It’s not hard to bump into history anywhere in Jerusalem. It’s actually harder to not bump up against it. So it isn’t a surprise that I ran into some pre state history on my way to the courthouse in Jerusalem where I needed to pick up a document from the court clerk.
The court is located in the Russian Compound in downtown Jerusalem. It is one of the oldest areas outside of the Old City. It is the home of a Russian Orthodox Church and it was the home of hostels for pilgrims and a hospice. Many of the old buildings are now used as government offices, including the Shalom Courthouse. As I inevitably got a bit turned around while heading to the courthouse I saw a sign for the Museum of Underground Prisoners and a tale of two prisoners I had learned about in Camp Betar resurfaced in my memory.
Feinstein and Barzani. Meir Feinstein was born in the Old City of Jerusalem. He was captured by the British occupying forces and summarily tried and sentenced to death by hanging for his part in an attempted sabotage of the Jerusalem railway by the Irgun. Moshe Barzani, a Kurdish Jew, came to Israel from Iraq at the age of six. Moshe Barzani, a member of Lechi also known as the Stern Gang, was arrested because he had a grenade in his pocket. In his 90 minute trial he was tried and convicted of attempting to assassinate a high ranking British official. He too would be hung. The two men shared a cell as they awaited their execution and in that cell they hatched a plan.
Their original plan was to kill the British officers who would conduct their hanging and in that explosion they would also kill themselves. The Rabbi who was there to comfort them insisted he would accompany them when the time came. The grenades their comrades smuggled in could not be used as originally intended. On the day of their execution the boys asked their guard to leave their cell so that they could pray in private. Moshe Feinstein gave the guard his bible as a parting gift to a man who had been kind to them. An explosion rocked the prison as Feinstein and Barazani ended their lives rather than allow the British to hang them.
I was fourteen when I heard the story of Feinstein and Barazani. I couldn’t fathom the cruelty of the British death sentence or the bravery of these two young men who were faced with death and did not falter. As I remembered their story all those feelings of horror and awe flooded back as if I was hearing their story for the first time.
The guard kept the bible that Meir Feinstein gave him. His family eventually returned it to the Feinstein family. In it Meir Feinstein wrote this message.
“In the shadow of the gallows, April 21, 1947, to the British soldier as you stand guard, before we go to the gallows, accept this Bible as a memento and remember that we stood in dignity and marched in dignity. It is better to die with a weapon in hand than to live with hands raised. Meir Feinstein.”