A Young Israeli Soldier's Long-lost Account From the Doomed '48 Battle for Jerusalem's Old City

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Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948. “Our situation grew more desperate by the day. Every day we sent calls for help to the city. Apparently, from so many calls for help they stopped believing us.”
Jerusalem during the War of Independence in 1948. “Our situation grew more desperate by the day. Every day we sent calls for help to the city. Apparently, from so many calls for help they stopped beliCredit: John Phillips/Life Magazine
Shevi Govrin
Shevi Govrin

About three months ago, after my mother’s death, I found a box of old documents – envelopes, certificates and letters all bundled together, yellowing, some torn along the folds. Birth and marriage certificates, combat documents and fighter pins, photographs of Mom and Dad surrounded by friends, bearing arms – and in the background, stone buildings and archways. Unmistakably, Jerusalem. One brown envelope contained folded pages of typescript: the testimony of a young fighter who suffered serious head wounds in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence, in late May 1948.

That young man, who would later become my father, lay in the hospital of the ophthalmologist Dr. Avraham Ticho and spoke to someone named Z. Maimon, who was sent to him. By whom? It’s not clear. Maimon heard his account of the battle for the Old City, which had ended in defeat and surrender for the Israeli forces a week earlier. Everything is still fresh, still painful; it’s all told in the first person, it’s very personal. The fighters who came out of the battle alive and physically fit were taken prisoner by the Jordanians. Those who were killed were buried in a mass grave in the Old City. The Arab Legion – the Jordanian army – transferred my father and others who were seriously wounded to the new city, the western Jewish part located outside the Old City walls.

My father’s name was Yosef Mizrahi; he later changed his surname to Yagil. He grew up in the new city, his childhood spent in the alleys of the Nahlaot neighborhood and of Mahane Yehuda, the adjacent produce market. He lived in what was called the tin shack quarter – Sephardi, religious, poor. In 1948, at age 20, he was sent with the Moriah Battalion of the Palmach strike force to the Jewish Quarter, and with a few other soldiers found himself, unprepared, in a life-and-death battle. Besieged by the Arab forces and abandoned by the leaders of the Jewish community in Palestine, their ultimate weapons were will power and determination.

The bundle of pages in the brown envelope is the transcript of the monologue he delivered as he lay in the hospital after losing an eye. The shrapnel in his head was the source of chronic pain for the rest of his life. A mounting sense of distress emerges from the text: the constantly tightening noose of enemy forces, the desperate attempts to convey the urgent need for help to headquarters outside the Jewish Quarter, the repeated promises of aid, the dawning realization that there would be no help.

To Yosef – and this apparently reflected the mood among his comrades – the whole leadership was a disappointment. He mentions names, both of civilian leaders and officers in the Hagana pre-state army. The pressure, the shortage of supplies, the hopelessness – these gave rise to other leaders, from the ranks of the fighters themselves. The descriptions of the events are neither filtered nor processed. The lack of equipment, the combat tactics and the stages of the fighting are juxtaposed with accounts of emotional collapse, manipulations by the leadership of the Yishuv – the pre-1948 Jewish community in Palestine, on the verge of becoming Israel – and moments of heroism and self-sacrifice by rank-and-file troops.

Our calls for help became hysterical... Our responsibility for almost 2,000 residents in the Old City was even too great to grasp fully.

According to this account, the civilian population of the Old City’s Jewish Quarter was held there, at least in part, against its will. Yosef mentions that the fighters were ordered to prevent the inhabitants from leaving when flight was still possible. The frightened civilians could not muster the inner resources to take part in the war effort, Yosef notes. Those among them who were manual laborers were afraid to fortify their positions; people had to be coerced to dig the mass grave for the soldiers who were killed. The fighting force was unable to provide everyday functions such as maintaining sanitation and baking bread. The community’s leaders were dysfunctional and no alternative to them sprang up from among the inhabitants, with the exception of the children, who were “all right,” according to Yosef’s account. The last part of his testimony is devoted to the Arab Legion, which rescued the surrendering fighters from a mob from the Old City’s Muslim Quarter and the surrounding villages and treated them decently.

* * *

Following is Yosef’s testimony, as recounted on June 3, 1948 at the Ticho Eye Hospital in Jerusalem and transcribed by Z. Maimon:

Yosef Mizrahi. Credit: Courtesy of the Mizrahi family

“I went down to the Old City on December 10, 1947. When we entered the [Jewish Quarter of the] Old City, we were not prepared for a lengthy battle, for a stubborn battle to the end. In fact, the thinking seemed to be, from what I’d heard, that there would not be any serious battles in the city. What eventually happened proved the complete opposite.

“Regarding the period of the British Army [the Mandatory era officially ended on May 15, 1948] there isn’t much to tell, other than about its actions against us, its efforts to remove our people from there. Our institutions tried to bring back the people [civilians] who left the Old City in the first days of the siege. They tried to calm them down. We were given an order not to allow people to leave. Various promises were made to the people who remained in the Old City, and jobs for their livelihood were arranged for them between the [Old City] walls; everyone was provided for.

“On the evening of [Friday] May 14, when the [British] army left the Old City, we seized all the army’s positions according to a previously prepared plan. The plan was for us to hold on to those positions. We were promised that we would have to hold them for only two-three days, until help arrived from the [new] city, and then conquest would be launched on a large scale. Thus, we needed to hold the positions with our people and our equipment for only two or three days.

“It did seem to us that we didn’t have enough arms and ammunition, but apparently there was no thought of a big battle. At first – without authorization from headquarters, and with the money we had for our own provisions – we ourselves bought arms. For example, we had 16 Sten guns and we bought another 22 at our own initiative, and only after the fact did we receive headquarters’ authorization for the action we took. Not everyone had his own weapon. There weren’t enough arms and ammunition. The heavy weapons we had were one Bren and one Lewis [both light machine guns] – that was the ‘sum total of everything,’ together with the Irgun [underground militia]. The Irgun had meager, pathetic weapons. When the Lewis was sent into the Old City, 700 rounds were sent. Afterward, we also took weapons from the Arabs. Three Brens were taken from them, but that was of no value because we didn’t have ammunition…

“That night, the Armenian patriarch from the Church came to us and demanded that we leave the place. When we said that it was a vital position for us, because if the Arabs should seize this place, it could force us to leave the Old City, he promised that he would not allow the Arabs to enter the holy place. Of course, that was a false promise, and the next morning the Arabs seized this position.

“The main attack started in the morning. The Arabs started to throw explosive devices at us and attacked with heavy fire from close quarters – we were probably to blame for not fortifying the windows well. Some say that it was not our fault, that the workers were afraid to do the fortification work. In any case, in the late hours of the morning it was difficult to be in the room; we were forced to withdraw further inside. We held that position for another three days, until the Arabs blew it up from close quarters.

“On Sunday the rooms in the hospitals started to fill up with the wounded. A large-scale attack began in the afternoon. That was the first big infiltration of the Old City. The Arabs broke through on the road that leads from Jaffa Gate to Zion Gate and captured the block of stores in the Sephardi section. At the same time, the Arabs’ mortars were activated across the whole area, firing incendiary and explosive projectiles. On the same day, the synagogue of the Ashkenazim of Batei Mahaseh [housing built in 1860-1890 in the Jewish Quarter] was burned by an incendiary shell. That attack was repulsed toward evening and the Arabs bolted.

“On that day we sent calls for help to the city, because we saw that the situation was starting to become ‘tricky.’ Already then, the commander felt that with the equipment and the handful of people we had, we would not be able to hold on for very long. The reply from the city was: Hang on, we will soon break through to you. The next day there was a harsher attack than the first one. That was on Monday, the Arabs succeeded in infiltrating from Chabad Street to the Street of the Jews. They were driven back toward evening. For some reason, they did not attack at night. Fear, apparently.

Without authorization from headquarters, and with the money we had for our own provisions – we ourselves bought arms.

“On that Monday, the Jewish inhabitants began to be concentrated in the Istanbuli Synagogue. More than 1,100-1,200 people gathered [there]. There was no one there from our headquarters to see to organizing these people, housing them, getting them food. The sanitary conditions were awful, they wallowed in their own excrement. The people of the Old City behaved with extraordinary cowardice. The exception was the children. They cheered up the fighters and the parents. I think they’re the only ones in the Old City who were 100 percent all right. They functioned well as runners, they were the connection between all the positions, they brought food and everything. The Old City Committee [The leadership of the local civilian community] barely functioned. [Headman Mordechai] Weingarten and his family put on white smocks and went into Misgav Ladach Hospital, apparently to be under hospital immunity in case the Arabs should infiltrate.

“So cowardly were the inhabitants that they were even afraid to go to the communal oven to bake bread for themselves. Only a few people, perhaps, were all right. When we had to bury 33 people, we had to go around with a whip to get a few workers to dig graves. It should be pointed out that after three days of fighting in the Old City, there were hardly any commanders above the soldiers. The commanders lost control of the situation in the Old City. If we held out for two weeks [after Israel declared its independence, on May 14], it’s only thanks to a few soldiers, each of whom at his own initiative, and a few squad commanders, who stood fast until the last moment.

“If it used to be said that Avraham Kirshner saved Yemin Moshe [a Jerusalem neighborhood opposite the Old City], it deserves to be said no less that an Old City resident, Yitzhak Mizrahi, saved the Old City. If it ever becomes the custom here to award badges for excellence, then that private, who was killed in the Old City, deserves the biggest badge. He prevented a number of infiltration attempts with his own body.

“It seems as though our cries of alarm to the new city had some sort of influence – they promised to send help and remove the wounded and dead. On Tuesday night they actually did break through to the Old City. I woke up Wednesday morning and learned that they’d succeeded in entering. They brought in reinforcements of 85 people. When I got up to see what was going on – I was then posted in Porat Yosef [Yeshiva], where a large number of the people were massed – when I saw the people, I was surprised.

“I was surprised, because I saw that many of them were older men, and they told us they learned how to use a rifle a week before coming to the Old City. In assessing the people who arrived, it would probably suffice to say that one of them was the photographer Kovatsch. I didn’t actually consider the situation tragic; I thought that the way would remain open without a doubt. Afterward it turned out that they made a mistake, which in my opinion decided the fate of the Old City: After breaking in, the Palmach went on to some other mission, and the corridor created by their breakthrough was left unguarded.

“The weapons that the reinforcements brought were: one Czech rifle each, with 100 rounds and two grenades. They brought only ammunition for themselves and a few thousand bullets for the Sten and a few thousand rifle bullets. They also brought 80 mortar shells without the ballistic bullets. We had two 2-inch mortars, neither of them functioning, and we couldn’t do a thing with them, it was impossible to aim in order to hit the target…

“They [the reinforcements] all said they had been deceived, because they were told they were coming only for three hours, to bring ammunition into the Old City and then they’d go back out. And it was only when they got to Mount Zion, next to the wall, that they were told they were staying in the Old City. They all complained that they had children at home; one said he was 45, another, that he was 40. Kovatsch said he was erecting a seven-story building on Chancellor Avenue [today’s Straus Street], so why was he taken to the Old City to be killed? In short, our feeling was that another 80 men had been brought to the Old City to die there – and that was also their feeling.

“As I said, the attacks increased. From that day, from that hour, the Arabs started to advance step by step in the Old City. They used a method that we found strange and surprised us all. They blew up a house and advanced, they planted explosives and went on. So it was clear that the area we were supposed to leave would be blown up and remain scorched earth.

“They used another method that was new to us – small explosive devices that they threw long distances. They took a bag and put about half a kilogram of explosives into it – TNT or some other powerful explosive – and to that a detonator and a fuse were connected, as usual, and they tied it all to a long rope. The rope was an excellent means for throwing the explosive device 60-70 meters, and things like that were thrown by the dozens and destroyed houses and our positions.

Yosef Mizrahi and his comrades during the battle at Jerusalem's Old City.

“Our situation grew more desperate by the day. Every day we sent calls for help to the city. Apparently, from so many calls for help they stopped believing us in the city. I myself heard a reprimand to our broadcaster, and they reminded him about the story of ‘the boy who cried wolf.’ From the [new] city we received injections of encouragement every day. They would tell us: This evening we’re breaking in. When we were being bombed with mortars, the district commander informed us that being bombed with mortars produces only a psychological effect...

“There was another commander there: Motke (Mordechai) Pinkas, whose military rank was equal to the rank of the Old City commander. The only role he played in all these matters was to sit near the radio equipment all day. When there was a serious breakthrough into Porat Yosef, and the commander there was wounded, they said to Motke: Come and save the situation. So he took a sheet of paper and wrote an order to the people at the position: Not to retreat at any price! And he went on sitting in the headquarters room.

“Before the fighting in the Old City erupted, we were sent someone who was called the deputy commander. When he arrived, he told us so many things about so many operations he had taken part in that we thought he would be the savior of the Old City. Afterward, when the fighting started, with the Arabs’ first infiltration, I happened to be at headquarters and I saw that man on a bed, with his head deep in the pillow and his hands gripping the pillow as though he was seized by hysteria.

“Those were the people who were considered staff officers and who it was thought would take command of everything during the fighting. The Irgun commander at the scene must also be added to this list. He was perfectly fine the whole time and he also prevented a surrender when the Arabs infiltrated for the first time. That was the action he took, along with a number of people who were present on that occasion.

“The Irgun commander and his people fought to the end, even though he was wounded quite seriously in the arm and lost three fingers of his right hand. He went on keeping his people under tight rein and didn’t lose control of them for a minute.

“People who made an effort and acted responsibly cropped up at the scene of the fighting, and thanks to them the Old City held out for two weeks. [An example is] Avraham Ornstein, who was a private at the start and who afterward joined the headquarters staff as a section commander and acted devotedly until the end and controlled his sector until the end, despite the serious attacks precisely there ...

“The greatest shortage we felt was of grenades. In the conditions of the Old City the grenade was the most important weapon. We ran out of grenades already in the first days of the fighting. The Irgun people then did something very important in this regard, when they started to manufacture primitive grenades. A few teachers and some children, who could not man the positions, took part in this work. In any event, they made more than 300 grenades like that.

“When we reached this situation, our calls for help became hysterical, apparently more and more, and in my view rightly so, because the Arabs started to approach dangerously close to the place where the inhabitants were concentrated. Our main fear was that they would succeed in reaching that place, and our responsibility for almost 2,000 residents in the Old City was even too great to grasp fully...

“From the city we were promised every night that they would break through to us, and every morning we were disappointed anew, and our people simply didn’t believe them any longer. The situation became truly desperate on Wednesday and Thursday, two days before the surrender [on Friday, May 28, 1948]. It was clear to us soldiers that if help did not arrive within a few hours, we were done with the Old City.

“On Thursday we learned that our battalion commander had taken us to task for the calls we sent, because [he said that] for two weeks we had been pestering them about surrendering, yet we were still holding on and we should be patient, because this very evening they were going to break through to us, and that was 100 percent sure.

Members of the Arab Legion kept repeating one sentence: They would not do what we had done at Deir Yassin.

“That evening we believed and hoped that something was really going to happen. The mood among the men was better, they manned the last positions, now in the hope that this whole episode would be over by evening. All the comrades were awake that evening and waited from minute to minute for the [Jewish] forces to break into the Old City. They were awake until midnight or 1 A.M., there was a little shooting, and everyone said: See, see, the reinforcements are arriving. The shooting stopped, quiet fell and the day began to dawn, and the men saw that again the promise had not been kept, and then all the men got together and said angrily that our only course of action now is to surrender, if we want to avoid the slaughter of 2,000 people. I don’t know whether the men were first with this thought, or whether headquarters was first, but it burst out all at once from the men and the headquarters staff. The inhabitants had already said it a few days earlier, but they saw that as long as we held out in the war there was nothing they could do at their initiative, they reflected on the matter and were silent ...

“I was wounded on Sunday of that week and was hospitalized. My mates would come in and tell me all the details, and M. Pinkas and Yisrael Lerman also told me what was going on ...

“My conclusion is that from the first minute the Old City was neglected in favor of the new city, because the thinking was that nothing would happen, and therefore not enough arms and ammunition were sent, and they didn’t see to a proper commander after Ben Zakai was taken out of there. That was also apparently why the inhabitants were not evacuated. I don’t think that if they [the commanding officers] had thought that something serious would happen they would have left, with a clean conscience, almost 2,000 souls in the Old City, including more than 700 children, and not allowed them to leave. That shows that they did not prepare for what would happen in the Old City and did not give it serious thought ...

“The fatal mistake, in my opinion, which sealed the fate of the Old City, was neglecting Zion Gate. I think that if we, the people in the Old City itself, had been told to prepare a squad and seize the gate, we would have been capable of doing it, of seizing the gate. When 80 people arrived as reinforcements, we could have taken 10 men and guarded the gate. At least we could have held it until the evening and removed the wounded and the dead, and in the meantime found a different arrangement for this whole situation ...

“We were all surprised by the way the Legionnaires treated us. We all thought that no trace would remain of the soldiers after the surrender, and we thought that we were thereby saving 2,000 inhabitants, and we talked about that among ourselves. But the way things developed, it turned out that there was no basis for these fears, and that was absolutely true.

“When the Legion entered they protected us even from the outburst of the mob, they helped place the wounded on stretchers, they themselves carried the stretchers. When we lay in the building in captivity they gave us food to eat, altogether they treated us politely and well. They kept repeating one sentence, they calmed us down and said we should not be afraid, and said the same to the inhabitants: that they would not do what we had done at Deir Yassin.

* * *

Half a year after Yosef gave his testimony, he wrote a letter to his good friend and comrade-in-arms, a resident of his own Nachlaot neighborhood, Eliahu Cohen, who was taken captive by the Jordanians when the Old City surrendered and had not yet been released. In the letter, dated 70 years ago, Yosef writes about the new state of Israel the way a lover describes his beloved to a good friend who hasn’t yet met her:

Yosef Mizrahi's letter to his friend, Eliahu Cohen, who was taken captive by the Jordanians.

Jerusalem, December 18, 1948, 29 Kislev 5709

Dear Eliahu – many greetings from Yosef

My dear Eliahu, I find it difficult to begin my letter. My heart is overflowing, and I don’t know what to start with and what to end with. On December 9, a few days ago, there was a big celebration in Café Europa in honor of the first anniversary of the Moriah Battalion (the battalion we also belonged to). I took part in the celebration with mixed feelings, and while I sat there in the midst of the joy and jubilation many memories came back to me.

A year ago, on December 10, we went down into the Old City. You will surely remember the enthusiasm with which we went through Jaffa Gate, with nothing in our unarmored cars other than self-sacrifice and the confidence that all would end for the best. And in fact, it did all end for the best. I am not referring to the end of the episode in the Old City but to our military situation throughout the country as a whole.

You surely remember the gloom and the feeling on the last days before the surrender – that they [our enemies] had buried our country before it managed to be born. And today, from Dan to Be’er Sheva is in our hands. All the invading armies have been routed; 150 square kilometers of Lebanese soil is in our hands. Access to the Dead Sea via Be’er Sheva is a fact. A new road to Jerusalem has been built, along which dozens of communities have been established. Areas we never dreamed would be in our possession have been captured by the “Israel Defense Forces” (the official name of our army) and populated by new immigrants who arrive daily by the tens of thousands.

Ramle, Lod, Jaffa, Nazareth, Acre and Safed are populated by Jews. Industries are being established in Be’er Sheva with the aim of making it an urban center in the Negev. Dozens and hundreds of [Arab] villages across the country are in our hands (even Tarshiha and al-Kabri and Peki’in – do you remember?).

We have a healthy government and a glorious army that numbers tens of thousands. The days of the Sten guns and the rifles are over, our air force now does the talking, and at the moment it is the strongest in the Middle East. Flying Fortresses and heavy bombers are taken for granted. An armored corps that includes heavy tanks and heavy armored personnel carriers. Cannons without end, vast numbers of machine guns (a heavy machine gun per squad and two machine guns per platoon). In short – the “days of the Messiah” (jokers say that the Messiah, son of David, will have nothing left to do).

It’s only a pity that with all this equipment we can’t finish the job and expel the invaders from the whole land. The truce is to our disadvantage, but it looks as though we will not manage to finish the whole job, as many signs indicate that peace is approaching.

The Arab states are in conflict among themselves, and the day is not far off when we will see them aiming the mouths of their cannons at one another. And of course, our statesmen are exploiting this for the best. The only ones who lost on all sides are the English. All their calculations and reckonings proved wrong, and they are devising stratagems to find an honorable way out for themselves.

That, in short, is our military situation at present. Our economic situation is even better. Meat, eggs and vegetables in abundance are on people’s tables. We have our own coins and bank notes, consulates around the world, and the Jewish people also stands erect throughout the world. Everywhere, people talk with admiration about the Jewish people’s war of liberation. And the whole world is watching amazed at the strength we have shown (naturally, all the world’s Jews are placing their body and their capital almost without limit at the state’s disposal).

I’ve run on too long about politics and almost forgot to write about our day-to-day life. As for me, I recovered and have returned to working in the army (in an appropriate job, of course), and all the suffering of the last days “there” looks like an awful nightmare that has passed, never to return. The other comrades-in-arms who returned with me have for the most part also gone back to work, and all are healthy and well.

There is something else that I want to add. This is to all of you, those from the reserves: Believe me that all my thoughts are about you. In my imagination I am with you day and night because, after all, I am lonely here without you. We spent seven months together in an unforgettable period of our lives, seven months of shared joys and agony, and now it is hard, very hard, to enter into the atmosphere of a modern army that’s connected to all the excitement of new methods and new people.

Many times I have told myself that it would be far more interesting for me if I were with you at this time (for heaven’s sake, don’t smile and say “highfalutin” or “sentimental”). And now all that remains is to wait for the day when you will arrive here safely, and that day is closer than you imagine. (By the way, Eliahu, I made a bet with your sister that we will celebrate Passover together. She is more pessimistic than I am. The bet: 20 bottles of beer – and believe me, she’s going to lose.)

And I promise you that there has never been a celebration like we’ll have and never will be again, since the day the concept of “celebration” was created.

Kisses to all of you from me, to Yisrael, to Yatske, to Banai, to Skip and to the whole bunch.

Regards to you all from all the inhabitants of the Old City, from the Banai family, from Gershon, from Nissim Shemesh, from Azriel and from the whole State of Israel.

Yours with hugs from afar and overwhelming longing:


* * *

Reading all these words, which were spoken and written in the Hebrew year 5709, and 70 years later, in 5779, stirs a wave of pining and amazement. Pining for our parents and amazement at the inner fortitude they could draw on in the events that took place in their life and in their youth. Pining for what appears to be certainty and clarity in the first days of the state, and amazement at the vast distance the state has traversed since, from those days of a struggle for survival to our own day.

For Yosef and for many of his friends, who grew up in the poor neighborhoods, the state was a completely personal thing. They were not dupes. They were aware of the many flaws and failings in the conduct of the institutions of the emerging state, but they viewed them as an unavoidable element of the momentum of forging the new state. For us, the story that was unearthed in the straw box revealed my father’s anonymous, total, ingenuous contribution to the national enterprise in which we are all living today.

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