Heroism reflected in stone

A historic prison break inspires a monumental work of art in Acre.

akko statue 88 298 (photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
akko statue 88 298
(photo credit: Lydia Aisenberg)
Entering Acre port from the north, one is greeted by an impressive sculpture at the roadside just ahead of a portion of the ancient ramparts. The enormous white stone stands out forcefully against the backdrop of the azure Mediterranean and a bright blue sky as rays of sunshine bounce off the top of the sculpture. The work of Israeli artist Zvi Gera depicts a scene from the great escape of Jewish detainees held at the infamous Acre prison by the British mandatory forces in the l940s. It is fittingly close to the site of the May 4, 1947, prison break and memorializes those who risked their lives to save their comrades imprisoned in the medieval citadel, and those who perished in the heroic effort. During the spectacular raid on the prison, fighters belonging to the pre-state Irgun militia dynamited a hole in the wall of the awesome edifice. They then rushed in through the aperture and, after overpowering British soldiers guarding the prisoners, released 41 detainees, 30 of whom belonged to the Irgun and 11 to the Lehi organization. Nine died in the raid - six prisoners and three raiders - and another 11 were captured by the British in the ensuing action. Eventually three - Meir Nakor, Avshalom Haviv and Ya'acov Weiss - were hanged in the ominous citadel built by the Crusaders in 1104. The Gera sculpture is powerful not only in size but in the story it silently tells. As passers-by stand in front of Gera's work reading the inscription, the sounds of the sea create a gentle chorus in the background. To place the dynamite at the most strategic point in the wall - a window ledge - one Irgun fighter stood on the shoulders of another to pack bundles of explosives under the barred window above the ledge. Gera captured this action in such a way that one figure seems to flow through the other. The figure at the bottom puts all his strength into holding his fellow rescuer standing on his shoulders, who is gingerly packing the bundle of dynamite on the ledge above. Today, benches facing out to sea alongside the sculpture are occupied by some of the local senior citizens. Moshe, Ya'acov and David are locals who are fiercely proud of the rich history of their town. All three fought in the War of Independence but none in the north. Two of the men battled in the Negev, another in Jerusalem, and a lady who stopped for a chat was under siege in Jerusalem in those days. "We old timers, Jews and Arabs, have a special respect and understanding for the sea," explains one of the men, a retired fisherman whose stories from his fishing days would have delighted Hemingway. Silhouetted against the backdrop of seemingly unending water and cloudless sky, a few fishermen with rod and tackle and wearing plastic waders up to their waists stand on the breakwater and patiently wait for a bite. The men know each and everyone casting their lines into the sea. Some are Jewish and some Arab. "Jews and Arabs coexist well in Acre, and everybody knows it," says one of the men. When asked about the prison breakout and its connection to the statue looming above, Ya'acov sighs and comments that in his opinion not enough has been done to memorialize that event and those who perished in Acre at the hands of the British. "The prison breakout was such an important operation, but then again there were many others. We lost so many good men and women fighting for our country," he laments - "and we still are."