Four yellowed pages, written with a fountain pen, depict critical hours in the life of Jaffa merchant Yaakov Elimelech Lederberg. On May 8, 1921, Lederberg wrote to his brother Avraham Moshe and Avraham's family, and described in detail, in archaic Hebrew, what happened to him one week earlier, on May 1, the day that rioting broke out in the city.
"With the help of God (may he be praised ), I give you the good news that I was saved from death, the danger that hung over my head has passed completely and I have almost healed from the injuries and blows I suffered last Sunday," Lederberg begins. "I am sure you have read about the pogrom that happened in Jaffa. And you saw my name among the 'wounded.' Now I shall tell you exactly what happened, from beginning to end."
Eighty-nine years later, this letter came into the possession of Danny Schlesinger of Tel Aviv, owner of a publishing house and a collector of Judaica and pre-state artifacts, who received it from a relative of Lederberg's. About a month ago, he shared the discovery with Shula Vidrich, an expert on Tel Aviv history and a local tour guide, who declares, "This letter clearly shows what happened and speaks for itself."
Vidrich, who is keen on "not letting the historical events that occurred here be forgotten," deciphered the handwriting and added some clarifications of certain words and abbreviations that are no longer in use. When she looked at the letter, she noticed a line written upside-down on the last page: "You may print this letter or its contents in the newspapers." Publishing the letter now, she says, is "carrying out the author's wishes, though I only came to it after a delay of many years. His goal is my goal: for people to see what happened here."
On the day Lederberg describes in his letter, he'd left home early in the morning to go to his shop, where he sold glass items. A great deal of merchandise had arrived and Lederberg hired two porters to unload it, while he and another man by the name of Yitzhak arranged it on the shelves. At midday, he writes, "We heard a lot of turmoil in the market and Yitzhak ran to see what was going on. He didn't return and when I heard the noise [coming from there], I decided to close myself in the shop until things quieted down ... But unfortunately my hopes were dashed because for more than two hours, I was shut in the shop and no one came to my aid. All I heard was the shouting ... and the groans of the wounded and dying coming from every direction.
"You can imagine what a state I was in. I tried to think what to do because I could hear them breaking down the doors of the shops. I decided to go up to the storage loft, and to take the ladder up with me. And I did so right away. And I also took off my vest and coat, and covered my head and back with them as well as I could. And I lay down on the floor of the loft with my arms and legs flat, and my face down. But just 10 minutes later I suddenly heard them breaking down the doors of my shop ... They broke down the doors and about 200 murderous robbers broke into the shop and started grabbing whatever they could, and the rest they wrecked and broke and trampled.
"And suddenly one man said there was a lot more stuff up in the loft. And right away they climbed up and saw me lying on the ground. They all shouted: Here is a Jew! Kill him! Slaughter him! And about 10 robbers started beating me with the long rods they carried, on my head and back. And I screamed from the pain but after a minute or so I was stunned and a great weakness came over me and I heard one Arab say to another, 'Give me your knife so I can stab him because it looks like he's still alive.' When I heard this I shuddered and with all my strength I cried out 'Shema Yisrael,' but before I could finish I heard rifle fire and the robbers were shouting, 'Here come the English!' and fleeing for their lives.
"I lifted my head a little and saw that two policemen were standing in the doorway. I begged them to take me away because soon people would come to kill me, and they had pity on me and took me out and brought me to the Saraya [the Turkish government building in Jaffa's Clock Square] - all beaten. Wounded. My face completely bloodied."
At the Saraya, Lederberg continues, he joined many more wounded Jews. After being bandaged up, he was transferred to the temporary hospital that had been set up in the Gymnasia Herzliya school on Tel Aviv's Ahad Ha'am Street. Four days later, he returned home, and ever since, he writes his brother, "Thank God, I am getting better from day to day. But I was left with practically nothing because they stole from me more than 3,000 pounds sterling, and all my work and toil went down the drain. I was also left with a debt of more than 1,000 pounds sterling, but I have strong hopes for God's help to come to my salvation and quickly lift me back up. After he saved me from death, he surely will not let me and my household starve."
He signs the letter: "Your wounded brother, suffering in agony, Yaakov Elimelech Halevi Lederberg."
This letter, Vidrich explains, constitutes a unique source of historical information. "I feel like I've rescued a lost treasure from oblivion," she says, adding that other sources concerning the events of that day are a Haganah journal, testimony collected by an investigative committee, newspaper clippings and memoirs. "What we have here is a personal letter that describes the suffering of a lone Jew in his shop in the middle of the bloody riots"
Dr. Mordechai Naor, a writer and scholar of Jewish history, says that what makes this source distinctive is that it does not concern either of the two best-known events associated with the 1921 disturbances in the area: the attack on the Beit Ha'olim immigrant hostel and the murder of writer Yosef Haim Brenner and his friends.
Naor: "Here we suddenly have the personal testimony of a person, a man from the market, who describes in elaborate detail what happened to him on that terrible day. He also mentions other things, such as the medical treatment, which he says good things about. And he also talks about the compensation from the British Mandate government, and mentions large sums that he will seek in recompense from it. I think this is an important document."
Historian Dr. Haim Fireberg of Tel Aviv University, author of a study on the 1921 riots, was struck by the fact that Lederberg asked for the letter to be published.
"Lederberg is aware of the historical and political dimension, and therefore attention should be given to each word and the letter should be read very carefully," explains Fireberg, adding that while on one hand, near the end of the letter, Lederberg writes that there had been some earlier acts of incitement, on the other hand, at the start of the letter it appears that he went to his shop as usual. The addition of the comment about the incitement, she says, "indicates his need to give a political explanation for the outbreak of the disturbances."
According to the Encyclopedia of the Pioneers and Builders of the Yishuv (edited by David Tidhar ), Lederberg was born in Jerusalem in 1876, studied in a religious elementary school and yeshiva, and then moved to Petah Tikva, where he was involved in planting an orchard. He married, moved to Jaffa and opened his glass shop in the Al-Dir Market (where the flea market stands today ).
During World War I, together with Rabbi Bezalel Hacohen Lapin, he helped raise the ransom to free Jews from imprisonment and from abduction on the part of the Turkish army, and offered other assistance to the prisoners and their families. Lederberg died in Tel Aviv in 1939 and was buried in Jerusalem. His relatives continued to run the shop and later also entered the real estate business.
It all began as an altercation between marchers in two parades, held on May Day of 1921, in Tel Aviv: One group marched under a communist banner; the second identified with Ahdut Ha'avoda, the leading Labor Zionist party of the time. British police intervened, and opened fire on the demonstrators. The communists fled to Jaffa, where they clashed with Arab residents.
The tension in Jaffa lasted several days, and spread to surrounding communities. Eyewitnesses described extreme acts of violence , including lynchings and rape. One of the leaders of the country's Jewish population at the time described what happened as a "shoah." The casualties: 95 killed, 47 Jews and 48 Arabs; total wounded 219, 146 Jews and 73 Arabs.
An investigative committee determined that the violence was ignited by the clash between the two sets of Jewish paraders. By contrast, the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem estimated that it would have erupted in any event, just as there had been clashes during the preceding year in Jerusalem. For his part, Herbert Samuel, British High Commissioner in Palestine at the time, stated: "This is a war of the Arab nation against the Hebrew nation" - and suspended Jewish immigration to Palestine.
Samuel was right: Over time, as one war followed another, the riots of the 1920s were forgotten, but during this early period, the Palestinians indeed tried to thwart the Zionist plan to establish a Jewish "national home." Their murderous acts that May were directed against symbols of Zionist settlement in Jaffa: new immigrants who were living in Zionist Commission hostels, and residents of the isolated "Red House" in Abu Kabir, including author Yosef Haim Brenner, who was considered a symbol of the revival of Hebrew culture. Brenner's body was found on the ground, half-naked. His death was seen as a national tragedy.
Two British officers were among the witnesses to the murder. One was asked why he hadn't tried to do something, to stop the rioters. Subsumed within his answer was the entire British dilemma: "When it became clear to us that there was a problem between Jews and Arabs, we thought that it was not our business to intervene, because which side were we supposed to restrain?" (Tom Segev )
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