During Israel's War of Independence in 1948, Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter was besieged by Jordan, and the 2,000 Jews who lived there were forced to leave. Writing at Yediot Achronot, Michael Bachner reports that three letters were recently found that give us a look at this moment in history:
“Have mercy on the men, women, and children, and take drastic measures where needed so that we don’t perish, God forbid,” reads the letter signed by Rabbi Yitzchak Avigdor Orenstein, the Western Wall’s first rabbi. The letter was sent as a cry for help to Israel’s then-Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Herzog.
“The Old City residents’ lives are in grave danger. British troops have been shelling the Jewish Quarter over the last nights, harming the sanctity of the synagogue,” wrote Rabbi Orenstein who signed the letter alongside Rabbi Yisrael Mintzberg, Rabbi Shalom Azoulay, and Rabbi Benzion Chazan.
Orenstein, who was appointed as Chief Rabbi of the Western Wall in 1930, insisted on returning to the Old City when the siege began even though he had been visiting other parts of Jerusalem. When asked why he was endangering himself, he replied that “if someone is destined to sacrifice himself for the sake of the sanctity of ancient Jerusalem and its holy sites, I am hereby committed to do so more than anyone else.”
Orenstein and his wife were killed on May 23, 1948 when the city was shelled. Their deaths came about three months after the rabbi signed the now-discovered letter...
Jewish residents were expelled, to return only in 1967 with the city’s liberation.