A Mandate to Inform and Entertain: Visiting the Underground Prisoners Museum in Jerusalem

The Underground Prisoners Museum in Jerusalem offers a fascinating insight into the ordeal Jewish freedom fighters faced in the British Mandate jail.

The Underground Prisoners Museum was originally built, in the mid-19th century, to house the streams of Russian Orthodox pilgrims to the Holy Land. The building provided hostel accommodation for female Russian religious travelers (look for the distinct Cyrillic inscription carved into the lintel over the main entrance), but that tourist traffic ended abruptly with the overthrow of Czarist Russia in 1917. However, the solid stonework used for the entire Russian Compound area made it an obvious choice for housing the apparatus of the British military rule in this region, with the hostel being adapted for prison purposes for almost all of the three decades of Mandatory Palestine.

Much later, in 1991, the Defense Ministry restored the Central Prison, turning it into a museum honoring the underground struggle of the Jewish community to secure independence from the British.

Much of what went on in during the building’s prison phase may be traced to a single paragraph of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, conveying British policy toward Jewish immigration into Palestine.

Palestine and Trans-Jordan had by then fallen into British hands as a mandate (a power of attorney from the League of Nations following the dismantlement of the Ottoman Empire): “His Majesty's government view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, and will use their best endeavors to facilitate the achievement of this object, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine, or the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country.”

The phrasing of this paragraph was viewed differently by three crucial groups, each with very different and often sharply conflicting agendas.

The regional Arab population was increasingly alarmed by a fast-growing Jewish immigration. They were not pacified by the declaration’s protection of their civil and religious rights.

The Jews increasingly blurred the difference between “a national home for the Jewish people” and the ultimate goal of Jewish sovereignty, increasingly promoting them as one and the same thing.

The differences and infighting between the Jewish pressure groups lay not in the overall objective, but how it was to be achieved.

The Haganah confined its activities to defending the Jewish population against Arab militants during their various uprisings, and to clandestinely supporting Jewish immigration without actively harming the Mandate.

The more confrontational Etzel group did seek to encourage the British to leave by taking military action against its personnel and resources, differing from the Lehi fighters (the most extreme) by suspending that action when fighting the common enemy in World War II.

All Jewish groups became increasingly hostile toward the British, as the White Paper of 1938 - curtailing Jewish immigration out of the exigencies of war - was still grimly enforced after 1945, effectively ordering Holocaust survivors not to “jump the queue.”

These activities were exhausting the patience of the British, who were simultaneously facing uprisings in different parts of the far-flung empire as well as global war. Consequently, the Brits were in no mood to favor or show sensitivity to any of the Jewish groups, all of whose many troublesome activists found themselves incarcerated alongside common criminals in the cells.

Divide and rule

After watching the introductory video (available in English), your inspection of the Underground Prisoners Museum passes four types of accommodation. Most of the time, these mixed Jews, Christians and Muslims together in the same cells. Strangely, it was not until the last years of the Mandate that the authorities found the need to segregate Jewish and Arab prisoners.

Those convicted of the lesser infractions slept eight to a cell in simple beds, offering a similar degree of comfort and population density to the British youth hostels of my teens.

The rank and file prisoners also slept eight to a barred cell – but with only one bed, for the privileged prisoner who ranked as cell overseer. Divide and rule!

The less fortunate seven were on the uncomfortable mats, made out of ropes woven together. And the prisoner at the very bottom of the pecking order had his mat placed right by the slopping-out bucket containing the prisoners’ urine and excrement.

Unruly individuals were sent to cool off in the solitary-confinement barred cages, measuring one pace by three.

Those condemned to death by execution wore red clothing and were housed in the shadow of the gallows.

No Jews were actually executed there, although condemned men Moshe Barazani (Lehi) and Meir Feinstein (Etzel) blew themselves up at the last moment with a hand grenade hidden in orange peels, reassembled in a wicker fruit basket.

Touring the prison emphasizes the strict military regime, with parades, inspections and work in the prison bakery, printing press, shoe repairers and coffin makers. Ironically, the coffins were for the British soldiers serving in Palestine.

Many of the prisoners’ arts and crafts, providing a deep insight into the life and aspirations of the Jewish underground, are on display, together with the items used by the British to control prisoners - including truncheons and the bamboo cane.

The Sabbath was the day prisoners looked forward to most, with the visit of Rabbi Aryeh Levin (1885-1969) the high point of the week. With the appearance, scholarship and streimel of a former Eastern European sage, he made it his work to conduct the services in the small, simple prison synagogue.

Levin treated the prisoners as members of his family, and they loved him for it - even those whose values were very different from the rabbi’s. “Reb Aryeh’s” well-trained memory also provided a solution around the Shabbat prohibitions of writing by memorizing addresses of the prisoners’ families.

Even in old age he would trudge distances to bring them messages from their husbands, fathers and children sitting behind steel bars. Appropriately, the ark curtain quotes the last verse of Psalm 142: “Bring me out of the prison of my soul.”

One thing lacking at the museum was personal testimonies, apart from the video and multimedia presentation at the prison place of execution. It would have been good to hear the memories of ex-prisoners still able to share them.

Allow 90 minutes for your visit. The museum is near the municipality complex at 1 Misheol Hagvurah Street, the Russian Compound, Jerusalem (telephone 02-623 3166). Open Sun-Thur 9:00-17:00. Entrance fee. Bus lines from the Central Bus Station: 6, 13, 18, 20 and 21. Jerusalem Light Railway: to the Municipality.

Jacob Solomon