Friday, August 17, 2007

After the Begin Museum, You Can Visit Another

Going underground
Aviva Bar-Am
Aug. 16, 2007

One Friday evening in 1946, British guards carrying out Binyamin Kimhi's sentence dragged the 16-year-old from his cell in Jerusalem's Central Prison and lashed him 18 times.

But instead of flogging him in the exercise yard in front of the other inmates, prison authorities thrashed him in private. This in the futile hope that they could keep it secret: Palestine's Jews were already enraged that young Kimhi had been condemned to 18 long years in prison for carrying a weapon.

Menachem Begin, leader of the Irgun Zvai Leumi underground, was livid when he heard about the incident. Jews had been continually shamed and degraded
in the Diaspora, and he was not about to permit the same kind of humiliation in the Jewish homeland. Earlier, the Irgun had published a warning whose upshot was "a lash for a lash" - but it was ignored by the British. After the Kimhi beating, IZL fighters kidnapped an officer and three sergeants, whipped them 18 times and released them. Flogging was never again carried out under the British Mandate.

For decades after the founding of the state, its history forgotten, the prison provided office space and storage for different institutions. Later, former inmates transformed the building into a shrine for Hagana, IZL and Lehi fighters hanged by the British and called it Heichal Hagevura (Hall of Heroism). Eventually, recognizing the underground's significant part in the establishment of the state, the Defense Ministry restored the prison. Today, as the Underground Prisoners' Museum, it tells the spellbinding story of the underground's relentless struggle to oust the British and help create a Jewish state.

A two-hour circular tour of the Underground Prisoners' Museum takes visitors
to the bleak cells from which patriotic young fighters - desperate to
participate in the struggle for a Jewish homeland - dreamed of escape. View
the flogging corner in the courtyard, examine the prisoners' unique artwork,
discover an exciting escape, and enter the somber chamber that held the

...Now enter the Hall of Heroism to view photos of Jews executed during the Mandate and afterwards in Arab countries. Then go into the cells for condemned prisoners. First, gaze at the red uniforms they wore. Examine the memorials, then view the gallows.

The British caught 19-year-old Meir Feinstein after the Irgun blasted the Jerusalem Railway Station, and they caught 20-year-old Moshe Barazani with a hand grenade on his way to an assassination. Until that time they had executed Jews only at Acre prison, for they were afraid of Jewish riots in the Holy City. Now, however, worried that the transport would be attacked on its way to Acre, the British decided on a Jerusalem hanging. Since Feinstein had lost a hand in the railway attack and needed assistance, the two were locked up together.

But Barazani and Feinstein had no intention of giving the British authorities the pleasure of watching them hang, and were eager to carry out a plan hatched together with other inmates. Outsiders smuggled explosives inside a hollow club (the one in the warden's quarters). An inmate constructed two hand grenades - one for the hangman and warden, a second for the boys - and smuggled them into their cell inside two hollowed-out oranges.

On the eve of the scheduled execution, April 21, 1947, Reb Arye was temporarily replaced by Rabbi Ya'acov Goldman - in charge of all the prisons in Israel. Immensely touched by the boys' dedication and spirit, he insisted on being present at the hanging so that the last face they saw would be that of a Jew. Nothing would change his mind and he remained in the prison, ready to return early next morning.

The two youths wouldn't discharge the grenades at the execution, for the rabbi would be hurt. Instead, they handed their guard a Bible and asked him to go outside and pray for them. Almost immediately, an explosion rocked the prison: the courageous young men had blown themselves up! Although they had been eager to take a British guard with them to the next world, this one - Thomas Goodwin - had been kind and they decided he must be spared. A few months ago, Goodwin's son met with members of Meir Feinstein's family in Israel and returned the Bible. It contained a message written by Feinstein 60 years earlier on behalf of both young men. Part of it read, in Hebrew, "Remember that we stood with dignity and marched with honor. Better to die
with a weapon in your hands than hands raised in surrender."

Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: NIS 10/5; includes a rare
photographic exhibit of Israel from the years 1850-1950.