Three letters written in February 1948 in the then-besieged Old City of Jerusalem were uncovered recently at the Kedem Auction House in the city. The letters shed light on the reality faced by residents of the Jewish Quarter during the siege of Jerusalem by Arab forces in the first phase of the War of Independence.
“The three letters bring the besieged Old City back to life, along with the many struggles inside it,” said Meron Eren from the Kedem Auction House. “They are further historical evidence of the dedication of those who chose to stay in the besieged city and fight for it.”
The letters were written three months before British forces left the city and the Old City was conquered by Jordan. One of them is a call for help signed by the first rabbi of the Western Wall, who was killed three months later when the Old City was shelled.
“Have mercy on the men, women, and children, and take drastic measures where needed so that we don’t perish, God forbid,” reads the letter signed by Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, the Western Wall’s first rabbi. The letter was sent as a cry for help to Israel’s then-Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog.
“The Old City residents’ lives are in grave danger. British troops have been shelling the Jewish Quarter over the last nights, harming the sanctity of the synagogue,” wrote Rabbi Orenstein who signed the letter alongside Rabbi Yisrael Mintzberg, Rabbi Shalom Azoulay, and Rabbi Benzion Chazan.
Orenstein, who was appointed as Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall in 1930, insisted on returning to the Old City when the siege began even though he had been visiting other parts of Jerusalem. When asked why he was endangering himself, he replied that “if someone is destined to sacrifice himself for the sake of the sanctity of ancient Jerusalem and its holy sites, I am hereby committed to do so more than anyone else.”
Orenstein and his wife were killed on May 23, 1948 when the city was shelled. Their deaths came about three months after the rabbi signed the now-discovered letter.
The auction house also discovered another letter from February 1948, this one from Rabbi Yisrael Zeev Mintzberg. This letter, too, addressed Chief Rabbi Herzog. Mintzberg, a community rabbi, further described the difficult situation in the city. “A bitter day for the residents of the holy city, the soldiers were raging once more, shooting the residents. They continuously fired shells and mortars for several hours and destroyed several homes.”
In a third uncovered letter, sent four days later, a group of 25 young members of the Beitar organization asked the Jerusalem Religious Council for assistance in preparing for the upcoming Jewish festival of Passover.
Three months after the three letters were written, on May 13,1948, British forces left the Old City. Three days later, an Arab counter-offensive commenced that resulted in the conquest of positions in the city manned by the Jewish Haganah defense force. Four days later, Jordanian forces entered the city, and on May 28, the Old City surrendered to the Jordanian forces.
Jewish residents were expelled, to return only in 1967 with the city’s liberation.
Reprinted with permission from the Tazpit Press Service (TPS).