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Nothing is more appropriate on the 60th anniversary of Israel's Declaration of Independence than reading the words of a young Jewish wife who left America and came to Israel for love of Eretz Yisrael [Land of Israel]. The letters from Jerusalem which are the source of this article weren't written by me; they were penned by Chedva Margolit to her immediate family in America. Chedva and her husband Yacey immigrated to Eretz Yisrael with the intention of establishing and living on a kibbutz. They arrived in Palestine just in time for Israel's War of Independence. I previously wrote an article entitled "An Unassuming Patriarch" about Yacey, taken from his autobiography (See here.).
These excerpts from Chedva's letters tell a similar story, but from the perspective of a young, pregnant woman in her new country.
We landed in Haifa, just weeks after the UN Partition Plan for Palestine had passed and were met by our cousin Chaim, the last survivor of your extensive family in Poland. At Chaim's home, his wife Hada "fed [us] Palestinian food such as cucumber salad, white cheese and lebenia" while we listened to Chaim's stories of his childhood in Poland.
We journeyed to Tel Aviv in preparation for the trip up to Jerusalem, located 3,300 feet above the coastal plain in the Judean Mountains. We were told by our relatives, "Since the UN Declaration for the Partition of Palestine, the Arabs have been on the rampage. ... almost 100 people had been killed or wounded on that road [from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem] in the past few weeks." I was particularly incensed by the British Mandate soldiers who led the small convoy of buses and private cars up the steep slopes, "... firing shots in the air, obviously to alert the Arabs that we were coming. Then, these so-called British Security Police raced on ahead, abandoning us." Unsurprisingly, the convoy was soon attacked by rifle fire from both sides of the road, and I was dazed by the screams of the wounded and the noise of the guns until one single shot jolted me back to reality. One bullet, shot from among the rocks, made a neat hole in the middle of a young defender a few rows ahead of me." There were three fatalities and seven wounded for the survivors to contend with when "... a British patrol car pulled up and we heard, 'I say, has something happened?' We all felt a feeling of revulsion and turned away. The rest of the trip to Jerusalem was 'uneventful'." When we eventually entered Jerusalem and we heard the blast of a shofar (ram's horn) heralding the coming of the Sabbath, it had a surrealistic effect on our emotions.
We settled down near relatives in Jerusalem, and found it "interesting" to hear the British radio broadcasts, which skewed the news to blame the Jews for the fighting: "You'll never hear them [the announcers] mention how English soldiers tear off posters in Arab neighborhoods which had been placed there by the Hagana [fighting force], begging the Arabs to come to peace talks. You'll never hear them mention how British soldiers fire shots in the air intentionally, in order to provoke Arabs and Jews to shoot at each other. I am saddened by the death of one of my young friends from my Zionist youth group. He was among the famous "35" who were ambushed, killed, and mutilated on their way to defend the Etzion bloc of Jewish villages outside of Jerusalem. "Moshe is gone. Was it only a few years ago that we had joyfully danced the 'hora' in Brooklyn and talked fervently about aliyah? It hurts most when it's someone with whom you had shared a dream."
We heard the deafening blast which destroyed the nearby Palestine Post [today's Jerusalem Post] Building, completely obliterating all the printing presses and all the newspaper's files. On the underground Hagana radio station they heard the "claim that it was a British Army truck that had been driven up and was left with a timed bomb. We know that the British have been very disturbed by the bluntness of the Palestine Post editorials in their criticism of the Palestine Mandatory Government. The Hagana believes that this was their way of silencing the newspaper. Yet the Post has not missed one day [of publication]."
Weeks later, we were jolted out of our beds by a tremendous blast from Ben Yehuda St., where numerous houses and a hotel were bombed. We rushed over to the site, where Yacey and others "... began digging in the rubble, pulling out pajama-clad bodies, murdered in their sleep." Yacey then noticed that a truck, similar to the one that had been left at the scene of the Palestine Post bombing, had a British army serial number on its engine. He promptly informed an AP correspondent of the fact. 52 men, women, and children were killed and 123 injured. The BBC "categorically announced that it is unimaginable that members of our security forces should be guilty." Later, two British deserters were implicated in the plot, which was carried out by Arab terrorists. The battle with the Arabs is difficult but the duplicitous British "are intent on sabotaging every Jewish accomplishment and progress we have made in Palestine."
About life here: people rent rooms instead of having houses or whole apartments. Most rooms are set up with day beds and then slept in at night. Sinks have only one faucet: cold! To have hot water for a bath, you have to set a small fire in a little furnace attached to the water pipes. On our wonderful Abyssinian St. there are "long-robed, dignified, handsome, blue-black Abyssinian priests striding to their services at the Abyssinian church. The smells from the street are freshly-laid donkey dung, the aroma of newly baked bread from the bakery next door, and the smell of burnt milk delivered straight from the cow that has just boiled over [to pasteurize it]. When I step out of the freezing house I am struck by the golden sunshine, the azure blue of the Jerusalem skies, and the warmth of the pink stone of the buildings."
I understand your fears for my safety but I remain
steadfast in my goal to participate in the rebirth of our people in
its homeland. If I and others leave, who will fight for and later
rebuild it? "Not the smug, well-fed Americans who feel angels' wings
fluttering on their backs every time they put a nickel in a JNF box;
not the black-hatted men and shorn women who have made a ghetto for
themselves in Jerusalem as they await the Messiah and spurn the
efforts of our pioneers, and not even some of the refugee youth who
were forced to enter kibbutzim for lack of a family and feel
embittered that Hitler blew them Zionward. There are many who still
have the slave mentality after the Exodus and are floundering in the
desert of their battered souls. We, who have come from a free land of
our own free will, must aid in the building of an independent people
and remove the scapegoat scar from our image."
Because of the siege we are suffering here in Jerusalem, our isolation means the shelves in the stores are rapidly emptying. But at least I can sit on the balcony watching the traffic of carts and people, while I stitch tiny garments for the baby that is swelling my stomach. Last week the Jewish Agency complex was bombed and the toll of dead and wounded was high. But we will prevail.
The latest outrage happened to the convoy of six vehicles carrying doctors and nurses to Hadassah Hospital on Mt. Scopus, while passing through an Arab neighborhood. We were nearby at our brother Shlomo's wedding, standing outside in front of the wedding hall. "We could see the black smoke curling up from the overturned buses, we saw keffiya'd figures shooting from behind rocks, and the bus passengers staggering around, blinded by the smoke and fire, only to be gunned down as they emerged into view. The battle lasted for eight hours and I'll never forget the frightful rumbling of the cannons and the rattling of the machine guns ... there were seven survivors [79 Jews were murdered] from among the Hagana defenders and the finest doctors and nurses."
Now, the stores are absolutely bare and some people are picking weeds from fields. There is food in the country but Jerusalem is rapidly being cut off. Convoys are stopped on the dangerous ascent through the hills to Jerusalem, the trucks overturned "and then the drivers are massacred by the hordes of savages that come pouring down from the hills. The food is either looted or allowed to rot. So the convoys have stopped." At least, as a pregnant woman, I'm given a special ration of milk, cheese, and vitamin pills.
For a while all communications with the outside world were cut off. Our tiny "air force" has set up an airfield nearby and mail service has resumed. The good news is that the Hagana has overcome the Arab forces [in Western Jerusalem] and administrative bodies are being set up. That tens of thousands of Arab women and children are fleeing in panic from the Jewish fighters is partly true. On the short-wave radio we heard Arab leaders in Haifa exhorting their people to flee the city. Those who stayed were threatened with punishment, while those who fled were promised great rewards soon, after the Jews are defeated. "What the world newspapers probably didn't describe was how the various neighborhoods of Haifa were visited by the advancing Hagana with food and medical supplies and kerosene for the terrified Arab families, while loudspeakers were used to plead with them to remain and to live peacefully in the new state. But this is what the Arab League fears –– our sense of justice! They are masters at committing atrocities so they circulate the propaganda that we would do the same."
Yacey's cousin Zvi was an eye-witness to one of these atrocities: after an unsuccessful battle his unit was forced to turn back, leaving thirty wounded comrades behind who were impossible to reach. "Soldiers in British uniforms came along in tanks, got out and crept over to where the wounded Jews lay and dragged them over to the rocks towards the Arabs and received payment for each body! Afterwards, Zvi's unit found only mutilated parts scattered among the rocks. This is the real tragedy of our existence; that we are not fighting on an equal basis with 'civilized' fighters for a cause they really believe in. We are fighting against hordes of paid savages, not the Palestinians with whom we hope to form a state, but Iraqis and Syrians who still live under the terror of feudalistic lords. We are also cursed with the snickering, unscrupulous scum of Piccadilly [British soldiers]."
The Mandate has finally lapsed. On May 15, the British trained and commanded Arab Legionnaires entrenched themselves in the eastern neighborhoods of the city. For the past week we have suffered incessant cannon barrages outside our building. They are trying to break our strength and morale, hitting every hospital, school, church, and consulate in the area with snipers' bullets. We're getting our news from a transistor radio, the only one on our block. Water is being rationed. People stay off the streets fearing shrapnel and most of the shops and movies are closed. But my sister-in-law Chava and I sometimes venture into the streets and go to Cafe Allenby on King George St., a safer part of town, because there we are able to drink Turkish coffee and flirt with some of the soldiers on leave.
Yesterday the Hurva synagogue, the largest and most beautiful Ashkenazi synagogue in the Old City, "was razed to the ground by the Arabs. Everyone stood out on their balconies watching with stunned horror as the enormous flames reached the heaven and the sky's rage was palpable with its flaming glow of reds and oranges and yellows. The fact that no Jewish bullet or shell has ever purposely struck a church or mosque has not been publicized. The only observations the world powers have made have been that the Jews are causing all this furor in this part of the globe by their radical desire to live in peace and freedom in a state of their own." [The Hurva synagogue is currently being rebuilt in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City.]
Last night, for the first time in a week, we slept uninterruptedly, but the latest terrible news was that 300 of our brave defenders were unable to save the Jewish Quarter and were taken prisoner by the Jordanians and sent to prison camp in Amman We tremble at the thought of their fate in an Arab prison camp. Meanwhile, we still don't know the status of the 250 prisoners captured at Kfar Etzion. Rumors abound about their fate. [Later, all these prisoners were released.]
Yacey has been a Hagana fighter for more than a month but hasn't had leave yet. He's been promoted to platoon commander. A ceasefire was declared more than a week ago but sporadic attacks are still common. Nevertheless, people take to the streets when they can and are planning many activities. The children are attending school and shops are open, although with meager offerings. [The "Burma Road" through the Jerusalem hills was completed just before the cease-fire, giving access to Jerusalem by sturdy vehicles.] "The world will never comprehend the determination and dynamism on which this country will be built, and because of which it will never be destroyed." Shavuot has come and Yacey has finally finagled a pass for the holiday. What a nice surprise!
Coming out into the summer warmth we greet our
neighbors and I realize that the reason we survived all those weeks
with little food or water and living in damp shelters, is because of
our Maccabean spirit. "One sees normalcy returning; as the movie
houses throw open their doors, or the Philharmonic Orchestra
entertains us this week (from Tel Aviv), and the Palestinian Ballet
Theater performs tomorrow night." We are getting reacquainted with
fresh foods from Tel Aviv, and the Sharon and Galilee regions. But I'm
getting impatient as the end of my pregnancy approaches. "Please note:
our new stamps say Medinat Israel –– State of Israel. So don't write
Jerusalem, Palestine, anymore. Now it is Jerusalem, ISRAEL."
"Tomorrow marks the last day of our comparatively peaceful ceasefire." We are all pretty tired, tired of the fear, the sleepless nights with shells bursting, dragging pails of water up three flights for our daily ration, and the long, unpleasant waiting in line at the food stores. "But, we are not too tired to fight back and to save every vestige of our honor and existence, to save Jerusalem from its desecraters. Tiredness will never cause us to surrender, only Death itself."
Daddy, I miss you so much. "We are all well, including your new grandchild, Eli, so don't worry about us. Everyone is proud of your attitude. Not every daughter can boast of a father who can put rational, just ideals above the selfish possessiveness towards a child. Your belief in the cause of Eretz Yisrael has comforted me during this pain of separation. I am sure that through your efforts there have been many converts to Zionism and to the fight for Jewish independence. We have the indomitable strength and faith of the Jew and we are using it."
I've observed that there are only two types of Jews in Jerusalem: the Yeshiva students who don't work for a living and the Central Europeans who are professionals. But the "new Jew" –– the proud worker, the builder, the idealist –– doesn't exist in Jerusalem. "The average worker may have once been an idealist as a pioneer two or three decades ago, but now he's exploited, indifferent, or wants to go to America. I think everything will change under our new state because now we have the opportunity to regulate workers' benefits, compulsory education, etc. These were never developed under the British." I'm glad that the terrorist Stern Group was shut down after their terrible assassination of Count Bernadotte [UN Security Council Mediator]. We can't allow terrorists to have their way –– it will hurt us in our own eyes and in the eyes of the world. We must give allegiance and respect to our new government to strengthen our nation and build our land.
Our neighborhood is the only one still without water. We continue to get our water ration from a truck each day and lug pails of water up the three flights. But we can get an occasional chicken. The good news is that Yacey is convalescing from his bout of malnutrition and he hopes to be released from the army before long.
I'm excited by government's accomplishments. "Contrary to all prophecies that the Jews would be a wrangling, uncompromising, helpless pack once given the right to rule, we have become rather competent, fusing the great force of survival with the need to be practical. Many mistakes are being made and will be made, but we are like precocious youngsters with clever, workable ideas, once dreamed of but now materializing." There are contests for everything like anthems, uniforms, even the colors of the flag. Letters to the Editor of the Palestine Post are filled with suggestions. It's a thrill to see our fire trucks with "Jerusalem Fire Brigade" written in Hebrew. We can see our own newsreels in the cinemas –– I saw actual scenes of the fighting in the Negev and the capture of Beersheva. For now, we find the organization of the state to be quite informal. Our statesmen are friends with whom we can discuss and advise how to run the government, and finally, we have flowing water with every turn of the faucet! "What a blessing it is to have water."
Now, to tell you about the kibbutz –– it's not so romantic and adventurous as we believed back in America. We are short of funds, water, and our land is poor. The initial work is unrelenting drudgery. "It's a cruel and miserable finale when you've transcended all these difficulties through years of hardship and have built a beautiful, flourishing community –– then the Arabs decide to fight a holy nationalistic battle." Many of the outlying kibbutzim have been attacked, with all the hard work destroyed and the earth littered with corpses.
"Why then, you might ask, do we still intend to subject ourselves to such a life? And I answer, as a Jew, we must never stay down where they toss us. We will always rise and rebuild until we are secure. In the past year, we lacked food and water, we trembled with fear and anxiety but we had one great prayer –– to emerge from it all alive. We realize today that the comforts and luxuries that you claim we will miss, are just trivialities in the face of our national existence which is at stake. We are eager to start our new life."
Yacey's last duty in uniform was as part of the guard of honor at the inauguration of President Chaim Weizman. It was a crisp, bright, glorious day, part-gaiety and part-solemnity, an occasion which hadn't been visited upon Jerusalem in a long time. Blue and white was everywhere, pennants were flying from every window, and people crowded the streets sensing the greatness of the day. Even little Eli, seated in his carriage, was enchanted, not realizing that he was witnessing the opening of the Knesset and the inauguration of our first president.
We are settled in the kibbutz and I have contentedly found my place. We have the unified spirit necessary to live and work together and there is national spirit as well. We Jews have to settle every inch of the land or, so long as the Arabs are goaded and equipped to harass us, our state will be lost. There are still soldiers and guards being killed by Arab snipers. Zionism today isn't just coming to the land. Most of the new immigrants are concentrating themselves in the cities, which is the most dangerous thing for our threatened state.
"The true beauty of Israel is beginning to bloom in this quiet,
fruitful summer, so far away from the upheavals of last year. In the
full, ripe vineyards around our settlement there are rows and rows of
blooming, purpling, glistening clusters of grapes. Here we will reap
the ancient joy of planting a vineyard in Eretz Yisrael."
Chedva and Yacey eventually left the kibbutz and raised three sons. Chedva has had a wonderful career as an educator, working with Naamat, a network of schools for youth-at-risk, including youngsters from immigrant families. I met this wonderful couple in Kohav Y'air, where we are members of the small Conservative congregation there. Although Yacey died several months ago, Chedva continues in the wonderful spirit that brought them to Eretz Yisrael sixty-one years ago. If you'd like to write to Chedva, her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org
This was submitted by Steve Kramer April 28, 2008. Contact him at email@example.com
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