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Sunday, June 01, 2008

Moshe Rusnak - A Hero of Israel

[In commemoration of "Yom Yerushalayim" (which begins this evening), it seems fitting that a story be shared… one of the lesser-known chapters in Jerusalem’s modern history. 

It is not a pretty story and lacks a happy ending… and it even reveals some of the ugly infighting that goes on to this day between the old-guard Israeli establishment and those who prefer to view Zionism through the lens of Jewish history.  A part of me hesitates to share so ugly a story when the history we present to the world is usually so full of positive feats and miracles.  But I feel like we owe it to the brave players of this story to share it and hopefully to take a lesson or two from it.

The following interview has been translated from the original Hebrew for treppenwitz by my carpool mate (and frequent commenter) ‘British Academic’ (BritAc, for short), and appears here with full permission of the periodical in which it was originally published.]

Elida Bar-Shaul, of the Hebrew language magazine "Mayaney Yehoshua"  decided to interview Moshe Rusnak, the Hagganah-appointed commander of the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem in 1948, for his weekly "The Jerusalem Corner" column.  The interview was published in the parshat Pinhas edition of the magazine dated Tammuz 21, 5767, (July 6th, 2007).

After playing his role in the defense of the Old City of Jerusalem during the war of Independence, Moshe settled back into well- earned obscurity in Jerusalem, raising a loving family, working as a clerk, and eventually drifting into retirement.

Having been warned by Moshe's family that he'd be lucky to get five minutes of conversation out of him, Elida arrived at Moshe's house on Tammuz 20, 5766, (July 16th, 2006) to conduct the interview.  The interview concluded four hours later with Moshe having related the events of that tumultuous time as if they’d occurred the previous week.

Elida arranged with Moshe that he would return the following day to collect some photographs that would accompany the article.  However, that night Moshe passed away in his sleep.

Here is the text of the interview:

Q. How did you become the Hagganah commander for the Old City?

Just after Rosh Hashana of 1947, I completed a Hagganah platoon commander's course, and returned to Jerusalem.   My commanding officer, Zalman Mart, said that as soon as they needed me I would be called.   Slowly, I saw all the other soldiers who had been with me in the course were being drafted, but I was not called, and continued working in my family's hat business.

On Sunday, Teveth 1, (December 14th, 1947) I met Zalman and told him I was ready to be drafted just like my friends. "Rusnak, don't worry, we haven't forgotten you, when we need you we'll call you".

"Ok" I thought, "you've done all you can", and I turned to leave.

Then, Zalman said, "Rusnak, if you're already here, why don't you go down to the old city for a week to see if you can help out there ?".

So that's how I was sent to the Old City, to act as an assistant to the  officers who commanded a force of 120 fighters, both men  and women.  The British still ruled the country, and as they were restricting the number of potential combatants allowed into the zone, I was taken in by ambulance disguised as a Doctor. Slowly I learnt my way around.

A week passed, then another, and another, and I wasn't relieved.  The next time I would leave the City would be after the surrender, as a POW.

After a short time I began to understand the social and welfare problems faced by the residents of the old city, and I told the Hagganah commander of the quarter, Yisrael Fund, that we have to bring in professional social workers.

A short time later I met Avraham Halperin, a highly regarded officer. When I asked Yisrael what his [Halperin's] job was, I was told that he was the welfare officer.

Q: At which point did you replace Yisrael Fund?

On Tuesday, 9 Shvat, (January 20th, 1948) three of our soldiers were shot by Arabs.  They were given initial first aid before being evacuated to the new city where one of them died.

Later that day, Yisrael told me that he was going to the new city to report to headquarters for a conference. I said to him that he must impress on the command how bad our situation is, and how  desperate we are for reinforcements and supplies.

One day passed, two, three, and there was no news. I sent telegrams which went unanswered.

After a week of silence I spoke to Avraham Halperin and ask him if he had a phone number for anyone at HQ.  When he asked me why, I told him that Yisrael had left and no one seems to be in charge.  He said he would check.

When I met him the next day he told me that he had been made commander, which made me happy as I thought that he was ideal for the job.  He was an experienced company commander who had organized the defense of the quarter during the disturbances of 1936 - 1939.  He'd made his own 1:500 maps and knew every corner of the city.

Officially, we were all told that Avraham was the new commander, but on the ground he was nowhere to be found.   He didn’t meet the soldiers, didn’t visit the defense positions, and he didn’t attend the command meetings.  When I mentioned this he told me that he trusted me to handle everything. Three times a day he ate in the dining room opposite the command center, but didn’t come in at all.

Saturday night, 14 Shvat (January 24th, 1948) the Arabs bombed the house of Rav Orenstein where we had a defense position, and in retaliation we mounted a raid on the Arab defenses. After the soldiers returned from the raid I asked Avraham to come and inspect the men, but he didn't show up.

Q: Didn't you pressure him to take a more active role in the command?

It didn't interest him. I don't know for sure, but as he was close to the HQ staff in the new city, perhaps he knew of the political decision not to defend the old city, and that the surrender and retreat were a done deal.

Maybe he was aware of the agreements between Ben-Gurion and King Abdullah as to the fate of the old city.   Perhaps he knew of the decision of the area commander David Shaltiel - a fact I found out much later - that the defenders of the old city would be left to fight to the last bullet.

All this didn't interest me at the time.   I had 1,800 civilians and 120 fighters to worry about.  Halperin wasn't concerned in the least about the military situation on the ground.

Q: How long did the situation last?

On Friday Adar A 24, (March 5th, 1948) during a  routine conversation with Halperin, I suggested we have a formal meeting where I could update him about the latest developments on our front. 

I’ve got a meeting at 9:00” he said. When I asked him with whom, he told me that he was meeting Rabbi Weingarten, the “mayor” of the Jewish quarter at his house.

This worried me, as Weingarten was known to be a collaborator with the British, and his daughter had been accused of informing on Jewish fighters to the mandate authorities and even preventing some Jewish residents from returning to their homes after visiting the new city.

I advised Halperin not to go to the Rabbi’s house… better to meet him on neutral territory.  But Halperin wouldn’t listen, and set off for Weingarten’s house. Within a half hour the British arrested him at Weingarten's, and took him out of the quarter.

Only Weingarten and Halperin knew about the meeting.  We were sure that Weingarten had arranged the arrest.  He must have felt threatened by the way Halperin was made commander, [which put him in] charge of the distribution of wages, money and food.

So the quarter was left leaderless.

Although I felt the position was above me, I couldn’t see anyone else who could take charge, so I cabled HQ that I was taking over until they sent a new commander.

Q: Can you explain what was happening?  Didn’t the Jewish leadership care what happened to the Jewish quarter of the old city? The commanders disappear, supplies and reinforcements don’t get through, there is almost no contact between you and HQ, what gives ?

Your description is correct. There was no real intention to capture the old city by our leadership.  Every effort was made not to succeed.   I’ll give some examples:

During the waiting period, I devised a three-stage plan to take over the old city. First stage was to take over all the fortified positions belonging to the British as soon as they withdrew.    Second stage was to incorporate these positions with those we had constructed, to form an integrated defense line. The third stage was for forces from the new city to force their way into the quarter by making a decoy attack on Jaffa gate, while the main force entered via Zion gate.

The divisional commander, Shaltiel, only authorized stage one, he wouldn’t allow stages two and three.

Even stage one wasn’t allowed to succeed. One of the operations was to take control of the “Cross” position, this was the tower of the Armenian church which controlled the road between Zion gate and the Jewish quarter. This was the most important position in our area. We captured the position in the morning as planned, but shortly afterwards I received a cable from Shaltiel, which ordered me to evacuate the position by 1:00 that afternoon. I knew that as soon as we left the Arabs would take over, but I had no choice but to obey the order.   Sure enough, within a half hour of our leaving, the Arabs took over, and used the position as a snipers lookout into the Jewish quarter.

Another example was the breakthrough into the old city by the Palmach on 2 Iyyar (May 11th, 1948). According to the plan of the divisional commander, the main force was to enter by Jaffa gate, while a decoy force attacked Zion gate. The main force at Jaffa gate was hit by superior fire and took heavy casualties. The small force, led by “Dado”  Elazar and Uzi Narkis, attacking Zion gate met with no opposition, and walked into the Jewish quarter. We were completely surprised, we saw the arrival of Moshiach [ed. The Messiah]. After months of being outnumbered and outgunned by the Arabs, we saw the end of the suffering of the 1,800 residents and defenders of the quarter.

The Palmach commanders then informed me that they now intended to capture the whole of the Old city. Our happiness was beyond description. I personally went to each position to tell our fighters of the developments.

While I was making my way through the city I saw a river of Arabs leaving the city carrying their households in bundles, they were escaping the victorious Jewish army.

On my way back to the Palmachniks, I met Benny Marshak who told me that Shaltiel had ordered the Palmach force to withdraw from the city. They were going for R+R at kibbutz Ma'ale Hahamisha. After the war I found out that Shaltiel had called Abdulla E-Tal, the commander of the Jordan legion and told him that Israel didn’t want to capture the old city, and he should persuade the fleeing Arab residents to return.

There were no words to describe our feelings, we had been betrayed.

The fighting inside the old city continued, the shelling and the sniping of the Arab legion took a heavy toll.

On the morning of Iyyar 19, (May 28th) I received a report that two of the communal leaders, the Sephardi Rabbi Hazan and the Askenazi Rabbi Mintzberg had raised a white flag and were walking towards the Arab HQ to negotiate with E-Tal.

I chased after them and persuaded them not to suggest surrender, but to request the evacuation of the women and children amongst the residents.

E-Tal wouldn’t except anything less than total surrender, and sent Rav Hazan back to our lines, keeping Rav Mintzberg as a hostage.

I still was not ready to surrender, as I feared it would result in a massacre of the Jewish residents. I sent our fighters back to their positions, but they quickly returned to our HQ and said that there were no more positions, in fact there was no more defensive line, and it was impossible to continue fighting.

Afterwards it became apparent that the residents - both Arabs and Jews - had taken advantage of the lull in the fighting to return to their houses to pack up their possessions, and the intermingling of the populations made fighting impossible.

Without a defined battlefront it was impossible to continue the fight, and there was nothing left for me to do but negotiate a surrender on the most favorable terms and thus prevent  a massacre.

In the surrender document signed between the forces on Iyyar 19, 1948, (May 28th, 1948) it was stated that only the fighters would be taken prisoner, all the civilians would be evacuated to the new city.   But when Abdullah E-Tal saw how few fighters we were he refused to believe that this small force was what had kept his men fighting for so long and had caused him so many losses.  He ordered that [some of the] civilians also be taken so that he could make an impressive parade of prisoners when he returned to the Jordanian capital.

300 men were made POWs’ and were held prisoner in Jordan before being repatriated to Israel 9 months later.

After the fighters were returned to Israel, Rusnak tried to have a meeting with Shaltiel who had been the regional commander, and in the meantime had been promoted, but he [Shaltiel] avoided Rusnak. Other members of the Jewish quarter defenders tried to get explanations from various members of the Haggannah hierarchy and government, but they were stonewalled at every turn.

The heroic achievements of the defenders were ignored by the government and army HQ.   According to Moshe Rusnak, the official history of the war of Independence was even rewritten to ignore the battles for the old city. The old city didn’t interest the Mapai leaders, so even when Jewish forces captured most of the area they were ordered to withdraw.

On Tammuz 22 5766 (July 18th, 2006) Moshe Rusnak was laid to eternal rest on the Mount of Olives amongst the other defenders of the old city who lost their lives in the battles. One of the old soldiers accompanying the procession called out –“Moshe, only we know how we owe our lives to you, all the 1,800 residents of the Jewish quarter".

Posted by David Bogner on June 1, 2008 | Permalink


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What a striking story. Thank you for sharing.

Posted by: Stefanie | Jun 1, 2008 6:29:39 PM

David, thank you for getting the story out there.

Posted by: Rahel | Jun 1, 2008 9:04:35 PM


Posted by: dave | Jun 1, 2008 10:14:01 PM

I recently finished Herman Wouk's The Hope. It starts with the Battle of Laturn. In it, it described the battle of Jerusalem. I had hoped the lack of leadership and co-ordination amongst the various fledgling Israeli forces had been exagerated in order to add drama to the book.

The interview above shows it was even worse.

Posted by: shira0607 | Jun 2, 2008 7:35:08 AM

Just a few words of caution: In the fogs of war especially before electronic communication a certain lack of coordination and leadership is to be expected.

It is also quite feasible that the Palmach commanders were weighing the options in a way which should be beyond reproach. An understanding with Transjordan could have been worth giving up the old city.

Posted by: Ruth | Jun 2, 2008 9:18:39 AM

So the local residents are left to "fight it out to the last bullet," while the political leadership goes on vacation and plays footsie with the enemy. Why is this story sounding so familiar? And so current?

Posted by: psachya | Jun 2, 2008 11:54:06 AM

Stefanie... Don't thank me... I'm a giver. :-)

Rahel... The real thanks go to the original author and my friend who translated it for me.

dave... Don't thank me... :-)

shira0607... Even in today's age of technology and instant communication most battlefields are chaotic and fraught with confusion. The country's age was measured in hours at that point... not years.

Ruth... As I've said to another commenter on today's post, I can't imagine a reason to give up the old city once it was within our grasp. But you are correct in saying that the Haggannah commanders clearly felt differently.

psachya ... now now...

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 2, 2008 4:59:24 PM

Psachya, given that there were 'one or two' other fronts in that awful, terrible, bloody war the political leaders hardly went on holiday. I think the questions they had to ask themselves was more on the lines of where to put the meager weapons and small amount of fighters. Who are we to judge them? What if everything had been put into the battle for the Old City, and it had been won, but the war had been been lost, would it have been the right decision then? It is easy to look at this out of context, or from a particular angle, and judge those making the decisions. At least they were making decisions, albeit often terrible decisions that sent hundreds and thousands of young men and women to their deaths. But because of those decisions we're here to tell the story today. How dare we judge them from our comfortable chairs in front of our shiny new laptops?

Posted by: Imshin | Jun 2, 2008 5:28:26 PM

Imshin - fair enough. I would hate to be the one making those decisions. I was simply responding to the story as I read it, and it seemed to me that Mr. Rusnak, at least from his perspective, was hung out to dry by his leadership. That it was (or may have been) a wartime necessity doesn't make it any more palatable. I will try to be a little less judgmental about such matters in the future. I would agree with David, however, that Jerusalem should never be negotiable - not then & not now.

Posted by: psachya | Jun 2, 2008 10:17:01 PM

How can I get a copy of the original article in Hebrew?

Is it online?

I guide at Migdal David, and I would be interested in sharing this with other guides.

(please reply to my email: [email protected])

Posted by: Rivka with a capital A | Jun 5, 2008 12:26:54 AM

I'm not a military person, so I may just not be understanding something. Why would they object to them succeeding with what little supplies they had? Why should he have retreated from positions he successfully took? If he could have succeeded with his small resources, wouldn't that have been a good thing?

Posted by: Channah | Jun 5, 2008 2:02:28 AM

Rivka with a capital A... It is not (to my knowledge) availible on-line. For your benefit (and for anyone else who may want to see the original), I have uploaded a scan of the original Hebrew article. It can be found here

Posted by: treppenwitz | Jun 5, 2008 11:21:38 AM

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