Jerusalem’s “Prussian Island in an Oriental Sea”

Letters from Edith Gerson-Kiwi, the Grande Dame of Israeli musicology, reveal particular and universal truths about the 'age-old capital of the world'

Edith Gerson-Kiwi and the Jerusalem "garden suburb" of Rehavia, where she lived (Images: Gerson-Kiwi in 1933, from the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music / Photo of Rehavia in 1937 taken by Shmuel Joseph Schweig, from the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel)

It is December 5, 1935, when a young woman from Berlin arrives in Mandatory Palestine.

Equipped with an alert mind, a fair amount of ambition and astonishing energy, she has decided to turn her back on her homeland and build a new life in the ‘Land of the Fathers’. It seems she takes great pleasure in what she finds: in a letter written shortly after her arrival to her friend Eva, who was then exiled in Amsterdam, the young woman effusively describes the purifying and uplifting effect the country has upon her, drawing on the arsenal of Zionist metaphors and images:

“There are also wonderful people here, the country embraces and nurtures them; for many of them it was a complete rebirth, I myself have gone through it in a very intense way. And then: all these young people, suntanned and strong, and a rhythm of work, freedom and hope that is inspiring and quite intoxicating.”

The author of the letter is the German-Jewish musicologist Edith Gerson-Kiwi, remembered today as a pioneer of Israeli musicology; one who made lasting contributions to the field, and connected Israel to the wider world.

Letter from Edith Gerson-Kiwi to Eva Newman, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music. Click to enlarge

It was written on September 29, 1936, and is just one of over 6,000 letters being catalogued as part of a research project at the European Center for Jewish Music (ECJM) in Hanover, Germany. They are part of the extensive Gerson-Kiwi Estate, the bulk of which is housed by the ECJM. A smaller number of documents can be found in Israel, including the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Archive at the National Library of in Jerusalem.

It is the earliest known letter written by the young woman after her arrival in Palestine, and reflects that fateful turning point in her story: referring to the life she left behind, while at the same time mapping out the horizons of her future.


From Berlin to Jerusalem

Edith Gerson-Kiwi was born in Berlin in 1908 into an assimilated Jewish family and enjoyed a typical bourgeois upbringing. As a young girl, she attended a humanist Gymnasium (selective high school), and her evident musical talent was nurtured by piano and composition studies at the Sternʼsche Konservatorium, a renowned music academy. After gaining her university entrance qualification, she reads musicology, minoring in philosophy and literary history, at the universities of Freiburg, Heidelberg and Leipzig.

At home in Berlin at the grand piano, 1927. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

One searches in vain for a Zionist socialization in this biography. The ‘push factor’ driving this young woman to the Orient is not the idealistic longing for the ‘new Jew’, but rather the increasing anti-Semitic pressure in Germany. The first thing to fall victim to this is her relationship with her non-Jewish fiancé and fellow student Fritz Dietrich (1905–1945): while her parents, after initial hesitation, agree to the match, his parents do not accept her because of her Jewish identity.

The year 1933 finally brings the decisive turning point: while defending her dissertation in Heidelberg on January 30, the day of the transfer of power to Hitler, she hears soldiers and students clashing in the street.

The young musicologist no longer sees a future in Germany.

She goes to Bologna to study paleography and library science. Meanwhile, Fritz Dietrich gains clarity about his future aspirations, deciding in favor of an academic career in Germany and thus against a relationship with a Jewish woman.

A single encounter is all that is needed to prompt Gerson-Kiwi to take a big step: she meets a group of young Zionists from Palestine in the university cafeteria in Bologna and makes a spur-of-the-moment decision to immigrate there.

Many, if not most, Jewish immigrants from Germany who relocated to the Land of Israel after 1933 did not feel at home or even uplifted upon arrival, given that they came as refugees rather than idealists.

While the Land of Israel represented a place of yearning and a Jewish home for the Eastern European Jews, for assimilated German Jews it was an exile.

Yet, Edith Gerson-Kiwi’s encounter with her old-new homeland is thoroughly positive, all the more so since “everything in my personal life suddenly became good once more”: newly arrived in the country, she meets Kurt Gerson, an engineer and architect from Hamburg.

Four months later, they get married.

Just married: Edith Gerson-Kiwi and Kurt Gerson, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

“A Prussian island in an Oriental sea”

“We live in a new garden suburb of Jerusalem that is populated by many German immigrants. […] We have a charming attic apartment on top of a brand-new complex of houses – and a large terrace as well, from where there is an extensive view over the hill country of Judea with its fantastic colors [and] scenery.”

The garden city is Rehavia, Jerusalem’s noble villa district, designed on the model of Berlin’s Grunewald, to which chroniclers such as S.Y. Agnon and Amos Oz have created a literary monument. Built in the 1920s according to plans by German-Jewish architect Richard Kauffmann, this oasis, which was then on the outskirts of the city (though long since swallowed up by the city center), soon became the preferred place of residence for educated people and intellectuals of the German cultural world: professors and staff of the still-young Hebrew University, writers and journalists, doctors, pharmacists and lawyers, cultural workers and civil servants.

Quite a few of them had made their way from Berlin to Jerusalem, where this “Prussian island in the Oriental sea” became their home. Here they cultivated the German way of life and culture to which they were so strongly connected, yet which now had come to an end in Germany itself.

Edith on the terrace of her apartment in Rehavia, 1936. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

New paths to a new future

Many Germans succumbed to the feeling of foreignness. Unable to heed the demand for integration, they retreat into their inner circles. Gerson-Kiwi, by contrast, opens herself up to the wealth of new impressions, is inspired by the Zionist spirit of optimism and enchanted by the “completely different atmosphere” of Jerusalem: this “age-old capital of the world” with its “Jews from all over the world, Persian, Bukharic, Yemeni, Moroccan, Samaritans, and others, representatives of all peoples, races, and religions”.

New immigrants from Hadhramaut, Yemen in Ein Shemer Transit Camp, Israel, 1950 (Photo: Edith Gerson-Kiwi). From the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel

After years of professional and personal hardship and disappointment, she discovers in the Land of Israel new forms and ways of being Jewish.

Shortly after her arrival in Palestine, she meets Robert Lachmann (1892–1939), who also arrived in 1935, and joins him as his assistant. Lachmann, of the Berlin School of Comparative Musicology, has been tasked with the establishment of a phonogram archive for Oriental music in Jerusalem, and introduces Gerson-Kiwi to Middle Eastern musical cultures.

Robert Lachmann with his secretary in Jerusalem, ca. 1936. From the National Library of Israel collection

At the same time, she rediscovers Judaism: the writings of Gershom Scholem bring her, an assimilated Jewish woman of Berlin’s educated bourgeoisie (Bildungsbürgertum), closer to a Judaism in its deeper, mystical form that transcends enlightened, rational thinking, “in a time when I was rather in controversy with the principles of our Jewish religion” (letter to Chanah Milner, June 20, 1972).

She finds and appreciates this mystical form of faith and thought adopted by her new neighbors, the Oriental Jews.

Tirelessly, she devotes herself to documenting, researching and popularizing their “melodic treasure trove” that is in danger of being lost in the modern melting pot that is the Land of Israel. In addition, other musical cultures of the Middle East attract her interest – those of Arabs, Druze, and Oriental Christians. She will make around 10,000 sound recordings during her lifetime, documenting the Land’s polyphonic soundscape.

Edith Gerson-Kiwi, Renaissance woman, becomes a connoisseur of Oriental music.

Invitation for Edith Gerson-Kiwi to come to the residence of Shams Pahlavi, the Shah’s sister, during the International Folk Musik Council conference, held in Tehran on April 6-12, 1961. From the Edith Gerson-Kiwi Estate at the European Center for Jewish Music

Conflicting reality

Rehavia is also characterized by a climate of tolerance towards the Arab population of Palestine, resulting from the German-Jewish immigrants’ own minority experience and the values of liberalism and universalism that Central European Jewry acquired with the emancipation. It is no coincidence that “Brit Shalom” was founded in Rehavia: a short-lived peace alliance (1925–1933), which adopted a moderate position in the Jewish-Arab conflict, respected the Arabs and their territorial claims, and advocated a binational state solution.

Photo of Gershom Scholem, one of many Rehavia-dwelling German-Jewish intellectuals active in the Brit Shalom organization. From the National Library of Israel collection

Edith Gerson-Kiwi shows solidarity with the Arabs throughout her life. As an “old pioneering champion of Jewish-Arab friendship, of peace, and, above all, of intellectual awakening” (letter to Hellmut Federhofer, June 29, 1973), she not only maintains memberships in institutions striving for dialogue and understanding, but also supports Arab musicians and music researchers, committing herself to the dissemination of Arab music through research and teaching.

Already proficient in several European languages, Gerson-Kiwi also learned the Arabic language and script.

And yet, from the very beginning, there was also a downside and a complexity to this new life in the Land of Israel and among its different communities. This complexity is revealed quite starkly as Gerson-Kiwi’s description of the advantages of her living situation in Rehavia transition into acknowledgement of a bitter reality:

“We live here in a quiet and secluded environment; that’s ideal for us, and it’s also a consequence of the unrest. It’s precisely here in and around Jerusalem that the contrasts are particularly stark, because everyone lives cheek by jowl. Almost every night there are gunshots in our area; during the day there are only a few streets in the Jewish ‘center’ where you can move freely, and for more than five months now a curfew has kept everyone at home from 6.30 in the evening. Overall, this is a severe shock and the first big challenge to be faced. But we all believe that we will meet this challenge, because we know what we are fighting for and how much blood has already been shed in this cause.”

The mass influx of Jews, especially after 1933, had triggered the Arab Revolt (April 1936–1939), with insurgents demanding that the British Mandate government stop Jewish immigration, prohibit the transfer of Arab land to the Jews, and establish a national government.

The Palestinian Arabs initially react with a general strike affecting trade and commerce. A series of acts of violence against the British and Jews followed, until the mandate government finally put down the revolt with military force.

Over the decades, numerous letters written by Gerson-Kiwi tell of how attacks and wars overshadow and restrict her life and work. “It is indeed a bad fate of ours, always to be after or before a war”, she lamented in a 1970 letter to Grace Spofford, a colleague in New York.

Not all the hopes of the early years were fulfilled.

The visions of a better social order and peaceful coexistence with the Arab neighbors turned out to be illusions. Political tensions, economic shortages and inner-Jewish conflicts, Arab uprisings and wars dominated everyday life.

While the 1956/57 Suez Crisis and the 1967 Six-Day War may have brought new, fascinating and promising worlds to light for musical orientalists like Gerson-Kiwi, later catastrophes such as the Yom Kippur War (1973), the Lebanon War (1982) and finally the Intifada (from 1987 onwards) created only horror, helplessness and resignation.

In a 1989 letter to an unknown correspondent, she wrote:

“We still live here in western Rehavia in our peaceful surroundings, but the gates of hell have suddenly been opened, and the killing is taking on new and ever worse forms every day. […] No peace treaty will restore things to how they were…”

In addition, she increasingly realized that her life’s work – the collecting, preserving and spreading of the endangered Jewish Oriental traditions – had become a thing of the past, that it could not withstand the dawning future. “A radical fault line has formed between the generations,” she lamented in a 1976 letter.

Edith Gerson-Kiwi died in Jerusalem in 1992. Fifty years after her immigration, her episteme – born of the never-ending tension between exile and Europe –  already belonged to a bygone age, yet many of the themes and sentiments described in her earliest letter endure until this day.



This article has been published as part of Gesher L’Europa, the National Library of Israel’s initiative to connect with people, institutions and communities across Europe and beyond, through storytelling, knowledge sharing and community engagement.

Who Opposed Eichmann’s Execution?

The trial of Adolf Eichmann had a profound effect on Holocaust discourse in the young State of Israel. During the trial, a heated debate raged within Israeli society over the appropriate punishment for the senior SS officer…


The Eichmann trial, photo by David Rubinger

What is the punishment for absolute evil? What is the proper response to war crimes? Is it necessary to avenge inconceivable murders or does criminal punishment serve a different purpose? These are some of the enduring questions of jurisprudence, but exactly 60 years ago, they were being debated in Israel. The country’s political leaders and public intellectuals, along with leading figures from across the Jewish world, were all preoccupied with one question: what is the appropriate punishment for the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, one of the key figures in the effort to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

A concise summary of previous events: In May 1960, the Mossad abducted Eichmann from his home in Buenos Aires and brought him to Israel to stand trial. The trial, which began in April 1961, was a milestone in the history of Holocaust remembrance and consciousness in Israel, and it is considered to have significantly influenced the treatment of Holocaust survivors living in the country. Prosecutor Gideon Hausner’s opening speech, the dramatic testimonies of personalities like writer Yehiel De-Nur (Ka-Tzetnik) and Zivia Lubetkin, the documents and public discourse the trial evoked, left lasting impressions. The videotaped trial was covered by many international journalists, among them Hannah Arendt, as well as Israeli poets Nathan Alterman and Haim Gouri.

At the end of the year, the trial concluded with Eichmann being sentenced to death. His appeal was denied, as was his request for a presidential pardon. The execution was finally carried out at two minutes before midnight on May 31st, 1962. Throughout this period between the sentencing and the execution, a heated public debate raged on the morality of the punishment. While there was widespread support for the death penalty for the senior SS figure, there were also many prominent figures who opposed it. An examination of materials preserved in the National Library of Israel’s Archives Department as well as the Historical Jewish Press collection offers us a view of these dissenting opinions.

Eichmann’s case attracted worldwide attention, and Jews living in the Diaspora expressed their views on the issue. A review of the newspapers reveals that world Jewry—and world citizenry in general—also saw fit to make their voices heard, and some certainly opposed the death penalty, even for a man who had committed crimes of the magnitude of Eichmann’s. A letter from New York, preserved in the archive of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, then director of the National Library of Israel, is one example of several expressions of protest from around the world. The sender addressed the letter to “all true Jews in the United States, Britain, the State of Israel, and people of good will everywhere.” On a blue sheet of paper, at the bottom of which is typed three times, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” the writer claims that the death penalty is an act of vengeance and does not accord with Judaism. He concludes by asking his readers to work to change the decision.

From the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

One of the most famous examples of world Jewry’s resistance is that of Nelly Sachs, who was herself a Holocaust survivor, and later a Nobel Prize-winning author (1966). Sachs sent then Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion a letter in which she asked for the death sentence to be changed to another punishment. She writes in the letter, which is preserved in the State Archives, “Israel is blessed with the words of Abraham: ‘Perhaps ten righteous people will be found there [in Sodom]?’ And I myself know such righteous people, who risked their lives and often even paid the price just to save [others]. These righteous people also worked in the time of Hitler, and the undersigned is one of their survivors. Please do not allow a death sentence for Eichmann. The righteous also worked in Germany, and if only for them there should be a measure of grace.” She ended her letter with a poem she wrote, which begins with the words:


So lonely is Man

seeking eastwards

where melancholy shows in dawn’s face.

The east turns red with the rooster’s cry


A page of Nelly Sach’s letter to David Ben-Gurion. Courtesy of the Israel State Archives

At the same time, the most pronounced opposition to Eichmann’s death penalty came from a group of intellectuals in Israel. Among the prominent members were the philosopher Prof. Martin Buber, the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem, and members of the Department of Philosophy at the Hebrew University, Samuel Hugo Bergmann mentioned above, and Nathan Rotenstreich, among others. Even the poet Leah Goldberg was among those involved. Their opposition stemmed mainly from moral grounds and a fundamental opposition to the death penalty. They did not seek to protect Eichmann or diminish the severity of his actions. They sought, they said, to prevent the Jewish people from committing what appeared to them to be a moral injustice. Beyond that, some feared that the execution would provide a basis for the assertion that this would atone for the Nazis’ sins and silence claims of the Jewish people against its murderers and executioners.

Invitation to a discussion on Eichmann’s death penalty sentencing, sent to Prof. Dov Sadan by Prof. Martin Buber. From the Dov Sadan Archive, the National Library of Israel

During the hearing of Eichmann’s appeal in 1962, this group urged the president to commute his sentence to life imprisonment. In Martin Buber’s archives in the National Library, we found a draft of a letter—without the names of the signatories. “We do not ask for his soul,” it says, “because we know that there is no man who deserves less mercy than he. . . . We do not want this hateful person to turn us into the hangman. . . Antisemites around the world wish for us to fall into this trap. For carrying out the death penalty will enable them to claim that the Jewish people have been paid with blood for the blood that was shed [by the Nazis].”

Letter to President Yitzhak Ben Zvi requesting that he consider changing the sentence of Adolf Eichmann. From the Dov Sadan Archive, the National Library of Israel

When word spread about the petition’s existence, some supporters of the death sentence protested and others wanted to know why the professors were asking to spare Eichmann’s life. In the archives of Samuel Hugo Bergmann, we also found a letter written by three female students (apparently), as well as the draft of Bergmann’s reply. The students wrote to the professor in July 1961 asking for clarification, “We heard a rumor about a petition regarding the pardon of Adolf Eichmann of which you are among the initiators and signatories . . . We would be grateful if you would also explain to us the reasons that motivated you to take such a step.”

The letter to Prof. Bergmann, the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

Bergmann explained in his reply that he was opposed to the death penalty in principle, and in particular to the idea that those responsible for the sentencing need not be involved in the execution. He stressed that in his opinion only He who gives life may take it. Bergmann also detailed other issues in his letter: he believed that even though there was no statute of limitations on genocide, the many years that had passed since the acts necessitated further consideration. He argued that the death penalty was a lighter punishment than life imprisonment in Israel (adding that there was no adequate punishment for Eichmann’s actions). Bergmann’s first concern, he stated, was for the soul of the Jewish people, and he explained his thinking that Israel must spread love throughout the world, whereas hanging Eichmann would only serve to perpetuate the cycle of hatred.

First page of Prof. Bergmann’s reply to the students’ question, the Samuel Hugo Bergmann Archive, the National Library of Israel

Another intellectual who dealt with the subject was the scholar of Kabbalah Gershom Scholem. In his archive, we found a draft of an article published in the journal Amot around 1962, which dealt with the issue of execution. According to the draft, Scholem believed that there was no effective punishment for Eichmann’s actions under any circumstances, and that his hanging might seem an unsuitable “atonement.” Scholem wrote: “There is no question whatsoever that Eichmann deserves the death penalty. I have no doubt about it, I do not seek his acquittal, nor do I discuss the arguments concerning his actions and his responsibility for them. All this belongs to the legal aspects of this trial. My assumption is that in this respect nothing can be argued in his defense, he deserves to die a thousand deaths a day and is unworthy of mercy . . . there is no appropriate punishment in the laws of humane society for Eichmann’s crimes . . . whether he is to be hanged or not, there is no conceivable correlation between his crime and his punishment. Furthermore, there is nothing in his execution that can serve for “the sake of watch and learn”, [as an example] to the antisemites and others who seek to destroy our people . . . carrying out Eichmann’s death sentence is a mistaken ending [emphasis in the original – A.N.]. It distorts the historical meaning of the trial by creating the illusion as if something of this event can be settled by hanging a man or the obliteration of one person. This illusion is extremely dangerous, because it may give rise to the feeling that something has been done to ‘atone’ for something for which there is no atonement.”

Section of the draft of an article written by Gershom Scholem about Eichmann’s death penalty. From the Gershom Scholem Archive, the National Library of Israel

As we know, the arguments against Eichmann’s hanging were not accepted. President Yitzhak Ben Zvi rejected the request for clemency. Eichmann’s sentence was not commuted and the execution was carried out. Eichmann’s ashes were scattered in the Mediterranean Sea. This year marks exactly 60 years since the beginning of the trial that drastically changed public perception and discourse concerning the Holocaust in Israel.

Israel’s First Independence Day and “The Parade That Didn’t March”

What Israel's Independence Day looked like before there was an Independence Day

Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

How is a holiday created out of thin air? Well, one method is legislation.

Israel’s “Independence Day Law” from 1949 set the date for Independence Day as the 5th of the Hebrew month of Iyar, while also allowing for the holiday to be brought forward or delayed in the event that the 5th falls on a Sabbath. Additionally, the law authorizes the Prime Minister to “determine the symbols of Independence Day” and even “to instruct regarding the waving of flags and celebrations”.

The question of how Israeli Independence Day came to be celebrated in the way that we are familiar with today is a complex one, and we may very well deal with that in the future, but for now, we would like to momentarily return to the 5th of Iyar, in the Hebrew year 5709 (1949), only some three weeks after the above law was passed.

Confusion was the order of the day.

To be completely honest, that 5th of Iyar was not exactly the only “First Independence Day” to be celebrated in Israel. It was preceded by “State Day”, held on the 20th of Tammuz (July 27th, 1948) – just a few weeks after the actual declaration of Israel’s independence. This date was chosen as it was the anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s death, with the state authorities seeking to link between Herzl’s vision and the new State of Israel which had just been established. The main event on “State Day” was the first ever military parade conducted by the young IDF.

A soldier carries the national flag during the IDF parade in Tel Aviv on Israel’s first Independence Day, 1949. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But back to the other “First Independence Day” – the 5th of Iyar, 5709, which fell on May 4th, 1949. How were people supposed to celebrate Independence Day anyways? No one knew exactly, but a few things could be taken for granted, including folk dancing in the streets (which reminded people of the jubilant spontaneous celebrations after the UN Partition Plan vote in late November, 1947). Plans were made for celebrations in towns and cities across the country, including light displays, flag-waving, concerts by municipal orchestras, torchlight parades and various rallies and marches.

On the eve of the holiday, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion held a special Independence Day speech, published the next day in the papers. Many of the events included a memorial prayer for fallen soldiers, as Israel did not yet have an official day dedicated to remembering them. Ben-Gurion also hosted dignitaries from abroad at a special Independence Day reception held at his office in IDF Headquarters in Tel Aviv.

David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula hosting dignitaries at an Independence Day reception. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But there was little doubt about the planned highlight of the day – another military parade by “our victorious army of liberation”, the Israel Defense Forces – what else? Not only one but two parades were planned, in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. The Jerusalem parade went ahead without major incident, but the big story of Israel’s first Independence Day was the controversial Tel Aviv parade.

Crowds in the streets of Tel Aviv. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
A plane flies over the crowds of people. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

“The Parade That Didn’t March”, screamed the Hebrew headline in Maariv the next morning. The name stuck and it is remembered to this day. At first, everything seemed fine. Representatives from the IDF’s various corps marched down the city’s streets: The navy, the medical corps and veterans of the pre-state Haganah organization all displayed their arms. Jewish and Druze soldiers proudly marched alongside each other. Military jeeps and artillery guns were received with cheers by onlookers while a handful of military aircraft flew overhead – all that the Israeli Air Force had at the time. And of course it wouldn’t be a parade without a marching band!

Veterans of the Haganah on parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Marching with the flag at Dizengoff Square. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Druze soldiers on parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

But by 4 o’clock, when the marchers were due to arrive at the main stage erected on Dizengoff Street to salute the Israeli leadership, the rumors had already begun to spread – the parade had been cancelled! “People stood and cried. Like children,” Wrote Maariv editor Dr. Ezriel Carlebach. The parade could simply not make its way to the main stage on Dizengoff Street because of mass overcrowding at the corner of Allenby and Ben-Yehuda.

Carlebach described the scene: “When they [the crowd] were told for the third time that it [the parade] would not be coming because it could not clear a path from Mugrabi Square to Idelson Street, a stretch of some two hundred meters – they simply did not believe it. It could not be true. OUR army? The army that had reached all the way to Eilat, that could easily have entered Damascus, was now incapable of making it to Ben-Yehuda Street? Ridiculous, idiotic.”

A canon is paraded through Tel Aviv. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

The humongous crowds that showed up to watch the parade had spilled over onto the streets and blocked the path of the marchers. All of the efforts by the police to open the roads ended in miserable failure. Eventually, the organizers were left with little choice but to call off the parade before the crowds slowly dispersed in bitter disappointment. A senior IDF officer present at the scene was quoted in the Herut newspaper, saying “The Israel Defense Forces managed to conquer everything except the streets of Tel Aviv”.

In retrospect, it seems that organizational failures led to the debacle. The authorities apparently did not foresee the sheer quantities that showed up to watch the spectacle. Reports cited crowds numbering in the hundreds of thousands – in a country with a population of some 600,000 people. In addition, roads were only blocked off shortly before the event, further contributing to the chaos. The next day, the papers were already reporting that a commission of inquiry would be investigating the reasons for the fiasco.

Policemen attempt to clear the streets for the parade. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
A military police truck tries to clear a path through the crowd. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel
Policemen attempt to block crowds from spilling into the streets. Photo by Beno Rothenberg, the Meitar Collection, the National Library of Israel

Following the embarrassment surrounding the Tel Aviv parade, it was decided to hold yet another “State Day” celebration on July 17th, 1949. Another parade was organized, this one on a smaller, more modest scale, in order to make amends and finally complete the unfinished march. This was the last time that Israel’s independence was celebrated on the day of Herzl’s death, and the 5th of Iyar later became solidified as the official Independence Day of the State of Israel. The practice of marking Israel’s Memorial Day on the day before Independence Day began in 1951. This was also the first year of the traditional Independence Day torch lighting ceremony on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. The Israel Prize ceremony was first held on Independence Day, 1953, and the first International Bible Contest was held on the State of Israel’s tenth birthday in 1958.

Slowly but surely, year after year, Israel’s Independence Day has developed into the national celebration we know today.

All of the photographs displayed here are taken from the Beno Rothenberg Archive, which is part of the Meitar Collection at the National Library of Israel. Rothenberg documented many aspects of Israeli society, culture and life during the first few decades of the state. You can see more examples of his photography here, here and here.

The Cry

A lamentation for Nechama, mother of Alec

A mother and child in Jerusalem, shortly after the War of Independence (Photo: Beno Rothenberg). From the Meitar Collection / National Library of Israel

There is no single memory for everyone. Each person has a willow upon which to hang one’s violin. Mine is the story of Nechama, the mother of Alec.

There is a headstone in one of the hidden corners of Jerusalem’s Har Menuchot Cemetery, in one of the first plots added as the city was engulfed in war in 1948. I would like to place its story here, like the stone traditionally placed on a Jewish grave; on the graves of all of those who have fallen in this land, on those of the friends and the foes, on all of those who gave their lives out of love for it. All of them, all of them, with great love.

On the eighth of Tammuz 5708, the fifteenth of July 1948, Nechama was brought for burial in the Sheikh Bader cemetery. She was the mother of Alexander Yehuda Cohen –  Alec as he was known – a simple soldier, a corporal who was killed a few months before, on the fifth of Shvat, the night between the fifteenth and sixteenth of January, along with all of his friends in the “Mountain Company”. Half a year passed between the death of the son and the death of his mother.

Alec, eighteen years old at the time of his death, was the only child to Nechama and his father, Moshe. According to Alika who was a year younger than him and from whom I learned the little I know, Alec was exceptionally brilliant, gentle and sensitive. No one – not even his parents – knew about his enlistment.

Alexander Yehuda “Alec” Cohen

But it is not the story of Alec that I wish to share. You may read about him elsewhere, and I don’t have anything to add to what can already be found there. I would like to share something about his mother and her grief, about Nechama, and also about his father Moshe and his grief, as I heard it.

In those days families did not hear about the death of a son from a messenger who came to the house. At least not everyone did. Usually not even via telephone, which there wasn’t, anyway. Often, they found out about it from the daily newspaper. In those days there was no home delivery of newspapers; subscribers had to go to the nearest newsstand where theirs would be waiting. The closest to Alec’s house at 10 Rashbam Street in Mekor Baruch was just a few dozen meters away on Tachkemoni Street. There, on that Friday morning, the sixth of Shvat, was where his father took his newspaper and learned that Alec was no longer among the living, the third of 35 who had grown up together in the tiny area of Mekor Baruch bordered by Rashi, Rashbam and Tachkemoni Streets. He erupted in a terrible cry of pain that startled the quiet neighborhood, a cry that went on and on, and was heard from one end of the neighborhood to the other; back and forth, with no end, until he reached his home. By the time he arrived, there was no longer any need to share the news.

The story of that cry, that one cry, I heard a few times from Alika, and also from Gouri who echoed her story time and again. When he told it, he was startled as if at that very moment he was hearing that terrible cry of the grieving father, rolling on and on, without rest. Anyone who knows how to take on some of the pain of another will hear that terrible cry in the ears of his soul, that which is somewhere between the roar of a lion and the howl of jackal.

Nechama died within the year. Just a few months after the death of her son, her grief overwhelmed her. When Moshe, a sensitive and introverted artist, transferred her to her final resting place, he had the following placed on her headstone:

Nechama who was not consoled
Like an angel to purity like Job to suffering

And at the base of the headstone he added – “In memory of her only son”. Above it the father placed the figure of a lioness lying down, her eyes closed and her paws spread over the top of the tombstone, perhaps protecting her dead son, perhaps preparing herself for the great roar – that rolling roar that would roll from its place, roll and cry, roll and howl, quickly to the hill, from the hill to the valley and back to the mountain again, God forbid. And will not rest.