An American trapped in the 1948 siege of Jerusalem
“We are so used to bombs and the sound of firing guns that we don’t get upset anymore.”
In choosing those words, Florence Bar Ilan probably hoped to convey that there was a certain stability to her daily life, but one can imagine her parents, Rachel and Samuel Ribakove, back in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, trembling as they read the letter their daughter sent from besieged Jerusalem during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence.
“Dear Florence, Dear Mother and Dad,” a collection of letters between Florence and her American relatives from the 1930s through the 1960s, has been published by family members ahead of Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day) 2015, which falls on May 17. The collection is not only a way to document the family’s legacy, but also provides scholars, students, and the general public with a remarkable eyewitness account of an American immigrant’s life in Israel, including a riveting description of daily life during the 1948 siege of Jerusalem.
Florence’s journey began as a counselor in the Cejwin Jewish summer camp in upstate New York in 1934, where she met Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute Toby (Tuvia) Berlin, son of Rabbi Meir Berlin (later Bar Ilan), leader of the religious Zionist movement. Three years later, they were married and living in British Mandatory Palestine.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the correspondence between Florence and her parents and siblings back in Brooklyn was largely devoted to the challenges of young motherhood and other family concerns. Well into 1947, Florence’s letters reflected an ordinary daily life dominated by the routine concerns of a young homemaker—children’s needs, laundry schedules, preparation of meals.
But as Arab violence intensified, Florence’s letters began reflecting the growing tension. “There is practically no danger if you are indoors,” Florence assured her parents in July 1947, “so we try to avoid being in the streets. We’ve had a stray bullet on the balcony again and splinters in my father-in-law’s bedroom but no one was in the room and a miss is as good as a mile.” There were also the beginnings of food shortages. In one letter, Florence described the extra efforts she had to make to procure some beef since, “After all, we can’t live on chicken all the time.” Those words would come back to haunt her.
A reader cannot help but share Florence’s elation as she recounts street scenes in Jerusalem following the United Nations vote on partitioning Palestine into Jewish and Arab states. “The city was wild today,” she wrote. “Youngsters climbed on trucks and buses and went through the streets singing and shouting, ‘A Jewish State—free immigration!’ Whenever you met anyone you knew the greeting was ‘Mazel tov’... I never knew there were so many people in Jerusalem!
By early 1948, the mood had changed drastically. Constant Arab attacks on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road made it increasingly difficult for vehicles carrying food or medicine to reach the Holy City. With each passing day, Jerusalemites felt the ever-harsher grip of the siege. The days of “chicken all the time” gave way to “Some days I can’t get chicken or fish for the children...My grocer now gives me one egg per person a week.” The temperature in their house rarely reached 50 degrees, “and the children have woolen socks and underwear and in the house, I too wear woolen anklets,” Florence wrote. They had hot water only a few times each week, because, like most families, they did not have enough kerosene to heat more. Baths, even for the children, became a rarity.
Violence intensified within the city, as well. On Ben-Yehuda Street, close to where the Bar Ilans lived, Arab bombs shattered numerous windows, but shopkeepers were reluctant to replace them because “who knows how soon they’ll have to put in new glass” again. Gunfire became so frequent that “most Jerusalemites can distinguish the different sounds made by different guns.” Among the victims of a March 12 attack on Jewish Agency headquarters was Toby’s cousin, Mrs. Michal Raami-Berlin.
One is hardly surprised to read a letter from Florence’s sister Gertrude suggesting, “sending Naama (the Bar Ilans’ 2-year-old daughter) and Naphtali (their 5-year-old son) to us for an indefinite period.” But Florence and Toby would not hear of it. “We’re in this up to our necks and there is no going back... Like all the other Jews in Palestine we know we must make a stand here,” Florence wrote.
Florence gamely tried to put a positive spin on the details of the worsening siege. Sure, they were eating mostly cold food from cans, she acknowledged in one letter—but at least they did not need to use up their remaining kerosene to heat it. “We live in a purely Jewish district and feel quite safe,” Florence reassured her parents, only to mention, just two sentences later, that she had not yet picked up a package from Gertrude that had been waiting her for at the local post office, because “there is sniping around there.”
Not seeing a tomato or an egg for weeks at a time, or not being able to take a bath or do laundry, soon seemed like trivial hardships, when the birth of the State of Israel, in May, was greeted with a full-scale invasion by Arab armies. “We are cut off from the world,” Florence wrote on May 16. “Telephone lines are down outside of town and there is no electricity... Naturally, the refrigerator isn’t working and we can’t cook for we have no other means at present except an electric plate... To add to our difficulties, there’s no water in our neighborhood.”
Remarkably, none of this seemed to faze the children. “We are pretty nimble at snatching the children and running” to the bomb shelters, Florence reported, in a scene that sounds terrifying but which her young son and daughter treated as some kind of game. When the children of Toby’s murdered cousin needed to move in to the Bar Ilans’ already cramped apartment, Naphtali and Naama were delighted to have additional playmates. Florence was horrified to find bullet holes in the sheets drying on her porch and bullet casings scattered about, but “this was a great treasure for Naphtali, for he like most other children now have collections of empty cartridge cases and spent bullets,” she wrote.
Spring gave way to the “murderous heat” of the summer, which was made all the more insufferable by a severe water shortage—three pails per family per day. “We’ve gotten used to no electricity, no kerosene, no fruit or vegetables, no meat, fish or eggs,” Florence wrote. “But now the hardest is the water shortage.”
A series of Israeli military victories during the summer finally broke the siege and secured the freedom of western Jerusalem. An unstinting commitment to the Zionist dream had sustained this young American housewife and her Israeli husband, and their fellow Jerusalemites, through the darkest of days. “These deprivations mean little when we think of those who have died in the battle of Jerusalem,” Florence wrote. “We have high hopes. Not that we forget the sacrifices our State has cost and will cost but we believe that they are worthwhile. How many people live and die for nothing at all!”
Dr. Rafael Medoff is the author of 15 books on Zionist and Jewish history, as well as coeditor, with Chaim I. Waxman, of the Historical Dictionary of Zionism.