The Story Of Chana Apel
“It was the end of the summer in 1947, and the time leading up to the new year felt different. Typically, there is an atmosphere of self-reckoning and renewal. However, the vote in the United Nations over the Partition Plan was lingering, and there was a cloud of concern looming over us.
For many years, the Arab population did not accept the settling of the Jewish people in their homeland. Jewish communities flourished in areas where Jews lived. The Arabs coveted their property and their fields. They destroyed crops that they stole and looted property at their will. If they were caught off guard, they would injure and kill. Despite all this, there were in fact neighborhoods where relations between Arabs and Jews were fairly good.
The English were in control for thirty years and their job was to keep the peace and check that life remained in order. But it was not like that. Instead of acting impartially, they leaned toward the Arab side. They prevented the Jews from coming to Israel as refugees from the Holocaust, and it was forbidden to carry a weapon, even for self-defense. They implemented a curfew, and conducted home-searches. The incarceration of men was quite common. Put simply, we were abused by them and thus distanced ourselves from them. Some people even boycotted the English language, so that we would not be connected to them.
We lived in the Old City of Jerusalem on HaKraim Street, in a mixed Arab-Jewish neighborhood. The houses were separate but relations between Arab and Jewish neighbors were good. The month of the Jewish holidays passed, but my sister and I could not return to school. Until we would be able to, we learned at the Beit Yaakov school on David Yelin Street in the city. I was ten and a half years old and starting 5th grade. My sister Rachel was starting the 4th grade. We traveled to school on a bus, through the road that left the Old City by way of the Yafo Gate, which was located in the commercial part of the city’s Arab area. The Arabs started to notice us when the United Nations vote on the Partition Plan approached. They beat and stabbed Jews who passed through and threw rocks at our buses. Fear and tensions rose. No one was permitted to leave our neighborhood unless it was absolutely necessary for work. All others remained inside the Old City. That is how it came to be that my sister and I remained inside our home unable to attend school, like all other students who learned in Jerusalem.
The “Hagana” acted as the mainstream Jewish army. However, the British army kept them from being able to defend Jewish settlements. The “Lechi” and “Irgun” underground movements thus made it their goal to remove the British from the territory and cause damage to the British army and infrastructure.
On the day of the vote – November 29, 1947 – it was very tense. The UN voted in favor of the Partition Plan and decided to divide the territory into two states: one for the Jewish Nation and the other for the Palestinians. The Arabs would walk away with more territory. When we heard of the decision in Israel, we were elated. In Tel Aviv and elsewhere, the Jews danced in the streets. In the Old City, it was different. The tension and fear persisted and reigned over the area.
That is how our War of Independence begun. Arab leaders who were not satisfied with the UN’s decision to grant Jews a right to a homeland convinced Arab residents to abandon their homes (they would eventually return and choose for themselves which of our homes to settle in). The following day, all our Arab neighbors had disappeared and we started hearing gunshots in the distance. The Old City was under siege and all its residents congregated inside the city.
My family left our home on HaKraim Street and we moved to “Deche Peltz” or “Batei Machse” Street, in one of the homes of a resident who abandoned the Quarter. People from all over the Old City came to live with us. My father moved around the furniture of the home’s previous owner and we used the other half of the apartment. Because of a lack of available places to live, we lived several families together in this home. Eventually, we moved into a larger home. More families moved into that home as well. My father created a corner in the home for my family where we kept our possessions.
The situation was such that it became a siege within a siege. During that time, the path to Jerusalem went through several Arab villages, such that we could not pass through. The only solution was to bring armored convoys that could bring us bread and other equipment. The convoys did not always make it through. The young men whose heroic effort to connect us to the city of Jerusalem during this time are still with us. The bodies of the wounded and deadlined the path to the Old City’s gates.
Life in the Old City was different from then on. There was no electricity. We drew our water from wells and our bathrooms and kitchens were outdoors. From then on, we would live in a tiny apartment with several families, each of which included many children.
Residents of the Quarter were besieged and endured a barrage of shelling and firing. Without work, we worked to defend our homes by helping the combat soldiers to stand their ground and remain in their fortifications. We filled bags of sand and boarded the windows to defend ourselves from snipers. Some of the children were the messengers, running from fort to fort and bringing food.
The Quarter was shrinking. The residents fled mixed neighborhoods and crowded in the center, moved down in the ground floors of their apartments, and turned their homes into fortresses.
Attacks on the Quarter multiplied. Every night, we followed the sounds of the bombing and constantly wondered if anyone had been hurt. Our food supply diminished slowly. Most of the shopkeepers of stores from which we could buy food fled. Most of the time people boarded themselves inside their homes for security. […]
When we left our homes, we always worried that we would not be able to return. The shelling was frequent and there were many injured. Our conversations were about who had been injured or killed. When the Quarter fell to the Arabs, it shrunk in size. In between fighting, there would be short ceasefires. But you could not trust the quiet for long. If it became too quiet, the Arabs in the area would start firing and shelling again.
British convoys would occasionally enter the Old City to bring emergency supplies. They would ensure that no supplies were being smuggled in that would help the fighters or residents, and would even convince residents that they were only endangering themselves by remaining in the Old City and that they should leave. Thus, at night, we would hear the sound of families leaving. It was not considered respectable to leave and abandon our home, so they would do it in secret.
As the day approached for the British to leave, their violence and terrorism became increasingly brutal. The shelling from the Arabs lasted even longer. Many were injured and killed, among them rabbi Ornstein and his wife. We did not have enough time to give the dead a proper burial.
When the British evacuated the Quarter, some of them passed their weapons on to the Arab residents, which made our lives increasingly difficult. The shelling multiplied, the residents cramped together, and the Quarter became smaller and smaller. We heard Arabs calling for a massacre of the Jews. We were so afraid.
Finally, on one of the more horrific days, we heard gangs of Arabs screaming that they were coming to massacre us. The screams grew louder and louder, until eventually, we left the place we were staying and sought shelter in a more protected and underground apartment. It was a horrifying event that haunts me even today. There was simply no hope, so we prayed and waited for a miracle. It was clear that this was the end and that the Arabs were not planning to take mercy with anyone.
Finally, a miracle occurred. It was rumored that a brave man threw explosives towards a group of Arab militants who were approaching us and caused panic. The Arabs fled, and we later returned to our respective shelters.
On Friday morning, we learned that the Jordanian Legion was approaching in a mission to conquer the Quarter, and it was decided that we would surrender. A delegation headed by Rabbi Weingarten Hazan and Mintzberg came out with the commander of the district Moshe Rusnak and waved a white sheet to signal surrender. Abdullah-Tel had several demands, among them that the fighters among us go to captivity and that all weapons must be delivered to them. It was also a condition that the Quarter is evacuated of all residents, and so they informed us to prepare to leave our homes.
My parents began to gather some clothes and important documents. We were all told to meet in the field above us. They separated the men from the rest of us and only later informed us that they were all taken into captivity. When the Jordanians saw who they had been fighting, and realized there were not many people to take into captivity, they took the injured, children, and elderly. We remained with our mother.
All of the Quarter’s residents, 1,300 women, children, and elderly, left with all our belongings in a caravan towards the Zion Gate. The journey was terrifying. We did not know what awaited us. The Jordanians escorted us and hurried us along until we reached the Zion Gate. It was too difficult for us with all our belongings so we simply left them.
We stood and waited for everyone to pass through the gate. It was cold out, and we stood there only with the clothing that we were wearing. Finally, the Gate opened and we were met by young men and women on the other side who escorted us to hiding in a Monastery on Mount Zion. We rested on the floor and heard that the shelling had continued. Late at night, we snuck out of the monastery and met a bus that waited to take us to Katamon.
The War of Independence continued for other several months. My father and the other men remained in captivity. A year passed until he finally returned home. We slowly settled into a routine. Since the war, we had prayed to return to the Old City of Jerusalem. During the Six-Day War, when the Old City was liberated and returned to the Jews. I rushed to return and see my home. It was as if the Quarter remained frozen for 19 years as if it was waiting for its owners to return to it and revitalize it.”