Israel travels

The pre-state struggle remembered at the Underground Prisoners’ Museum

Prison garb was brown for regular prisoners, black if you’d tried to escape, and red for those condemned to hang… This Jerusalem museum makes for a particularly appropriate visit around Independence Day

The reconstructed Room 34 at the Underground Prisoners' Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The reconstructed Room 34 at the Underground Prisoners' Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

One Friday evening in 1946, British guards dragged 16-year-old Benjamin Kimchi 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 Kimchi had been condemned to 18 long years in prison for carrying a weapon.

Menachem Begin, leader of the Etzel (Irgun Tzvai 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 Kimchi beating, Etzel fighters kidnapped an officer and three sergeants, whipped them 18 times and released them. Flogging was never again carried out under the British Mandate.

The entrance to the Underground Prisoners' Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The entrance to the Underground Prisoners’ Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

For decades after the founding of the state, its history forgotten, the prison provided office space and storage for various institutions. Later, former inmates transformed the building into a shrine for Haganah, Etzel and Lehi fighters hanged by the British and called it Hechal Hagevura (Hall of Heroism). Eventually, recognizing the underground’s significant part in the establishment of the state, the Ministry of Defense 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.

The original sign is still in place, announcing in three languages (English, Arabic and Hebrew) that this is the British Central Prison. The armored car on the lawn was used by the British when they patrolled Jerusalem streets.

Nearby, what looks like a double grave is actually a memorial for famous inmates Moshe Barazani and Meir Feinstein. The tombstones once topped their graves on the Mount of Olives.

Interestingly, there is a Russian symbol above the entrance to the prison, and the words (in Russian) “Maria’s Courtyard.” In 1860 the Russian Orthodox Church bought a huge chunk of land in this area and filled it with a church, pilgrim hostels and a hospital. This particular edifice, built in 1864, housed female pilgrims.

At the beginning of the Mandate, the British turned the old hostel into a jail where they incarcerated thieves and murderers. It was only later that Jews were thrown into the prison for defending themselves, carrying weapons, belonging to the underground, and terrorizing the British.

Holes readily visible in the exterior walls were made by shells. On May 14, 1948, two weeks after the British emptied out the prison, Haganah soldiers captured this entire area. Although the big battles took place closer to the Old City walls, there was plenty of fighting here, too.

Today’s Museum Reception was once the nazara – where the new inmate had his handcuffs removed and his head shaved. Further in, there are four separate security doors.

Room 34 is a reconstructed cell, still featuring beautiful Russian-built arches. Most prisoners slept on mats — with the exception of the “boss” who kept order in the cell. Not only did he have his own bed, but his prison uniform was blue instead of regulation brown. The toilet pail was the only bathroom facility available after four in the afternoon.

Another room is a restored bakery, once used by Russian pilgrims and later the venue where prisoners baked pita. The cell that is Room 32 was different – it had real beds. When pronouncing his sentence, the judge could decide whether your time in prison would be harsh, or far less austere. The bakery stove was beneath this room, warming it in winter.

The cell of those condemned to death, at the Underground Prisoners' Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
The cell of those condemned to death, at the Underground Prisoners’ Museum in Jerusalem (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Former inmates relate that you only really understood that you were a prisoner when you entered the storeroom. For here you handed in your civilian clothes and were given prison garb: brown for regular prisoners, blue for the “boss,” and red for those condemned to hang. (If you tried to escape, and failed, you wore black).

Room 23 holds two “attractions”: names, mottoes and inscriptions prisoners chiseled into the floor, and the open hatch under one of the beds. Because this cell was located near the perimeter fence, underground prisoners decided to use it for an escape attempt. With the help of Shevah Erlich, the Jewish municipal engineer in charge of local maintenance, they learned that a sewage tunnel and manhole lay on the other side of the fence. All they needed was a connecting tunnel. And they began to dig.

But how to remove the dirt and stones? Fortunately, a step leads down into this particular cell, and water poured in from the corridor when the prison floors were washed. So when inmates volunteered to build a cesspit, the warden graciously agreed. He even provided them with a wheelbarrow and bags of cement.

Unfortunately, the finished tunnel was too narrow. Erlich suggested they block the entire prison sewage system and, when called in for repairs, he opened up a more accessible manhole. On February 20, 1948, wearing municipal workers’ uniforms smuggled inside, 12 prisoners desperate to resume the struggle for a Jewish homeland managed to escape.

Past the service courtyard are open-stalled showers area built by the British. Prisoners condemned to hang were isolated from their comrades, but here they could pick up notes hidden near the hole in the floor that served as a primitive toilet.

The exercise yard, now empty of course, is where prisoners about to be flogged were tied to a wooden structure that stood in the corner. Fortunately, the clinic was nearby. Inside were two bottles, one green and one red. If your complaint was in the area from head to belly button you got the green liquid; red “cured” ills from stomach to feet.

The Warden’s Quarters feature items smuggled into the prison, including a hollow club. Not far is the tzinok, or “solitary.” Former inmates say it was hell on earth, crawling with lice and bedbugs. This was the guards’ opportunity to take revenge on prisoners who had given them trouble. They would pour pails of water — or worse — inside the cells, in which the prisoners had to stand all day long.

On view in the Hall of Heroism are photos of Jews executed during the Mandate and afterwards in Arab countries. Across the Hall of Heroism are the cells for prisoners condemned to death. On display are the red uniforms they wore – and the gallows.

The British caught 19-year-old Meir Feinstein after the Irgun blasted the Jerusalem Railway Station, and captured 20-year-old Moshe Barazani with a hand grenade on his way to an assassination. Until that time the British 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.

A memorial to Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani at the Underground Prisoners' Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
A memorial to Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani at the Underground Prisoners’ Museum (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

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 brought in 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 young men — and smuggled them into their cell inside two hollowed-out oranges.

On the eve of the scheduled execution, April 21, 1947, the prisoners were visited by Rabbi Yaakov Goldman — rabbi of all the prisons in Israel. Immensely touched by the young prisoners’ dedication and spirit, he insisted on the unusual step of being present 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.

Obviously, the two youths couldn’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 pair 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 had decided he must be spared.

In April of 2007, Goodwin’s son Dennis met with members of Meir Feinstein’s family in Israel and returned the Bible. It contained a message, written by Meir 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.”

Note: On Independence Day, if you are lucky enough to be in Jerusalem, actors inside and outside the Museum will take visitors back in time to the days of the Underground. Hours 11:00-18:00; free.


Read more about the Jewish underground in Aviva Bar-Am’s books.

Shmuel Bar-Am conducts private guided tours.

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