April 14, 2011

From Darkness to Great Light

I've been to countless barmitzvah dinners in my time, but tonight's was very special. 

It was held at the old Jerusalem Central Prison, in the city's Russian compound. It has recently been restored as the Museum of the Underground Prisoners where heroes of the Jewish resistance had been incarcerated during British rule.

The barmitzvah boy, Ike Bodner, opened his speech by telling the story of two former Irgun prisoners, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barzani who were sentenced to death here in 1947 at the ages of 19 and 21.

Rather than die by the hand of a British executioner, they smuggled in a grenade disguised in an orange peel, which they planned to explode when taken to the gallows - thus taking their executioners with them. 

The night before the hanging, the prison chaplain Rabbi Goldman sat with them and promised he would stand with them up to the last moment.  Rather than harm the Rabbi the next day, they waited until he left that evening and exploded the grenade between them in the cell.

There is something wonderful about the sounds of Jewish merriment and celebration booming through the corridors of such a place. It's about deliverance and defiance.  It's about that part of the Pesach Seder in which we say:

Thus it is our duty to thank, to laud, to praise, to glorify, toexalt, to adore, to bless, to elevate and to honor the One who did all these miracles for our fathers and for us. He took us from slavery to freedom, from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to festivity, and from deep darkness to great light and from bondage to redemption. Let us therefore recite before Him, Halleluyah.
During the dancing I wandered around the place. Long corridors with rooms marked ' guard post', 'clinic' and 'solitary'. 

And then there was one marked 'gallows'.
I stepped inside. Here was the barred anteroom in which Meir and Moshe ended their lives. Reconstructed with blankets on the floor and orange prison suits on wall pegs and a siddur on one of the pillows.
And around the corner, the gallows.
The photo says it all.


In a glass case is Feinstein's final statement before the death sentence was handed down on March 25th 1947. It reads as follows:

"A regime of gallows - that is the regime you want to establish in this country, whose destiny is to serve as a lighthouse for humanity. In your stupid wickedness you assume that by this means you will succeed in breaking the spirit of our people; the people to whom the whole county has become a gallows. You are mistaken. You will learn that what you have come up against is steel; steel tempered by the fire of love and hatred - love of the Homeland and freedom, hatred for the oppressor and invader. It’s burning steel. You will not break it. You will destroy your hands. How blind you are, British tyrants: Have you not learnt yet whom you are fighting in this struggle, unexampled in human history? Do you think you can frighten us with death? We, who over the years have listened to the click-clack of the wheels of those carriages that carried our brothers, our parents, the best of our nation, to the slaughter which, too, had no precedent in history? We who asked and ask ourselves every day: how are we better than they, than millions of our brothers? In what lies our virtue? For we could have been among and with them in the days of fear and in the moments that came before death. To these recurring questions our conscience offers but one answer: we remained alive not to survive in conditions of slavery, repression and (to go to) a new Treblinka. We remained alive to ensure (the attainment) of freedom and dignity for us, our nation and children and grandchildren for all generations... for there is life worse than death and death greater than life."

A truly inspired idea to make a barmitzvah in such a place.
The boy's father is also called Moshe.

'... from sorrow to joy, and from deep darkness to great light ... '

Chag Sameyach.

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