Adar 1948: Three letters recently uncovered from the besieged Old City of Jerusalem, written a month before the British left and two months before it fell into the hands of Jordan, betray the desperation of the residents and their leaders.
The letters include one of the last letters signed by the Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall, known in Hebrew as the Kotel, who insisted on returning to the besieged city and was killed two months after signing the letter.
The three letters were written in the month of Adar 1948, 68 years ago, by the besieged people of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem, were recently discovered by an unidentified individual in Jerusalem.*
The letters reveal another piece of the harsh reality in the besieged city, the internal arguments between its civilians and the efforts to save the Jewish way of life during the inferno. One of the letters is signed by Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, the Kotel’s first and legendary Chief Rabbi, two months before he perished during the shelling of the Old City.
In the letter – signed also by Rabbis Yisrael Zeev Mintzberg, community rabbi of the Ashkenazi Jewish Quarter, Shalom Azoulay, Dayan of the Westerners community, and Benzion Chazan, founder of the renowned “Porat Yosef” Yeshiva – the four send a distress call to Israel’s Chief Rabbi at the time, Yitzhak Herzog.
“Have mercy on the men, women, and children, and take drastic measures where needed elsewhere, so we won’t perish, God forbid.”
The four describe the difficult situation in the Old City after the shelling by the British soldiers.
“The lives of the Old city residents are in a grave danger. During the last few nights British troops shelled the Jewish Quarter, harming the sanctity of the synagogue,” they write, adding, “The night of Thursday and the night of Motzei Shabbat, were nothing short of a nightmare for us, we thought that we would all perish, God forbid, but thanks to the mercy of Hashem, no casualties occurred… the awful bombing was imposed on us by the British soldiers, without any reason or cause.
“This morning we woke up agreeing unanimously to leave the property behind and save our lives, escape the Old City and the life of nightmare. Nevertheless, after we partially recovered, we called the residents of the city for help in taking counsel and decided to appeal to his Excellency with the broadcast above “.
Rabbi Orenstein, who was appointed Chief Rabbi of the Kotel in 1930, insisted on returning to the Old City when the siege began, even though he was then visiting the new city.
Through special efforts done by Yitzhak Ben-Zvi and Rabbi Herzog, Rabbi Orenstein was able to enter the Old City. When asked why he was endangering himself, Rabbi Orenstein replied that “If someone is destined to sacrifice himself for the sake of the sanctity of ancient Jerusalem and its holy places, I am hereby committed to it more than anyone else.”
Rabbi Orenstein was killed along with his wife, Rebbetzin Mushka Liebe, during the shelling of Iyar 14th, about two months after signing the letter above. He was buried in a mass grave that he himself approved to set up within the Old City limits.
Letter written by The First Kotel Rabbi, Chief Rabbi Orenshtein two months before his death.
Alongside this letter, the collection holds another letter written the next day, by the rabbi of the Ashkenazi community, Rabbi Mintzberg, who also addressed Chief Rabbi Herzog. In his letter, Rabbi Mintzberg describes once more the difficult situation in the quarter. “I am to inform him that after the past Sunday of Parashat Shemini (about a week before writing this letter), a bitter day for the residents of the holy city, the soldiers were raging once more, shooting the residents. In yards and homes before midnight Friday night and yesterday Motza’ei Shabbat for several hours continuously, they fired shells and mortars and destroyed several homes.”
This time, the Rabbi of the Ashkenazi community is asking the chief rabbi to intervene, in order to bring peace between the president of the Old City’s Jewish community, Mordechai Weingarten, and the ‘Haganah’ military organization. The story behind this request involves the tension between Weingarten and the ‘Haganah’, following the latter’s takeover of the Jewish Agency’s food distribution to the Jews of the Old City, which had rested with Weingarten until that point.
The letter also mentions the need to reconcile further arguments about the discussion on the possible courses of action in the besieged city. Tensions reached a peak a month before writing the letter at hand, when commander of the Haganah’s Jerusalem unit, Avraham Halperin, was arrested in the Old City.
“Another thing I believe might affect… the heads of our government will give an order to members of the ‘Haganah’ to cooperate with Weingarten, since he is known to have relations with the government in favor of the Old City, and the cooperation will bring great benefit for the Protection of the Old City and alleviate the population’s suffering,” writes Rabbi Mintzberg to Chief Rabbi Herzog.
Another letter in the collection was sent four days later to the Religious Council in Jerusalem, by a representative group of 25 young members of the ‘Beitar’ organization, who had established a company of their own alongside the ‘Haganah’s.
According to the author of the letter, the company consists of “Young and international” olim (immigrants) from various countries including: Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Harbin (at that time under the control of the Soviet Union and today a part of China). In the letter, the group seeks assistance for the upcoming Passover. “We are forced to turn to you with a request of utmost importance. Passover is approaching and we are unable to satisfy all the national-religious Halachas of this holiday, such as matzo and the use of special kitchen utensils. ”
A month after the three letters were written, on May 13th, the British troops left the Old City. Three days later, the Arab counter-offensive commenced and the conquest of ‘Haganah’ positions in the city. Four days later came the Jordanian forces.
Two weeks after the departure of the British, on May 28th, the Old City was captured by the Jordanian forces.
(*Ed. Note: Kedem Auction House is handling the sale of the letters. A spokesperson told JewishPress.com the seller requested anonymity and added this is also part of its confidentiality policy, as it is with other auction houses, for varying reasons.)
Hana Levi Julian