A Veteran of the Partisans, but He Could Not Free Mt. Scopus

First of a series of articles based on diaries from the first year of the state and the people who wrote them.

Nir Hasson
Haaretz Correspondent
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Nir Hasson
Haaretz Correspondent

"The situation doesn't allow for postponing the drinking of wine. The university has closed, the buses aren't running, even to Talpiot. The shellings are terrible; in the evening, they are accompanied by a chorus of gunfire. That's how the year has begun." These are the opening words, from January 1, 1948, of the diary of Dov Levin, than a student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on Mt. Scopus and a fighter in the Haganah.

Levin wrote in his diary, a small, blue, hardcover office diary, every day. On particularly eventful days like May 15 - the day after Israel declared its independence - the words overflowed into the margins. The diary pages reflect the tension between the "drinking of wine" and the everyday life of a young student and the "terrible shellings" of the months of war and siege - the experiences of a soldier on the front lines.

Levin, now a Hebrew University professor specializing in Eastern European Jewish history, was born in Lithuania in 1925. His family perished in the Holocaust but he survived to fight with the partisans, even keeping a diary while hiding in the forests. He sailed to Palestine in October 1945 on an illegal immigration ship. After a brief stay at Kibbutz Beit Zera in the Jordan Valley, he moved to Jerusalem and began studying history and sociology at the university.

When the War of Independence broke out, Arab forces separated Mt. Scopus - with the university and Hadassah Hospital - from the rest of the city. Forty students serving in the Haganah remained to defend the area. Levin's diary paints a picture of a student who is no less perturbed by his studies than by the war; of a veteran of the partisans for whom the battles on Mt. Scopus often seem like child's play; of an opinionated young man who often rebels against his sentimental commanders.

On March 31, 1948, Levin writes that he has decided to grow a beard, "even if just as an experiment," but he is more disturbed by the "tremendous firing at night; we don't respond with a single bullet and it's a good thing we're used to not getting upset, otherwise it would have gone on forever - and their ammunition is much better than ours."

The next day, April 1, Levin is back to describing the prosaic: "In the dining hall every one got an egg but they turned out to be empty, much to the amusement of those who had previously fallen for the trick." A few days later he describes a visit to the university's zoo led by its founder, Prof. Aharon Shulov. "It's the first time I ever saw a lion, and a panther (the lion's head is huge in proportion to his relatively short and small but beautifully built body).

April: Massacre On April 13 a convoy was attacked as it approached Mt. Scopus. Seventy-eight doctors, nurses and fighters were killed in the "Hadassah medical convoy massacre." The defenders of Mt. Scopus tried but failed to provide covering fire for the convoy. "Rage and sorrow together eats away at us," Levin writes.

He did find one ray of light in the incident. A friend of his missed being in the convoy because he got up late. Levin lost 40 grush on a macabre bet in which he wagered that his friend was among the dead. "If only I could lose all the rest in the same way," he wrote.

May: Independence On May 14, the day the state was declared, Levin wrote about "a historic day or the historic day, although the entire period is special .... With no transportation or telephone we can sense the labor pains of the state, and I am privileged to see it happening, if from afar. Daily troubles: guard duty laundry ironing afternoon nap bargaining over guard duty [no commas in the original] - you don't feel this great moment."

Later that month, Jordan's Arab Legion attempted unsuccessfully to conquer Mt. Scopus twice using irregular forces composed of local Arabs. Levin described a prisoner of war, apparently a civilian. "A miserably guy with calluses on his feet, a strange sense of compassion and very very happy that I didn't kill him and that he didn't try to escape," Levin wrote.

Fear of a larger Arab assault grew. "A giant convoy from the Dead Sea threatens with its lights, which move westward. What will they bring us?," he wrote on May 21. The following day Levin notes that "our chances are slim. Aid from the city will not arrive quickly." But in late May the attempts to take Mt. Scopus ended, apparently due to protests from the United States over the attack on the hospital.

On June 12 the defenders of Mt. Scopus were in an uproar after two students attempted to surrender to the Jordanians, but were arrested and beaten by the [Jewish] fighters before they got the chance. Levin took statements from both students. "I was embarrassed to look at and speak with two healthy men my age who let themselves be abused without resisting," he wrote.

June: Arrest At the height of the battles the students on Mt. Scopus continued with their lives. They met almost every evening for a kumsitz, a gathering that included the imbibing of alcoholic beverages brewed by chemistry students in the university's laboratories.

These makeshift parties often took place in the Nikanor caves, where Zionist leaders Menahem Ussishkin and Yehuda Leib Pinsker are buried. In honor of them, the students named their drinks Ussishkinit and Pinskerit. The partying increased the tensions between the students and their military commanders, and alcohol was soon banned.

A few days later, Levin and a few friends refused an order to move into Hadassah Hospital. They were jailed in a makeshift military prison in Hadassah. Their arrest was the climax of the power struggle between the students and the commander of Mt. Scopus.

"Moments before the trial we all had our picture taken," Levin wrote. "Although it was not very pleasant to be tried for the first time in my life on Mt. Scopus, it was in protest against injustice and contempt on the part of the rulers and the beginning of the war in the yishuv for a democratic, popular army."

In late June the military pressure on Mt. Scopus was lifted. On June 24 Levin wrote only a single sentence: "The sounds of Arab children playing can be heard from Sheikh Jarrah [the adjacent Arab neighborhood] - silence and tranquility." Four days later Levin noted that "This is the third day that we have eaten sufficiently, more [or] less. The number of cigarettes is also acceptable."

July: Palmach On July 7, Levin left Mt. Scopus, after the agreement signed that day with Jordan. He noted in his diary that the university librarian searched the students' belongings to make sure they had not taken any books from the National Library.

The following day Levin joined the Palmach. He fought in some of the battles around Jerusalem. During this period he wrote that "the spirit of the partisans has returned - sleeping on the ground." In January Levin celebrated his 25th birthday "at the Malha outpost," writing, "it's an age that should bring stabilization."

Two months later Levin returned to his studies, earning a degree in social work. After 20 years as a social worker in Jerusalem he went back to Hebrew University to study history. He has published 18 books. He and his wife, Bilha, have three children and four grandchildren.

When asked recently why he kept a diary, Levin was hard put to answer. "I felt a duty, an obsession, to write. Every day I had to write at least a few lines."

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