Hebron 1929: The Untold Story
By Alan Yungerman
In 1929, Hebron, an ancient, peaceful community of Jews was attacked by a group of Arab rioters.
To this day, many Jews throughout the world know little of the suffering endured by Hebron's Sephardic inhabitants during that pogrom. There has been much written about martyrs of the Hebron Ashkenazik Slobodka Yeshiva. However, little has been told about the average citizen of Hebron during this time.
The Sephardim in Hebron had lived in a fairly peaceful relationship with their Arab neighbors for hundreds of years. One place of worship was the ancient Cave of the Patriarchs. The other was the Magen Avraham Synagogue, built approximately in the year 1550. According to local legend, the synagogue received its name because it was built on the spot where Avraham Avinu performed his own circumcision.
Sephardic Jews (descendants of Spanish exiles) were the oldest part of the Jewish population of Hebron. The Ashkenazic community only settled there in early nineteenth century. The Sephardic community was well integrated into Hebron's general communal life. Ben Zion Gershon, in particular, was a well established member of the community. Although he was not a descendant of the longstanding Sephardic families of Hebron, he was destined to become a leading personality in the town.
Ben Zion was born Istanbul in 1857. He studied medicine at the University of Constantinople. After completing his studies, he relocated to Jerusalem, where he married his first wife, Ventura Alkalay. After he settled in Hebron, Ben Zion opened the only pharmacy and often acted as a substitute doctor. He was responsible for saving many lives, including those of his Arab neighbors.
He was drafted into the Turkish army during World War One where he established and army hospital in Hebron. After the war, Ben Zion Gershon helped influence the Hadassah Medical Organization to create a small infirmary, where Ben Zion worked as a pharmacist. The clinic, known as "Beit Hadassah", had three floors in its building.
The infirmary, the pharmacy and the synagogue were on the top floor. Ben Zion, a pious man, served as cantor for many years in that small synagogue. The Gershon family lived on the second storey, and the ground floor of Beit Hadassah served as a storage area.
In the 1920's, Ben Zion injured his leg during a house call and it required amputation. His second wife, Zahava Gershon took over the support of the family and opened a laundry. She also volunteered at the infirmary, helping Arab and Jew alike, by treating their wounds and assisting the nurses in their work.
On the Holy Sabbath Day, 18th of Av 5689 (1929), a group of Arab rioters from Hebron and surrounding areas rampaged through Jewish Hebron. They had been incited to this action by their religious leaders. When they arrived at the Gershons' house, Zahava Gershon tried to prevent the mob's entry into Beit Hadassah.
When the invaders broke through the door with their axes, Zahava fled with some of her children into the kitchen. When she saw that they were about to kill one of her sons right in front of her husband, she ran from the kitchen and grabbed the boy away from the killers. She was mortally wounded, during this motherly heroism. The invaders then turned to her bed-ridden husband, Ben Zion. They tortured and killed him, despite his years of service to their communities. Esther, the Gershons' twenty-two year old daughter, was also stabbed to death. Three additional Gershon children were wounded but survived the massacre.
The rioters then destroyed the pharmacy, ensuring that none of the wounded Jews would receive medical attention after the attack. They also tore apart the synagogue where Ben had prayed and sang for years. The Torah scrolls were desecrated and the building was torched. Of course, not all the Arab residents of Hebron supported the attack and many went out of their way to save Jews. Unfortunately the Gershon family did not benefit from such decent neighbors.
The surviving members of the community were temporarily held by the British authorities in the Hebron police station. There were five hundred Jewish survivors in that police station, grieving their loved ones. Many of the survivors were wounded and in need of immediate medical attention. The Sephardic families gathered in a side room of the police compound, in shock and grief.
The Chief Rabbi-Haham Hanoch Hasun was among the dead, He was the president of the community, Haham Meir Shmuel Castyl. His entire family had been slaughtered. All the synagogues and communal institutions had been demolished. The pious Jews of Hebron were forced to witness the quick and brutal destruction of their holy city. The British transferred the surviving Jews of Hebron to Jerusalem. A flourishing Jewish community was not re-established in Hebron until after the Six-Day War of 1967.
On the Sunday after the pogrom, fifty-nine martyrs were brought to rest in a mass grave in the Jewish cemetery of Hebron – the last act of the devastated community. Amongst the dead were:
Yaakov Guzlan: Hebron
Moshe Guzlan: Hebron
Yitschak Abushdid Hebron
Eliyahu Abushdid: Hebron
Avraham Yeni: Constantinople
Vidah Yeni: Constantinople
Shimon Cohen : Persia
Yitschak Abu-Hanah: Morocco
May their memory be for a blessing
Alan Yungerman is a family history researcher. He specializes in locating lost family, graves and documents concerning Jewish families worldwide. He can be contacted via the Jewish Magazine.
from the July 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine