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Biography of Esther Cailingold

The Story of Esther Cailingold


Esther Cailingold (1925-1948) was a British born heroine of the Israel War of Independence and the Machal.  She was born in Whitechapel, London, on June 28, 1925. She was the oldest child of Moshe Cailingold and Anne Fenechel. Moshe had immigrated from Warsaw in 1920, and had opened up a London branch of his family's bookselling and publishing business. The family was Orthodox. Moshe Mizrachi was a founder of Young Mizrachi in Poland, and Esther absorbed Zionism through her home. In 1936, the family moved to Stamford Hill in North London. Esther attended the North London Collegiate School for girls, eventually winning a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, University of London, to study English. She graduated with first-class honors in 1946. 

Esther's Zionism was reinforced by the horrors of the Holocaust and British betrayal of the Palestine Mandate. She had been involved in Zionist youth activities. In 1946, she decided to emigrate to the land of Israel, then Palestine, and applied for as post as an English teacher at the Evelina de Rothschild school in Jerusalem.

Esther arrived in Jerusalem in the turbulent period preceding the Israel War of Independence, on December 1. 1946. She witnessed the violence and British cruelty toward the Jews, including the interception of Aliya Bet immigration ships such as the  and the execution of Irgun activist Dov Gruner, and the drawn out saga of the refugee ships such as the Exodus. Her letters to her parents began to show  a tougher attitude and an increasingly anti-British sentiment. In autumn  1947 she joined the Haganah. She continued her teaching job but began attending training camps. In January 1948 she left Evelina de Rothschild and became a full-time Haganah soldier. In addition to military duties and continuing training she was an announcer for Haganah's English-language broadcasting service, and volunteered to join the defenders of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. 

In 1948, the Jewish Quarter  housed about 1,700 civilians. This was the remnant of the Jewish community of about 5000 whose roots in the city dated back hundreds of years. Most had been forced to migrate by Arab riots in 1921, 1929 and in the so called Arab Revolt of 1939. Most of the people were ultra-orthodox Jews, not Zionists, and mostly they were women, children and elderly. A tiny force of Haganah. Irgun and LEHI soldiers were sent to guard it, commanded by Moshe Rousnak of the Haganah. Until the British left, it was possible to infiltrate fighters under various guises, and occasionally to smuggle in weapons. The community was under siege. Arab terrorists dynamited building after building.

Esther was convoyed into the Old City, ostensibly as a teacher, either at the end of April or begining of May, 1948 and reported to Rousnak. She was made into a liaison between the  outposts throughout the quarter, bringing food, drink and ammunition. On May 16 the Arab attacks intensified, as the British had left Palestine.  Esther was lightly wounded and quickly returned to her duties after a field-dressing, often running along the exposed rooftops to get between Haganah positions. On May 19, a small Palmach unit broke through the Zion Gate and reached the beleaguered garrison. However, the Palmach was unable to send battle seasoned veterans, who were hard put to hold out on Mt. Zion and were falling asleep standing up.  The people sent to garrison the old city were rearguard soldiers who could barely shoot a gun.

The same day, the Transjordanian Arab Legion, supplied and officered by the British, had invaded Jerusalem and  began shelling the Jewish Quarter, which was contracting daily as Arab irregulars advanced. Against the 25 pound cannon of the British, mortars, and machine guns, with virtually unlimited supplies of ammunition, resistance was hopeless. The defenders had mostly home-made Sten guns (automatic rifles). Esther Cailingold became a Sten gunner, as there was no way to continue her role as liaison. On May 26, the Arab forces blew up a building as she was entering it. Her spine was shattered. She was carried to the Quarter's infirmary, manned by the Hadassah organization. As there were no supplies, and poor facilities, little could be done for her. The infirmary patients were evacuated the next day, as the Arab Legion, under Abdulah al Tel, fired on it - a war crime. Esther remained conscious and able to talk and continued to say her prayers.

The Hurva synagogue was blown up by Fawzi el Kuttub, an Arab Palestinian terrorist who had been destroying the buildings of the quarter one by one. With the capture of the Hurva, twenty-five percent of the territory remaining had fallen to the Arabs. The quarter would have fallen immediately, except that the captured area was full of shops which were thoroughly looted by the Arab mob euphemistically called "irregulars." The Arab Legion soon conquered the Jewish quarter. Fortunately, it had fallen to them and not to the "irregulars." The Arab Legion commander, Abdullah al Tel, prevented a massacre, though he had to fire on the Arab mob to keep order. The Jewish Quarter was nonetheless ethnically cleansed. Civilians who were healthy were transferred behind the Jewish lines (see The Ethnic Cleansing of Jerusalem). Defenders who were able to travel were taken prisoner of war, and the wounded civilians and defenders, including Esther, were evacuated the remaining wounded to the safety of the Armenian Monastery  (school by some accounts).

It was Shabbat - Sabbath, May 29, 1948.   Wracked by a high fever, in unbearable agony, Esther Cailingold lay the floor of the second story of the monastery with the rest of the wounded. There was no morphine left. An orderly proffered her a cigarette.  She lifted her hand and started to take it, but then she stopped.

"No," she whispered. "Shabbat." They were her last words. She died at about 5 PM. She was 22 years old. Her last letter, written 6 days earlier was preserved. According to one version, it was found under her pillow. According to another, it was given to a comrade several days earlier. 

Esther was posthumously enlisted in the Machal and she was buried in Mount Herzl military cemetery in September 1950.

Esther's memory is preserved by the Esther Cailingold memorial forest at Kibbutz Lavi in the Lower Galilee, by a scholarship fund at Yeshivat HaKotel in Jerusalem, and on various war memorials including that of the Israeli Armored Corps at Latrun. She is also honored in the Esther Cailingold society in North London, which belongs to of Emunah UK.

Esther's sister Mimi came on Aliya as well and married in Israel. Her husband wrote an account of a meeting with Esther Cailingold.

Esther Cailingold's Last Letter

Dear Mummy and Daddy, and Everybody,

If you get this at all, it will be, I suppose, typical of all my hurried, messy letters. I am writing it to beg of you that whatever may have happened to me, you will make the effort to take it in the spirit that I want and to understand that for myself I have no regrets. We have had a bitter fight: I have tasted of Gehenom [hell ed.] – but it has been worthwhile because I am quite convinced that the end will see a Jewish state and the realization of our longings.

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

Moshe Rousnak's Commendation of Esther Cailingold

The commander of the Haganah forces in the Old City, Moshe Rousnak, wrote this letter to the parents of Esther Cailingold, following his release from Jordanian POW camp in 1949:

I feel it is my duty to tell you about the late Esther Cailingold.  She arrived in the Old City at the end of April 1948 with the last group of teachers, and was assigned to guard duties, as were all the other teachers.

When the fighting began, all the teachers were drafted to full-time service and took an active part in the battles. Esther fulfilled her duties beyond the normal call. As a brave fighter and as an experienced soldier she stood steadfastly at her post and repelled every enemy attempt to charge. Her determination was an example and a source of strength to the other fighters who were with her… She stood at her post for fully two weeks. In the last stage of the battle, when most of the Jewish Quarter was already in enemy hands, Esther and a number of other young fighters fought fiercely and valiantly in defense of the Bet-El bloc, the last remaining sector. In the course of the enemy onslaught, Esther was mortally wounded and died a short while later. Her death was a serious blow to all those who knew her and admired her bravery and her gallant stand as a fighter who knew no fear.

In the report that I submitted to G.H.Q., I made special mention of her as being worthy of commendation.

Moshe Rousnak 155529

C.O. The Jewish Quarter of the Old City

Jerusalem, April 7, 1949

Further Reading:

Asher Cailingold: An Unlikely Heroine .Valentine Mitchell, 2000.

Collins & Lapierre: O Jerusalem. History Book Club, 1972.

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