Recalling the Pure Souls of Hevron 1929

August 18, 2019

The Jerusalem Herald is republishing this article to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the slaughter of 60 Jews in Hebron, on August 24, 1929 (the 18th of Av); the massacre decimated the Jewish community at the hands of organized Arab terror.

Eliezer Dan and Chana Sara Slonim (standing rear right) with family members by Unknown - Haaretz, Public Domain, via Wikimedia. 

 

They are footnotes in history. The memory of the tragic episode that decimated the Jewish community in Hevron with pernicious vehemence, taking the lives of more than 60 defenseless Jews in 1929, has been obscured by the cataclysmic events of World War II and the Holocaust. The monstrous and deliberate destruction of lives perpetrated by the Nazis — unparalleled in the course of human history — revealed with succinct clarity the moral bankruptcy of our civilization. Yet these events exceeded the horrors of the Hevron Massacre only in scope.

 

The Arab’s gluttonous appetite for slaughter, revealed in the unspeakable tortures perpetrated on the Jews in Hevron by their ‘neighbors’, is difficult to confront or comprehend. Our Western sense of civility is too delicate to endure the raucous assault on the emotions that confronting this horror forces on us.

 

Hevron, cherished since antiquity as one of the four holiest cities in Israel, has been throughout its existence an integral part of Jewish history. This city, universally recognized as the burial place of the patriarchs of the Jewish people, witnessed the crowning and reign of King David and served as the capital of Judea during biblical times. Its continuous habitation by Jews throughout the centuries, interrupted only by expulsions, has forged an inexorable bond between Hevron and the Jewish people.

 

In 1929 the Hevron community of 500 — mainly Sephardi Jews and a significant presence of Lubavitcher hasidim — was a rich conglomeration of various Jewish traditions reflected in its many institutions. The Slabodka Yeshiva, a world renowned institute of advanced Jewish scholarship, had moved there several years earlier from Kovno, Lithuania.

 

It attracted an elite cadre of the most outstanding scholars from Europe, Russia, Canada and the United States. The idealistic visions of these young students allowed them to disdain the physical discomforts of living in Hevron, focusing only on enriching their lives through intense dedication to study.

 

They, like the rest of the Hevron Jewish community, had no political aspirations. They were interested only in enhancing their spiritual development by living in the city where ever step and every stone resonated with the presence of their forefathers.

 

The Arab and Jewish communities in Hevron enjoyed a remarkably good relationship, solidified by mutually beneficial economic enterprises and close personal daily interaction. Local Arab sheiks would spend long blustery winter evenings playing chess in Eliezer Slonim’s home in a display of warmth and camaraderie. The relations between the two communities were so good that the Jews — lulled by a false sense of security — failed to credibly regard the rumors that “something was going to happen.” It was impossible to comprehend that their Arab neighbors would harm therm.

 

I had always assumed that the Hevron Massacre was a spontaneous eruption. I was not prepared to find a historical record that revealed a systematic assault calculated to destroy with satanic deliberateness the entire Jewish community. The actions in Hevron were part of a coordinated effort by Arab leadership to destroy the Jewish presence in the Land.

 

The descriptions of unspeakable tortures and mutilations, inflicted over a period of days on the victims who were ferreted out of their homes and hiding places, created a barbaric spectacle of evil and terror for the sake of terror. Sixty-seven defenseless souls, helpless infants, elderly folk, the pure and the poor, the sages and the simple, were mercilessly murdered by their Arab neighbors. Over 150 people suffered serious wounds. The psychic damage that the survivors had to endure for the rest of their lives is beyond quantification.

 

Sheik Taleb Markah is directly credited with fanning the flames of Arab fanaticism in Hevron. He incited the mob that descended with unbridled fury down the steps of the mosque in the Marat Hamachpelah (The Cave of the Patriarchs) on a Friday morning and proceeded directly to the yeshiva where they found their first victim.

 

Shmuel Rosenholtz was the quintessential scholar and the gentlest of souls, who rarely left the study hall. He was completely absorbed in his studies and sat perched over his book, oblivious to the cacophonous mob that invaded the sanctity of the hall. He remained sitting in utter shock as his blood flowed from the head wound caused by rocks thrown at him, drenching the book that he was reading. The mob knifed him repeatedly until he died.

 

After the Rosenholtz murder, the authorities assured the community that they would be safe if they remained in their homes. However, the Arab police proved unreliable and the British troops were incapable of restraining the mobs. The Arab police force — entrusted with keeping the peace — refused to open fire on the Arab rioters.

 

Ben Zion Gershon was a crippled druggist, whose kindness in serving poor Arabs without payment was legendary. He died after sustaining tortures too hideous to describe. The sanctity of the synagogues, the schools, the homes and even the medical clinic that served the Arabs was invaded — and destroyed. The Avraham Avinu Synagogue, built in 1501, was also destroyed and later converted into a sheep pen.

 

The students who were attacked in their dormitory demonstrated uncommon valor and imponderable courage in their attempts to defend themselves. From what crucible of ethereal strength did these gentle scholars — accustomed only to challenges of the intellect — find the indomitable spirit to engage in a defense against inflamed, armed mobs?

 

Avraham Dov Shapira died defending himself. Moshe Aaron Rips begged not for his life, but for a momentary reprieve so that he could say the Shema. He was murdered just as he started to pray. Twenty-year-old Israel Aryeh Cheichal and his 17-year-old brother, Eliyahu Dov, demonstrated superhuman strength in defending themselves until they were finally overcome. Their fight enabled others to escape. A British officer witnessed the vicious attack, the heroic but futile defense, and the dastardly murders — all in abject silence.

 

Shlomo Unger, a 26-year-old from Zgug, Poland could have saved his life with one word. His distinctly non-Jewish appearance made his attackers hesitate and ask him if, indeed, he was Jewish. Not willing to save his life through compromising his soul, Unger proclaimed, “I am a Jew!” His proud defiance cost him his life. He and his wife became another link in the hallowed chain of Jewish martyrdom stretching across the continuum of history. He left us — his spiritual heirs — a legacy of uncompromising courage and two orphaned, infant children.

 

Zalman Wilensky and his wife were determined not to be separated and were so tightly embraced that the rioters stabbed them both at the same time. Wilensky sustained the more serious blows and died — leaving his wife the unremitting legacy of being forced to relive the pathos of having her life saved at the same time her husband lost his.

 

Eliezer Don Slonim was a second-generation, Palestinian-born son of the Rabbi of Hevron. He demonstrated unmatched dedication to the city. He once refused an offer to work in America for the then princely salary of $500, instead of the $20 that he was earning as manager of the Anglo-Palestine Bank in Hevron. On many occasions he loaned the Arabs money and actively supported their development of independent economic ventures. His wife, Hannah, a descendant of Lubavitcher hasidim who had immigrated to Palestine in the 1870s, was known for her social welfare and magnanimous kindness to Jews and Arabs alike.

 

The marauding Arabs offered to spare Slonim’s life if he would hand over the 22 souls who sought shelter in his home that Shabbat thinking they would be spared because of the Arabs’ respect for Slonim’s friendship. He refused to save his life at the expense of the others. He died defending his home with a jammed revolver that he had never before attempted to use.

 

Yet even from this inferno of wanton malice there emerged precious individuals who were fated to survive. Zev Berman, a 23-year-old Philadelphian, escaped because he was mistaken for dead. Shalom Kushner, another American youth, hid in a shower.

 

Moshe Tikochinsky survived because he feigned death. Although injured and in shock and lying under a pile of dead bodies, he realized that his life was still in jeopardy. The Arabs held a feather under the nose of each body

to make certain that no breath of life was left in any one among the mountain of corpses. Tikochinsky had the presence of mind to hold his breath when it was his turn to be checked.

 

Decades later, when he returned to pay homage to his friends who were murdered, Tikochinsky was deeply grieved and astounded to find that the huge stone that served as a monument and marker to designate the burial ground of those massacred was nowhere to be found. The cemetery had been turned into a vegetable garden. The removal of the huge stone erased not only the memory of the murdered but reflected the Arabs' unabated hostility and ignominious attempt to erase the deed itself.

 

Israel Snow lay wounded among the dead, yet managed to get up and run into an Arab’s house. The Arab tried to evict him, but Snow — realizing this was his only chance — adamantly refused to leave. Kalmar Barkin, a European student, hid under a pile of bodies.

 

Baruch Kaplan was granted life because he hid among the dead. His parents were informed that he was dead and could not be convinced that he was actually a survivor. Undoubtedly the false report occurred because another youth with the same last name — Israel Kaplan, a 22-year-old Lithuanian — died heroically trying to defend others

 

Baruch Kaplan’s parents were so distraught that Baruch had to make the arduous journey back to the States just to prove to his parents that he really was alive. Kaplan and his wife, Vichna, who was a student of the venerable Frau Sara Schenirer, became prominent educators and established the Beit Yaakov Seminary institutions in the United States.

 

Curiously, a significant number of the other survivors also became roshei yeshivot (heads of yeshivot) and prominent leaders in education. The high quality of the survivors — and the notable achievements that they made during their later careers — underscores the tragedy of losing those who did not survive. Who can imagine how they might have enriched other lives and the vast potential that was lost?

 

The hand of fate operates with exacting precision under the guise of randomness. Israel Bergstein, a student in Hevron, was saved because he had an appointment in another city that day. A family that came to visit for a bar mitzvah celebration that weekend was murdered along with the residents of Hevron.

 

Even a gust of wind can be an agent of rescue. A young American student named Gottesman was returning to Hevron — even though he was warned by his friends in Jerusalem that something had occurred in Hevron and that he should postpone his return.  Gottesman did not pay attention to his friends’ warnings until Arabs in the taxi that he took to Hevron began whispering and grimacing, making him realize the rashness of his decision to return. He had no pretext with which to leave the taxi until a gust of wind blew his hat off. After retrieving his hat, he kept going — in the opposite direction: the road to life.

 

For Yigal Slonim, a descendant of the distinguished Slonim family slaughtered in Hevron in 1929 and a sixth-generation descendant of the Lubavitcher rebbes, the massacre is not a remote historical episode but, sadly, a deeply personal trauma that still has not eased its poignant grip on his family’s psyche. His father, Shlomo Slonim, was an 18-month-old child who survived the onslaught hidden by his mother’s dead body, which fell on him after he lost consciousness due to a head wound.

 

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Yigal and his family rushed to visit Hevron. He remembers his father, uncle and sisters running wildly from their car to search for their old homes. They were desperate to see once again the homes where their families had lived and died, including the home in which Yigal’s father was born — the home that witnessed the massacre of his family.

 

But this final rendezvous with fate was not to be. The Israeli soldiers would not let the Slonims in, even for a minute. The Slonims recognized the faces of the Arabs who had taken over their home and still were not granted permission to go inside. Neither the Slonims nor any other families that lost their property in 1929 were able to reclaim it or obtain compensation; their properties were confiscated by the Jordanians after the massacre. Yigal recalls that Arab neighbors showed the mobs where Jews were hiding, although, he added, one Arab did save a 5-year-old girl.

 

In recounting the grim episode of the Hevron massacre and its aftermath, the survivors and their families all revealed raw emotion that gushed forth and voided the passage of time. Tucked beneath their controlled demeanor was a torrential flood of distant memories, manifesting with stunning vividness in the present. The Hevron Massacre was a mute albatross grafted indelibly onto their psyches, ready to spill its story at any time.

 

Years after the massacre, Feivel Russ, a New York classmate of one of the precious youths murdered in Hevron, still could not think about Wolf Greenberg without intense feelings of genuine pain. He remembered 17-year-old Wolf as a young, delicate, sincere fellow whose ambitious search for knowledge led him to Hevron.

 

The last time that Feivel saw Wolf was at a Thursday evening review session at Mesitva Torah Vodass yeshiva in New York City. It was after midnight and Wolf had fallen asleep in the study hall. Not wishing to disturb him, Feivel covered the sleeping student with his own overcoat and left him sleeping on the table where he had been studying. He did not see or hear of Wolf again until the story of the Hevron Massacre made the headlines.

 

The memory of Wolf Greenberg — the poignant legacy of kiddush Hashem (sanctification of G-d), idealism and unrivaled heroism — is one that we dare not forget. An eclipse of memory is too dangerous to entertain. We know that remembrance leads to redemption and forgetfulness to exile; this truth has never been more succinctly expressed than it is now. 

Darla Chavkin Stone's features have appeared in magazines, news publications, and research journals in the U.S., England, Israel, and Mexico and on the web. She is the editor of "Explorations In Soular Space."

 

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בס"ד

...הָרִימִי בַכֹּחַ קוֹלֵךְ מְבַשֶּׂרֶת יְרוּשָׁלִָם הָרִימִי אַל תִּירָאִי אִמְרִי לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה הִנֵּה אֱלֹקֵיכֶם! (ישעיה  מ:ט)

...Raise your voice with strength, herald of Jerusalem; raise it, do not be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, "Here is your G-d!"

(Isaiah 40:9)

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