History

Last Letter Home from American-Jewish Yeshiva Student

19 year old Benjamin Hurwitz, an American studying in Hebron, Israel, was killed in the riot. This is the story of his life.

21.8.16, 15:18
May 28, 2006
 
BENJAMIN HURWITZ, hy"d (1910-1929) 

                                                  Written and Edited By Reuben Rudman
  
SUMMARY 

Seventy years ago, on Shabbat, the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Av, 5689 (Saturday, August 24, 1929), 19 year old Benjamin Hurwitz, an American studying in the Knesseth Israel (Slobodka) Yeshiva in Hebron, Israel, was killed, along with many other people, in an Arab riot.  This is the story of his life. 

This Web Page includes a copy of his last letter, written two days before he was killed, describing the riot in Jerusalem that had just occurred.  Although there are several web sites containing reminiscences of survivors of the Hebron riot, this letter is unique in that it describes similar events as recorded by a victim of the riot.  This Web Page also includes links to many other web sites containing both background and detailed information about the 1929 riot in Hebron.  Of particular interest is the site maintained by the Jewish community of Hebron (http://www.hebron.org.il). August 19, 2000 is the 71st Yahrzeit of all those killed on the 18 of Av, 5689, HY"D.
 
1. Life in the U.S.
 
Benjamin Hurwitz was born on May 4, 1910 in New York City.  He attended the Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva elementary school.  One of the founders of this school had been his grandfather, Rabbi Moshe Eliezer Gavrin.  For high school he attended the Talmudical Academy (now affiliated with Yeshiva University) with his religious studies taken in the Teachers Institute (TI).  He was very active in school activities and in his senior year he was President of the Student's Organization (G.O.) and Business Editor of the school yearbook, The Elchanite.
 
His father, Rabbi Yekusiel Raphael Hurwitz, who had learned in the Volozhin Yeshiva in Europe, was an ardent Zionist who spoke Hebrew with his children and had purchased an orange grove in Raanana through the land-purchasing organization  Achooza Aleph.  After graduation, Benjamin went to The Land of Israel (Eretz Yisroel) to continue his studies in Talmud.  He was accompanied by his mother, Esther Hurwitz, and his two sisters, Deborah (later Rudman) and Leah (later Wachsman).  They lived in the small town of Petach Tikvah, near Tel Aviv, because they had relatives there and it was close to the orange grove.
 
2. Life in Eretz Yisroel
 
After studying with a cousin for a few months, Benjamin entered the Yeshiva in Hebron.  This school of advanced Talmudical studies had been founded a few years earlier by world-renowned Rabbis from Europe.  The Jewish population of Hebron had existed in that city for several hundred years and were on good, if not close, terms with their Arab neighbors.  However, certain elements in the Moslem world, in particular the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem (during World War II he collaborated with Hitler), had been preaching against the Jews .  There were a number of  anti-Jewish riots that broke out from time to time during the early 1920's.  However, the Summer of 1929 was to become the bloodiest period of all.  The British were notoriously anti-Jewish and pro-Arab and did very little to stop the Arab riots, although they did eventually set up an investigatory commission.
                
Major Events 1929-1938 
                                                                                                         
 
The details of this period are described in many other locations and can be examined at your leisure.  However, what is most interesting and poignant is the contents of the last letter written by Benjamin to his father.  It was written only two days before he was murdered and describes his analysis of the situation which was getting more serious with each passing day.  The week before the riot in Hebron an Arab had murdered a Jew in Jerusalem. Benjamin had been to Jerusalem and recorded his impressions, as well as his part in the preparations for his mother and sisters to return to the United States while he was to continue his studies in Hebron.  The Jews of Hebron had no inkling of the tragedy that was to occur since they were on such "good terms" with their Arab neighbors. 
 
 
3. Letter written by 19-year old Benjamin Hurwitz two days before he was murdered
 
The following is a rough translation of the Hebrew letter to his father in the U.S., which was written only 2 days prior to the riot  (words in brackets [...] are added by the Editor):
 
 
"Wednesday night, August 21, 1929
 
"Terrible, terrible, terrible. How terrible are the happenings that occur daily in Jerusalem, our Holy City in our Holy Land.  Things happen here that do not occur in the Galus [all those lands outside of the Land of Israel].  There are attacks on the Jews, the government ignores them, ...and the world is quiet.  Is this why we have returned to rebuild our desolate land ? Have we returned to see our sons killed?  Absolutely not!  We hoped to build our land and the land has become transformed into a country for the English.  We hoped to set up a just country and it has become the opposite.
 
"There are three fronts in which the Jews are pitted against the English and the Arabs.  In only one of these have the Jews been successful.  This is in the area of autonomy.  When the English attempted to wrest control of internal affairs, both the Jews and Arabs objected so strenuously that the English gave up on the idea. [He then describes several instances of English attempts to harass the Jews.]  For example,  they appointed a brutal, Jew-hating officer to be in charge of the access for Jews to the Western Wall [which at that time was essentially a narrow alley]. On Yom Kippur, the holy Day of Atonement, he restricted access.  On Lag B'Omer [in the Spring]  he beat a Jew.  Thirty witnesses to the beating came to court and the presiding judge stated there was not sufficient proof to indict him. Can you imagine, thirty witnesses are not enough!  Have you ever heard of such a thing,  that thirty witnesses are not sufficient proof in a court of law!   Can you imagine a person [i.e., the judge] not being embarrassed to declare himself a liar!  Also, you are not allowed to even touch an English child.  These are some examples of the front facing us with respect to the English officials.
 
"The second front is the antagonism of the British government to the building of a National Homeland.  This was discussed at length at the Zionist Congress in Zurich.  The government has not kept its promise as regards the land.  They give land to the Arabs but the Jews are forced to purchase whatever land they need for educational and health purposes.  And so on ...
 
"The third front is Arab vs Jew.  The main problem which disturbs the Jewish and Arab minds and which causes the arguments between them is the question of the Western wall.  On Yom Kippur of this year it all started.  The English could not wait three hours until the sun to set and they had to desecrate our holy place on this holy day.  Their needs were "holy" but the Western Wall, the last vestige testifying to our glory in ancient times, is not holy.  All the Jewish communities protested but the British ignored them and ruled in favor of the Arabs.
 
[The British attempted to control things by stating that no changes could take place in the way things had been done in the past, i.e., no change in the status quo.]
 
"But still, all was quiet until about two months ago. The Arabs began to realize that the Jews could  manage without upsetting the status quo, but the Arabs started to build.  They built a new gateway near the Western wall, they opened a doorway so that they could disturb the Jews, and they declared that the status quo pertained only to the Jews and not to them.  The Jews protested, but to no avail.  The Arabs began to disturb those engaged in prayer.  The British government was silent!  Only the Jews were causing trouble!  On last Thursday, youth from the Trumpeldor legion rallied against the government regarding access to the Western Wall.  They marched to the wall and decried the Zionist leaders for their weak stand.  But they did not hit or even touch anyone.  The next day the Arabs rallied too.  But this was an entirely different protest.  They marched out of the new gate and hit Jews in the midst of prayer, tore up prayer books, and removed the notes of beseechment that had been placed in the crevices of the Wall.  The British police did nothing, not only that but they did not even permit the Jews to approach the Wall to pray.  And this is the status quo?!  Then the British issued a statement that equated the two protests!
 
"On Shabbos [Saturday] there were many attacks on the Jews by Arabs.  One young man was stabbed and died that night.  Then on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, there were more attacks on the Jews in various places and the British did nothing.  The daily bulletins relate terrible occurrences.  Jews are hit, they complain to the British police who ignore them, although at times they incarcerate the Jew who was hit and free the Arab who attacked him.  This is the situation.
"But today there occurred something that goes beyond all this.  This morning was the funeral of the boy who was stabbed on Shabbos.  A large group accompanied the body and as they passed the main Post Office [located on Jaffa Street in the heart of Jerusalem] and started to head towards the Jaffa Gate [of the Old City], the police started to direct them towards Damascus Gate [called Sha'ar Sh'chem in Hebrew, which is the heart of the Arab sector].  Suddenly, the British officers started to hit the Jews brutally, terribly brutally.  Jews, old and young, were hit and started to run, if they stopped they were hit by the police.  The British are more brutal than the Cossacks.  At least twelve people were hospitalized in Hadassah Hospital.  Whoever hears this will not believe it - that in this land such a thing should occur, who would believe it!  It looks like they will change the name of this country to the Land of the English.
 
"I arrived in Jerusalem about half an hour after the beatings and I did not see any of it except for one small event.  A British policeman was walking along the street and came upon two young Jews talking to each other. The Englishman pushed them both aside and said in English: 'Stop blocking the way, I have to pass'.  He brutally shoved them aside and continued walking.  Later I went to the Western Wall alone to see what was doing there.  There I saw 30 English policemen, one Jewish policeman and one Arab policeman, but not a single Jew praying.  Every day there are people praying there and now no one!  Only policemen! I cried when I saw this.  All this at the time we are rebuilding our land, at a time when people think of democracy and freedom.  Yes, yes, of this we never dreamed.
 
"The Jewish community in Eretz Yisroel [Land of Israel] is terribly agitated, and, especially in Jerusalem, the condition is bad.  AND WHO KNOWS WHAT TODAY WILL BREED? [emphasis added]  Last night I returned to Hebron and today I went back to Jerusalem to pick up the passports, I have mine and I sent mother hers [in those days they usually had the whole family on one passport]....According to their plans, they will arrive in New York on October 17.  They could not leave earlier because she has many things to arrange....  I know you think they have left here already, but I am informing you that they will be here another three weeks. MAN MAKES HIS PLANS, BUT IF GOD DECREES OTHERWISE, THERE IS NO RESPONSE.  [emphasis added]
 
"Your son who cries over the destruction of our Holy Temple, 
Benjamin"
 
These prescient words of consolation were the last words Benjamin Hurwitz, hy"d, ever wrote to his father.
 
4. Riot
 
Two days, on August 24, 1929,  after this letter was written, and, of course, before his father received it, the Arabs of Hebron rioted and Benjamin Hurwitz was brutally killed at the age of 19 years and 3 months.
 
The terrible details are recorded and photographs are shown in the linked sites.
 
List of those killed in the riots, Benjamin Hurwitz is No. 48:
 
5. Cables
 
After the news was received by his father, Rabbi Hurwitz (in the U.S.) wired his wife (in Eretz Yisroel) a series of cables:
 
August 26 1929:   Protect family at American Consulate
August 30, 1929:  Hashem Nosan, Hashem Lokach   [God giveth, God taketh away]
August 30, 1929:  Am well, spare self and children, help other with bread, return home after seeing to Benjamin's grave.
Sept. 1, 1929:      Am well, cable every two days how you all are.
Sept. 3, 1929:      Feel strong, take care of family
Sept.10, 1929:     Please be cool, children's sake; cable health every second day, settle matters and return. 
  
 
6. Kever Achim (Common Grave) 
 
The students of the Yeshiva who were killed in the 1929 riot were buried in a common grave because many of the bodies could not be identified since they were so mutilated by their Arab neighbors.  My mother tells me that her brother took refuge in a home of an Arab who had been his friend.  She does not know if he was killed by that Arab or by others.  The results were the same.  The common grave is called the Kever Achim in Hebrew, literally Tomb of the Brothers.
 
The current monument at the site is not the original one since, in the period between 1948 and 1967 (when the Arabs controlled Hebron)  the gravesite was dug up and used as a vegetable garden.  After the Six Day War, when a Jewish presence in Hebron was re-established for the first time since August 24, 1929,  the Israelis rebuilt the cemetery and reconstructed the gravestones.
 
7.  After 1929
 
In the following years, Rabbi and Mrs. Hurwitz established a Benjamin Hurwitz Memorial Prize to be awarded to an outstanding student in the Teachers Institute of Yeshiva University. They also donated funds to publish a Hebrew scholarly journal called Chorev.  This journal, which was funded by the Benjamin Hurwitz Foundation, was published biannually by Yeshiva College (now Yeshiva University).  Its first editor, in 1935,  was Dr. Pinchos Churgin, later the first President of Bar-Ilan University in Israel.   (Bar-Ilan's second President was Rabbi Dr. Emanuel Rackman who had been a classmate of Benjamin Hurwitz.)  Chorev is no longer published but the Benjamin Hurwitz Memorial Prize is still awarded each year. 
 
Six Americans were killed in the Hebron riot of 1929.  Although they were among the first American students to be killed while studying in Israel, unfortunately they were not the last.
                                                                    HaShem yerachem. 
  
 
8. Links to Memories written by survivors
 
Web-sites containing the memories of some of those who survived exist and some people were fortunate to have not been in Hebron that day. 
 
The memories of one such survivor are as follows:
 
Letters to the Editor
Jewish Press
June 3, 1994 
 
                The 1929 Hebron Massacre 
 
        On March 28, 1994 a New York Times article quoted a Palestinian 
    Arab as saying that the 1929 massacre of Jews in Hebron never occurred.  I 
    am a survivor of that horrible event, and therefore I wrote a letter to 
    the New York Times describing the tragic events that actually occurred in 
    Hebron in 1929.  Unfortunately, the New York Times did not see fit to 
    print my letter.  What follows is a copy of what I wrote to them:
        I was horrified to read in the March 28, 1994 New York Times that 
    Mohammed Ayubi, a Hebron resident, claimed that the Hebron massacre of 
    1929 never took place.  He said: "It is a fictitious massacre engineered 
    by the British to make sure the Jews would be able to come and take over 
    Palestine."  I was a student in the Hebron Yeshiva in 1929 and I was 
    regularly harassed and threatened by the Arabs of that city.  This 
    harassment took the form of occasional stoning by Arab residents as well 
    as frequent verbal taunts.
        I left the yeshiva five days before the massacre to visit my 
    parents in Jerusalem.  I vividly remember the bus ride I took from Hebron 
    to Jerusalem.  That day the Arabs were laughing and making slicing 
    motions across their throats as they screamed "Itbach Al-Yahud" 
    (slaughter the Jews).  I was originally scheduled to return the day of 
    the massacre (which was a Friday) but since I was sick, I postponed my 
    departure to Sunday.  Unfortunately I was never able to return to Hebron, 
    since that Friday and Saturday the massacre took place.  Among the 67 
    Jews brutally murdered were 41 of my fellow yeshiva students.  In fact, 
    among the nine yeshiva students with whom I dormed, only one survived - 
    my roommate who hid under the other eight mutilated bodies in a closet 
    and played dead.
        I was shocked to later learn that my Arab neighbor Moussa, who I 
    had regularly chatted with, had not only participated in the massacre, 
    but had castrated and gauged out the eyes of a Jewish barber named 
    Shimon, a Sephardic Jew whose family had lived in Hebron for hundreds of 
    years.
        Since I was 16 years old at the time of the massacre and was thus 
    a few years younger than the other yeshiva students, I am among the last 
    living survivors of this horrible event.  As the 65th anniversary of this 
    terrible event approaches (in August) I cannot understand how someone can 
    revise history and claim that it never took place.
                                        Yitzhak Ophir 
                                        White Plains, NY
 
The above was reprinted from the following email:
News Briefs, Commentary direct from Jewish Hebron - David Wilder
Subject: 1929 Hebron Massacre Date: Fri, 02 Feb. 1996
 
This article was prepared by  Reuben Rudman, Professor of Chemistry, Adelphi University
 
SOURCE NOTES:
 
 
To visit Hebron including the memorial to the TARPAT (1929) massacre victims contact us:
 
United States contact info:

http://www.hebronfund.org
1760 Ocean Avenue
Brooklyn, NY 11230
718-677-6886
info@hebronfund.org

In Israel contact the offices of the Jewish Community of Hebron at:
http://en.hebron.org.il/
02-996-5333
office@hebron.com
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/hebronofficial
 
RECOMMENDED ARTICLES:
 
The Martyrs of Hebron by Leo Gottesman - including section of Benjamin Hurwitz
Massacre Survivor Yosef Lazarovsky Fought for Recognition, Justice
A Rabbi Describes the 1929 Hebron Massacre in Graphic Detail