The Turkish Hangman Sent This Jewish Architect to Damascus. 600 Laborers Waited for Him There

Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz was ordered by the Turkish authorities to improve the city in 1916. His memoirs provide a glimpse into this huge undertaking and his cordial relationship with Ottoman ruler Djemal Pasha

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Damascus in 1938.
Damascus in 1938.Credit: James A. Mills/AP
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The order handed down by Djemal Pasha in 1916 left Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz no choice. “Send Wilbushevitz to Damascus immediately!” the Ottoman ruler decreed. The protests of the Jewish engineer and architect from Tel Aviv were to no avail. “Mr. Wilbushevitz, an order of Djemal Pasha cannot be changed and does not suffer delay,” he was advised by government representatives.

This is how Wilbushevitz, in the middle of World War I, found himself in a first-class carriage from Ramle en route to Syria.

Pasha, the Turkish governor in Ottoman Palestine and Syria, wanted to improve the external appearance of the capital, Damascus, and handed the task to the talented Jewish engineer. He had good reason for his choice. Wilbushevitz, who immigrated to Ottoman Palestine in the late 19th century from White Russia, was one of the pioneers of industry and construction in the Holy Land. He engaged in public works for the government, including the boulevard in Jaffa that was originally named after Pasha, was later renamed George V Boulevard and is now Jerusalem Boulevard.

Jewish engineer and architect Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz. Left his mark on Damascus.Credit: Israel Archives Network

He got right down to work in Damascus. Pasha, accompanied by his officers, led him from one site to the next, and explained his plan to improve the city’s appearance.

When Wilbushevitz asked why he hadn’t been informed of the reason for his invite, Pasha replied: “Aren’t you afraid of being hanged?” Wilbushevitz found a smart answer: “Had I known for what purpose I was being invited to Damascus, I would have brought the tools I need for the job.”

Ottoman ruler Djemal Pasha. Pasha placed about 600 soldiers at Wilbushevitz's disposal as laborers, plus the officers responsible for them.

The story of the Jewish engineer who immigrated from Poland to Ottoman Palestine and found himself redesigning Damascus appears in Wilbushevitz’s memoirs, which were unearthed last year by his great-granddaughter, Yehudit Golan, in the family archive.

“I started to read the material and became fascinated,” she says. “There were wonderful stories there: about building the first buildings in Rehovot; digging the first artesian well; a trip of several days in a horse-drawn carriage from Jaffa to Rosh Pina [in the Upper Galilee]; the first iron foundry; the construction of the Technion in Haifa, and much more.”

One of those stories details his work for Djemal Pasha as engineer of the city of Damascus.

“Most of the buildings in Damascus were built without any architectural plan, in a very primitive manner,” Wilbushevitz wrote. “One of the basic flaws in the overall appearance of the city was mainly the lack of coordination between the unplanned construction and the surroundings,” he added. “That’s a frequent phenomenon in the cities in our country as well, especially in Tel Aviv. I often heard complaints by our architects on that subject.”

Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz and his family. The architect is second from the right on the top row.Credit: Courtesy of the Wilbushevitz family

The work he did to improve the city’s appearance included designing magnificent boulevards, renovating ancient mosques, paving roads and planting trees.

Pasha asked him, “What’s the minimum amount of time required for the entire project?” Wilbushevitz responded that he could carry out the job quite speedily if he received either an unlimited sum of money or unlimited authority. Pasha agreed to the second condition and placed about 600 soldiers at his disposal as laborers, plus the officers responsible for them.

In addition, he received permission to hire additional laborers from among the men who had yet to be drafted into the army. “That right to release a person from the obligation of going to the war front, by employing him for the renovation work, strengthened my status among the people,” Wilbushevitz wrote.

Indeed, many people tried to get close to him for the purpose of releasing a friend or relative from war duties. “And in fact I released young people from Palestine from army service who were brought to Damascus by the authorities,” he said. Among those he released were young Jews such as Moshe Shertok (later Sharett, Israel’s first foreign minister), the Orientalist Dr. Yosef Rivlin (the father of future President Reuven Rivlin), Yekutiel Baharav, who would go on to co-found the Israel Electric Company, and Baruch Chizik, a researcher and developer of agricultural projects, and one of the founders of Moshavat Kinneret.

An undated picture of Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz, right, from the State Archives.Credit: Israel State Archives

“Djemal Pasha would often visit the workplace, take an interest in its progress, and would urge us to complete the work as soon as possible. He asked me to come to him whenever I encountered difficulties and allowed me to come to his residence even in work clothes, as long as I wouldn’t lose time,” Wilbushevitz wrote. “The group of government officials treated my demands and orders with all seriousness,” he added.

Pasha, he noted, “would take every opportunity he had to enhance my reputation in the eyes of the officials.” For instance, he would invite the engineer to festive parties, “and when I entered the party, he would greet me with a handshake in front of everyone. Under such conditions, I was able to overcome many difficulties I encountered in executing the work,” he wrote.

Along with the soldiers, he enlisted about 300 craftsmen – including quarriers, stonemasons, builders, plasterers, carpenters and blacksmiths. “With these experts I myself created all the materials I lacked,” he wrote. Among other things, he built quarries and workshops, where they worked limestone, chiseled stones and more. When he needed means of transportation, he commandeered empty carts and mules from Damascenes, with the aid of soldiers on the main streets.

‘Toxic hatred of Jews’

One of the chapters from that period is devoted to a confrontation with German officers and soldiers who were posted in Syria at that time as part of the wartime alliance between Turkey and Germany. “It was easy for me to arrange my business with Turkish officialdom and with the residents of Damascus. But it was not so easy for me to manage when I encountered Germans. Antisemitism typified the Germans even in those days, and the toxic hatred of Jews welled up in them already then.”

The main boulevard in Jaffa that was originally named after Pasha, was later renamed George V Boulevard and is now Jerusalem Boulevard.Credit: Moti Milrod

One day, he found himself in a full-on confrontation with the German army after criticizing a German soldier who broke floor tiles in one of the building sites he managed. “I shouted at him and reprimanded him,” Wilbushevitz wrote. Several days later, he was summoned to the mayor, who told him a complaint had reached him from the head commander of the German armies in Turkey, Friedrich von Wrangel. The complaint went to the district governor, who put Wilbushevitz on trial.

“The Polish Jew Gedalyahu Wilbushevitz insulted the German people by hurling coarse words at the German people,” the Germans complained. The punishment they demanded was lashes on the soles of his feet and his expulsion from Damascus. The case was ultimately closed and a sulha (reconciliation ceremony) was held between the Jewish engineer and the senior German officer.

Gedalyahu Wilbuszewicz's grave site in the old Jewish cemetery in Haifa.Credit: Shaul / GFDL

After his return to Palestine, Wilbushevitz participated in the construction of the Shemen factory on the Haifa coast. Other projects included the Electric Company buildings, Haifa’s central train station and the old building in the northern city’s Bnei Zion Medical Center.

Wilbushevitz also taught the building trades at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, among other places. He died in 1943, and a street in Haifa is named after him.

In his memoirs, he also took the opportunity to improve Pasha’s negative image. Wilbushevitz said the Ottoman ruler was widely known as “a hangman who harshly punishes the criminals, or those he believes to be criminals.” However, after getting to know him for a few years, the engineer also identified “illuminating and humane aspects of his dark image.”

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