The Mysterious Death That Ignited Jerusalem's Religious-secular Rift

Did the head of a Jerusalem hospital 'sacrifice' a seriously ill youth on the altar of piety? A medical incident 101 years ago may shed light on the roots of the discord in Israeli society.

Nir Hasson
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Dr. Moshe Wallach, left, at the hospital.Credit: Courtesy of Dr. Moshe Wallach collection, Yad Ben-Zvi archive
Nir Hasson

At noon on Saturday, August 16, 1913, a train pulled into the station in Ottoman-controlled Jerusalem. Two passengers from Jaffa got off: Moshe Dov Berger, a construction worker, and his son, Shmuel, 16. Their destination was Shaare Zedek Hospital.

Shmuel needed emergency treatment for a throat ailment. Moshe had a letter of referral from the distinguished physician Dr. Haim Hissin. From the train station the two walked to Jaffa Gate and then took a horse-and-carriage to the hospital, located on Jaffa Road, not far from today’s Central Bus Station.

What transpired at the hospital’s entrance that day would quickly assume the dimensions of a major scandal, causing, perhaps, the first major rift between secular and Haredi, residents, and between the New Yishuv and the Old Yishuv – referring to the Zionist and the pre-Zionist Jewish communities, respectively, in pre-1948 Palestine.

The facts are not in dispute: Dr. Moshe Wallach, the hospital’s ultra-Orthodox founding director, refused to allow Berger and his son to enter the hospital, saying they would have to wait until after Shabbat ended that evening. The situation was not urgent, he said.

Shmuel Berger was indeed hospitalized that evening, but he died the next morning from his illness. His death stirred a furor, and some accused Wallach of sacrificing the boy on the altar of his own piety.

A room in Shaare Zedek in the early 20th century, with plants to help air circulation - one of Wallach’s innovations.Credit: Courtesy of Shaare Zedek and the Tower of David Museum

The tempest was heightened because the protagonists of the affair epitomized the two worlds in collision. Berger was a halutz, a Zionist pioneer, probably from the Second Aliyah (the 1904-14 wave of Jewish immigration to Palestine), and a member of the Craftsmen’s Association and of the Maccabi Society in Jaffa. Those two organizations, supported by the Zionist press, spearheaded the protest.

Wallach, for his part, was a God-fearing physician from Germany who had been sent by his religious community to establish a hospital for Jerusalem’s Jews. Indeed, he was a leading and highly respected Haredi figure in the city throughout the first half of the last century, one of the founders of the non-Zionist Agudat Yisrael movement in the country.

Wallach remained in his post in the aftermath of the fierce public storm and the investigations of two commissions of inquiry. However, the controversy over his identity as a physician on the one hand and a pious Haredi on the other went on for decades. The Berger-Wallach episode itself faded from memory over the years, notably as new confrontations erupted between the two sections of the Yishuv after World War II.

Next week will see the official publication of the Hebrew-English catalog of the exhibition “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis,” currently on at the city’s Tower of David Museum in the Old City. The exhibition is an attempt to decipher the complexity of life in Jerusalem – since the times of King David – by portraying dilemmas involving medicine and faith.

Among the documents that appear in the catalog are Shmuel Berger’s medical file, the conclusions of the subsequent medical commission of inquiry and contemporaneous press reports. Researchers consider the case a sort of Rosetta Stone for coming to grips with the clash between secular and Haredi in our time.

1. What happened on the sidewalk?

The newspaper Hapoel Hatza’ir (Young Worker) carried the following report about the event at the hospital: “Young Berger, who was suffering from a throat ailment, was brought to Jerusalem on Saturday at the doctors’ instructions. When the father and his son – whose illness was critical – arrived at Shaare Zedek Hospital, Dr. Wallach assailed them, in abusive and insulting language, as ‘criminals of Israel who desecrate the Sabbath.’ He struck the father and threw the son out of the gates of the hospital. The patient languished in the street for two-three hours and was not admitted until the day’s darkness descended on him. Young Berger died the next day without the doctor having extended him help.”

A different version was offered by the Haredi newspaper Hamodia. Historian of Zionism Dr. Mordechai Naor notes that Hamodia was published abroad at the time, and thus there was no locally distributed paper that defended Wallach. After noting Wallach’s religious devotion, Hamodia pointed out that, nevertheless, he often violated Shabbat in life-and-death cases – as is in fact required by Jewish religious law – and even did so on the very Sabbath on which he allegedly brought about Berger’s death.

In Hamodia’s account, Dr. Wallach went out to Moshe Berger and his son and asked, “‘What is the matter?’ They told him they had come from Jaffa and that [Berger’s] son had a dangerous throat ailment. The doctor immediately conducted a preliminary examination, saw at once that there was no throat disease and said there was no reason to desecrate the Sabbath for this. As the matter was not so urgent, the two could go now, and he would come immediately after Ma’ariv [evening prayers] and admit them. And so it was. Directly after the service, the patient was already in the hospital.”

Verena Wulf, who is working on a doctoral thesis at Dusseldorf University on Moshe Wallach, found the testimony he gave to the commissions of inquiry. According to Wallach, Berger and his son were outside the hospital for “20 to 25 minutes,” until the end of Shabbat. The chronology of events, however, contradicts this. Given that the train arrived at noon, even if the Bergers walked to Jaffa Gate slowly, as the youngster felt ill – it’s about a 20-minute walk today – it would not have taken so many hours to reach the hospital from there by carriage. And this was August, when the days are long and Shabbat ends late.

2. Could Shmuel have been saved?

Local secular newspapers insisted that the hours the boy spent outside on the street before being admitted to the hospital aggravated his illness and brought about his death. But according to the Haredi paper Hamodia, he died suddenly on Sunday, in a way unrelated to the previous day’s events. Shmuel’s condition actually improved after he was hospitalized, the paper reported: “Dr. Wallach visited him in the middle of the night and found him sleeping peacefully. The fever abated in the morning and he felt refreshed and sat up in bed

“At mealtime he ate with all the other patients, and after he finished eating, he suddenly collapsed and died. His death did not take even a minute, and he was dead before any of the patients could call out. Anyone who is in possession of even a little knowledge of medicine knows that this kind of instant death is not caused by any disease or by [an infection in] the throat, but by the heart’s stoppage for some reason that might or might not be known.” The paper also ruled out the possibility that he choked to death.

In the judgment of Wulf, a pharmacist by training, who spoke by phone from Germany, Shmuel Berger died of a severe bacterial inflammation, which caused phlegmon – the spread of pus into subcutaneous tissue. The inflammation spread from the chest to the throat and may have finally induced a short, fatal heart attack. Nowadays, antibiotics would be administered, but before the advent of penicillin, phlegmon was a life-threatening conidition. situation.

Dr. Eran Dolev, a former chief medical officer of the Israel Defense Forces, and today a student of the history of medicine, suggests cautiously, based on the descriptions in the press at the time and on his medical file, that Shmuel Berger suffered from diphtheria, an upper respiratory tract condition that can affect the heart muscles and cause death. “If that was the diagnosis,” he says, “then Wallach’s behavior is perplexing, because it would have been a life-and-death case that overrides Shabbat, or at least suspicion thereof.”

Shmuel Berger’s medical file was found in the Shaare Zedek archive by Dr. Nirit Shalev-Khalifa, curator of the “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis” exhibition and editor of the catalog. The file contains only one document, on which two diagnoses appear in handwritten German: phlegmon and cardiac arrest. Also recorded are the medicines administered to Berger and the time of his death: 8:30 A.M.

Two investigative commissions exonerated Wallach. The Hebrew Medicinal Society for Jaffa and the Jaffa District found that “the patient was in critical condition, with no hope of cure, and the unfortunate result was not dependent on Dr. Wallach’s approach one way or the other.”

The body appointed by the Jerusalem-based Hebrew-Speaking Physicians’ Society concluded: “We find that the treatment accorded to the patient Berger was correct and appropriate in every respect with the scientific laws of medicine Even though Dr. Wallach can be faulted for wrongly mixing in religious questions, which are unrelated to medical matters, we find, nevertheless, that this could not have affected the results of the illness.”

The newspaper of the radical socialist Zionists, Ha’ahdut, bitterly assailed the conclusions “How is it possible to rely solely on the declarations of Dr. Wallach, who is the accused?” the paper asked.

3. Did Wallach’s piety trump his medicine?

Wolff, the Ph.D. student, is certain that Wallach was first and foremost a modern physician who was out to save lives, and only afterward a pious Jew. “He tried to uphold both realms,” she says, “but his patients’ lives came first.”

Still, managing a modern hospital under the guidelines of halakha – Jewish religious law – was no simple matter. Wolff quotes the memoirs of a physician of the time to the effect that on one occasion at the hospital, it was necessary to perform urgent surgery on Shabbat.

“Wallach agreed to the operation, but insisted that the threads of the stitches not be cut until Sunday, as this was not a life-saving act,” Wolff says, adding, “In another case when a patient died on the Sabbath, the hospital waited until it ended to remove the needles from his body.”

In 1948, a generation after the Berger affair, wounded soldiers who were brought to Shaare Zedek for treatment during Passover complained that Wallach – who was the hospital’s director from its opening in 1902 until 1947, but continued working until his death, in 1957, at age 80 – poked through their effects in search of any leavened food they might have brought in with them.

The secular press exploited the Berger affair to launch a focused attack on Wallach. One newspaper called him a “crazy and wild physician,” who “has accustomed Jerusalemites to his splendid virtues: reviling and hitting the patients, forcing seriously ill patients to sit up in order to pray. So extreme is his madness that he does not perform surgery on the Sabbath, irrespective of the patient’s condition, and does not use medicines for fear they contain non-kosher ingredients ”

Despite such allegations, the records of Shaare Zedek, together with Wulf’s research, indicate that there were apparently few Sabbaths that Wallach did not desecrate for his patients’ benefit. Presumably, then, if he’d thought that Berger’s condition was serious, he would have admitted him immediately.

4. Did the Berger case affect Haredi-secular relations?

According to curator Shalev-Khalifa, the Berger case is an excellent example of the workings of the world of medicine a century ago, in particular in a place like Jerusalem, where even life-and-death decisions were never made on a purely scientific basis. “Other forces were at work in Jerusalem,” Shalev-Khalifa explains, and the granting of medical treatment was often perceived as “a reward for following the straight and narrow path.”

“The city’s hospitals were always arenas for struggles, mainly between religions – for example, over objections to hospitals run by [Christian] missionary groups,” she continues. “The clinics became the city’s litmus test. In this affair, members of the Second Aliyah, the spearhead of socialist Zionism, attacked Wallach, a highly respected figure in the Old Yishuv, among whom he was perceived as a saint. Their allegations, relating to medical ethics, were grounded in the modern world. The underlying theme was that the old world lived by twisted values.”

According to historian Naor, “Many people found Wallach’s treatment of the boy intolerable, even though it was proved that he could not have been saved. This story generated a break in the superstructure between Haredim and seculars, and between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.”

Eleven years after the episode at the entrance to Shaare Zedek Hospital, on the very same patch of sidewalk, another tragedy occurred that was related to those different worlds.

On the morning of June 30, 1924, Israel Jacob de Haan, a gifted legal scholar, poet and journalist who became Haredi and militantly anti-Zionist after immigrating to Jerusalem from Holland in 1919, and who was a close friend of Wallach’s, came out of the synagogue situated in the hospital’s courtyard. On the sidewalk a young man approached him and asked him for the time. As he was about to reply, the man took out a handgun and shot de Haan, killing him. His murder is considered the first political assassination in the history of the Zionist movement, and for many Haredim his death came to symbolize the cruelty of Zionist activists vis-a-vis their opponents.

Shalev-Khalifa draws a line connecting the two events at Shaare Zedek. Two newspapers that assailed Wallach had ties to a group that was created in Jerusalem in the early part of the 20th century around Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who would later become Israel’s second president, and his future wife Rachel Yanait. Their aim, unlike their comrades in the nascent kibbutzim, was to bring the tidings of socialism to the Old Yishuv.

“They were out to foment a change in the Haredi society,” Shalev-Khalifa says. “For them, the kollels [yeshivas for married men] were the proletariat from which the revolution would spring, giving birth to the new Jerusalem, which would be productive and creative.” The Haredi public was furious at the Ben-Zvi group, in particular at Rachel Yanait, who at the time had a higher rank in the Haganah than did her husband. To this day, Haredi circles say she bears direct responsibility for the murder of de Haan.

The fault line between the two camps can be seen in the pashkevils – broadsides – that are posted in Haredi neighborhoods each year on the anniversary of de Haan’s death. One such pashkevil, marking the 75th anniversary of the assassination, can be found among the National Library’s collection of Haredi posters, and reads: “The Zionist heretics understood well the heart of the Jew into whom they thrust their cruel arrows, knowing that they were thus closing off Judaism’s successful path of wresting the Jewish people from their hands What do such beasts of prey want with the Jewish people?”

“The Berger-Wallach episode signals the shift in the direction of the religious struggles in the Yishuv in the spirit of the modern era,” Shalev-Khalifa sums up. “In contrast to the ‘balance’ existing in olden times – plagues imposed as punishment and miracles that brought healing – in the modern era, the confrontation is between ideological factions, and the hospitals are the battlefields.

“Ordinarily,” she adds, “they embody conditions of cooperation and efforts to bridge gaps, but every exceptional case immediately finds its way out, into the Jerusalem reality of merciless religious and political struggles.”

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