It's been 46 years since the re-unification of Jerusalem: two internally-displaced Jewish refugees, Carmella and Sarah, interviewed in 2011 for CiFWatch by IsraeliNurse, were able to to re-connect with the Old City where they had been born. Their families were brutally evicted by the Jordanian Legion in 1948:
Perhaps most significantly – because
there exists a clear political agenda to make Jews appear as newcomers
and non-native inhabitants of the city – rarely does a Western audience
get to hear that Jews in fact made up the majority of the city’s
population at least from the mid-nineteenth century,
or that many of them became internally displaced when they were forced
to leave their homes both before and during the War of Independence.
Recently I met up with two ladies whose
memories of their childhood in Jerusalem are part of the story of the
city itself. Both were born there – Carmella in 1935 and Sarah in 1921.
In a country in which one receives such a variety of often unexpected
answers to the question ‘where did your family originate?’ it is fairly
rare to meet people who do not have a reply. Carmella looked puzzled for
an instant, and then replied “Oh – my mother came from Tsfat and my
father from Jerusalem”. As for Sarah – the answer to her was obvious;
“From the Old City”.
Neither of them could tell me exactly
how many generations of their family had lived in Jerusalem before them,
but Sarah was proud to recount how her great- grandfather, who lived in
the Rothschild Building
built in 1870 in the Jewish Quarter, had met the building’s sponsor,
Baron Rothschild, when he came with his daughter to tour the sites of
his investment. Apparently, the whole neighbourhood had been busy
preparing delicacies in honour of the distinguished visitor – mostly
citron (etrog) cakes – but the Baron’s clerks had warned him in advance
not to partake of anything cooked in the Jewish Quarter due to the
famously insanitary conditions there. In fact the only thing which the
Baron consumed throughout his entire visit to the Old City was a glass
of water drawn from the cistern at Sarah’s great-grandfather’s sparsely
A clue to the origins of both families
perhaps comes from the fact that the languages they spoke at home were
Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) and Arabic, with a smattering of Yiddish for good
Ladino was the predominant language among Jews in Palestine
between the 17th and 19th centuries after Sephardi
Jews who were exiled from Spain in 1492 returned to the land of their
forefathers, settling in Jerusalem, Hebron, Tsfat, Tiberius and even
Schem and Gaza.
However, after so many generations of
life in the Jewish Quarter, Sarah’s family, along with almost half of
the Jewish population of the Old City, finally had to leave it in 1936
as a result of the riots which were part of the Arab revolt. This, of
course, was not the first case of Jerusalemites who were no less
indigenous than their expellers being forced out of their homes: in the
1929 riots some 4,000 Jews had also fled Neve Ya’akov, Motsa, Romema,
Beit HaKerem and Talpiot. Neither was this phenomenon confined to
Jerusalem; in the 1929 riots Carmella’s grandfather’s brother and his
wife were both slaughtered by an axe-wielding mob in Tsfat.
Carmella described their home: one of
six houses built around a communal courtyard and lacking electricity,
sewage or running water, but with a strong community life in which
people readily shared what little they had. Both women spent their
childhood under the British Mandate with regular curfews from 5 p.m.
until 7 a.m. the next day. Sometimes they knew that the curfew was a
reaction to activities by Jewish underground groups, but more often they
had no idea why they were under curfew. One 9th of Av,
Carmella’s father and the neighbours in the yard wanted to pray. Because
of the curfew they could not go to the synagogue and there were not
enough men to make up a minyan, (prayer quorum) so they snuck out to
bring additional men from surrounding streets to the prayers.
Unfortunately, someone left the door to the courtyard open by mistake,
and the British promptly arrested them all, imprisoning them in the
Russian compound until the next morning.
On November 29th, 1947,
friends and family gathered at Carmella’s parents’ home – the only one
in the neighbourhood with a radio – to listen tensely to the UN vote on
partition. As the votes were announced, they made lists of the results
on scraps of paper. “We have a state!” cried Carmella’s brother, but as
they set off to dance in celebration on Jaffa Road, their father urged
caution; “Let’s see what happens tomorrow morning.” And indeed,
difficult days lay ahead.
During the siege of Jerusalem, their daily routine revolved mostly around the fight to survive. Water was strictly rationed as the British-built pipeline had been sabotaged by
the Arab militias. Initially they had to rely upon the original
cisterns which collected rainwater from the roofs of the houses: Sarah
and Carmella painstakingly explained to me the knack behind filling a
bucket on a rope from a deep cistern. Later, water tankers began to
arrive intermittently in Jerusalem and Carmella and her siblings would
spend hours standing in line waiting to take their rations home in
buckets and tin cans.
The precious fresh water would be stored
in large clay pots – both Sarah and Carmella call them by the Ladino
name ‘Tanaja’. One contained fresh drinking and cooking water and the
other water which had already been used to wash their hands. Once a week
– before Shabbat – the children would be washed, the laundry then done
in the same water, the floor then washed with that soapy water and
anything left used to water the few plants such as mint and lemon balm
which they grew in tin cans in the yard.
Food too was strictly rationed with each
item weighed scrupulously by the shop-keeper in exchange for coupons.
Carmella’s family lived mostly off bean or lentil soup with small
amounts of meat becoming a rare delicacy and bread limited to 200 grams
per person. Carmella’s father used to give his portion of bread to the
children, saying “I’m grown already”. Just before Pessach a truck-load
of fresh vegetables managed to make it through the blockade. Carmella
recounts how that became a whole day’s entertainment as everyone
gathered around just to gaze at the vegetables – the likes of which they
had not seen for so long.
Fuel was also severely rationed and
because they had no electricity, both light and heat came from the
paraffin they had to stand hours in line waiting for every time the
arrival of a lorry load was announced by megaphone. That winter was a
particularly harsh one in Jerusalem, and often the only way they had of
warming themselves was to stand around the kettle or cooking pots.
On the afternoon of the Declaration of
Independence Carmella’s family once more gathered around their radio,
but yet again violence followed their celebrations: the next day shops
were burned to the ground in the Old City and less than two weeks later
it fell to the Jordanian forces. Many of the men were arrested and
taken prisoner by the Arab legion, including Carmella’s father. He
returned only almost a year later, but Carmella says “We don’t know what
he went through there. He never talked about it”. The women and
children were transported by lorry to the Katamon neighbourhood from
which the Christian Arab residents had fled and four or five families
found shelter in each empty house. Carmella’s family later moved to the
Nahalat Zion neighbourhood which had been built in 1908 to answer the
growing need for housing outside the walls of the crowded Old City.
With war still raging and the Arab
Legion installed in the Old City, the nights became unbearable with
repeated shelling forcing them to huddle together in the lower storey of
their building, along with all the other neighbours. The lack of food
and water became even worse; children had not been able to go to school
for a year and few people had work as factories and workshops had closed
due to lack of materials.
Like all the other young men, Carmella’s
brothers were of course fighting in the army, specifically at Latrun
and Ma’ale HaHamisha. The dead from the battles were brought to Bikur
Holim hospital and every morning, Carmella and her mother would make
their way there to check that the names of her brothers did not appear
on the list of names of the dead attached to a tree in the courtyard
with a drawing pin.
After the first cease-fire, there was an
improvement in the amount of goods which got through to Jerusalem, and
the schools re-opened at last, but the fighting still continued, as did
the shelling by the Arab Legion. Carmella’s best friend was injured and
her father killed by a direct hit on their house.
By 1967, Camella was married and living
in Kiryat HaYovel . Her husband, like many others, had been called up
some three months before the war broke out and was stationed on the
Egyptian front. Once more the women of the family found themselves
alone in wartime. Day after day they would hear Nasser threatening total
annihilation of the Jewish state on the radio and there was a real fear
that the tiny young country would not be able to survive such an
onslaught. With a shortage of air-raid shelters making for unbearable
over-crowding, Carmella and her two small children took to sleeping in
the corridor outside their apartment as an alternative.
Soon, soldiers coming to visit their
families began telling them that the Old City had been re-taken:
stories which at first they did not believe as there had been no
official announcement on the radio. Gradually they began to realise that
after 19 years they could indeed finally go to the Western Wall. It was
the festival of Shavuot, and so as observant Jews they walked all the
way to the Old City – along with Carmella’s youngest sister who was nine
months pregnant at the time and yet insisted upon not missing out on
such a momentous occasion.
Carmella was surprised to see that the
Old City retained many of the features she remembered from 19 years
before – the same paved streets, the same lack of electricity, sewage or
running water – and that it was terribly neglected. When they arrived
at the Western wall, they at first wondered if they had come to the
right place; their memories were of a narrow, confined area beside the
wall where they had always prayed, but now it was an open area with
plenty of room for the crowds of people who had come to be part of the
miracle. Torah scrolls appeared from nowhere, and people prayed and
sang, elated not only by the fact that their most holy site which they
had been unable to visit for 19 years was once more accessible, but full
of relief that their country actually still existed.
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