Jerusalem streets. What looks like a double grave is actually a memorial for famous inmates Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein. The tombstones, which once topped their graves on the Mount of Olives, are engraved with their underground affiliations. While gazing at the museum entrance, you will probably wonder about its shape, the Russian symbol above the door, and the words (in Russian) Maria's Courtyard. In 1860, the Russian Orthodox Church bought a huge chunk of land in this area and filled it with a church, pilgrim hostels and a hospital. This particular edifice, built in 1864, housed female pilgrims. At the beginning of the Mandate, the British turned the hostel into a jail where they incarcerated thieves and murderers. It was only later that Jews were thrown into the prison for defending themselves, carrying weapons, belonging to the underground, and terrorizing the British. Holes in the exterior walls were made by shells. On May 14, 1948, two weeks after the British emptied the prison, Hagana soldiers took the entire area. Although the big battles took place closer to the Old City walls, there was plenty of fighting here, too. Enter the nazara - or reception - where the new inmate had his handcuffs removed and his head shaved. As you walk further into the jail, you will see four separate security doors. The room on your right offers a short movie on prison life (when you buy your tickets you can ask for the English version). Then continue on to Room 34, a reconstructed cell. See the beautiful original arches and watch the way light comes in from the ceiling. Most prisoners slept on mats - with the exception of the "boss" who kept order in each cell. Not only did he have his own bed, but his prison uniform was blue instead of regulation brown. Note the toilet pail; it was the only bathroom facility available after four in the afternoon. Pass the reconstructed bakery, used by Russian pilgrims, where prisoners baked pita. Then examine Room 32. This cell was different - it had real beds! When pronouncing a sentence, the judge could decide whether the convict's time in prison would be harsh or less austere. The bakery stove was beneath Room 32, warming it in winter. Another former cell contains items made by members of the underground, ranging from a plum pit which, when rubbed, becomes a thing of beauty, to objects that expressed the longing for a Jewish homeland. Among them are woodcarvings of Rachel's Tomb and a map of the Land of Israel. Hopes and Disappointments, across the hall, is a riveting exhibit on the Mandate Period. And at the far end of the corridor, explore a special exhibit on the women's prison in Bethlehem, where females were incarcerated after the mid-1930s. Ask to see the movie. Former inmates relate that you only really understood that you were a prisoner when you entered the storeroom, which comes next on the tour. Here you handed in your civilian clothes and were given prison garb: brown for regular prisoners, blue for the "boss" and red for those condemned to hang. (If you tried to escape, and failed, you wore black.) Room 23 holds two attractions: names, mottos and inscriptions prisoners chiseled into the floor, and the open hatch under one of the beds. Because this cell was located near the perimeter fence, underground prisoners decided to use it for an escape attempt. With the help of Shevah Erlich, the Jewish municipal engineer in charge of local maintenance, they learned that a sewage tunnel and manhole lay on the other side of the fence. All they needed was a connecting tunnel. And they began to dig. But how to remove the dirt and stones? Fortunately, a step leads down into this particular cell, and water poured in from the corridor when the prison floors were washed. So when inmates volunteered to build a cesspit, the warden graciously agreed. He even provided them with a wheelbarrow and bags of cement! Sadly, the finished tunnel was too narrow. Erlich suggested they block the entire prison sewage system and, when called in for repairs, he opened up a more accessible manhole. On February 20, 1948, wearing municipal workers' uniforms smuggled inside, 12 prisoners desperate to resume the struggle for a Jewish homeland managed to escape. Along the hall is Room 29; on Shabbat, the cell was transformed into a synagogue of sorts; mats were rolled up and prisoners were supplied with an ark and Torah scroll. They were joined every week by Reb Arye Levin. Walk through the service courtyard, then into the open-stalled shower area built by the British. Prisoners condemned to hang were isolated from their comrades, but here they could pick up notes hidden near the hole in the floor that served as a primitive toilet. Examine the restored workshops next on your route. On the right is a replica of the loom that produced mats for the prisoners' cells. It is used today, with the same techniques, to weave museum mats. Move outside again, into the exercise yard. Look right: prisoners about to be flogged were tied to a wooden structure that stood in the corner. Then head for the clinic to view the prison doctor's room and two bottles, one green and one red. If your complaint was in the area between your head and belly button you got the green liquid; red "cured" ills from stomach to feet. In the Warden's Quarters, you will see items smuggled into the prison - note, especially, the hollow club. Then enter the solitary confinement cell. Former inmates say it was hell on earth, crawling with lice and bedbugs. This was the guards' opportunity to take revenge on prisoners who had given them trouble. They would pour pails of water - or worse - inside the cells, in which the prisoners had to stand all day. Now enter the Hall of Heroism to view photos of Jews executed during the Mandate and afterwards in Arab countries. Then go into the cells for condemned prisoners. First, gaze at the red uniforms they wore. Examine the memorials, then view the gallows. The British caught 19-year-old Meir Feinstein after the Irgun blasted the Jerusalem Railway Station, and they caught 20-year-old Moshe Barazani with a hand grenade on his way to an assassination. Until that time they had executed Jews only at Acre prison, for they were afraid of Jewish riots in the Holy City. Now, however, worried that the transport would be attacked on its way to Acre, the British decided on a Jerusalem hanging. Since Feinstein had lost a hand in the railway attack and needed assistance, the two were locked up together. But Barazani and Feinstein had no intention of giving the British authorities the pleasure of watching them hang, and were eager to carry out a plan hatched together with other inmates. Outsiders smuggled explosives inside a hollow club (the one in the warden's quarters). An inmate constructed two hand grenades - one for the hangman and warden, a second for the boys - and smuggled them into their cell inside two hollowed-out oranges. On the eve of the scheduled execution, April 21, 1947, Reb Arye was temporarily replaced by Rabbi Ya'acov Goldman - in charge of all the prisons in Israel. Immensely touched by the boys' dedication and spirit, he insisted on being present at the hanging so that the last face they saw would be that of a Jew. Nothing would change his mind and he remained in the prison, ready to return early next morning. The two youths wouldn't discharge the grenades at the execution, for the rabbi would be hurt. Instead, they handed their guard a Bible and asked him to go outside and pray for them. Almost immediately, an explosion rocked the prison: the courageous young men had blown themselves up! Although they had been eager to take a British guard with them to the next world, this one - Thomas Goodwin - had been kind and they decided he must be spared. A few months ago, Goodwin's son met with members of Meir Feinstein's family in Israel and returned the Bible. It contained a message written by Feinstein 60 years earlier on behalf of both young men. Part of it read, in Hebrew, "Remember that we stood with dignity and marched with honor. Better to die with a weapon in your hands than hands raised in surrender." Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: NIS 10/5; includes a rare photographic exhibit of Israel from the years 1850-1950. Read about the Russian Compound and the legendary Reb Arye in Aviva Bar-Am's book Jerusalem Easywalks. Aviva is also the author of Israel Travels: From Metulla to Eilat and Beyond the Walls: Churches of Jerusalem.