Before Jerusalem’s Reunification, There Were Defiant Carvings on a Prison Wall
JNS.org – In late fall 1947, Shmuel Matza, then a 20-year-old member of the Etzel (also known as Irgun) Jewish underground paramilitary organization, was detained in the Kishle prison by the British on suspicion of possessing illegal arms.
“I decided to show the British that I was not afraid of them, that I would continue to be a member of Etzel even after my prison term, that I would continue to challenge them,” Matza recalls.
So one morning, Matza slipped his breakfast fork in his pocket just before the guards accompanied him back to his quarters — a tiny cell infested by rats and lice with only a mat of woven cloth on which to sleep. When the lights went out and everyone was sleeping, including the police officers, Matza quietly removed that fork from his pocket.
Slowly and determinedly, he carved the following deep into the prison wall: the emblem of the Irgun, a map of the historic land of Israel; the Hebrew phrases for “only thus,” which suggested that the Jewish people would use force to achieve freedom in their land, and “long live the Hebrew state;” and his name.
A few days later, Matza was transferred to the Latrun detention camp, from which he was released in April 1948, just ahead of the Israeli War of Independence. He fought for the state until the war ended in 1949. Then, Matza went to law school, married, had children and grandchildren, and quietly closed the previous chapter of his life.
Yet that chapter was unexpectedly reopened more than 50 years later, when archaeologists discovered Matza’s carvings — still bold, confident and defiant — on an interior wall of the Kishle.
Archaeologists began excavating around the area of the Kishle after Israel’s 1967 Six-Day War, during which the Jewish state reunified Jerusalem following 19 years of Jordanian control in the city’s eastern portion. The capital’s reunification is celebrated by Israelis each year on “Yom Yerushalayim” (Jerusalem Day), which falls on June 5 this year.
In the aftermath of the 1967 war, then Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek agreed to let the Israeli government develop Jerusalem’s Tower of David into a museum. But the Kishle, a 1,476-square-foot structure, was left untouched while archaeologists focused on the 1,000-year-old and much larger Tower of David. At the time, the Kishle — hidden behind a metal door and situated atop a winding spiral staircase next to the ancient ramparts of the Old City walls — was believed to have been built in the 19th century.
In 2000, Eilat Lieber — now the Tower of David Museum’s general director and chief curator, and then its director of education — was looking for a site within the museum’s grounds to host children’s programming. She remembered the Kishle from when she was a student at the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in the 1980s.
“I had seen the plans for the museum and that the Kishle was part of the grounds,” Lieber tells JNS.org. “It was something that no one even remembered.”
Lieber launched a search for the key to unlock the Kishle, and found it in its rusty state on the key ring of the museum’s caretaker. The caretaker opened the door, “and we saw this amazing space,” recalls Rose Ginosar, director of development and external relations for the Tower of David.
The $1 million originally fundraised to produce the children’s center was instead funneled toward excavations in the Kishle. A team of Israel Antiquities Authority archaeologists led by Amit Re’em took everything out by hand until they hit bedrock. Along the way, they discovered layers revealing 2,800 years of history — a far cry for the previous assumption that the Kishle was constructed in the 19th century.
At the lowest layer of the Kishle, archaeologists discovered walls that can be dated back to the 8th century BC, showing the character of Jerusalem in the times of the First Temple Period. Above those walls, archaeologists found remnants of Hasmonean walls built by the dynasty the preceded King Herod, who built the Second Temple. Even further above, they found the remains of the large foundation walls built to support King Herod’s palace, and the massive water system used to transfer water from outside the city walls into his palace and the surrounding area.
The castle of the Crusader King of Jerusalem lies on top of Herod’s palace; archaeologists discovered a series of tubs likely used by Jews to dye cloth for the Crusader royalty. Atop that layer is a structure from the Ottoman era — the period when the Kishle got its name. “Kishle” is Turkish for “barracks.” The Kishle was used in the 19th century as a military compound by Egyptian ruler Ibrahim Pasha, before being taken over by the Ottomans. The Ottomans converted it into a jail, and the British continued to use the Kishle as such during the Palestine Mandate period from 1920-1948. During the British Mandate era, Matza made his carving—a symbol of the Jewish struggle for the state.
Matza remembers the day his carving was discovered. He received a call from the Hebrew daily newspaper Ma’ariv and from the archaeologist, Re’em, informing him of the finding. They located Matza through his younger brother, Yehoshua Matza, then a well-known Likud politician.
Though Shmuel Matza was 75 at the time, he says he could still vividly remember his days in the Kishle. Today, at 89, his memory is equally as sharp.
“There were about 20 of us packed into one jail cell — criminals of all kinds, Arabs,” Matza tells JNS.org. “The cells were dirty and smelly, with all kinds of rats and bugs. We’d go out to the patio for our meals, which consisted of olives, yogurt, pita bread, and tea. I still remember that they served the tea in these aluminum cups, which got so hot that it burned our mouths when we tried to drink from them.”
Matza also remembers the period in which he fought for Israel. A Jerusalemite going back several generations, his first arrest came at age 17, when he was caught hanging flyers for the Irgun. He had joined the paramilitary group through a friend of a friend.
“It was an underground, they didn’t have an office I could go to, say ‘Good morning,’ and tell them I want to join,” Matza explains.
By 20, he was promoted to a combat role and oversaw a team of 12 young women. He was tasked with training them to use weapons: hand grenades and revolvers. The morning before their first training, Matza went to a room in a small shack in which fellow Irgun members had hidden firearms under the tile floor. He wanted to clean the shack ahead of that evening’s training. But just as Matza went outside of the shack to get a broom, a British security officer called to him, “Hey you, come over here.”
“One officer took me into an armored car and the other went straight to the room — it was like they knew [about the underground operation],” says Matza.
Though they could not prove Matza was guilty — after all, he was in the courtyard and not the room with the guns — they arrested him and sentenced him to six months of detention.
The Kishle was his stopover.
“Since childhood, I was nationalistic,” Matza says. “But when the Second World War was about to end and there was news coming about the burning of millions of Jews in Europe, and the British here didn’t want to give them any certificates to enter — they send boats back to Europe knowing what would happen — that is what made me want to join Etzel and fight against them.”
He adds, “I am now 89 years old and I am still excited about the State of Israel.…We survived then, and we continue to survive and even flourish.”
The proof, says Matza, is in his carvings on the wall of the Kishle.