An Encounter with Esther Cailingold - Heroine of Jerusalem
British born Esther Cailingold
was one of the many who died in defense of Jerusalem. When you hear about Muslim martyrs who are willing to blow
themselves (and others) up for Jerusalem, remember that Zionism has its martyrs. When you hear about the Jewish
"terrorist" group, the
Haganah, remember that Esther was in the Haganah. She didn't
kill defenseless women and children.
'Remember me in happiness'
On a dank March morning in 1948, Esther Cailingold telephoned me. She sounded jolly. "I've just interviewed a volunteer who says you can vouch for him," she chortled through the static. "Also, I've got personal news. See you at Cafe Atara, noon?"
"Atara? They've no menu. I'm starving."
"Don't fret. I'll scrape together some leftovers from the Schneller mess."
Esther Cailingold had arrived from England a couple of years before, to teach at the Evelina de Rothschild School in Jerusalem. Senior to me by a few years, she had recently signed up with the Hagana full time and was stationed at Schneller, a disused German Templer orphanage on the fringes of the Geula quarter. Vetting volunteers was one of her jobs.
With the British on the verge of quitting the country, Arab violence became frenzied. Jerusalem was besieged. Arab irregulars laid ambush to Jewish traffic at every twist of the tapered road, which snaked through hairpin bends and steep gorges down to Tel Aviv.
Fewer and fewer food convoys were getting through. The open-air vegetable market at Mahane Yehuda shut down. Streets, shops, cinemas, and classrooms emptied. Private vehicles were commandeered. There was no longer any electricity, and the Arabs had blown up the water pipeline. Worse, the Old City's Jewish Quarter was encircled, its inhabitants beleaguered in a siege within a siege.
So Esther Cailingold's call that morning was a refreshing distraction.
To get to Caf Atara on Ben-Yehuda Street I had to pick my way around torched vehicles and through tortured tangles of wires, steel shreds, stone blocks, and concrete hulks that had been a six-story building until British deserters blew it up a couple of weeks before, killing 44. It was the third truck bombing in a month!
Corrugated iron sheets sealed the cavity of Atara's blasted windows, but a defiant "Business as Usual" was splashed across the front in fresh white paint. Inside, candles and hurricane lamps cast a yellow glow that pushed back the shadows to suggest the shapes and shades of the caf 's art deco charm.
As I entered, a voice boomed: "Bonnie laddie! Praise be the Lord!"
It was Jock McAdam, an evangelical sheep farmer from the Shetland Islands, whom I had bumped into by chance a few weeks before. He was visiting Jerusalem as a pilgrim and was stranded because of the siege.
"What a surprise, laddie!" he hooted in his ripe Scottish brogue, pumping my hand with gusto. "And it's all thanks to this lassie here.
"Och, the rapture of it. The Divine whirlwind has swept us together again."
Esther Cailingold winked hugely at me in the dimness of the empty caf . She was dressed for war in a man's battledress two sizes too big for her, her slim figure ridiculously vulnerable in the heavy cloth. Her neck was wrapped in a short khaki woolen scarf that could be rolled up into a forage cap. The only whisper of chic were the white mittens and black leather shoulder bag, gifts from Mimi, her younger sister in London. There was much fatigue in her eyes.
Jock McAdam, his freckles standing out like copper coins on his jolly, wind-beaten face, rollicked on: "I wandered into Schneller this morning to volunteer for the duration," he wheezed, "and this here lassie interviewed me. She put me through the meat grinder. She wanted to know if I knew a Jew who could vouch for me. So I told her I knew you."
Tickled pink, he doubled over with laughter, slammed me hard on the shoulder, and rubbed his palms in delight against his kilt.
Esther laughed with him in her usual good humor and suggested I take him along to join our inglorious volunteer bucket brigade of diggers and hackers, working on the trenches on the western edge of the city.
A waitress in a red cardigan waddled through the gloom with a menu. Caf Atara, known for its savory broths, egg medleys, sumptuous salads, chocolate cakes, and honeyed tortes, offered a menu that day of a slice of gray bread smeared with a yellowish paste, a half omelet of powdered egg, and something called "khubeiza," a plentiful weed which, when boiled, tasted like stringy spinach.
We ordered the khubeiza, and Esther, eyes mirror bright, eased a shoebox from a suitcase that stood at her feet and tipped its contents onto the table. Out tumbled triangles of cheese, hard-boiled eggs, sprigs of green onion, and black bread. "With the compliments of the Schneller mess," she beamed.
Tucking in, I glimpsed at her half-opened suitcase, crammed with her personal belongings, so I asked her where she was off to. "That's my news," she said intriguingly. But before she could share it, McAdam threw us a sudden "Be careful" look.
Silhouetted in the doorway were two British soldiers – a corporal and a private – their Stenguns slung carelessly over their shoulders. They pushed to a table nearby, their backs toward us. The waitress waddled over with the menu, but they didn't bother with it. They just wanted raspberry water.
THE CORPORAL, a pimply, ginger fellow, rummaged in his haversack and brought out a bottle of Johnny Walker. He knocked back a swig, wiped his chin with the back of his hand, and gruffly told the waitress to switch on the battery-powered radio standing on the counter. A tinny baritone crooned "Brother, can you spare a dime?"
Esther, her expression a mixture of defiance and wariness, stared at the corporal as he downed another mouthful. "Discipline's gone to pot," she whispered scathingly. "They'll be gone in a few weeks. Then we'll declare independence."
The corporal swung around, his face a blotchy red. "Shut your trap, Yid!" he spat.
Jock McAdam rose, flicked a morsel of khubeiza from his kilt, walked over to the soldier and gazed down at him pensively. "I'm Jock McAdam from the Shetland Islands," he said gently. "That remark you just made, it was a slip of the tongue, correct?"
The serviceman took a swig of courage, shook a cigarette from its pack, lit it and, rosetting his lips, blew a smoke ring into the Highlander's face.
Jock closed his eyes and said evenly, "I turn the other cheek. Just tell me ye na'er meant it."
"But you can take it back."
Jock McAdam smiled down benignly on the slouched corporal and, with the back of his hand, swiped him across the cheek. The boy shot upright. There were tears in his eyes.
Smiling still, the Scotsman eased the whiskey bottle from the soldier's grip and casually poured its contents over his head. At this, the other lad, the private, circled the table like a nervous boxer, hurriedly shouldered the Stenguns, and prodded his doused mate to the door.
"Skedaddle! Scram!" roared Jock.
Esther quickly gathered up her things, saying she was expecting a lift back to Schneller from Zion Square. So I carried out her suitcase while Jock toasted her a merry farewell with the last of the Johnny Walker.
As we entered the nearby Zion Square, housewives with bottles, tea kettles, pots and cans, were silently lining up in front of a donkey-towed water tank for their water ration. A clutch of tin-helmeted British soldiers guarding the adjacent barbed wire compound on Jaffa Road dubiously eyed Esther's suitcase and uniform but then went on tramping their beat. From the direction of the Old City came the sudden clatter of machine-gun fire, setting off a return stutter of rifle shots, followed by a dull explosive thud. Then everything went mute again.
Esther checked her watch and breathed an exasperated sigh. "My ride should have been here by now," she said.
"So, tell me, where are you off to? Why the suitcase?" I was avidly curious.
She looked at me steadily with a rather terrifying sort of lucidity, her hands deep inside her battledress pockets. "A new posting," she said finally. "I'm being posted to the Old City. I wrangled a permit from the British as a teacher. I hope to be there for Pessah. I volunteered."
Nothing in my 18 years had prepared me for this. I sensed an unknown dread. Her quiet confidence and calm assurance dismayed me. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City was the most perilous place in all of imperiled Jerusalem. It was a place you fled from, not went into.
She, divining my confusion, gave me an affectionate elder sister's squeeze of the hand and explained in great detail how difficult it was to get a place on a convoy. Every day she tried. The British controlled the Old City gates, and getting onto one of their convoys was a matter of random potluck. So she carried her packed suitcase around with her all the time, on the off chance she might strike it lucky.
A lone car, smeared with crudely applied camouflage paint, its engine in full throttle, swung into Zion Square and screeched to a halt. Esther climbed in, and I dumped her suitcase in the back. The driver, a dusty Hagana fellow, revved the engine, released the brake, hugged the wheel, and roared off. There was no time for a decent goodbye.
Later we learned that Esther got into the Old City on May 7, 1948. Going straight into battle, she was mortally wounded on May 25. Four days later, on the morrow of the Jewish Quarter's surrender, she died. She was 22.
The following is the farewell letter she wrote to her family in London six days before her death:
Dear Mummy and Daddy, and Everybody,
I shall be only one of many who fell in sacrifice, and I was urged to write this 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 Holy City, and I am proud and ready to pay the price it may cost us to reprieve it.
Don't think I have taken 'unnecessary risks.' That does not pay when manpower is short. I hope you may have a 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 this is the best way — 'short and sweet.' Very sweet it has been here in our own land. I hope you shall enjoy from Mimi and Asher the satisfaction you 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, be happy and remember me in happiness.
Shalom and le'hitraot,
Your loving Esther
The writer, a veteran diplomat, is married to Esther's younger sister, Mimi. Esther's full story is told in her
biography, An Unlikely Heroine, by Asher Cailingold.
See also John L. Strawson: Why I am against the Boycott of Israeli Universities, Zionism and Race Zionism and its Impact How often do they beat their wives? Human Rights in the Middle East
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