The author is currently in Israel and will be traveling to Hungary to do additional research for his project on the life of his mother, Olga Elek. Stay tuned for more installments in that series.
My family and I are regular visitors to Israel, spending as much time there each year as we are able. Over the course of our numerous trips, we have visited the length of the land, from north to south, trying to learn and see as much as possible. But this summer, our itinerary took a slightly different direction from the usual.
We had with us a teenager who was on his first visit to Israel. It was our task to show him the country, and we decided to embark on an unforgettable tour.
Upon arriving, we headed up to Yerushalayim, visiting the Kotel and taking the prerequisite tunnel tours and a tour of the city. Naturally, we also visited Masada, Ein Gedi, and the Dead Sea. But once we got the usual stuff out of the way, we headed to the Russian Compound across from the Jerusalem post office on Rechov Yaffo to visit the old Jerusalem Central Prison.
How many of you have even heard of this great place, much less visited there?
Today, it is called the Museum of the Underground Prisoners of Jerusalem, or the Heichal HaGevurah — The Hall of Heroism.
In the days of the British Mandate in Palestine, the British took over this old 19th-century women’s hostel and turned it into a maximum-security prison. At first, they incarcerated Arab prisoners there in the 1920s, but with the Jewish uprising to their rule in the 1930s and later, the prison was used to house the ever-growing numbers of Jewish underground fighters convicted of anti-British activism. Members of the Etzel (Irgun Tzvai Leumi) and the Lechi (Lochamei Cherut L’Yisrael) also known as the Stern Gang, were the usual “guests.”
By 1948, when the British withdrew from Israel, there were over 600 prisoners kept there. The British even built a gallows to execute those Jewish fighters they sentenced to death. As you walk through the prison, you look into the cells, see the thin carpets on the floors used as mattresses, and if you close your eyes you can even imagine yourself in one of them.
But the most sobering part of the visit is the death-row cell next to the gallows. Thirteen young Jews were hanged in Acco, but only two consigned to the gallows here. Moshe Barazani, a 21-year-old Iraqi Jew, was a member of the Lechi; he was sentenced to death for attempting to assassinate a commander of British forces. Twenty-year-old Meir Feinstein, born in Jerusalem to Russian émigrés, was a member of the Etzel. Meir was wounded by the British after blowing up the Jerusalem train station, a British target. They were both sentenced to death and housed in the Jerusalem prison, awaiting execution.
But the boys had other plans than allowing the British to hang them.
They asked the underground to smuggle explosives into the prison, intending to blow themselves up together with the British prison officials, leading them to their execution.
The underground agreed to this Samson-like death plan, and Lechi prisoner Eliezer Ben Ami constructed hand grenades hidden inside two oranges.
With everything prepared, they met with the prison rabbi, Yaakov Goldman, the night before. The rabbi spoke with them and was astonished at their uplifted spirits. It was the two boys who were consoling the rabbi. As the rabbi left, he promised that he would return in the morning and walk with them the last few steps. They tried to dissuade him but could not talk the rabbi out of being with them at their execution.
So in order to spare the rabbi any harm, they arose in the middle of the night, placed the grenades between their chests, and embraced as they detonated the grenades. They deprived the British of the pleasure of executing two more Jews.
This is the story of the Jerusalem Central Prison. When you visit, you can still see the fragment marks that the grenade made on the walls. (Upon my first visit in 1972, I also saw the blood-soaked mattress that has since been removed.)
We were all moved as we looked into the cell and saw the gallows. Their deed inspired the entire yishuv and was a catalyst for further anti-British action.
Menachem Begin, equally inspired, wrote in his will:
My dear Yehiel,
When the day comes, please read out my request to the people I hold dear, to peers and friends: I ask to be buried on the Mount of Olives near Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, and I thank you and whoever carries out my request.
Yours with love,
From Jerusalem, it’s on to Acco, the ancient city with its crusader fortress. This fortress protected the city from many foes over many years. Even Napoleon could not defeat the Turks in this fortification. When the British took control of Palestine, they turned this fortress into a large prison. Numerous underground soldiers were imprisoned here, with 13 hanged (including Dov Gruner). Zev Jabotinsky was among its prisoners. In a daring operation on May 4, 1947, the Etzel (Irgun) broke into the prison and freed 28 incarcerated Irgun and Lechi soldiers. In Acco, you can see the pictures of all 13 boys and read about their life stories. I assure you that you will be as inspired as we were.
The Land of Israel is filled with inspiring history, both ancient and more recent. The northern city of Kiryat Shemonah, on the western slope of the Hula Valley, is one such historical place. Kiryat Shemonah, named after the eight people who were killed there in 1920, is just below the slopes of Kfar Gileadi and Tel Hai.
What? You say you never heard of Tel Hai? Impossible!
At the end of the First World War, a Jewish hero of the Russian Army, the one-armed Joseph Trumpeldor, was urged by Zev Jabotinsky to come to Israel and help organize the defense of the kibbutzim in the north. He spent several months working and organizing in Kfar Gileadi and neighboring Tel Hai. One day, while at Kfar Gileadi, word came that armed Arabs descended on Tel Hai. With only a handful of men and women there, Trumpeldor quickly galloped over and took over the command. Standing outside a cabin door, he tried to negotiate with the Arabs. Suddenly, rifle fire broke out; several Arabs and some Jews were shot and killed. Caught between the door and the Arabs, Trumpeldor was also severely wounded. After chasing away the Arabs, the wounded, including Trumpeldor, were evacuated by horse-drawn wagon to Kfar Gileadi. Along the way, Trumpeldor succumbed to his wounds. Those with him at his last moment reported his last words were:
“Ein davar; tov lamut be’ad artzeinu — Never mind; it’s good to die for our homeland.”
Jabotinsky, in an everlasting memorial, created a Zionist youth movement called Beitar, an acronym for Brit Joseph Trumpeldor. The city of Kiryat Shemonah took its name after the eight men and women who died defending Tel Hai.
We wandered through the settlement buildings along with a detachment of young Israeli army recruits.
What we thought would be a half-hour spent at Tel Hai turned into almost two hours as the boys immersed themselves in soaking up the history at this living memorial of Israel.
And finally, off the beach of Tel Aviv, right before Yaffa, there are two additional very important museums. One is Beit HaEtzel, dedicated to the fighters and the deeds of the Irgun, the other, just a little farther off the beach, is Beit HaLechi.
The Irgun was a breakaway from the older Haganah, and more action-oriented and militant. They believed that only with military action would the British be convinced to leave Palestine and allow the liberation of Israel. But at the onset of the Second World War, Menachem Begin, the Irgun commander, declared a truce with Britain as long as England was fighting the Nazis. But Avraham Stern, a commander in the Irgun, disagreed. Stern felt that during the war, with England distracted, it was the best time to hit them. So he broke away with several hundred Irgun fighters and created Lechi, the Freedom Fighters of Israel.
The British sought Stern desperately, as his men had killed scores of British soldiers. When he hid in the apartment of some followers, the British received a tip regarding his whereabouts. They surrounded the apartment, apprehended Stern, and after handcuffing him, executed him in a hail of bullets. Beit Lechi is the apartment where Stern was killed. The room of his murder has been maintained, and is still intact. The museum also houses many artifacts and mementos of the deeds of the Lechi.
For many years, Israel has hidden the deeds of these heroes from the public. In fact, Ben Gurion, the nemesis of Begin, turned Acco Fortress into an insane asylum to assure that no visitors would turn it into a shrine glorifying Irgun heroism. It was only after Begin became prime minister that Acco Fortress took its rightful place in the history of the founding of Israel.
While I realize that not every visit to Israel can include such off-the-beaten-path destinations, I do urge you to bring your children and grandchildren to these places. They will learn about the founding of Israel and be proud about their legacy. By the time they get to college, they will have plenty of information about Israel that will make them informed and enthusiastic advocates.
Also, there are no long lines getting into these museums. While the army brings young recruits to learn about their heritage, sadly, we were the only foreigners visiting.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor.