Early in my trip to Israel we had visited Machon Ayalon in Rehovet, the secret underground munitions “factory” concealed on Kibbutz Hill. The noise of machines used to manufacture bullets for the resistance against the British, was masked by the drumming of washing machines. We also visited Acre Prison—also known as Akko Prison—another landmark in the history of Israel’s fight for independence. Originally built as a 12th century fortress during the crusades, the Ottomans used the citadel at various times as a government building, prison, army barracks and arms warehouse.
During the British Mandate, the citadel served as the main prison for the north of Israel. Hundreds of members of Israeli underground organizations were imprisoned here, because of their struggle to defend the Jewish residents of Palestine, in their quest for independence. At Akko, we saw the cells that had once housed large numbers of prisoners all who shared one chamber pot and slept on floor mats woven from rags; we saw the elevated wall where prisoners tried to communicate with their loved ones through barbed wire; we saw the intake room where prisoners who had arrived in chains had their heads shaved, and received their meager prison garb and used sandals. Anyone given scarlet garb was destined to be executed.
The prison was featured in Leon Uris’s novel “Exodus,” which included the story of the ambitious prison break initiated by the Irgun, one of three underground resistance groups. Though fictionalized to include the characters of his novel, Uris pretty accurately describes the actual prison break of May 1947, in which men broke through the walls of the citadel. The break was possibly motivated by the hanging of four Irgun members, who were captured by the British in April 1947. They became the Irgun’s first postwar “martyrs.” After the break, twenty-eight escaped, but of those captured, three more were sentenced to death.
The eight names of the young men executed by the British during those weeks in the spring of 1947, appear on a plaque in the Hanging Room where we now stood: Shlomo Ben-Yosef, Mordechai Schwarcz, Dov Gruner, Yechiel Dov Dresner, Eliezer Kashani, Mordechai Elkachi, Yaakov Weiss, Avshalom Haviv and Meir Nakar. As the condemned men walked through the jail, all the Jewish prisoners rose to their feet and sang the national anthem.
There, in that chamber of death, we read the names of those young men, and spontaneously began to sing Hatikvah as the condemned had done on their walk to the gallows. That small square room seemed to represent centuries of tyranny that suppressed Jews and others who sought and still seek to live in freedom in a land they wish to call their own and I wept for them all.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.