28 June 1925
|Died||29 May 1948
|Cause of death||Killed in action|
|Resting place||Mount Herzl, Jerusalem, Israel|
|Occupation||Schoolteacher and volunteer Haganah soldier|
Esther Cailingold (1925–1948) was a British-born schoolteacher of Polish extraction, who fought with the Jewish forces during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and died of wounds received in the battle for the Old City of Jerusalem. She is commemorated, in Israel, by the Esther Cailingold memorial forest at Kibbutz Lavi in the Lower Galilee, by a scholarship fund at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, and on various war memorials including that of the Israeli Armored Corps at Latrun. Several libraries and other rooms in children's homes in Israel are named after her. In England she is remembered through the Esther Cailingold society in North London, part of Emunah UK, a worldwide Jewish children's welfare charity.
Birth, family and education
Esther Cailingold was born in Whitechapel, London, on 28 June 1925, eldest child of Moshe Cailingold and Anne, née Fenechel. Moshe had immigrated from Warsaw in 1920, and had opened up a London branch of his family's bookselling and publishing business. After the family moved to Stamford Hill, North London, in 1936, Esther attended the North London Collegiate School for girls, eventually winning a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, University of London (temporarily based in Nottingham), to study English. She graduated with first-class honours in 1946.
Esther's Zionism derived principally from her strict Orthodox Jewish background. Her father, one of the founders of Poland's Young Mizrachi movement, ("Mizrachi" here refers to the worldwide religious Zionist movement, the name has also been used by a now-defunct Israeli political party) maintained a fervent Zionism in the family home, such that "Esther was a Zionist...before she knew of any formal movement or heard her first Zionist speech". Her youthful convictions were strengthened by awareness of international events such as the rise of Hitler, the growth of European (and British) anti-semitism and later, during and immediately after the war, the emerging details of the Holocaust. Until then her Zionism had expressed itself mainly in religious and youth-related activities, such as her involvement with Bachad, (Bachad's origins are as a pre war German Jewish youth movement which came to England with refugees) which ran training farms in Britain and Europe to prepare young people for future life on a kibbutz. Thereafter her belief strengthened that her future lay with the Jewish community in Palestine, and in the autumn of 1946 she successfully applied for a post as an English teacher at the Evelina de Rothschild school in Jerusalem.
Esther arrived in Jerusalem on 1 December 1946 to take up her teaching post. In the ensuing months, whilst immersing herself in the local culture, she witnessed the growing street violence, the imposition of curfews and other restrictions on movement, attacks on Jewish property and personnel, and specific events such as the trial, conviction and execution of Irgun activist Dov Gruner, and the drawn out saga of the refugee ships such as the Exodus. As a result, her perspective changed; her letters home reflect a harder attitude and an increasingly sharp anti-British sentiment. By October 1947 she had joined Haganah, and while continuing with her teaching job for the time being, she began attending training camps to prepare for possible combat duty. In January 1948 she left Evelina de Rothschild and became a full-time Haganah soldier. In addition to military duties and continuing training she acted as a continuity announcer for Haganah's English-language broadcasting service, whilst seeking a posting to the garrison defending the Jewish Quarter in the Old City, the most vulnerable of all the Jewish sectors within Jerusalem.
The Jewish Quarter
There are two distinct narratives relating to the 1948 battle for the Jewish Quarter. The Arab narrative tells of a well-planned and executed military victory against a fanatical and determined foe. The Jewish narrative recounts a struggle against hopeless odds by a tiny force that by its bravery and determination held out for two weeks before being overwhelmed. There is truth in each version.
In 1948 the Jewish Quarter covered a smaller area than it had once and does now. It then housed around 1700 civilians, mainly women, children and elderly, and was defended by a small garrison of mixed Haganah, Irgun and Lehi troops under a Haganah commander. The Quarter was entirely cut off from the rest of Jewish Jerusalem, surrounded by hostile Arab districts and effectively indefensible in the face of attack. It had no strategic military value but was of great symbolic importance. However, its garrison was severely undermanned and undersupplied, dependent for food and other necessities on a weekly convoy escorted by British troops, through which arms and additional combat troops had to be smuggled.
Esther entered the Old City, ostensibly as a teacher, in the last of such convoys, on 7 May 1948 and reported to the Haganah commander. Her assigned task was a mobile role - supplying the needs (arms, ammunition, food, drink, etc.) of the various outposts throughout the quarter. When she arrived, a tenuous truce was operating and things were relatively quiet, but a full-scale onslaught on the Quarter was anticipated, after the anticipated British troops withdrawal on 14 May. This duly occurred. Sections of the civilian population wanted to negotiate a cease fire. They had to be forcibly restrained. On 16 May, during the first sustained attack on the Quarter, Esther was wounded, though not disabled - she quickly returned to her duties after a field-dressing, often using the exposed rooftops as her means of access between posts. On 19 May a small Palmach unit broke through the Zion Gate and reached the beleaguered garrison. Esther was there to receive them and for a moment it seemed that fortunes might have turned, but the force swiftly withdrew. On that same day, King Abdullah's Arab Legion arrived at the Mount of Olives and began shelling the Jewish Quarter, which was contracting daily as Arab ground troops advanced. It became a house-to-house battle, and Esther's mobile role became impossible, so she joined one of the defending groups as a Sten gunner. On 26 May she was seriously injured when a building she had just entered exploded, shattering her spine. She was carried to the Quarter's hospital, but lack of supplies meant that little medical treatment was available. When the hospital came under shell-fire the next day Esther and the other wounded were moved to a safer area. Here, she remained conscious and able to talk, read her bible and say her prayers. Meanwhile, with the destruction of the Hurva synagogue, resistance in the Jewish Quarter effectively ended, with less than forty defenders still holding out. Surrender followed shortly afterwards.
After the surrender on 28 May, Esther and the other wounded were moved, this time to the nearby Armenian School, just outside the Jewish Quarter. Early on the following morning Esther, after refusing a cigarette (it was Shabbat), fell into a coma and did not regain consciousness. She died some time around 5.00 am on 29 May. Her last letter to her parents had been written six days earlier and handed to fellow-soldier Chaveh Leurer, who passed it to Harry Levin after the surrender. Levin in turn gave it to Moshe Cailingold when the latter came to Jerusalem in July.
After the surrender of the Jewish Quarter garrison to the Arab Legion under Abdullah al Tel, the remaining buildings in the quarter were systematically destroyed, including 58 of the 59 synagogues in the Old City. The quarter's Jewish residents were removed to Israeli lines, and lost all their property. The Arab victory in the Old City was one of their few successes in the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, which they termed their al-Nakba ("the Catastrophe"). In the Six-Day War of June 1967 Jewish forces captured the entire Old City, and thereafter the Jewish Quarter was rebuilt.
None of the men or women who fought for the Jewish Quarter in 1948 received citations for bravery, although Moshe Roussak singled Esther out as deserving. Along with the 38 other Old City fighters who died, Esther was posthumously enlisted in the Israeli Defence Forces and, after temporary burial in a West Jerusalem quarry, her body was re-interred in Mount Hertzl military cemetery in September 1950.
Notes and references
- Established in 1949 on land belonging to Lubya - population 2,350 (1944/45). 'All That Remains', Walid Khalidi. IPS 1992. ISBN 0-88728-224-5
- "Home - Emunah". emunah.org.uk.
- "Mizrachi UK". Mizrachi UK.
- A Cailingold, p8
- Sir Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists were active in East London throughout the 1930s
- See texts of letters in A Cailingold, chs 8-28
- Levin, p34. He refers to her here, and elsewhere, as "Esther C."
- See, for example, John Bagot Glubb: A Soldier With The Arabs, Hodder & Stoughton 1957 or, for a more recent account, see Dr Ahmad Tell, The Battle of Old Jerusalem 1948, on "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 4 January 2008. Retrieved 21 December 2007. (Tell quotes verbatim liberally from O Jerusalem without attribution).
- Lapidot, Yehuda. "The Battle for the Old City". daat.ac.il.
- During Esther's attachment to the garrison the commander was Moshe Rousnak
- Among the efforts to re-supply the Jewish Quarter was an attempted airdrop of guns, ammunition and other essentials, but "so much of the Quarter had been overrun that these essential supplies fell into Arab hands" (Gilbert, p222). The general shortage of manpower available to the Old City was due to priority being given to attempts to break the Arab siege at Latrun
- Kurtzman, p241, describes Esther in this convoy with two other girls. There are numerous errors in his account: he dates the convoy 28 April, he refers to her as having just arrived from England when she had been in Jerusalem for 18 months, and he mis-spells her name as "Ceilingold"
- 'The Faithful City', Dov Joseph. Simon and Schuster. 1960. Library of congress no.: 60 10976. p.162 referring to 15 May: 'strong measures'... 'persuaded to return to their houses only by threatening them with weapons.' p.164 May 18: 'defenders forcibly restrained them.' p.167 May 20: Haham Chamo, a French citizen demands contact with French Consulate. p.170 May 25: 'there had been a serious rising of some of the inhabitants, demanding surrender.' p.172: Rabbi Hazam wounded, possibly by one of the defenders while trying to approach Arab Legion with a white flag.
- Scotsman Thursday 15 April 1948: 'A procession of several thousand Orthodox Jews marched through the streets of the Jewish Quarter demanding peace and a "cease fire". The Orthodox Jews' statement said that the Haganah troops tore down the banners and beat the demonstrators. Later a larger Haganah force, which arrived in buses fired their guns in the air and "also beat the demonstrators without mercy, using their rifle butts."' See also Dov Joseph p.58 January 4: demonstrations "the Haganah has eaten our food". 'It was an ugly period.' Also p.159/60: Joseph threatens to shoot Rabbi Alter from Mea Shearim. Also p.179: Yeshiva students forced to dig graves at gun-point.
- O Jerusalem, p444, A Cailingold p219
- As to why they withdrew, this a contentious matter. "Lack of communication between Palmach and Haganah" is often cited. See O Jerusalem, p445
- O Jerusalem p 501, A Cailingold p236
- This is according to A Cailingold, p226. O Jerusalem says the letter was found under her pillow, after her death
- The text of the letter is as follows: May 23rd 1948. Dear Mummy, Daddy and everyone, If you do get this at all, it will be, I suppose, typical of all my hurried, messy letters. I am writing it to beg of you that, whatever might have happened to me, you will make the effort to take it in the spirit that I want and to understand that for myself I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight, I have tasted of Gehenem - but it has been worthwhile because I am convinced that the end will see a Jewish State and the realisation of all our longings. I shall only be one of many who fell (in) sacrifice, and I was urged to write this letter because one in particular was killed today who meant a great deal to me. Because of the sorrow I felt, I want you to take it otherwise - to remember that we were soldiers and had the greatest and noblest cause to fight for. God is with us, I know, in his own Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost to reprieve (?) it. Don't think that I have taken "unnecessary risks" - that does not pay when manpower is short, but I did find the excitement I always needed and have enjoyed it. I hope that you may have the chance of meeting any of my co-fighters who survive, if I do not, and that you will be pleased and not sad of how they talk of me. Please, please do not be sadder than you can help - I have lived my life fully if briefly, and I think that is the best way - "short and sweet", very sweet it has been here in our own land. I hope you will enjoy from Mimi and Asher the satisfaction you have missed in me - let it be without regrets, and then I too shall be happy. I am thinking of you all, every single one of you in the family, and am full of pleasure at the thought that you will one day, very soon I hope, come and enjoy the fruits of that for which we are fighting. Much, much love, and remember me only in happiness. Shalom and Lehitraot, Your loving Esther
- A Cailingold, p243
- Martin Gilbert: Jerusalem in the 20th Century. Chatto & Windus, 1996.
- Collins & Lapierre: O Jerusalem. History Book Club, 1972.
- Dan Kurtzman: Genesis 1948. De Capo Press edition, 1992.
- Asher Cailingold: An Unlikely Heroine. Valentine Mitchell, 2000.
- Harry Levin: Jerusalem Embattled. Cassell edition, 1997.
- Yehuda Avner: The Prime Ministers: An Intimate Narrative of Israeli Leadership. Toby Press, 2010.