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18 Adar II 5771 - March 24, 2011 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly










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Memories Of The Aliyah To Yerushalayim On Chol Hamoed Pesach 5704

By Yisroel Spiegel

Part I

"Kumu vena'aleh beis Hashem! (Arise and let's go up to the house of Hashem!)" was the banner under which a huge operation to bring Jews from all over Eretz Yisroel to Yerushalayim, was arranged and successfully completed on Chol Hamoed Pesach 5704 (1944). The event had special significance in view of the tragic background of the times. For a fourth consecutive year, Europe had been awash with an ocean of Jewish blood and there was still no end in sight. The central event was a gathering that was held in the Batei Machseh square in the Old City's Jewish Quarter, which in those pre-1948 days, was the oldest religious neighborhood. The gathering's theme was, "Hashem's Voice Is Speaking To Us From The Flames."

Elderly Yerushalmim belonging to the yishuv hayoshon, amongst whom the present writer is numbered, still recall that gathering from their youthful years, almost seven decades ago. There was nothing unusual of course about crowds coming to visit the Kosel, even during the rest of the year. What made it special this time were the ambitious plans of the organizers — Agudas Yisroel activists of the then still-tiny "new yishuv" — to arrange a massive aliyah laregel from all over the country at the same time, for all those for whom a trip to Yerushalayim was ordinarily a difficult, long-distance trip.

Nowadays, to get to Yerushalayim from almost anywhere in Eretz Yisroel is a relatively simple matter. It's almost a local ride, involving little more than boarding a bus, especially if one has access to one of the ever-improving special lines to Yerushalayim that now run from almost every chareidi locale. In those days however, even travel between Yerushalayim and Tel Aviv was an ordeal that few undertook and even they, rarely. The cost of the journey too, was very high for most people, who lived in conditions of severe penury that hardly bear any comparison to the lives of even those who live beneath what is deemed the Poverty Line nowadays.

By Rail or Road

To get to Yerushalayim in those days, one had to board either a train or an Egged bus. One could get an idea of what the journey by rail was like until quite recently. Till about ten years ago, Israel Railways' Jerusalem line ran at the same leisurely speed, along the same scenic route and arrived at the same quaint, tiny station between the Emek Refaim and Talbieh neighborhoods on the one side and Har Tziyon on the other as it did sixty years before. Long before its closure though, the line had ceased to be a serious contender for conveying a significant proportion of the travelling public. Those who used the train did so to enjoy, or to give their young children the experience of the journey itself.

Travel by bus has progressed tremendously in speed, comfort and efficiency since those days. Sixty years ago, Yerushalayim's Central Bus Station was situated in the middle of Rechov Yaffo, next to the intersection with Rechov King George, in the yard behind what is still known today as the building with columns. There was parking space for ten buses at the most there and they were far smaller than the vehicles in use today. The times were hard and few could spare the price of a ticket and allow themselves the luxury of an inter-city trip.

Even for those who had the means, there was more to setting out than simply boarding a bus. Tickets had to be purchased in advance at the building next to the station (today a fruit store). They were sold at two windows, before which a long queue always stretched. Travelers often purchased their tickets several days in advance.

Ticket in hand, the traveler had to stand in line again in the yard. By each bus stood an official who punched a hole in the ticket before the holder boarded. Near the main line was another one for "standing only", for those who preferred making a quick departure to having a seat. Following the 1948 War, the already expensive cost of tickets rose even further. This was due to the lengthy detour that had to be made from Shaar Hagai along what was known as the Burma Road, in order avoid the Arab snipers who hid in the hills above the road, and reach Yerushalayim safely.

The organizers in 5704 chose the train as the preferred means of transport for only it had the capacity to carry the "multitudes" that they hoped would avail themselves of the opportunity to visit Yerushalayim. The kind of numbers they were thinking about is apparent from the following item from the Agudah's weekly publication, Haderech (7th Nisan 5704). "The news that Agudas Yisroel has obtained [the use of] a special train with a thousand places from the management of the Railway [Authority] of Eretz Yisroel, for the massive aliyah laregel to Yerushalayim was met with great joy by our members. The organizing committee is currently accepting orders [for seats] from both individuals and groups all over the country!"

The Director: Rav Meir Dovid Levenstein

In those days, when the yishuv was still small, a thousand olei regel were "multitudes". In fact, the number of participants was several times larger. Many Yidden found others ways to reach Yerushalayim and the visitors were joined by further thousands of Yerushalmim, who attended the gathering in Batei Machseh, prayed with them at the Kosel and took part in the various tours and visits that were arranged in different parts of the Holy City.

"Kumu vena'aleh beis Hashem!" was the title of the leaflet circulated by the organizing committee, which was headed by Rav Meir Dovid Levenstein z'l, who later became the Agudah's first Knesset member. In subsequent years, with the beginning of the aliyah of Georgian and Bukharian Jews, Rav Levenstein volunteered to head the Agudah's Department for Spiritual Absorption, in which position he was responsible for much valuable religious work among the new olim.

The leaflet contained details about the travel arrangements and purchase of the special train tickets. "Prices: until age fourteen a return ticket costs three hundred mil, for those aged fourteen years old or more, four hundred and fifty mil. Included in this cost are: storage of belongings in Yerushalayim, a printed guide, guidance on tours, a seat at the main gathering in the Old City and other entitlements. Permission to board the train will only be given to those holding tickets issued by the Agudas Yisroel Central Organization, together with the special badge that will be sent to every participant upon receipt of payment in full!"

Every detail of the well-ordered and meticulously planned operation bears Rav Levenstein's personal imprint. Here is one example: "In Yerushalayim, a special committee has been set up to arrange overnight lodgings for all the olim. Whoever has relatives there with whom he can stay is requested to help us by letting us know."

The travel arrangements are another example: "The Head Management of the Train Service in Eretz Yisroel have agreed to let us use a special train for this aliyah laregel. The train will be leaving Tel Aviv and travelling directly to Yerushalayim on Monday, the seventeenth of Nisan, the second day of Chol Hamoed Pesach, at 8.03 a.m. exactly. It will be leaving Yerushalayim to return to Tel Aviv the following day, Tuesday the eighteenth of Nisan, the third day of Chol Hamoed Pesach at eight p.m. sharp, arriving in Tel Aviv at approximately eleven p.m. All participants in the aliyah laregel who live in the vicinity of Tel Aviv, until Kefar Saba in the north, to Rechovot in the south, will be able to return home that night from Tel Aviv by means of a special service that the various bus services have promised us. Overnight arrangements in Tel Aviv will be made for those who do not manage to return home that night."

A People That Has Survived The Sword

Many Yerushalmim went to the railway station on that Monday chol hamoed to welcome the olim. The exalted and uplifting feelings that everyone felt at the time, and the occasion's echo of our ancient sources' descriptions of the welcome that was extended to olei regalim in bygone days, are hard to describe. When the train came to a halt and the doors of the carriages opened, all the olim, young and old, came out with joy on their faces and excitement at the crowds that had turned out to meet them. The two groups merged into one and left the railway station in a single procession, that made its way to Batei Machseh.

We children walked in the procession next to our father z'l. My main recollection is of the gathering in the Batei Machseh plaza. Upon the specially built platform sat the gedolei Torah and the leaders of the chareidi community, several of whom addressed the gathered crowds. Despite its being chol hamoed, none of the speakers was able to refrain from mentioning the tragic times, when European Jewry was being wiped out.

As children of course, we were unable to grasp the implication of the two sharply contrasting themes that underscored the occasion. On the one hand, this was the very first mass gathering of Jews from all over the Holy Land in modern times, who had come up to the last remnant of the Beis Hamikdosh in Yerushalayim on a regel. On the other hand, at the very same time, millions of our Jewish brothers and sisters, our grandfathers and grandmothers, parents with their babes and young children had gone up in flames and more still were suffering the same fate.

Looking back, one certainly better understands the deep desire of the organizers and of the thousands of participants to show that despite all our enemies' efforts, large numbers would gather, demonstrating our solidarity and our banding together. The posuk uttered by Yirmiyohu perhaps fit the occasion: "So says Hashem, 'They found favor in the desert, a people that survived the sword, going to calm Yisroel' " (31:1). The Malbim explains that, "When the survivors of the sword remain, after the slaughter and destruction that they will wreak upon them, they will ultimately find favor in the desert and the [yoke of] exile will be eased from [upon] them."

Many were searching for some slight scrap of comfort and that was possibly to be found in the message of the following posuk, "For the day will come when watchmen on Har Efraim will cry, 'Rise and let us ascend to Tziyon, to Hashem…!' " The Malbim explains, "For there will be a day when, instead of watchmen having originally been posted on Har Efraim to prevent people from being oleh to Yerushalayim (in the time of Yerovom ben Nevat,) the time will come when the watchmen and guards will stand and call, 'Rise and let's ascend to Tziyon!' "

End of Part I


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