Siyur Series 4 – The Underground Prisoners’ Museum

by Brittany Herzenberg, Year Course Participant

Several weeks ago, our Zionism class headed to downtown Jerusalem for a tour of the Underground Prisoners Museum.

The building, which originally served as a women’s dormitory in the famous Russian Compound, was converted into a prison during the British Mandate. The British initially imprisoned both Jews and Arabs together, but separated them once conflict arose. During the War of Independence, the Haganah, the Irgun, and Lechi, the three main underground Jewish paramilitary groups, captured the Russian Compound. The building itself served multiple uses over the years, and in 1991 the prison was converted into a museum to commemorate prisoners from these underground movements.

museumIn the museum, Rabbi Kahn gave us a tour of the cells, synagogue, courtyards, and kitchen. A part of the tour that stood out to me the most was the Prisoners and Detainees of Bethlehem exhibit, honoring the women who fought in the Haganah and other underground groups. It was amazing to see that the women were just as daring as the men in their acts of rebellion. We watched a video that explained the hardships the women faced in the prison, and through it all, how passionate they remained for the cause. After Israel gained independence from the British, most of the detained women joined Israel’s army and continued fighting for their beliefs.

At the end of our tour we sat down with Zippy, our guest speaker that afternoon. Born and raised in New York, Zippy was also just 18 years old when she came to then-Palestine for the year. The difference between us is that while we arrived in August 2013, Zippy arrived in 1947, just several months before Israel’s fight for independence began. Telling us personal stories of what life was like in the ‘settlement’, or Yishuv as the Jews called Mandatory British Palestine, Zippy described how she was invited to join the Haganah and fought for Israel’s independence. An aspiring journalist, Zippy wrote down all of her experiences, primarily in letters she sent back to her family in the United States. Decades later, she found the letters in her mother’s house and compiled a book, Letters from Jerusalem: 1947-1948. It was amazing to hear a first hand account from someone who came to Israel with similar intentions as us, during an incredible point in history.museum2

Visiting this museum made me truly realize what a remarkable city I’m living in. It’s amazing that such history – that of the British Prison and Zippy’s own experiences – just north of Ben-Yehuda street, a bustling area where now we stop to grab falafel.