Discovered: Rav Orenstein’s Letter from Yerushalayim 1948, Under Siege


Three letters written in February 1948 in the then-besieged Old City of Yerushalayim were uncovered recently at the Kedem Auction House in the city.

The letters shed light on the reality faced by residents of the Jewish Quarter during the siege of Yerushalayim by Arab forces in the first phase of the War of Independence.

One of the letters is signed by Rav Yitzchok Avigdor Orenstein, the Kosel’s legendary first rov, two months before he perished in the shelling of the Old City.

In the letter – signed also by Rav Yisrael Zeev Mintzberg, rov of the Ashkenazi Jewish Quarter, Shalom Azoulay, Dayan of the Westerners community, and Benzion Chazan, founder of the renowned Porat Yosef Yeshiva – the four send their cries for help to Israel’s chief rabbi at the time, Rav Yitzchok Herzog. “Have mercy on the men, women, and children, and take drastic measures where needed elsewhere, so we won’t perish, God forbid.”
The four describe the difficult situation in the Old City after the shelling by the British soldiers. “The lives of the Old city residents are in  grave danger. during the last few nights British troops shelled the Jewish Quarter, harming the sanctity of the synagogue,” they write, adding that “The night of Thursday and the night of Motzoei Shabbos, were nothing short of a nightmare for us, we thought that we would all perish god forbid, but thanks to the mercy of Hashem, no casualties occurred… the awful bombing was imposed on us by the British soldiers, without any reason or cause.This morning we woke up agreeing unanimously to leave the property behind and save our lives, escape the old city and the life of nightmare. Nevertheless, after we partially recovered, we called the residents of the city for help in taking counsel and decided to appeal to his Excellency with the broadcast above.”
Rav Orenstein, who was appointed chief rabbi of the Kosel in 1930, insisted on returning to the old city when the siege began, even though he was then visiting then the new city. Through special efforts done by Yitzchak Ben-Zvi and Rav Herzog, Rav Orenstein was able to enter the old city. When asked why he was endangering himself, Rav Orenstein replied that “if someone is destined to sacrifice himself for the sake of the sanctity of ancient Yerushalayim and its holy places, I am hereby committed to it more than anyone else.” Rav Orenstein was killed along with his wife, Rebbetzin Mushka Liebe, during the shelling of Iyar 14th, about 2 months after signing the letter above. He was buried in a mass grave that he himself approved to set up within the old city limits.
Alongside this letter, the collection holds another letter written the next day, by the rov of the Ashkenazi community, Rav Mintzberg, who also addressed Chief Rabbi Herzog. In his letter, Rav Mintzberg describes once more the difficult situation in the quarter. “I am to inform him that after the past Sunday of Parshas Shemini (about a week before writing this letter), a bitter day for the residents of the holy city, the soldiers were raging once more, shooting the residents.Before midnight Friday night and yesterday on Motzoei Shabbos, they fired shells and mortars in yards and homes for several hours continuously and destroyed several homes.”
In addition, Rav Mintzberg also asked the chief rabbi to intervene in the affairs of the old city, in order to bring peace between the president of the Old City’s Jewish community, Mordechai Weingarten, and the Haganah military organization. The story behind this request was the tension between Weingarten and the Haganah, following the latter’s takeover of the Jewish Agency’s food distribution to the Jews of the Old City, a responsibility which was under Weingarten up until that point. The letter also mentions the need to reconcile further arguments about the discussion on the possible courses of action the resident of the the besieged city must take. Tensions reached a peak a month before writing the letter at hand, when commander of the Haganah’s Yerushalayim unit, Avraham Halperin, was arrested in the old city, a move that, according to some opinions, Weingarten was responsible for.
“Another thing which I believe might affect the situation… the heads of our government will give the members of the ‘Haganah’ an order to to cooperate with Weingarten, since he is known to have relations with the government who will favor the Old City, the cooperation will bring great benefit for the Protection of the Old city and alleviate the population’s suffering,” writes Rav Mintzberg to Chief Rabbi Herzog.
Another letter in the collection, sent four days later to the religious council in Yerushalayim, tells another story of the besieged old city. The letter was written by a representative group of 25 young members of the Beitar organization, who established a company of their own in the old city, alongside the Haganah’s. According to the letter’s author, the company consists of “Young and international” Olim from various countries including: Poland, Lithuania, Romania, Bulgaria, and Harbin (which at the time was under the control of the Soviet Union and today is a part of China). In the letter, the group is asking for assistance in the upcoming Pesach. “We are forced to turn to you with a request of utmost importance. Pesach is approaching and we are unable to satisfy all the national-religious halacha of this holiday, such as matzo and the use of special kitchen utensils.”
A month after the three letters were written, on May 13th, the British forces left the Old City. Three days later, the Arab counter-offensive commenced which resulted in the conquest of the ‘Haganah’ positions in the city. Four days later  the Jordanian forces entered the city. Two weeks after the departure of the British, on May 28th, the old city surrendered to the Jordanian forces.
Meron Eren, from the Kedem Auction House, notes that “the three letters bring the besieged old city back to life and the many struggles inside of it. They are considered to be further historic evidence to the dedication of those who chose to stay in the besieged city and fight for it.” Israel News Bureau