In Umm el-Jimal they were soon joined by POWs taken captive during other battles, including Gush Etzion and Latrun
Title: The POWs of Jerusalem
Location: Umm el-Jimal, Jordan
Document: Palestine Post
Time: May 1948
Friday, May 28, 1948, dawned on the Old City of Yerushalayim. The long siege, heavy fighting, and artillery bombardment had finally taken its toll, and the commanding Haganah officer authorized the rabbis of the Old City, Rav Bentzion Mordechai Chazan and Rav Yisrael Zev Mintzberg, to negotiate surrender terms with the Jordanian Legion. Separately, Rav Mordechai Weingarten and another Haganah officer met with Jordanian commander Abdullah El Tell, and the Jewish Quarter came under Jordanian control.
Many civilians, including women and children, were provided safe passage to the western sector of the city still under Israeli control, where they were resettled in the abandoned homes of the Arab neighborhood of Katamon. Approximately 350 fighters and civilians were led under heavy guard to the Umm el-Jimal (Mother of Camels) POW camp near the city of Mafraq in Jordan. Initially the Jordanians planned on taking only combatants; however, upon discovering how few fighters there were, they decided to take civilians prisoner as well.
In Umm el-Jimal they were soon joined by POWs taken captive during other battles, including Gush Etzion and Latrun. At its peak, there were about 700 prisoners interned there. Following the cease-fire agreement negotiated between Moshe Dayan and Abdullah El Tell on November 30, 1948, a group of prisoners were released, with the balance being released in February 1949. The final group of internees brought the camp sefer Torah with them, where it was escorted to its new home in Yerushalayim’s Yeshurun Synagogue amid great festivities. Jordan was the only Arab country that freed Israeli POWs prior to the negotiations and signing of the Rhodes Armistice Agreements.
The Jordanian authorities granted the prisoners autonomy, and an internal leadership was established to manage camp life, discipline, representation to the camp administration, and contact with family back home via the Red Cross. One prominent POW taken during the battle for the Old City was Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen, later the chief rabbi of Haifa. Son of Rav David Cohen — the Rav Hanazir — Rav She’ar Yashuv attended Merkaz Harav and was a member of the Irgun. In the latter capacity he was severely wounded before being taken into captivity. In his memoirs he described how Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were observed under the close watch of their astonished captors:
The camp was composed of three minyanim. The first minyan comprised the survivors of the Gush, who were joined by all those who had been active combatants. The second minyan consisted of the various Hasidic “sects” from the Old City of Jerusalem — Bratzlaver and Karliner Hasidim — together with Perushim. And the third minyan was composed of Sephardim, including those from Kurdistan, who followed their own particular Sephardi tradition. We emptied two of the tents in the field hospital for this purpose, and then all was ready for the service. The Torah scrolls salvaged from the flames of Gush Etzion and the Old City were also placed there and read on jerry cans covered in talleisim.
One of the charismatic leaders of the prisoners was Rav Shlomo Zalman Min Hahar (formerly Bergman). Born in the Old City, he grew up in Germany, where his family migrated due to financial difficulties. From Nuremberg he was sent to Lithuania, where he studied in the yeshivos of Kelm and Telz, and later Mir, Poland.
In 1936 he returned to Palestine, and in 1945 to the Old City. During the siege of Jerusalem he emerged as a communal leader, and upon entering captivity he served as the official camp rabbi. In that capacity he dealt with many of the thorny halachic issues that arose due to the unique circumstances of maintaining religious life under POW internment conditions. A lifelong affiliate of religious Zionism, he later served for decades as both rabbi of Bayit Vegan as well as enjoying a fruitful career in education.
Doctor under Fire
Another prominent POW in the camp was Professor Egon Riss, who had fled his native Vienna with the Nazi rise to power. Completing his medical degree in St. Joseph University in Beirut, he later served as a physician in the Haganah. Following an injury in Sheikh Jarrah, he volunteered to treat patients in the Misgav Ladach hospital in the besieged Jewish Quarter. Conducting operations, treatments, and blood transfusions under artillery barrages and nearby explosions, he and his heroic staff saved countless lives. With the fall of the Old City, he volunteered to accompany the captives to the POW camp, where he continued to administer medical care until they were liberated.
Rav She’ar Yashuv Cohen wrote how he was inspired by the incredible resilience of the Breslover chassidim following the surrender:
Suddenly, a loud din could be heard — whoops of seemingly endless joy. One by one, a huge mass of Bratzlaver Hasidim emerged into the Jerusalem night air, dancing in circles and singing their hearts out. The voice of their [rav], Rabbi Dovid Shechter [1900-74], rang out: ‘Fellow Jews, do not despair!
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 916)
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