The Struggle for the State and the Mystery of the Kishle

Rose Ginosar |27/04/2020|1801
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Silently rising above the Jerusalem skyline, The Tower of David has witnessed thousands of years of history in Jerusalem and Israel from biblical times, through the rise and destruction of the city and over subsequent waves of conquests. Just as the Tower of David observed events a thousand years ago so too it witnessed events of just 72 years ago during the struggle to establish the State of Israel.

One of the most crucial chapters in the fight for the State of Israel is embodied in the Kishle compound which is part of the museum complex and lies just south of the citadel of the Tower of David. The inside of the 19th century structure was excavated by archaeologists twenty years ago and as they dug 10 meters into the earth, by hand, from the entrance floor down to bedrock they uncovered remnants and discoveries that illuminate 2700 years of Jewish history in Jerusalem. But one of the most moving and important archaeological discoveries did not require any digging at all. It was there, just waiting to be discovered.


British Mandate Prison Cells Before Excavations

British Mandate Prison Cells Before Excavations

When archaeologists first unlocked the rusty doors of the Kishle building in 2000, they were confronted with two rows of jail cells, separated by a corridor. This was not surprising for they knew that during the British mandatory period, from 1920 to 1948, the Kishle building was used as a detention center for criminals and political activists. The walls were covered with English, Hebrew and Arabic graffiti as one would expect of any jail. However a closer look revealed the drawing of a map, and not just any map. It was the emblem of the Irgun, the Jewish underground organization headed by Menachem Begin, and consisted of a map of the Land of Israel and the slogan “Only This Way”. It was clear that this cell had housed a member of the resistance to British rule in the Land of Israel. But who drew this drawing, what had he done and what had become of him?  It was a mystery.

But there were clues. On the opposite wall they found a name, Shmuel Matza, and the phrase, “Long Live the Hebrew State”. But who was Shmuel Matza and how could they find him? The chief archaeologist of the excavation had an idea. A well known politician in the Likud party, then headed by Menachem Begin, was named Yehoshua Matza – perhaps this was the link. He called the politician to ask if he had any connection to a Shmuel Matza when Yehoshua replied, “Of course, he is my younger brother”!


Shmuel Matza fighting in 1947

Shmuel Matza fighting in 1947

The archaeologist excitedly contacted Shmuel who could vividly remember his days in the Kishle.  He recalled a crowded and filthy jail with Jewish prisoners on the left side of the corridor and Arab prisoners on the right. “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.”

Shmuel Matza was born to a family that had lived in Jerusalem for generations.  He joined the underground when he was just 17 years old and by the time he was 20 he was overseeing a combat operation. He was tasked with training young fighters to use grenades and revolvers that had been gathered and stored in an abandoned shack.  As he stepped outside the hut to find a broom to sweep the area, a British soldier called him out. Other soldiers searched the shack and discovered the hidden weapons and Shmuel Matza was sentenced to 6 months detention in Latrun Prison. He was detained in the Kishle for 4 days before being transferred to Latrun.

Shmuel stated that he and his friends were well versed in Jewish history and in the ancient writings of Josephus Flavius who wrote of King Herod’s massive tunnels that led outside the walls of the city. His friends, who wanted to rescue him from the Kishle, became amateur archaeologists themselves as they attempted to “spring” Shmuel by crawling through the ancient tunnels to reach the Kishle. Unfortunately, the tunnels lay 10 meters below the prison floor and the group was eventually frightened away by British soldiers.  Fifty years later though, archaeologists uncovered those same tunnels.


Access to Kishle excavations following renovations

Access to Kishle excavations following renovations

But, when did Shmuel carve the etchings on the walls? He recalled, “I took a fork from breakfast and, during the day when no one was around, I carved the Irgun symbol. I didn’t do it for history. I did it so that the British would see that, even if they took me to prison, I didn’t give a damn. When they took me to Latrun and then came back to the cell (in the Kishle) they would know what I did – because I wrote my name.” “We survived then”, he added, “and we continue to survive and flourish”.

Even though Shmuel did not mean to record his name for history, it has become a vivid part of Israel’s history. His drawings and reminiscences provide the crucial link between the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 and the course of Jewish history over 2700 years – all found within one small building, the Kishle.

*Upon his release from the Latrun Prison in April 1948, Shmuel went on to fight in the War of Independence.  Afterwards he graduated law school and practiced in Jerusalem.  Shmuel Matza passed away in 2016.

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