Translation of a letter a couple wrote to their children describing the Hebron massacre of 1929, by Rabbi Aharon Bemzweig and his wife Breine Bemzweig.
WITH GOD’S HELP, Monday, week of the Torah portion Shoftinm Vshotrim, 5689 [September 2, 1929], Tel Aviv, may it be built up and firmly established speedily in our days. Amen. ‘.
My dear children, may you live and be well,
Even before I begin writing my hand is already shaking, my head swims, and every limb is trembling. I am unable to get control of myself because the cries are still ringing in my ears. It is one week today since we came back from the bitter tragedy. Every day I want to write to you, but when I sit down to write all my limbs start to quiver and tears pour from my eyes. so I have to stop. Today for the first time I was able to pull myself together, with all my strength, with superhuman effort. I got up at dawn and sat down to write. I hadn’t started yet, but even before I could begin, my pen was already soaked with tears. Although it seems that I am writing this letter with ink, you should know that it is not ink but tears.
Now, let me get to the point. I don’t really know where to start and where to finish, because my blood is still churning inside me. But I will begin my Megilla [Scroll] of Hebron. Children, as you already know from my earlier letter. Mama, may she live and be well, had been feeling very weak ever since we came back from our trip to America… I kept pleading with Mama…that we needed a change of climate… Finally, she realized that she had no choice and she agreed. She did not want to go by herself, only with me. So we left and went to the country – to Hebron.
We arrived on Sunday, August 18. There we went to a guest house [the Eshel Avraham Hotel manager by Yehuda Leib Shneerson – M.G.], where we got a very nice room and came to an agreement on the charges. We paid for one month in advance, since we planned to stay for several months, until after all the holidays, when it would be cooler.
From the very beginning, things did not go well. Although the air was very good and the weather cool, and Mama, may she be well, did not perspire any more, she caught a severe cold and had to stay in bed…
Ever since we arrived in Hebron, we had heard talk of disturbances in Jerusalem, that Arabs and Jews were fighting…
On Friday, the 23rd, we heard that things had got worse in Jerusalem. Everyone became very uneasy and walked about without a head. We had forebodings that something terrible was about to happen – but what, exactly, we did not know. I was fearful and kept questioning the local people, who had lived there for generations. They assured me that in Hebron there could never be a pogrom, because as many times as there had been-trouble elsewhere in Eretz Yisrael, Hebron had remained quiet. The locals [Jews] had always lived very peacefully with the Arabs.
But my heart told me that the situation was serious. Hebron alone, without the surrounding villages, has a population of 24,000. Including the villages, there are 60,000 people. Of what significance is the Jewish community there, a mere 100 families [actually, about 800 souls – M.G.]? What could we do to protect ourselves? We could only comfort ourselves with the hope that God, blessed be He, would have mercy, and the troubles would run their course quietly.
Friday afternoon the situation worsened. We heard that on the street Arabs had already beaten several Jews with clubs. Next, we heard that all the Jewish stores had closed. The atmosphere was explosive. Everybody was afraid to go out into the street, and we locked ourselves in our
rooms. Things looked really bad. What should we do? “No one could go out, and no one could come in” [Joshua 6.1]; everybody was fearful. By now the local Jews too were saying that the situation was serious.
Suddenly, just one hour before candle lighting, pandemonium broke loose. Window panes were smashed on all sides. In our building, they broke every window and began throwing large stones inside. We hid ourselves. They were breaking windows in all the Jewish homes. Now we were in deathly fear. As we were blessing the Shabbes candles, we heard that in the yeshiva one young man had been killed. It was bitter, the beginning of a slaughter.
In the meantime, mounted policemen arrived, and all became still outside. We thought that our salvation had come. All through the night, the police patrolled the streets. But it seemed that they were having problems. You can understand that I walked the floor, all night terribly worried, with my heart in my mouth. On Shabbes morning, we saw that the situation was getting worse. Cars kept racing back and forth through the streets. They were filled with Arabs armed with long iron bars, long knives, and axes. The Arabs kept screaming that they were going to Jerusalem to slaughter all the Jews. Soon many Jews gathered in our house. We held a meeting and talked the situation over, but couldn’t think of anything .we could do to protect ourselves, since none of us had any weapons. Many of the people remained in our house because by then it was too dangerous to try to go home.
Now let me tell you about the massacre. Right after eight o’clock in the morning, we heard screams. Arabs had begun breaking into Jewish homes. The screams pierced the heart of the heavens. We didn’t know what to do. Our house had two stories. We were downstairs and a doctor [Zvi Kitayin] lived on the second floor. We figured that we would be safe in the doctor’s apartment, but how could we get up there? The stairs were on the outside of the building, and it wasn’t safe to go out. So we chopped through the ceiling and that way we climbed up to the doctor’s house. Well, after being there only a little while, we realized that we were still in danger because by that time the Arabs had almost reached our house. They were going from door to door, slaughtering everyone inside. The screams and moans were terrible. People were crying Help! Help! But what could we do? There were 33 of us. Soon, soon all of us would be lost.
Just then [five minutes before the Arab mob reached the guest house -M.G.], God, blessed be He, in His great mercy, sent us an Arab who lived in back of our house. He insisted that we come down from the doctor’s apartment and enter his house through the back door. He took us to his cellar, a large room without windows to the outside. We all went in, while he, together with several Arab women, stood outside near the door. As we lay there on the floor, we heard the screams as Arabs were slaughtering Jews. It was unbearable. As for us, we felt that the danger was so great that we had no chance of coming out alive. Each one of us said his vidui [confession in anticipation of death]. At any moment we could be slaughtered, for double-edged swords were already at our throats. We had not even the slightest hope of remaining alive. We just begged that it should already be done and over.
Five times the Arabs stormed our house with axes, and all in the while those wild murderers kept screaming at the Arabs who were standing guard to hand over the Jews. They, in turn, shouted back that they had not hidden any Jews and knew nothing. They begged the attackers not to destroy their homes.
We heard everything. In addition, the little children in our group kept crying. We were in deadly fear that the murderers outside would hear them…
Well, I can’t continue describing the destruction. It took several hours – to us it seemed like years – until all became quiet outside. We continued to lie there, waiting for the Angel of Death to finish with us as quickly as possible.
But God heard our prayers. Suddenly, the door opened, and the police walked in. They had been told that we were hidden there. They insisted that we go along with them and that they would take us to a safe place. We were afraid to go because we thought they themselves might slaughter us. Eventually, they succeeded in convincing us that they had our welfare in mind. Since we couldn’t walk there, they brought automobiles and took us, under police guard, to the police station, which was in a safe location.
When we reached the police station, there -was acted out a real-life dance of the devils, for the police had brought together… the surviving remnant. During the earlier confusion, naturally, no one could have known what was happening to anyone else, but there, in the police station, everyone first discovered whom he had lost. As people told each other about their misfortunes and how many casualties they had suffered, there erupted a terrible outcry, everyone shrieking and weeping at the same time. It was unbearable. Blessed God, give us strength! It was beyond human endurance. Three women went, out of their minds right there. ‘
In short, we were in the police station three days and three nights. We couldn’t eat and we couldn’t sleep. We lay on the ground in filth, just listening to the crying and groaning. Finally, God, blessed be He, had mercy on us and [on Monday night -M.G.] the police again transferred us to Jerusalem. There we stayed in the Nathan Straus Health Centre for two days and two nights, and on Wednesday we came back to Tel Aviv.
I AM WRITING you only about our troubles. I don’t have the strength to write about the additional troubles of the whole Jewish community. That you will surely read in the American newspapers. It is very tragic, but everything is from God.
Now I will tell you the total number of people who were slaughtered in Hebron. As of today, there are 63 holy martyrs. While we were still there, 58 were buried in a common grave – 51 males and 7 females; up to today, there are five more martyrs from among the wounded. Of the wounded, 49 are in serious condition and 17 slightly wounded. Who knows how many more fatalities there will be. The yeshiva suffered 23 killed and 17 wounded. Eight of the dead and 14 of the wounded from the yeshiva are American boys. Gevalt! Twenty-three living Torah scrolls were burned! May the heavens open and avenge us.
All the batei midrash with their Tora Scrolls and holy books were burned; everything in them was destroyed. All the homes were plundered; not even a straw was left!
We ourselves were left practically naked and barefoot. Since we had planned to stay there a few months, we had taken along all our clothes. Mama, may she live and be well, was left with only the one dress she was wearing and I, too, had only what I was wearing. They even took my talis and tefilin. Before Shabbes, I gave the money that I had brought along to the innkeeper for safekeeping. The Arabs took that money, too – quite a large amount.
To make matters worse, the situation in the entire country is very bad, and no one is paying his debts. I have notes for several thousand dollars. Last week, notes in the amount of $750 came due, but no one paid. Who knows what will happen in the future? God forbid that we should be ruined altogether. We’re trying to keep our heads above water while we keep hearing that here things are bad and there things are bad. May God, blessed be He, have mercy and help all the Jews, including us, that we should at least be well and be able to bear up under these trials. We Jews have had enough troubles!
I have no patience to write about family matters because my hand is still trembling.
JUST ONE THING, my dear children, may you live and be well, I ask of you that you save this letter for posterity. Each year, at an agreed-upon day, you should all meet and give thanks and praise to God, blessed be He, who saved your parents from this great catastrophe, and each one of you should make a generous contribution to charity. The miracle took place on the Shabbes of Tora portion Ekev, the 18th day of Av, 5689 [August 24, 1929], in Hebron.
Your father, who wishes you the best, writing to you through tears,
Aharon [Aharon Reuven Bemzweig] [(wife) Breine Zuch Bemzweig]
Translated from the Yiddish by Helen G. Meyrowitz and Dr. Meyer Greenberg.
This article first appeared here