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Excerpt from Jerusalem Vigil
(The Zion Legacy Series)
The green 1937 Dodge sedan raced through the silent streets of Tel Aviv toward an obscure dirt airstrip where a Piper Cub aircraft warmed its engine. Thirty-two-year-old Moshe Sachar and his twenty-two-year-old wife, the beautiful blue-eyed, dark-haired Rachel, tuned the radio of the automobile to listen, with all the Middle East, to the explosive event about to take place barely a mile away.
It was after noon on May 14, 1948. The citizens of Tel Aviv gathered on Rothschild Boulevard, in the heart of the city, outside a small stone museum where artifacts spanning three thousand years of Jewish history were collected. Among the most recently added treasures was the two-thousand-year-old Isaiah scroll that had surfaced in Jerusalem on November 29, 1947-the very day the United Nations voted for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
For Moshe and Rachel Sachar, the timing of the scroll's discovery and the contents of the book itself carried eternal significance. The ancient prophecy was about to come true.
Out of blood and fire Judea will fall. Out of blood and fire it will be reborn....The birth of Israel was poised to become a reality.
Six tortured months had passed since the U.N. declaration to end the British Mandate in Palestine and divide the territory into two nations: one Arab, the other Jewish. Hundreds of Jews and Arabs had already died in battles that raged throughout the region. Jerusalem, slated to become an international city, had been under siege by the Muslim forces of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Muhammed Said Haj Amin el-Husseini, for months.
With the massacre in the Muslim village of Deir Yassin by Jewish terrorists, Arab civilians took flight from Jerusalem; entire neighborhoods emptied. The void was filled by a flood of Jihad Moquades from all over the Arab world. They were the Holy Strugglers of the Grand Mufti's Irregular Army.
Fury and brutality against the Jewish population escalated. In Jerusalem on April 13, a convoy of seventy-five Jewish doctors, nurses, and medical staff had been massacred on the way to Hadassah Hospital. Rachel Sachar was among the few survivors.
As the roads out of Palestine glutted with refugees, cries to drive the Jews into the sea rang in Arab capitals from Iraq to Egypt. Seventy-five million Muslims united in Holy War against the half-million Jews in Eretz-Israel.
And the battle between the age-old brothers Isaac and Ishmael was only beginning.
On this humid May morning, the frantic call had come to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem Haganah Headquarters: "The British troops are pulling out a day early! The road to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem is open for the English to withdraw! Send a convoy of men and ammunition at once!"
Everyone was caught unprepared for this news. A break in the storm! Moshe, who had secretly been a Haganah officer for years, was ordered to attempt infiltration into the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. A twenty-minute flight from Tel Aviv might get him there in time. Rachel was to remain behind in Tel Aviv to work with the Jewish Agency for the new state as immigrants flooded her ports. Arrivals would be recruited straight off the boats to form the reserve army for Israel's defense. There was no other way.
This afternoon Rachel would say good-bye to Moshe, perhaps forever. Her five-month-old adopted baby would be taken to the Jewish Agency infant center, an air-raid shelter where children of Agency workers were cared for. Then Rachel would go to the waterfront to welcome the survivors to their new homeland...and the new war.
The Dodge turned off the main road onto a dusty lane through an orange grove.
The sharp sound of a gavel rapping on a table echoed across the airwaves.
"Turn it up," Moshe said, his deep brown eyes intent as they sped away from the city center.
"David Ben-Gurion." Rachel whispered the name of the leader of Zionism into her daughter's ear, as though he were a prophet crying from the past. "Listen, Tikvah. For the first time in two thousand years..."
There followed a reverent silence. The baby turned her face toward Rachel's breast.
Then Ben-Gurion's clear voice began without introduction:
In the land of Israel the Jewish people came into being. In this land was shaped their spiritual, religious, and national character. Here they lived in sovereign independence. Here they created a culture of national and universal import and gave to the world the eternal book of books.
Moshe and Rachel exchanged a glance of knowing. There was much more meaning behind the words.
As a professor at Hebrew University, Moshe had been part of tracking down the whereabouts of the Isaiah scroll and reclaiming it, as well as helping organize the defenses of the Yishuv, the Jewish population in British-controlled Palestine. There were more treasures to save than this one scroll. The urgent request for Moshe Sachar's help had come from Shlomo Lebowitz, Rachel's grandfather, a respected rabbi trapped behind the walls of besieged Jerusalem.
Exiled from the land of Israel, the Jewish people remained faithful to it in all the countries of their dispersion, never ceasing to pray and hope for their return and restoration of their national freedom. Impelled by this historic association, Jews strove throughout the centuries to go back to the land of their fathers and regain their statehood.
Overcome with emotion, Moshe pulled the Dodge to the side of the road and idled its motor. Resting his forehead against the steering wheel, he reached out to grasp Rachel's hand.
"It is...," he whispered, "happening, Rachel. It is not a dream."
In recent decades they returned. They reclaimed the wilderness, revived their language, built cities, and villages. By virtue of the natural and historic right of the Jewish people and of the resolution of the General Assembly of the United Nations, we hereby proclaim the establishment of the Jewish State in Palestine, to be called Israel.
"The prophecy...Isaiah 43. We are alive...we are alive to see it," Rachel said, tears streaming down her cheeks. She glanced at the scar on her left forearm where she had burned off a Nazi tattoo with the blade of a red-hot knife. "We have lived," she murmured again, thinking of those who had not, and of the baby in her womb, who would be born into the new state.
We offer peace and amity to all the neighboring states and peoples. Our call goes out to Jewish people all over the world to stand by us in the great struggle for the fulfillment of the dream of generations: the redemption of Israel! With trust in the Almighty we set our hand to this declaration in the city of Tel Aviv on the fifth day of Iyar, 5708, the fourteenth day of May, 1948.
There would never be a time to celebrate the new nation of Israel for the young kibbutzniks at Kfar Etzion. Today was the end of the world for them.
"Run! Make for the grove!"
The wildflowers he trampled underfoot were blood-red anemones, but Daniel Caan took no notice. Dragging his sister, Suzannah, by the arm, Daniel led their flight away from the horror, the butchery, taking place in Kfar Etzion. Behind them Arab machine guns, like a continuous roll of drums, only partially masked the screams of fifty Jewish settlers being slaughtered in the square of the kibbutz.
Daniel had seen Ahkmed al-Malik, the Arab commander, give the order to fire after the surrender. There was no mistake; it was a massacre, and they could not expect mercy if they were recaptured.
His friends, boys and girls who had come with him to Palestine, lay torn to shreds by the murderers' weapons. Those who had been family to him and his sister after their own family had disappeared into the abyss of Nazi Germany were gone forever. There was no turning back for Daniel or Suzannah. Escape or die: those were the only options.
Ducking around a boulder, Daniel and his sister surprised an Arab soldier wielding a knife. The man was bent over the body of a dead kibbutznik. By his curly hair, it could have been Daniel's friend Asher...only there was no way to tell since the Arab had cut off the victim's ears, nose, and lips, and gouged out his eyes.
Suzannah screamed, and the alerted Jihad Moquade whirled around, sweeping the knife in a vicious circle.
There was no time to change direction; any delay and fifty more Arabs chasing them from the kibbutz would be on them. Dropping his grip on Suzannah's wrist, Daniel jumped inside the Arab's guard. He rammed his forearm into his opponent's throat, then allowed the momentum to carry into knocking the man down and falling on top of him. "Run!" he yelled again to his sister. "Hide! I'll come for you."
With no chance to see if she obeyed, Daniel wrestled for possession of the knife. At sixteen, Daniel was not much taller than his fourteen-year-old sister, but he was desperate, and that desperation gave him frenzied strength. Twisting the coughing Arab's grip back on itself, Daniel jammed his knee into his adversary's side. When the man's eyes widened, and he struggled for breath, Daniel put all his weight into forcing the blade downward, plunging it into the hollow of his rival's throat.
He jumped up at once. The sounds of pursuit were close, just over the rise they had crossed in their flight. Suzannah was nowhere to be seen. Daniel prayed she was already in the Lover's Glade, burrowed deep into the brush.
Vaulting the low rock wall that marked the kibbutz boundary, Daniel dashed downhill toward the only refuge he could conjure. Nine miles from Jerusalem and any rescuers, surrounded by thousands of murderous Arab Irregulars, Daniel knew their only hope was staying free until nightfall and then slipping away over the barren hills. It was a slim hope, indeed.
"Suzannah," he whispered hoarsely when he reached the trickle of water and the first line of locust trees. A rattle of stones from the hill told him that those hunting them were near. His heart pounding, he thought of Asher and the others. To be captured meant that he, too, would be slain and mutilated, his ears dried and hung from an Arab watch chain.
Daniel sprinted past three trees, ducking his head to pass close to their trunks, then jerked sideways toward a pile of dead branches. There was only one chance. Behind the fallen limbs was a boulder and behind the boulder was a hollow, no bigger than a coffin, but covered from above and on three sides. Daniel had been there with Moniek; Moniek, whom he had last seen lying dead of a mortar attack in the cellar of the abandoned German monastery that was Kfar Etzion's headquarters. At least Moniek had died before they could rape her as they had raped the other women in the kibbutz. Merciful! Merciful death! Be merciful, God! The memory of their cries for help renewed his terror. Oh, God! Why had they done such things to the girls? Why? Oh, God! Where is Suzannah? Don't let them find Suzannah!
Suzannah was not in the cave. Daniel cursed himself for never showing his sister the secret trysting spot. He had been trying to protect her. Innocent, beautiful Suzannah. Fourteen was too young to see what she had seen! Oh, God! Don't let them...
Worming his way backward into the shelter, Daniel flung the brush and leaves across his trail, scooting as far behind the rock as he could. When he stopped to listen, all he could hear was his own tortured breathing.
Then: someone was coming. Daniel understood the Arabic perfectly.
"I saw them clearly, Captain al-Malik," whined a voice eager to curry favor. "Indeed, truly there were two, a man and a woman."
The commander snarled, "Good, Hassan. But it would have been better if you and your men had tended to business instead of looting. This pursuit would not then be necessary."
"Of course, of course," Hassan el-Hassan agreed. "But we will find them, treacherous Jews, and they shall die by my own hand. Here, look. I have gathered four watches from the dead Jews. Take this. It is the best. German made."
Al-Malik grunted. The Arab captain paused, evidently taking his piece of Jewish loot, then his feet crunched upon the gravel as he walked nearer to Daniel's hiding place.
Daniel's breathing roared like the snorting of a bull in his own ears. Oh, God! Dear God! Will he hear? He will hear. He comes so near to me. He must hear my breathing! I will die. He will cut my face off like Asher! Don't let them find Suzannah! Don't let them make her watch what they do to me! Oh, God!
The strong smell of Turkish tobacco drifted past.
"A fine smoke, Hassan," called al-Malik. "Did you find any more cigarettes on the Jews? I would rather have cigarettes than this watch."
"No more. This one fellow offered them to me if I would not shoot his brother."
Daniel squeezed his eyes shut. Oh, God! He's talking about Arthur and Sammy!
"He begged me, 'Don't kill my brother! Kill me instead.'" Hassan laughed. "Then I took his cigarettes and shot them both. I cut off their right ears. You see? Both right ears. Alike, eh? Easy to see they were brothers."
Daniel dug his hands into the earth. He suppressed the groan of agony that welled up in his chest. Sammy! Arthur! Dead! These two brothers had crossed the borders of the broken European nations in the same truck with Daniel and Suzannah. Thirty cartons of cigarettes per Jew: that was the cost of their lives and transportation to Palestine. Now they were nothing, their lives of no more account than the ashes falling from the burning tobacco.
There was a scream, a girl's scream, and the pounding of running feet.
It sounded like Suzannah's scream. Don't let it be her. Let me be wrong.
Bootsteps moved away from Daniel's hiding place.
Suzannah's voice. There was no mistaking it.
Biting his lip to keep from shouting, Leave her alone, he listened as an argument broke out. One Arab voice shouted that he should have her first because he had found her; but the one called Hassan asserted that the right was his.
"She is mine," al-Malik announced.
Maybe they won't kill her. Maybe she will be alive, after.
Daniel could not move. There were at least three of them. They had machine guns, knives. Asher's mangled features came to him. If he ran out, surely he and Suzannah would both be killed. Don't move, he told himself.
Burying his head in his arms, Daniel pounded his fist against the rock until blood trickled downward.
After a long time, there was a burst of gunfire, and then everything was still. Blackness closed over Daniel's vision as, mercifully, he lost consciousness. The hour had arrived for the exiled Jews of the Diaspora to call Israel their nation. The conclusion of two thousand years of foreign rule over Jerusalem and Palestine was at hand, thirty years of British occupation in Palestine finished.
Destined to be a footnote in the long and tumultuous history of the Holy Land, the soldiers of the British empire joined the ancient warriors of Babylon, Persia, and Greece, the legions of Rome, the Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks. Like the conquerors who had come and gone before them, they were also leaving.
The fate of the infant State of Israel and its key city, Jerusalem, would once again be decided by war between Jews and neighboring nations.
In the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, where a remnant of Jews had lived continuously since the days of King David, a population of rabbis, old men, women, and children was defended by fewer than two hundred members of the Haganah. Synagogues, Torah schools, soup kitchens, and homes had been transformed into outposts where a ragged band of fighting Jewish volunteers hoped to hold back the tide of Muslim rage that threatened to destroy their way of life forever.
Among the rabbis were some who regretted the departure of the English. The foreign presence alone, they believed, had preserved the Quarter from destruction. But most residents of the Jewish Quarter, while they feared the result of the coming battle, embraced the departure of the latest conquerors.
The sad skirl of the bagpipes reverberated through the labyrinth of Jerusalem's Old City streets. Above that echoed the haunting call of the shofar. Again and again the mournful ram's-horn trumpet resounded until all eyes lifted to the sky, expecting the arrival of an angelic host to rescue the beleaguered remnant of the Jewish race.
No heavenly beings descended, however.
On the steps of the Great Hurva Synagogue, Rabbi Shlomo Lebowitz and his ten-year-old grandson, Yacov Lubetkin, waited with a delegation of rabbis as the men of the Suffolk Regiment began their last march through Jerusalem. Over the domed rooftops Haganah officers led their men to the forward positions being evacuated by the British.
As the pipers played, Yacov stood at attention and saluted the pitiful army of his infant nation, Israel. Then, touching his eyepatch-a legacy of Muslim terrorism-he saluted the tattered remnants of the Jewish flag that waved atop the dome of the synagogue.
Along the Street of the Jews, past the Yeshiva schools and the sacred halls of learning, the regiment passed. Tottering, bearded rabbis, watching the soldiers go, kissed the fringes of their talliths, then covered their heads with the garment that had been the sign of their faithfulness for thousands of years.
Rabbi Lebowitz leaned close to his grandson's ear and spoke. "In this hour the longing of every Jewish heart is met. You, my boy, must remember what you see. You must never forget that you have lived to witness the fulfillment of the Lord's promise to his chosen." He recited the words of Jeremiah 30:3 so Yacov would hear them and remember:
This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: "Write in a book all I have spoken to you. The days are coming," declares the LORD, "when I will bring My people Israel and Judah back from captivity and restore them to the land I gave their forefathers to possess."
Yacov, breathless, looked up at the sky and said, "I will not forget, Grandfather." Together they recited the words of the Shema with the rabbis: "Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord...." As the British soldiers turned the corner, the boy exclaimed, "They are coming, Grandfather! Coming to us!"
The troops of the Suffolk Regiment marched to the steps of the Hurva. The command was given to halt, and the pipes fell silent. Somewhere in the distance a note from the shofar lingered on the air.
Rifles unslung, soldiers stood blinking in the sunlight as the aged scholars looked back at them.
The colonel saluted smartly, then extended his empty hand to the side in a gesture that called his captain to the fore. The captain placed a short, rusty iron bar into the colonel's outstretched palm and stepped back.
Yacov's eyes widened as the British officer ascended the steps and stopped directly in front of Rabbi Lebowitz. With a curt nod the colonel offered the bar to the old man. The boy drew his breath in sharply. His grandfather clutched the key to one of the seven gates of the Old City of Jerusalem. It was the key to Zion Gate!
The officer spoke with emotion as tears brimmed in the rabbi's eyes. Grandfather grasped the key tightly and bowed his head in thanks.
The officer spoke in a quiet voice. "From the year A.D. 70 until this moment a key to the gates of Jerusalem has never been in Jewish hands. This is the first time in nineteen centuries that your people have been so privileged."
Grandfather intoned, "Blessed art thou, O Lord, who has granted us life and sustenance and permitted us to reach this day." Addressing the colonel, he said with dignity, "I accept this key in the name of my people."
The Englishman inclined his head, turned, and barked an order to his regiment. At that command the British troops marched quick-step from the battleground of the Old City of Jerusalem for the last time.
Behind them, remaining on the cobbles of the courtyard, were six bandoleers of precious bullets and ten members of the Haganah, who had entered the beleaguered zone dressed as soldiers of the Suffolk Regiment.
These ten men, to the rear of the column, peeled off in ones and twos. As they melted into the shadows of doorways and the shelter of bunkers, they reclaimed all but one of the cartridge belts.
Yacov reached out to touch the key. Then, as the ominous rattle of Sten-gun fire sounded beyond the walls of the compound, he dashed out to retrieve the last belt of ammunition.
"Hurry, boy!" Grandfather called to him.
The bandoleer burdening his frail shoulders, the child bustled to where a Haganah fighter crouched, scanning the rooftops for Arab snipers. The soldier glanced at the boy.
"Good work," a familiar voice commended Yacov.
Yacov gazed with astonishment into the face of his bearded brother-in-law, Moshe Sachar. "Oy! You! You are here!"
"Where else should I be? Who knows the Old City better than I do?"
Yacov turned to grin back at his grandfather, who had taken shelter behind the sandbags of the Hurva portal. "Grandfather! It's Moshe!"
From his hiding place the rabbi shouted, "And where else should he be? Nu! Praise be to the Almighty!" His remarks were punctuated by the distant explosion of a mortar shell. He held up the key, waving it broadly for Yacov and Moshe to see.
"He has it." Moshe slipped the ammunition around his neck. "We'll need that key to open Zion Gate when men from the New City can be spared to reinforce us here in the Quarter."
"Where is my sister?" Yacov asked.
"Rachel is well. And baby Tikvah with her. With Ben-Gurion."
"Ben-Gurion." The name of the new leader of Israel was some comfort to Yacov in spite of his awareness that even now the Arabs massed on the other side of the Old City barriers to attack.
Moshe checked his Sten gun. His sun-bronzed features tensed as his dark eyes roved the rooftops for his compatriots.
"That's fine. Fine," Moshe replied absently.
From across the courtyard Grandfather commanded, "Moshe! Moshe! Grandson-in-law! Meshuggener! Come!"
Despite the peremptory message, it was clear to Yacov that Moshe felt compelled to move among his troops with encouragement and the plan for resistance. In the time Moshe had been away from the Old City, dissension had increased between factions within the religious community and members of the military. And Moshe Sachar, as a secular scholar who had grown up within the confines of this peculiar world, was the only one who could effectively bridge the gap.
"He will want to hear about Rachel and the baby. And, of course, the rabbis will need to hear good news about how we will get food and such since we are cut off." Yacov prodded his brother-in-law to first consult the spiritual leaders of the district. "Some are afraid of what will happen now that the English are gone. And..." Yacov hesitated. "There is something else he needs to show you. He said you'd come back...that the Almighty told him in a dream you'd come back and you were the one."
"The one." Moshe half-smiled and sighed.
"He is not exactly meshuggener, but he dreams. You know. He dreams of this and that, and this time you were that."
"The tunnels, is it?"
"He won't show me." Yacov tapped his temple. "So, he's an old man, nu? Something about the tunnels. A secret, he says. A very old secret. No one knows about it anymore but him. I am too young...."
Moshe glanced anxiously at his watch. "The ammunition." Then, "The tunnels?"
Moshe Sachar had himself supervised the digging of subterranean passageways beneath the Jewish Quarter. With the Hurva Synagogue at the hub, tunnels from one basement to another reached out to the far corners of the district's boundaries. Safe from the Arab snipers who looked down into the Quarter from the minarets, citizens and Haganah men alike could travel beneath the neighborhood. The passageways had been pushed out as far as the rim of the Armenian Quarter, where defenders occupied the Armenian bakery.
"You should ask him," Yacov said solemnly. If Grandfather knew more about these vital links, Moshe needed the information. "Dov and six others are in the machine-gun nest on the roof of the synagogue. They have three Sten guns and four bullets between them. You came just in time. They can use the bullets, nu?"
Moshe nodded and placed his hand on the boy's shoulder. Shadows lengthened on the stones of the courtyard as the two dashed back into the shelter of the Hurva to be gathered into the rabbi's embrace. The high interior dome of the Hurva was hung with rickety scaffolding on which young Haganah defenders lay with aged single-shot Martini rifles. These they aimed through the windows down into the Arab Quarter of the Old City.
The real defense of the synagogue would come from the men with Sten guns out on the roof. Wordlessly Moshe Sachar sent Yacov clambering to the top of the edifice with one bandoleer of ammunition for Dov Avram, Ehud Schiff, and the others who protected the building against attack. Every cartridge was precious. The others would be divided among the Haganah defenders, giving each man three additional bullets.
"Moshe!" cried the old rabbi, kissing him on each cheek. "I knew you would come back! And my Rachel? She is well? And the baby?"
Moshe patted the pocket of his tunic and withdrew an envelope. "She sent you and Yacov this letter, with her love."
Rabbi Lebowitz held the message to his heart. "Then she is well?"
"Healthy. Praying for us here to stand."
"And may the Almighty hear her prayers. It doesn't look so good, you know."
Of all men in Jerusalem Moshe knew the desperate position of the Jewish Quarter. He gently clasped the rabbi's arm. "The colonel gave you the key to Zion Gate."
"A blessing it is. A sign."
For months Zion Gate had been locked by the British, preventing supplies from passing into the Jewish zone. This was indeed a blessing. "Shaltiel promised to send more defenders to us if we could get the gate open. We'll need the key."
"Of course. Of course." Rabbi Lebowitz shoved the bar into Moshe's hand, and Moshe hung it around his neck on its leather cord. "Take it already. I have had my moment of glory, nu?"
"And the tunnels? Yacov said something about the tunnels."
Putting a finger to his lips, Yacov's grandfather scratched his grizzled beard, glanced furtively over his shoulder, and drew Moshe into an antechamber, closing the heavy door behind him.
His demeanor became suddenly grave. "I will not live."
"Don't talk of such things."
"So you think this old man will live forever?"
"You'll live to see the great-grandchild Rachel now carries."
At this news the rabbi brightened. But his smile vanished with the staccato popping of a Sten gun. "It is enough I know my Rachel carries your child. You are a good man, Moshe Sachar. Nu? An honest Jew and an upright scholar, even if you are not a rabbi. There are things here I must show you. Secrets I cannot take to my grave. But not now. Not at such an hour of glory. I must read Rachel's letter. You must see to your men. Already the Muslims howl at the gates of our little world."