No Abuses in Chevron?
On the 22nd of Shevat Elimelech Ila passed away in his home at the Bnei Tzion Moshav in the Sharon area. Up until his death even his son, reporter Giora Ilon, was unaware of the existence of a shocking journal he had kept. The doctor who pronounced his death sent the son to look for his father's identification card.
When he opened one of the drawers in his father's home, he came upon an envelope containing a few pages from a crumbling notebook filled with his father's familiar handwriting. The notebook also contained a clipping from the newspaper Davar dated the 12th of Elul 5689 (September 17th, 1929) bearing the headline, "No Abuses in Chevron?"
We sat in the Ila's home on the Bnei Tzion Moshav. The old furniture had the smell of antiquity. Giora Ilon recounted that his father Elimelech Ila put on tefillin and davened every morning. I told him that Judaism attributes significance to the fact that his father passed away on the day of his 94th birthday.
Among the various papers and documents Ilon laid down on the table was a sealed tin cylinder. At a certain point he removed the lid, pulled out a scroll and spread it out before me. The family dynasty, a legacy from Grandma, he explained.
Ila, formerly Breilovsky, was born in Jerusalem's Old City, a fifth generation descendant of Yechezkel Landa (the Noda Beyehuda) on his father's side and a sixth generation descendant of Rav Elimelech of Lizhensk, author of Noam Elimelech, on his mother's side. When Ilon the son prepared a genealogical report for a school project, he used the genealogy scroll. At the time, Ilon drove to Bnei Brak, stopped at the first bookstore and, spreading the scroll out before the shopkeeper, asked for all of the books written by all of the rabbonim listed. "He filled up my entire trunk," says Ilon.
Ila's late wife Sheindel, was a tzadekes. "People would come to her for brochos, and in the stores they would let her go to the front of the line," he recalls, certain that Yerushalmim shel ma'alah knew her. The tombstone on her grave in Sanhedria is covered with a thick layer of stones, and he believes people visit her grave "to ask for brochos."
Ilon recounts that he found an envelope containing ashes from sifrei kodesh gathered by his father at the Kosel and wants to know what to do with them. Ila's attic also contained scorched, bloodstained sifrei kodesh, but they have already been passed on. He presents me with the pages of the journal.
The entries, which Ilon has published in the newspaper he writes for, contain bloodcurdling descriptions of the disinterment of the bodies of Jews who were butchered in Chevron in the riots of 5689 (1929) in order to determine whether the 66 Jews were murdered in "a civilized manner," as the Arabs claim, or whether they suffered abuse before and after their deaths, as the Jewish survivors testified. The question stirred controversy throughout the country in the wake of the massacre and the British ordered that an investigating committee be set up to examine the issue.
Elimelech Ila was among the Jewish workers who reopened the graves two and a half weeks after the massacre to at least ensure that the deed be done with proper respect, and he recorded his impressions in writing immediately upon returning from Chevron to his home in Jerusalem. The language Ila used astonished Ilon, who says he hardly recognized his father's writing style in the entries:
"On Tuesday, the 5th of Elul (September 10th, 1929) I was walking through the Russian Quarter near the Department of Health. I saw Mr. Yosef, a clerk at the Department of Health, surrounded by a band of Jews . . . and asked them what had taken place. They told me that the next day they were taking part in an investigation and were planning to set out for Chevron for a few days to open the graves of the martyrs who were killed by the brutal rioters, and they were lacking a sixteenth worker for the team. I told them right away that I would be willing to join them in handling the bodies of the fallen martyrs. I signed up sixteenth on the list of workers and we filed out two at a time in rows into the Russian Quarter where we waited for the government physician, Dr. Maknin, to give us our orders.
"After a quarter of an hour Dr. Maknin arrived and instructed us to come to the Russian Quarter the next day at six in the morning. Mr. Yosef, the clerk from the Department of Health, informed us that we would be setting out for several days and that our pay would be 250 mil per day. We decided to buy bread here since we would not be able to bring ourselves to eat local Chevron bread, which was soaked with the blood of the martyrs. Mr. Yosef lent us each 1.60 lira and 100 mil, and we bought a few days' worth of food for everyone.
"The next day, Wednesday, the 6th of Elul, at six in the morning, I arrived at the Russian Quarter where I found the rest of the workers assembled. We were sixteen workers, along with a few bochurim from [yeshivas] Slobodka and a few gravediggers from Chevron who had been present at the original burial. I saw three Jewish representatives who participated in the investigation -- Dr. Gry and Dr. Gamtziva and an attorney by the name of Levanon -- three Arab doctors whom I knew and three British doctors, of whom I was acquainted only with Dr. Maknin.
"After a while we set out under the protection of the British police. I don't know what time it was when we arrived in Chevron. We stood beside the police. The small cars went into the yard of the police station and the passengers went on foot, while we workers with tools drove up to the gates of the cemetery, took our tools and went up into the cemetery. At the top we saw a military guard unit.
"Right away we saw several rows of mounds of dirt covering the holy martyrs. Two tents stood in the cemetery. One was an army tent for the military personnel and the second tent consisted of three walls with no roof. Inside were two long tables for autopsies of the bodies of the martyrs. Those who brought spare clothes changed into them. The sanitation conditions were very poor -- we were only provided with long white aprons before beginning the work at hand.
"After digging down not too far we came upon the boards that covered the corpses lengthwise. We removed the boards to reveal 14 corpses. The doctors and the government clerks were wearing white aprons with gloves and gauze bandages covering their mouth and nostrils. We requested gloves and received only two pairs, although two or three workers at a time were needed to remove and replace the bodies. We demanded that they provide us with gloves, but our voices went unheard.
"Then British Corporal Number 39 appeared before us, laughing and smiling at us and at the martyrs, saying, `The Jews are a cowardly race. They are afraid of the living as well as the dead. You have about sixty dead in Chevron and here you are afraid of the bodies.'
"His words struck a deep chord within me. The gentile's remarks stabbed at my heart like a sword, the faces of the dead stared up before us, one after another as if affronted, trying to say, `We were victims of abuse before our deaths and now we are again victims after our deaths. We are given no rest. Even in the grave, in our very graves, gentiles come to heap abuse and to mock us.'
"I rose like a lion and said that despite the fact that my hands are covered with cuts I would pick up the martyrs and G-d would be at my side to ensure that I do not get infected by any diseases. And thus we brought eleven of them out on stretchers for autopsies on the tables. Most of the work was carried out by Dr. Gry and Dr. Gamtziva. Judge Levanon stood and recorded the findings and all of the Arab and British doctors just took down the names and the number of dead.
"The faces of the dead were hard to make out, but it was very apparent how they had been abused. The corpses had not yet decomposed as has been incorrectly reported. The bodies were covered with horrible injuries that I find it difficult to relate in speech or writing.
"The eleven dead were laid out on the mounds of dirt alongside the grave, since we had been given instructions from the Rov via the bochurim from Slobodka.
"We were about to start digging deeper when Corporal Number 39 came up and asked what the digging was for. Then one of the bochurim from Slobodka related the Rov's instructions. `What?' shouted the corporal. `Who is the Rov? I am a corporal. You'll listen to me and not to the Rov.' We shouted at him that we would not allow the Rov and ourselves and the martyrs to be scorned, and he replied, `I am not afraid of you or of your newspapers. You have my number and you can go ahead and send telegrams around the world about me.' We pressed forward with our work.
"All of a sudden the doctors ordered us to open the second row of martyrs. We opened up the grave.
"Suddenly I saw a tall man who I didn't recognize walk up to Dr. Gry to speak with him for a few moments. He left as suddenly as he had arrived. Then Dr. Gry issued an order to stop working, that that was enough for the time being. He told us we would go to the top of the mountain for lunch.
"We finished eating lunch and headed back to bury the martyrs. We began carrying stones from the top of the mountain. We were unable to carry the stones from the top of the mountain down to the bottom because we were too few and it was getting late and the British police said they were leaving at nightfall whether we finished burying the dead or not. Of course we had worked hard up on the mountain . . . since we wanted to bury the martyrs.
"Since the police were in a hurry and, seeing that we were few and that we would have a hard time finishing the job according to their schedule, they sent prisoners from Chevron. How it grieved us to see those who had murdered the martyrs carrying rocks for them. We overcame our emotions and buried thirteen of the martyrs from the first grave, side by side, and the fourteenth we buried in a new single grave since the rocks had taken up some of the space. We buried them according to Jewish Law and custom. The second grave we covered over again with planks and dirt.
"We finished reburying the martyrs just before sunset and said Kaddish and asked the dead for their forgiveness for disturbing their rest, and that we had done so with the best intentions . . .
"I offer a prayer to G-d that He accept these beloved and holy neshomos . . . may their souls be gathered in eternal life, amen.
"Britain, you are the sea queen for whom all the world is not enough. You will not be able to wash your hands of the blood of our holy martyrs. The mark of Cain will remain on your forehead for all eternity. I am one of the youths of Zion, Elimelech Ila."
On the investigating committee the British had appointed were British, Arab and Jewish (Dr. Gry and Dr. Gamtziva) doctors. The committee ceased the disinterment of the graves in the middle since, according to committee members, the investigators were unable to detect signs of abuse of the bodies due to the difficult conditions. This was the ideal way out for the British, who were making efforts to control tempers on all sides.
On the 10th of Elul 5689 (September 15, 1929) the committee published its findings, stating that there was no validity to the rumors that the victims of the slaughter suffered abuse. The Jewish doctors added a note reading, "It has not been proven that there was no abuse but the state of the corpses did not allow precise determination of the presence of signs of abuse."
The Arabs won. In the paragraph he added onto the initial report Ila wrote: "The next day an article appeared in Do'ar Hayom according to which the investigation in Chevron did not find that abuses had been committed against the Chevron martyrs. My heart ached. I rushed to the office of Do'ar Hayom and I related the exact details to them, and denied the reports. By chance Do'ar Hayom was closed down by the government the next day. I ran to the offices of Davar on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem and told them I had traveled to Chevron to take part in the handling of the martyrs and to see with my own eyes what harm had been done to them and to testify if necessary.
"The next day Davar ran a headline reading, `No Abuses in Chevron?' followed by an article saying, `A few days ago we published a telegram by a Reuters agent in Jerusalem, who reported that according to "unofficial sources," the disinterment of the graves of a portion of the Chevron martyrs proved that no acts of abuse took place. The unofficial sources that the Reuters agent chose to rely on are questionable. May the dead be left to lie in peace, along with my father as well, who for 72 years was haunted by the incidents and sights that met his eyes on that day in Elul, 5689," writes Ila in conclusion.
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