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Rare first-person account of 1929 Hebron massacre and aftermath

A graphic description of how the survivors were treated by the British and the struggle to recover looted property.

18.5.20, 16:21
(PHOTO: Hebron refugees deported to Jerusalem in the Strauss building.)
 
The following is an excerpt from the article In the Wake of the Attacks by Edward Robbin from The Menorah Journal, December 1929, volume 17, number 3.  After describing his personal experiences in the Jerusalem riots, he details his trip to Hebron weeks after the massacre with a group of survivors who attempted to recover their personal belongings. He also quotes at length first-person accounts of the bloodshed and explains the attuitude of British officials.
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Then like a bolt came the news from Hebron. The rumor was whispered  in the streets at first. It was too terrible to speak out. Hebron, Hebron was on everybody's lips. The Yeshivah, Slonim’s house.

Rabbi Kastel. The horror ran through all the city like a shiver of terror. It grew and speard as the details came out. grew into a crying rage which each person held in his heart and on amount of which he did not dare to look into his comrade's face. Crowds gathered at the hospital and waited there hours for the wounded to be brought from Hebron. The authorities ordered that they be transported in the dead of night when the street would be empty. Then two nights later the women and children refugees were transported in buses. They brought them to the new Straus building which was just opposite my house. (This then would be the opening of the new building.)

That night I waited together with relatives of the Hebronites, who as yet did not know whether their dear ones were alive or not. Suddenly the headlights of the buses veered across the great open space before the building. There was a stifled cry from the crowd.
 
And then as the buses stopped, a muffled hysterical crying, shouting, screaming. Half-crazed women leaped from the autos clutching their children tightly and moaning.

Those who saw their kin flung themselves on them in outbursts of hysterical laughter and weeping. One little old woman had jumped out of the auto and started to run about silently among the crowd searching and whispering, "my children, have you seen my children?" She disappeared for a moment and then suddenly appeared again within a high wall that fenced in the yard to the building. She was running up and back dong the wall crying and begging softly. “How shall I get out.’ How shall I get out and find my children? Dear one, help me to get out.” I jumped over the wall and she clung to me.

“Oh. help me. my good boy, help me." But there was no way to get out except to climb over the wall. And before I could help her she had clambered onto the wall herself and leaped to the ground on the other side, where she ran off into the crowd. again whispering. "My children. have you seen my children?”
 
The refugees spread themselves out on the floor of a large empty hall. The big empty building resounded with the terror-stricken cries of hysterical women and children. In the big eyes of a child who had dropped exhausted on the platform of the hall I could read the ghastly bloody wanes those eyes had witnessed.
 
When I got home my landlady said: "How strange things turn out. Did you see the table I sent over to the Hebron refugees?
 
“This is its history. In Russia we had a big box which we kept in the cellar to pack things in. Once there was a rumor of a pogrom in our town, so we bid the children in that box and covered it up. But the pogromchicks somehow skipped our town.
 
Afterwards when we were compelled to leave Russia I had a trunk made out of the box. Then it stood around here useless for a few years. And at last I said to myself, why should I have this thing in my way. so I told Misha to break it up.
 
Now the boards have been lying around all winter in the yard and I intended to make a few baths for the family with them some Friday. But then it came to me the other day to have a table made from them. I called the carpenter and he made me a table. And tonight they sent from the Straus Center for a table and I gave them that table. It seems as if it was the fate of those boards from the very beginning to help pogrom victims."
 
The shooting continued through the following nights. Every day new refugees poured into Jerusalem.

Hundreds of them clamored for food at the Straus Center every day...
 
Slowly the city quieted down. Shootings or knifings here and there, alarms of reattack, but the troops had come and there was a return to comparative security.
 
It was as if a horrible gulf had opened and swallowed in fire and smoke a section of the people by our sides and then as suddenly closed, leaving a stench and threat and curling smoke on the horizon, the crying of the wounded, the wailing of the bereaved and the dead gaps of deserted quarters and settlements.
And who can say when the gulf- will open again?
 
II. The Return to Hebron
 
In the early morning we gathered together and packed into sixteen auto buses. I am with a convoy of Hebron refugees who are returning to their homes to bring the remnant of their possessions to Jerusalem. The day is Sunday, September 15, not three weeks after the massacre.

A few English soldiers are in our car. They are Welshmen. talk a broad tonguey dialect that is difficult to follow—young lads with wide coarse faces, thick stubby hands and spaces between their teeth. A little old Jew with a thin gray beard, pink-veined cheeks, and bright pure eyes is sitting opposite me. One soldier is sitting on the back step and the old man is holding the soldier's rifle timidly and nervously. Nevertheless, I noticed him examining it carefully. Here, he is thinking, you pull the trigger, and what do you do with this, what do you do with this?

He looked to the English soldier, but was afraid to ask.

We are riding through a waste of hills that spreads far below us to the Dead Sea. Beyond the Dead Sea the blue wall of Moab stands like a menace. Only a week before the trouble I had taken this same ride to Hebron, and these hills had seemed to me then so deathly still that a flock of sheep crawling up a distant rocky slope looked like a swarm of insects feeding on the limb of a great dead beast. But now the same gray rocks seemed to squirm with life. I felt behind every rock, in every crevice, a space where an ambush might lurk—over every hilltop a huddled Arab village that might be bought for cigarettes to heap destruction on our growing fruit.

I am with Abraham Slonim, his wife and his daughter. Slonim is a relative of the Chief Rabbi of Hebron. He has a scrubby black beard rubbed with gray. His face is all screwed up around his half-shut eyes.

One eye has a white spot in it, the other is watery. His wife is a healthy woman with clear eyes that cloud with sudden anger and quickly shine again with kindness. Before the autos started she had climbed from one auto to the other dragging her empty suit-cases after her. Slonim went from group to group consulting, arranging, his hat slightly tilted on his head.

“What are you running for?” his wife cried as she was changing autos for the third time. ”Come help me down! Get in the auto with me! You’ll be left! Get in!”

"Not this auto, not this one!” shouted Slonim, pushing her before him.

When we finally were on the road his wife took his arm in her hands and settled back with the tender expression in her eyes. Slonim sat with his shoulders slightly crumbled, murmuring, “What the devils could do. I was fifty years with them. What the devils could do.”

“Shhh, be glad that we’re alive, and don't talk any more."

The car was stalled for a while on the road. The English got off, climbed into a neighboring vineyard, filled their helmets with grapes, and passed them around the company. We began to eat the warm, sticky grapes.

One of the Yeshivah boys refused the grapes.
 
“May the earth swallow the Arabs and their grapes together," he said, and walked off.

“He's right," someone said, and the rest of us put the grapes back into the English helmet. The English turned to me for an explanation.

“They’re too sticky,” I said—I wanted to add: like blood.

We continued our way. Suddenly Hebron burst into view, surrounded by far-stretching vineyards and orchards of fig, olive and pomegranate trees. Like a princess on a high throne with long scarfs of varied green draping from her shoulders down steep steps sat Hebron.

THERE was growing excitement among the refugee as we drew into the town. We passed along low building with a British flag flying over it. I was told that this was the Government House. A little farther up the street one of the women cried to me. "The Yeshivah, the Yeshivah‘." While the car stopped to wait for the others, I jumped off and went through the courtyard to the Yeshivah.

The windows were broken. The floor was scattered with rocks and all the stands and beaches were thrown about. Near the window and just outside the door were large bloodstains. One of the rocks on the floor was stained with blood. This was possibly the first rock that struck the unfortunate Mathmid Rosenholtz, who was the first one in Hebron to be murdered. I could see how he must have run about the room like a caged beast, while they flung rocks in from all the windows, until shrieking and bleeding he ran out among them and was murdered.

Only a few weeks before I had come here with a girl to visit the Yeshivah. A little old bobbe, the wife of the man who founded the Yeshivah, was sitting in front of the door.

“Go in, go in, they're all tsadkim," she had said to me. And to the girl. “Are you from America? We must find shiddachs for them...

And here, just where the little old lady’s feet were placed, was the blood of the Mathmid Rosenholtz, one of the tzadikim who might have married an American girl...

As the car passed slowly up the street there were cries from the refugees.

“Here. here, what they did, what they did!"

“There is the shochat’ s house. I saw how they caught him in the road when he ran out of a back-door. They put out his eyes, they cut his throat, they stabbed and stabbed as if they couldn't have enough of blood."
 
"This is where I was saved," one young boy told me, pointing to a house. “There were fifty of us gathered together. The Arab house-owner hid us. His brother by the door with an ax ready to defend us..."

“From there a pregnant woman jumped from the roof. She gave birth to the baby right away. Is it true that it's alive?"

The autos all collected in front of the police station. The refugees ran about the courtyard calling to one another, to the chaufeurs, to their womenfolk. Slonim ran to and fro. Every few seconds he would come running back to the auto.

“Be ready, be ready!" he cried to us; “be ready!" he shouted to the driver and ran off again. And Mrs. Slonim got off the machine and was pushed back on again, pulling her suitcases after her. At last the escorts were allotted and the autos dispersed to the several parts of the town.

Slonim lived in the heart of the Arab section. Our auto wound through the lanes of Arab shops where the Arabs squatted, watching us out of the corners of their eyes. We climbed the steep stairs of Slonim’s house.

He and his family had been saved by their Arab landlord and their household was un-touched. We bundled up mattresses and feather bedding, took apart beds, hurriedly carried the things downstairs where we piled them on the bus. I tried to help Slonim's wife pack the kitchen things, the cheeses. jams, plates and copperware.

“No, no, go away. Each person knows her own house. Go away.”

The Arabs squatting about in front of their shops watched us intently and silently. One large Arab came up to speak to Slonim and Slonim met him with great friendliness. They spoke for some time and parted warmly.

I noticed the English police officer, the herofied Cafferato, hobbling down the street on crutches. He had accidentally put a bullet into his own foot. Just then a Paramount news-reel man came through the ghetto.

“Are you Mr. Cafferato?"

"Yes."

“You're the hen they're all writing about Well, we must have a snap of you.”

Cafferato shied and hopped about on his crutch. His little blonde mustache twitched with pleasure.

"Really, it isn’t necessary."Reallly nowww—Well, where do you want me to stand?"

"Here, walk up from under that arch and step just here."
 
Cafferato did the stunt, leaning heavily on his crutches and smiling brightly into the camera.
 
“Now. Mr. Cafferato," said the big cameraman when he had wound a few feet of film, "tell me how many did you kill?"
 
“Well now, that’s a. thing that I really can't say, you know."

"Approximately?”

"Really. I can't tell." said Cafferato, fussed.

“The newspaper said about forty. Is that right, Mr. Cafferato?”

“No, no, no, that’s an exaggeration. I should say that I had killed about eight or ten and wounded fifteen to twenty. Hope I didn’t break the camera." says Mr. Cafferato, and hobbies away. ' -

And at what time did you appear in the streets, Mr. Cafferato?  I wanted to ask, for as far as we know you appeared only after the slaughter had been done, and as far as we know you did not lift your hand to prevent the slaughter until you yourself were attacked.
 
I followed the cameraman to the ghetto. We walked through a long dark stone nave. In the eaves on either side were Arab shops. We turned suddenly and climbed through a hole in the wall. Here was a labyrinth of houses. Courts, stairways, arches, lanes, broken walls, rooms on all levels above and below, crammed and heaped into a small space. This was the ghetto. We wandered about up and down steep stairway: on roofs and through tortuous passageways, from one empty room to the next. Everything had been looted and broken, scattered and spilt.

This section had been left to the last and the people had had time to save themselves with Arab neighbors. The old synagogue which sits deep in the gloom of its domed ceiling must have been the scene of a very ecstasy of madness and desecration. The central platform had hem chopped up. The scrolls destroyed. The doors of the Oron Hakodah torn from their hinges. The books torn to bits and scattered about the floor. The synagogue sat in her gloom and nakedness as if she had been robbed of her womb. I picked up a leaf of the Psalms and read from a dry yellowed page written in old Hebrew  the Thirteenth Psalm.

“How long wilt thou forget me, oh Lord, forever?”

I wound back through the ghetto. Our auto was loaded. Beds. mattresses. chairs, tabls, heaped high on the roof of the bus and kitchen utensils, cheeses, jams, trunks and boxes inside. The little girl, who had been carefully putting together all her treasures, pieces of colored cloth, handwork, dresses, was now tearfully hunting for a place to put her pack. There were still some things to pack, but I wanted to examine the houses of the upper city, so I gathered my courage and walked alone through the Arabs to the newer part of the city.

I went into the police station to look around. One of the Yeshivah boys was explaining: “Here we were all gathered afterwards and here we lay in dirt and blood for three days, practically without food and drink. Once they brought us coffee and bread, but when we heard that the food was from the Hebron municipality we refused to eat it. Monday, when the bodies passed by on their way from the Health Office to the grave, we all rushed up to the roof and there raised a cry of lamentation that split the heavens. 'Pour your wrath upon them, God, revenge us’ we cried."

I left the police station and walked up the street past the Hadassah hospital to the Jewish section where most of the slaughter had been done. Many of the auto buses were here. People were running in and out of the houses, packing frantically and fearfully,  and now and then letting out a cry when a new sign of destruction came to their sight. Some who were almost finished stood in groups recalling the horrors, explaining how everything had happened.

In one house a Sephardic woman was telling how "the little girl who was hidden under the bed there saw it all, everything with her own eyes, saw them strip off her sister‘s clothes and, when she begged for mercy, cut her belly open."

Another in the street was saying, “I crawled up the window you see over there, Where I could look down and see everything. I had gotten a good knock on the head, so I could just barely get there. Just when I looked out I saw two boys run out of the house, to this spot. They grabbed hold of the policeman’s horse, and before his eyes and before my eyes they were butchered. Here they've washed off the stains, curse them, but you can still see how the blood was spattered about in the fight.”

As I walked toward Eliezar Dan Slonim’s house I recalled the story Minnah Urlanski had told me:
 
“On Thursday, the 32nd of August. We came to Hebron. We were waiting for my sister and her husband to come from Tel-Aviv for a family gathering over the Sabbath at the house of my brother-in-law. Eliezar Dan Slonim. There was an unusual movement among the Arabs in the street."

How that contrasted with the dead quiet now, the deliberate listlessness of the Arabs, the long line of shut shops and broken windows staring blindly into the street.

“On Friday morning. we saw autos full of Hebon Arabs armed with all sorts of terrible weapons leave for Jerusalem. In the afternoon when we heard the first news of the situation in Jerusalem there were bands of Arabs at every corner shouting, ‘Slaughter the Jews!’ Eliezar Dan was busy running from one end of the town to the other, from the District Officer to the Police Chief and from these two to the chiefs of the Arabs.

The officials quieted him. They assured him there would be nothing. 'Perhaps the youth will throw a few stones, nothing more.’ In the meantime the threats and noise grew louder and a bloodthirsty mob flowed toward the Yeshivah. There they murdered the Mathmid. Eliezar Dan and one of the chiefs of the Arabs who was a good friend of his, Nasar El Deen, went right down into the Arab quarts and brought up the family Goredinsky. On Friday the Arabs still treated Eliezar with respect. He was after all one of the principal men of the town, the head of the Hebron bank, the son of the Chief Rabbi and a friend of the Arabs.”

A day or two after the slaughter the Arabs requested that the bank in Hebron be reopened.

"Many of the boys from the Yeahivah came to our house because they felt that there they would be safe. Several families also came to us. The family Viansky, the family Sokalaver and others.

At 5.30 we received a telegram from my sister in Tel-Aviv saying ‘Journey postponed. No autos to Jerusalem!’ We felt the danger coming nearer.

The Arab chiefs came to reassure us. For our greater safety two of them promised to sleep at our door, Nasar El Deen and Yako El Habbuie. The house-owner, Giddui, who lived in the flat below us, would often come in to reassure us. In his house, he said, nothing could possibly happen to us. He would take everything on his responsibility. At midnight twenty more of the Yeshivah boys came to our house.” —

Here was the Slonim house before me. Down this road the Yahivah boys must have stolen fearfully and up from that side road where I knew several of them lived and from the house across the street from a window of which I had often heard the loud Talmudic bickering and the chanting voices.

This middle door on the ground floor was the entrance to the flat of the houseowner Giddui. who had promised to keep the in-mates safe. Those steep steps on one side led to Slonim's house and on the other side was a doorway opening to another stairway to his rooms. The house. like most of the Jewish houses which had suffered, was on the main road, the road that leads to Jerusalem, that lends to the police station, that leads to the Government House -- as one of the refugees had repeated to me in a continual refrain after the recitation of each murder.

“We passed the night in terror. The assurances of the Arabs in the house did not help. Our hearts presaged evil. Saturday morning at seven o‘clock Eliezar Den still managed to go to the houses of the Jews and tell them whet the situation was. He begged them to lock themselves up in their houses. No sooner had he reached home then we heard a terrible tumult in the street.

When we looked out we saw a sea of raging savages below.

They were brandishing daggers, swords, clubs and iron bars."

In the street now the refugees were piling the lest pieces of their property on the buses. Opposite the Slonim house in front of what had been a hotel, a crowd of Jews had gathered about an Arab woman.

To each one that approached they repent story of how she had saved twenty-three people by bringing them into her house. People looked at the thin worn face of the Arab woman with awe. And she stood among them quietly, seeming almost unaware of their gaze. I crossed back to the Slonim house. Here the seething masses must have poured through the streets, breaking doors, climbing through windows, onto roofs and balconies.

“We hung a week hope on Nasar El Deen and his friend who were still with us. The house-owner and his family disappeared from the house when they saw the savages afar.

When the horde was below us Nasar El Deen and his friend went out to them: 'To quiet them and to protect you from outside,‘ they told us. As soon as they had withdrawn the savages fell on the house."

On the one side they evidently had not been able to break in. On the other they had broken the lower door and rushed up the steps. Next to the stairway was on old tree which hung over the house. Here tens of Arabs had climbed up to the roof and from there effected their entrance to the house.

“Eliezar put his weight against the breaking door end tried to hold back the infuriated mob. He called to them. He called several by name. When he could hold the door no longer he backed awey from it and with a revolver he shot one shot into the air.“

Jew that he was, to have shot into the air!

“A heavy blow from a club knocked the revolver from his hand. At that moment Gorsansky, his mother, the ten-year-old brother of Eliezar, two of the Yeshivah boy and I hid ourselves back of a bookcase in one of the rooms. As soon as we had hidden we heard Eliezar's cry. 'Jews, help!' I heard him fall heavily at the feet of his wife, my sister Hannah. The cries of those being murdered, butchered, mutilated, paralyzed the brain and froze the blood. There was a smell crack in the bookcase. Through it I saw one of the savages raise a club to smash my father's head. My father was covered with his talith. He lifted his hand for mercy just as the club crushed his skull.

I was about to scream when one of the Yeshivah boys stuffed my mouth with a rag and blinded my eyes."

I went into the house into the room where Minna Urlanski and the others with her and hidden. There was the bookcase, a large case with glass-paned doors. Here was the small crack through which the girl must have peered when she saw her father slaughtered. A few books had been thrown out of the case and some of the panes of glass broken. In the middle of the room lay a talith white-and-black striped. It must have covered the old man from head to foot. Now it was clotted as if the whole of it had been dipped in blood.

"The slaughter continued for about ten minutes. Then we heard them ransacking the house, looting. Plundering, breaking what they could not carry with them. An Arab approached the bookcase with an axe. He knocked out the glass and pulled out some books. He raised his axe end was about to break the case when one of the toys of the children caught his eye end he ran to seize it. When the savages had withdrawn from the house we came out of our hiding place.
How can I tell you what met our eyes? My hair stood on end and I felt a choking in my throat as if all my intestines were about to push out of my mouth. The floor was heaped with murdered and wounded who lay in a sea of their own blood.
 
"Eight people came out of the bathroom where they had hidden themselves. A few arose from the heap of murdered where they had been covered by the dead and saved. We began to care for the wounded.

Schlomo, the thirteen-month—old baby of Eliezar, was wounded in the head and hands.

The little one had fainted and we revived it. Aaron, his brother, cried bitterly and groaned."

On a table which seemed to have escaped the notice of the Arabs was a large picture of this child Aaron, the son of Eliezar, who died of his wounds in the Hadassah hospital.

Next to the picture lay a neatly pressed pair of blue trousers, which had evidently been laid out for the Sabbath. They were spotted with blood. “In the corner of the room, woe to me, I found murdered all my dear ones. My father, the Rabbi Urlanski, and my mother, the dear innocent ones, may their memory be blessed, Eliezar Dan and his wife Hannah. My father's head was split open, his brains oozed out, mixed with his blood and spilt on my dear mother and on his talith."
 
The whole floor was black with dried blood stains. There were spatterings of blood on the wall and on the ceiling. Sheets were soaked with blood, chairs and table chopped to bits, books, letters, paper tom and scattered, drawers turned over, heaps of feathers in the bedrooms, broken children’s toys, food and crockery scattered in the kitchen. In a corner of one of the rooms lay the stomach of a man who had been disemboweled."

Later when we were brought to the police station Nasar El Deen came to ask about the welfare of Eliezar. When he was told that Eliezar was dead he began to weep and cried, ‘Ah, Hawadja Slonim, to think that you too were killed.”

When I got back to the police station most of the autos had already gathered there. They were piled so high with furniture that the buses looked small and disproportionate under their loads. The refugees were excitedly making their last preparations to leave. I walked around to the side of the police building. Through the barred windows of the jail on the ground floor I saw the prisoners, many of whom had been identified as among the chief murderers.
 
For a full PDF of the article click here.
 
For more information read "Megillat Chevron" Letter from Aharon Bernzweig, Survivor of the Hebron Massacre of August 1929 Written September 2, 1929 - 27 Av 5689
 

The 1929 Hebron massacre pictures by Gershon Gera | 115 Images