Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A window on the massacre

By Nadav Shragai

Twenty years ago, a Jew around the age of 70 entered the home of Gershon Gera, a researcher of the Land of Israel and its photos, and placed a package of pictures wrapped in old brown paper on the table. "You'll know what to do with these," said the man, who refused to identify himself or explain where the photos came from. He rushed out of the house. When Gera opened the package, he was shocked. Inside were 111 photos of corpses, victims of the 1929 massacre in Hebron, a short time after their murder, as well as photos of the injured. On the back of each photo was the name of the victim, age and where he or she was hospitalized (if that was the case), alongside other details. Gera set this material aside.

As a serious researcher, his wife Shulamit explained a few days ago, he was unable to publish material whose origin was unknown. A few months ago, seven years after Gera died, his wife transferred the collection of photos to Noam Arnon, one of the most famous restorers of Hebron's Jewish community, who himself researched the community over the generations. Today the photos can be viewed on the Internet site of Hebron's Jewish community, with the following warning: "Extremely harsh pictures. Viewing is not easy."

For Arnon and the Jewish community of Hebron, this is additional documentation of the horror that forms part of the right to restore the city's Jewish community. "In addition to the ancient heritage of the patriarchs and the legacy of the Jewish communities that resided here for hundreds of years," says Arnon, "we constantly face the sacred mission of redeeming the blood of these unfortunate victims by building and making the statement that this community, which the slaughterers of 1929 sought to destroy, is continuing to exist. My friends and I are fulfilling part of their will and restoring life to this place."

Arnon and the Committee for the Jewish Community of Hebron are planning a large event next year to mark the 80th anniversary of the massacre. The photos they received from the Gera family will allow them to publicize the massacre beyond its Hebron context - the collection the unnamed individual placed on Gera's desk includes documentation of the massacres in Motza, Tel Aviv, Safed and elsewhere in Israel. These materials helped Arnon match photos of corpses to photos of the same people when they were alive, correcting errors in earlier reports that mistakenly attributed the victims of the riots in other places in Israel to the rioting in Hebron.

One example, says Arnon, is Rehavam Ze'evi's book about the massacre in Hebron, which featured photos of several of the victims, such as Yaakov Albucher or Yitzhak Shimon, and listed them as victims killed in Hebron, while they were in fact killed in Jerusalem and nearby. Arnon notes that in Tel Rumeida's cemetery, where some of the victims of the Hebron massacre are buried, there are two graves with unidentified corpses. "Perhaps this collection, combined with other materials, will bring us closer to resolving this mystery," he says.

As those who directly link today's Jewish community in the City of the Patriarchs to the Jewish community of bygone, Hebron's Jewish residents encourage research and various publications about the history of the city and its Jews. Recently, two books were published that can be of interest even to those who do not necessarily identify with the restoration of Hebron's Jewish community.

The first is Arye Klein's book, "Hatzerot B'Ir Ha'avot" ("The Courtyards in the City of Hebron"), which deals in part with the western section of the old city's market street, outlining its geographical-historical developments and recounting the story of the Jews who lived there.

Klein, a tour guide and Israel Studies expert who has lived in Hebron for 23 years, cites the unknown story of two brothers, Alexander Zisha and Arye Leib, from the Hoisman family, who left Hungary in 1853, went to Jerusalem, and after 13 years, made their home in Hebron.

The two brothers were members of the Karlin Hasidic sect, and because they did not belong to Chabad Hasidism, they did not make their home in Hebron's "Jewish court." Alexander Zisha's home was known as Me'arat Hamachpela (Tomb of the Patriarchs) because of its structure. His descendants acted as emissaries of the Chabad rabbi, Shalom Duber, to purchase Beit Romano, which today houses the Shavei Hevron Yeshiva. Klein describes a situation of closeness and good relations between the Arabs of Hebron and its Jews, such as the ties between Alter Rivlin, who spoke Arabic and Syrian-Aramaic, and was appointed as the Jewish representative to the Hebron city council.

The second book is "Shikhehat Hevron" ("The Neglect of Hebron"), published by Yona Even. This is basically a photographed collection of articles published 70 years ago by her father, teacher and journalist, Eliyahu Yehoshua Levanon. Levanon recorded his impressions of his stay as a teacher in Hebron's Jewish school. "It is very difficult for a Jew to fill the job of a journalist in Hebron," Levanon wrote in the 1930s, and tells of the "beggars' scorn for the bribes at the Tomb of the Patriarchs" and of the "danger of having a stone thrown to the head."

"Before the 1929 riots," he wrote on another occasion, "teachers went eagerly to work in Hebron. Since then they have avoided going there, and Hebron has become like a town that has been banished."

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