Near the centre of Hebron is a small-side street which is very steep and at the top of the hill are situated the Jewish cemeteries of Hebron. For centuries, the Jews of Hebron were buried here, including such great scholars as the Chesed líAvraham and the Sdei Chemed.
Following the massacres of 1929, the 59 Jews who on that day were brutally murdered in Hebron - (eight more died in the succeeding days in Jerusalem) - were buried there. Due to the number of graves to dig, these graves were shallower than is usual with Jewish graves. The graves occupy four rows, with a larger space between the third and fourth rows, probably due to the stony terrain. There is also a further grave containing objects stained with the blood of these martyrs.
Let us first describe the layout of the Jewish cemetery in Hebron; in fact there are several cemeteries all adjoining each other. There is the Sephardic cemetery and in an extension on one side of it, those murdered in the 1929 pogrom. Across a narrow path from this cemetery is the Ashkenazic cemetery, which includes the grave of the Lubavitcher Rabbanit Menuchah Rachel. Lubavitch supporters recently build a traditional tent-like building over her grave. There is also a Karaite cemetery which adjoins the Sephardic cemetery.
If you wanted to easily find a particular grave in this cemetery, you would be disappointed. The tombstones used in Hebron were very heavy flat stones with no inscriptions - not even the names of the departed were engraved on the stones. The reason for this unusual situation was to prevent the Arabs from interfering with the dead. In particular, they would tamper with the graves of important people and for this reason no names were engraved on the tombstones.
The vandalism perpetrated by the Arabs on the Mount of Olives cemetery is well known. Tombstones were removed, broken, used as paving stones and even latrines and on the liberation of Jerusalem, everybody was horrified at the state in which they found this cemetery. The state in which the Hebron Jewish cemeteries were found in 1967 was far worse - if that is at all possible!
The Ashkenazic cemetery had had all the gravestones removed. It had then been ploughed up and grapevines planted all over it. In addition an Arab had built a house inside the cemetery. Every sign of a cemetery had been removed, so much so, that unless one was told, one would not know that one was in such a place.
In the martyrs of 1929 section, there had originally been large gravestones covering all the graves. These had been completely removed by the Arabs, the cemetery ploughed up and tomatoes planted there.
The Sephardic cemetery was found to be relatively speaking in the best condition. A number of the tombstones had been removed and a small room which had been built over the grave of a great Rabbi had been completely demolished by the Arabs. An Arab had also built a house over part of the cemetery and possibly over some of the graves.
This is the state in which the cemeteries were found in on the liberation of Hebron in 1967.
In 1968, soon after the arrival of the settlers to Hebron, one of them, Menachem Liebman, took it upon himself to investigate the state of these cemeteries in the hope that they may be restored. Since a lot of the tombstones had been removed by the Arabs, the first thing was to determine was where the boundaries of the cemeteries were and then to build a fence around them.
From the results of his labours, he determined where the boundaries of the Sephardic and 1929 martyrs cemeteries were and the Department which was responsible for Religious Affairs in Judea and Samaria started to make the foundations for such a fence. About ten metres from one side of this proposed fence was a narrow road, and at about that time, Menachem who was then performing further investigations, discovered evidence that there were graves in this ten metre strip and possibly also under this narrow road. The Military Governor was prepared to allow the position of the fence to be moved to the edge of this road but not to include it, since the Arabs used this road. The fence was then accordingly built.
The tomatoes planted over the 1929 martyrs section were uprooted but not the grapevines in the Ashkenazic cemetery. From Biblical times, Hebron is famous for its grapes, but this does not give one a license to plant them in a cemetery.
The work of restoring the cemeteries then, for some unknown reason,. came to a halt - for the time being at least.
The Arab who had built a house in the Sephardic cemetery was then appointed the custodian of these cemeteries and he was paid his salary by the Israeli government! He turned out to be a most inefficient custodian and I recollect when going several months later to visit the cemetery, having to wade through the long grass and thorns and thistles. He also did further building in the cemetery - the addition of a toilet!
The Yahrzeit for those massacred in the 1929 pogroms occurs just over a week after Tisha BíAv. Menachem Liebman discovered a book which gave the biographies and photographs of all those murdered and from this book we extracted the Hebrew names of all these martyrs. Since at that time there was no Eruv in Hebron, we could not carry the list to the Cave of Machpelah on the Shabbat, in order to make the Memorial prayer. We (very likely Menachem and myself) therefore went to the Cave on the Friday in order to deposit the list. Although Jews were rigidly excluded from this Holy Place on Friday, we hoped that we would be allowed in for a few minutes in order to deposit it there. On arrival at the gate, we asked the soldier on guard there if we could take in this list but he replied that he was not allowed to let any Jew in. We then asked him if he would take the list in himself, but he informed us that he also was not allowed in. We asked what would happen if a terrorist ran into the Cave? Would he be allowed to chase after him? In these circumstances, he conceded, that he would then be able to go in on a Friday.
He did however allow us to leave this list just inside the outer gate of the Cave, from where we would be permitted to carry it inside on Shabbat.
When we came to the Cave on the following day, we found the list where we had left it and at the appropriate time during the service, Menachem read the Memorial Prayer together with the names of all the martyrs.
That Motzoei Shabbat was the anniversary of the massacre and we held a memorial service in the Bet Hamedrash of the Yeshivah at which Menachem gave a talk on the modern history of Hebron and in particular on the period of this pogrom. He pointed out that during the War of Independence, Israel was close to Hebron and could have liberated it then, but the army for some reason chose not to do so. Someone in the audience then interrupted him, calling out (as I recollect) that it was because of money from abroad. As is customary, on the following day a number of us went to the cemetery to visit these graves.
As time passed and nothing further seemed to be done on restoring these cemeteries, I, in my position as Chairman of the Religious Committee, wrote to the department responsible for Religious Affairs in Judea and Samaria requesting the following things: A fence be built around the Ashkenazic cemetery; the house and toilet which was over the graves be demolished; a Jewish custodian be appointed in place of the Arab currently there; monuments listing those buried in the cemeteries be erected.
A few months later, the head of this department was in Hebron and I was able to discuss these points personally with him. He informed me that in order to build a fence around a piece of land as we had demanded for the Ashkenazic cemetery, it was necessary to have deeds of ownership for that land. A deed had been found which showed Jewish ownership of part of the cemetery and this would be fenced in. A further difficulty was, that since the Arabs had completely destroyed this cemetery, it was difficult after all this period of time to find people who remembered exactly where its boundaries were.
I also asked this official regarding the deeds of the Sephardic and martyrs cemeteries which had already been fenced in. He replied that although they had no deeds, since no-one else had laid claim to it, they were able to fence it in.
During this conversation, I recollected that in our Hebron exhibition had been a photocopy of a document which had given a permanent lease of the land comprising the cemeteries to the Jewish community of Hebron. To this he replied that for some reason - possibly connected with Ottoman law - this document had no legal effect.
With regard to the house and toilet built by the Arab in the cemetery, he replied that although the Arab had built it without permission, it was not so simple to evict him and demolish the structure. It would in fact be necessary to pay him compensation! This just sounds unbelievable, but presumably it was true! He also said that they were going to try and find a new custodian to look after the cemetery. To this I immediately replied that I take it, that it would be a Jew. He however answered that it would have to be an Arab, since it wasnít possible to find a Jew who would act as a custodian.
There were still considerable delays until these matters were acted upon. I believe the reason was that there was trouble in finding the budget.
However, finally a fence was built around the Ashkenazic cemetery. Compensation was paid to the Arab custodian who had built the house and toilet. Then he left. The toilet but not the house was then demolished and a new Arab custodian appointed. The new Arab custodian did not live in this house. Most of the time he was not present at the cemetery and he would keep it locked up. I recollect hearing a complaint from some people who had came all the way to Hebron to visit the cemetery and when they arrived they were unable to gain access. One might well ask what he was being paid for!
Some signs were also placed in the cemeteries to indicate which cemetery each one was and a small monument was erected in the centre of where they then thought the martyrs cemetery had been. Some years later, some extensive research was done by Rabbi Zalman Koren to locate the exact positions of each grave, and then, tombstones, of a different pattern from the original were erected over the graves with the names and other details of those buried. Some years after all this, I went round the cemetery together with Noam Arnon of Midreshet Hebron and Yitzchak Toker, a member of the Chevra Kadisha who had taken part in the burials in 1929. The latter had the original list of the graves and I recollect that there were some differences from Rabbi Korenís research. At the time, I arranged for a photocopy of this list to be made for Midreshet Hevron.
Despite all this work on the Ashkenazic cemetery, the grape vines were not uprooted and in the middle of the summer grape season, I, together with some other settlers went to the cemetery, pulled down the grapes and trampled them into the ground.
Amongst the graves in the Sephardic cemetery are the graves of a former Av Bet Din of Hebron, Rabbi Eliahu Manni and his wife. As I mentioned earlier, it was customary in Hebron not to write an inscription on the tombstones. One therefore had to know exactly where a grave was. The identification of the graves of Rabbi Manni and his wife is, however, much easier, since these two tombstones face a different direction. One year, on his Yahrzeit, a group of Sephardim went to Hebron and came to the Beth Hamedrash of our Yeshivah. They lit a number of candles and spent the entire night praying and studying. The first thing the following morning, they went down to the cemetery to visit the graves of this Rabbi and his wife.
Visitors to various parts of Hebron occasionally had grenades thrown at them. These places included the cemetery. On Tisha BíAv, it is a custom after finishing the Kinot in the morning, to visit the cemetery. On the morning of Tisha BíAv 1970, I was asked by Menachem Liebman, Meir Peretz and possibly some others, whether I wanted to go with them to the cemetery. However, I had not yet finished reading the Kinot and so I did not accompany them. About an hour later, I heard the sounds of sirens, but at the time I didnít think anything of it. It was only that evening did I learn that as this group were approaching the cemetery, an Arab threw a grenade at them. Fortunately, near the cemetery there is a low wall and the grenade landed at the other side of this wall which took the blast. Immediately after this attack, Meir took off his slippers, since it was difficult to run in them and ran to give the alarm. That night he was commenting about his sore feet!
Even though no-one was hurt physically by this attack, it was certainly very alarming mentally. Since I had not yet finished reading the Kinot, I was spared this. Since then I have extended my reading of the Kinot on the morning of Tisha BíAv until mid-day.
Following strong decisive actions by Sarah Nachshon in the early 1970s to bury her baby son in the Hebron cemetery, the section of the cemetery between the Sephardic and martyrs sections, was opened up as the cemetery for residents of Hebron and Kiryat Arba who had gone to their eternal rest.