Passover in Acre Prison

By: Dr. Rafael Medoff

On Passover morning in 1946, Mrs. Margaret Ashton Stimson Lindsley crossed the moat surrounding the Acre Prison in British Mandatory Palestine. She gazed at the majestic fortress walls, still studded with cannon balls from Napoleon’s assault a century and a half earlier.

A less adventurous soul might not have chosen to visit Palestine, much less its most notorious prison, in 1946, when the Holy Land was wracked by warfare between Jewish underground militias seeking statehood and a British Mandatory regime that refused to yield. More than a few would-be visitors to the Holy Land postponed their travel plans to avoid being caught in the whirlwind of bombings and shoot-outs.

But Mrs. Lindsley was not the type to be deterred by the dangers of war. She was a crusading journalist of the old school, and she had adopted the fight for Jewish statehood as her cause. Acre Prison was exactly the kind of place she wanted to see, so she could expose the injustice of British rule to her readers around the world.

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A native of the Boston suburb of Dedham, Lorna (her preferred name) Lindsley was, as the New York Times put it, “of early and distinguished New England descent.” Her father, a cousin of Secretary of War Henry Stimson, had served as U.S. ambassador to Argentina. Lorna attended Radcliffe College, then headed for the more exciting cultural milieu of interwar Paris.

It was when civil war erupted in Spain in 1936 that Lindsley found her true calling. Attaching herself to the republican (anti-fascist) forces, she wrote a series of pro-republican articles for U.S. newspapers and political magazines. Lindsley did not pretend to be an objective reporter. In between articles, she served as a nurse to wounded republican soldiers and wrote letters home for those too badly injured to hold a pen.

After Franco’s triumph, she returned to Paris. In the spring of 1940, with the German army approaching, more than one million of the city’s residents fled. Lindsley too left–but only for a few days, to smuggle out film footage of the invasion. Three days later, she was back in the French capital. For the next five months, Lindsley defied the terror of the Nazi regime in order to help smuggle Jewish and political refugees out of the city. Her reports from within the German zone became an important source of eyewitness information for the American and British press. After returning to the United States in 1941, she wrote her first and only book, War Is People, which described the impact of war on the lives of ordinary citizens.

Lindsley could not sit still for long. By 1946, she was in Mandatory Palestine, championing the cause of Menachem Begin’s Irgun Zvai Leumi militia as it fought the British to achieve Jewish independence. When Lindsley’s request to interview imprisoned Irgun fighters was turned down by the British authorities, she “found a way to go without asking”–by pretending to be a member of the first family of Revisionist Zionism, the Jabotinskys, so she could join them on a visit to jail.

Lindsley’s account of her memorable visit to the Acre Prison appears in an unpublished article that has been made available to the David S. Wyman Institute for Holocaust Studies by the family of Eri Jabotinsky (1909-1967), son of the Revisionist Zionist leader, Vladimir Ze’ev Jabotinsky. Lindsley’s report offers a fascinating behind the scenes glimpse at the men and women who fought for the creation of Israel.

Eri was a leader of the Irgun’s “aliya bet” underground railroad, which smuggled tens of thousands of Jews from Europe to Palestine in defiance of British immigration restrictions. He also spent much of 1941-1944 in the U.S., as one of the leaders of the Bergson Group, which organized protests urging the Allies to rescue European Jewry. In 1939-1940 and again in 1945-1946, Eri was jailed by the British, in the Acre Prison, for his immigration activity.

While Eri was in Acre the second time, he was joined there by his 17 year-old cousin Peleg Tamir, also an Irgun activist. By the spring of 1946, Eri was free but Peleg remained behind bars.

Visits to security prisoners were granted to their families once every two months, plus on Jewish holidays, so the approach of Passover presented Lindsley with her opportunity. “I was to be ‘adopted’ by a family for that day, and would enter as one of them,” she wrote. Eri invited her to be a Jabotinsky for the day, and so she traveled to Acre with Peleg’s grandmother and parents, Eri and his wife, and Eri’s three year-old daughter Karny — “her first visit to a prison, to get her used to it,” Eri joked.

“As we crossed the drawbridge of the ancient castle so handsome to the passing eye, Eri Jabotinsky looked at me and grinned and said, ‘Welcome to the family chateau!’”

Years later, Eri told his daughter that when they arrived, the warden said of Karny, “In five years, she’ll be in Bethlehem (the women’s prison).” Eri responded, “In five years, we’ll be the rulers and you’ll be in this prison,” to which the warden replied, “No, I’ll be home in England, because my service ends in three.”

Visitors were allotted twenty-five minutes. “Peleg was at the wire, a handsome dark haired boy with a fine smile, and all the family started talking at once to him till he begged for mercy.” They “exchanged the news from outside the prison for the news inside the prison.”

Peleg and nineteen comrades had been arrested while undergoing Irgun training in Shuni. The British also claimed they were linked to a cache of arms discovered in the area. They denied the charge but were convicted anyway, and given prison terms; Peleg was sentenced to three years.

“On the same day and in the same court, an Arab was tried for keeping an unlicensed gun on the roof of his house,” Lindsley reported. “His defense, uncorroborated, was that the gun had been planted there by a policeman who had a grudge against him. The Arab was released.” This kind of double standard is “what makes for a bitterness [among the Jews] in Palestine,” she noted.

Also among the Jabotinsky “family” that day was Hassia Hassan, “a fifteen year old Canadian girl, a Jewess, a young sweetheart of Peleg’s,” Lindsley wrote. “She did not speak, she gazed at Peleg and adored him in silence. Because she was his friend she was now under house arrest in Haifa, which meant … no movies nor ice cream for her at the corner food shops … In her the Government of Palestine has another political prisoner in the making.”

All too soon, “a guard with a baton started beating on the wooden barricade, our time was up.” Lindsley wanted to leave some books for Peleg, and was annoyed at how carefully prison officials scrutinized them. She wondered, sarcastically, whey they did not object to her leaving MacBeth, since, she pointed out, “it’s full of political killings, and plot and subterfuge…”

Lindsley and the Jabotinskys then walked to the shore for a picnic lunch consisting of “the cold remains of our Passover dinner of the night before.” With the sea “pounding against the Phoenician seawall, and the sound of heavy guns from a British artillery school” in the distance, Lindsley and the Jabotinskys spoke about the ancient Festival of Freedom and their generation’s own struggle for Jewish national freedom.

Just two years later, that struggle reached its successful conclusion as the State of Israel was established.

Eri Jabotinsky was elected, in 1949, to the First Knesset, as a member of Begin’s Herut Party. Israeli politics was not to his liking, however, and after one term he returned to teaching mathematics.

Eri’s daughter Karny grew up to become a prominent Israeli psychiatrist and for some years served as ombudsman for Israel’s Ministry of Health.

Peleg Tamir was released from Acre in 1947, but was then rearrested and placed in the Atlit detention camp, from which he escaped by hiding in a suitcase. His distinguished career over the past half-century has included serving as general director of the Israel Manufacturers Association and head of manpower and personnel for the Israel Air Force. Today he chairs the Jabotinsky Institute, the Tel Aviv-based center for scholarship on the Revisionist Zionist leader and his movement.

And that Canadian teenager whom Lindsley pitied? Hassia Hassan, the innocent schoolgirl whose biggest problem, Lindlsey thought, was being deprived of “movies and ice cream,” was actually an active member of the Irgun and would herself eventually spend time in prison. Hassia and Peleg recently celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary.

The postwar years were not so kind to Lorna Lindsley, however. Her marriage ended in divorce, her daughter Leonora was killed in a jeep accident in Germany, and in the summer of 1956, at age 67, Lindsley herself suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage.

But it would not have been Lorna Lindlsey’s way to leave this world without one last fight. At the time of her death, she had taken up the cause of the Mau Mau rebels battling for the independence of Kenya from its British colonial rulers. Undaunted, as usual, by the dangers of the war zone, Lindsley had recently traveled to Kenya for a firsthand view of the situation. For Lorna Lindsley, the Passover spirit of freedom that she embraced in Palestine in 1946 continued to echo across Europe, Africa, and anywhere else people struggled against oppressive regimes.

(Published in the Jerusalem Post – April 8, 2009)

April 2009