In a Jerusalem Cellar, Traces of 1948 Underground Fighters

Under an old German orphanage, right-wing Lehi militants left behind graffiti that helps tell the story of Israel’s War of Independence.

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The Schneller compound in central Jerusalem, May 2016.
The Schneller compound in central Jerusalem, May 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

A few weeks ago, workers removed tons of garbage and construction debris blocking an old cellar under a historic building in central Jerusalem. Workers and officials from the Society for the Preservation of Israel Heritage Sites were the first people to visit the cellar in decades.

The site is the old Schneller Orphanage, set up by German Protestants in the mid-19th century. On the walls the workers found graffiti scrawled in 1949. The artsists were members of the Lehi – the right-wing underground militia that the British called the Stern Gang.

The first months after the establishment of the state in 1948 were a bit odd in Jerusalem. After all, the city wasn’t yet considered part of Israel; according to the UN partition plan, Jerusalem would fall under international supervision.

Two right-wing underground movements, the Lehi and the Irgun (also called the Etzel), took advantage of the disorder and continued to operate in the city independently. They refused to join the newly established Israel Defense Forces or obey Jerusalem commander David Shaltiel, whom they considered their archenemy. Chaos ensued with the September assassination of the UN representative to the region, Count Folke Bernadotte, a Swede.

After the assassination, the government of the nascent state arrested Lehi militants across the country. They were scattered in a number of prisons; some managed to escape while others launched a hunger strike. A few were put on trial and convicted of various crimes, but ultimately they were pardoned and released without serving their sentences.

It went unreported at the time, but the graffiti at the Schneller compound proves that there was another group of Lehi detainees arrested and jailed in Jerusalem. Lehi veterans have some vague memories of this.

“There were a few detainees there; I was also arrested once but I was quickly released,” says Lehi veteran Kalman Park.

The German angle

The Schneller Orphanage operated until World War II, when the British expelled German citizens from Mandate Palestine hundreds of German Templer Protestants lived in the country.

The compound was taken over by the British army, which turned it into an administrative center. Lehi members knew the place because in 1947 they and the Irgun had tried to blow it up.

When the British left, the IDF moved in. At the center of the compound was a military detention facility. Under it, it turns out, were rooms that served as isolation cells. Lehi members who were captured after the Bernadotte assassination were placed here.

The main part of the cellar was probably abandoned in the early 1950s; after that it filled up with garbage and construction debris. Ten years ago the area was abandoned by the army; a neighborhood for ultra-Orthodox Jews is being built there.

The building is slated for preservation and will house a museum. As part of these efforts and an exhibition on the site’s history at the Jerusalem Artists House, the rooms and the cellar have been opened to visitors. After tons of refuse were removed, two cisterns and a laundry room were found under the building. There was also graffiti on the walls.

A cellar where Lehi fighters were imprisoned during the War of Independence, May 2016.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The largest and clearest inscription says “Shlomo Hasson, the Old City.” Nearby are other names including Greifeld, Laszlo, Yaakov Shmaryau and A. Porag.

Two symbols on the wall stand out; one is a hand with two upraised fingers in oath-taking style, the Lehi’s emblem. Under it is the quote from Psalms: “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.” There is also a communist star with a hammer and sickle inside it more on that later.

Haaretz asked 10 Lehi veterans about those names, the symbols and the cellar. Most couldn’t remember the names; they needed to know the noms de guerre.

Alas, Ezra Yakhin, considered an expert on the Lehi in Jerusalem, refused to be interviewed by Haaretz. He called the newspaper “one filled with self-hatred.”

The names on the wall don’t appear in the database of Lehi members at Beit Yair, the Lehi Museum in Tel Aviv. Laszlo Koppel, one of the men who scrawled his name, did fight for the Lehi in Jerusalem in that period, under the nom de guerre Willy. Next to his name he added some words in Hungarian.

Meaningful emblem

The National Library’s historical archive only contains one name from the cellar, that of Shlomo Hasson. The newspaper Do’ar Hayom mentions him in 1936 as someone who attacked a Christian cleric at the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem.

Mordechai Mizrahi, who was also arrested by the IDF in 1949, vaguely remembers someone by that name in the cellar with him. A Hebrew-language book about the Old City by Prof. Yehoshua Ben-Arieh – a survey of families living in the Old City’s Jewish Quarter based on a 1939 census – mentions three families named Hasson but no one named Shlomo.

The Lehi emblem was created by Lehi member Eliezer Ben-Ami at the request of his commander, after the establishment of the state. The emblem is associated with the group in Jerusalem, which continued to operate after most of its members had already joined the IDF.

In August 1949, Ben-Ami drew a huge Lehi emblem on the cliff along the Scorpion’s Pass in the Negev. Researcher Yehuda Ziv has written on his blog that David Ben-Gurion’s office ordered the drawing erased before the first prime minister passed through on his maiden visit to Eilat.

But Ben-Ami denies that he drew the emblem at Schneller. “I was imprisoned for five years,” he says. “I got out in 1948 and then went to Tel Aviv.”

Either way, Ben-Ami is still angry at Shaltiel. “David Shaltiel tried to get as many Lehi members as he could killed,” he says. The Bernadotte assassination was the right thing to do, he adds, because “with his death came the end of the plan to internationalize Jerusalem, and the city was saved for Israel.”

And Ben-Gurion? “He was a dictator, but I’ve forgiven him for all his crimes,” Ben-Ami says. "Apparently we needed a leader like him.”

So what about that hammer and sickle? What was it doing in a place where right-wing nationalists were imprisoned?

Lehi researchers note how a communist faction operated within the group. “There were communists there as well as proponents of a Third Temple,” says Modi Snir, referring to religious ultra-nationalists.

The cellar walls contain other names, dates and inscriptions. A small hall next door tells another story. Unlike the cellar in the 1950s, this room remained operational.

Its walls were painted, and writing on it indicates that it served as a club for soldiers at the site’s military base; this could have been anytime between the 1950s and 1990s. One large inscription reads: “The wine and drink cellar.”

In any case, Haaretz’s research into the Lehi graffiti helped solve another mystery. In 1953, the violinist Jascha Heifetz was assaulted by two young men in Jerusalem. This happened after he insisted on playing a piece by German composer Richard Strauss.

No one knew who the assailants were; two suspects were released after Heifetz refused to pick them out in a police lineup.

The Lehi search turned up one of the suspects, Avraham Mizrahi; this fighter had gone to hear Heifetz play.

“It seemed strange to them that in an auditorium full of Ashkenazi Jews there were four or five Jews of Mizrahi origin,” Mizrahi says, referring to Jews with roots in North Africa and the Middle East.

“That’s why my friend and I were arrested. The investigator asked what I had to do with classical music. I smiled and answered that I liked that kind of music.”

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