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Seventy Years of Sorrow

Dr. Judit Abrahami-Einat studying newspapers on the Mary Merimsky tragedy.

1939

Following the Arab riots of 1936, and at the height of the Arab revolt, the British government dispatched a royal commission of inquiry under Lord Robert Peel to Palestine. The commission's task was to investigate the roots of the increasingly violent conflict between Arabs and Jews. After listening to a substantial body of testimony from members of both communities, the Peel Commission, as it came to be known, conveyed its recommendations to His Majesty's Government in July 1937. The recommendations included abolishing the Mandate government and partitioning Palestine into Arab and Jewish-governed areas. Palestine's Jews were bitterly divided between those for and against the commission's proposals; the Arabs rejected them outright and immediately ramped up their revolt. The Peel Commission's recommendations, initially endorsed by the British government, were ultimately shelved.

After two more years of escalating violence, the British government began to move noticeably away from the attempted impartiality of the Peel Commission and to adopt policies that were tilted decidedly in favor of the Arabs. On May 17, 1939, the government of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain issued a policy statement, known as the White Paper, abandoning the idea of partition and proposing the creation within ten years of a single state governed by Arabs and Jews, based on the proportion of each group to the total population of 1949. Seemingly to ensure an Arab majority and safeguard the Arab character of the future state, the White Paper also limited Jewish immigration to Palestine to 75,000 for the next five years, with none to be admitted thereafter unless by consent of the Arabs. Finally, the new policy statement also prohibited any further land purchases by Jews from Arabs.

The White Paper failed to satisfy the Arabs—who felt it did not go far enough or fast enough in solidifying their sovereignty over Palestine—while infuriating the Jewish yishuv, coming particularly at a time when the need for a haven for Europe's persecuted Jews was becoming more urgent every day. On the day the White Paper was issued, the British-run Palestine Broadcasting Service was blown up by a bomb planted in a studio by the militant Zionist organization Irgun Zvai Leumi, better known in Hebrew by its acronym Etzel and to the rest of the world as "the Irgun". Two people, both involved in the production of a program called "The Children's Hour", were fatally injured in the blast: the program's host, May Merimsky Weissenberg, a young Jewish immigrant from South Africa and her Arab studio engineer, Adeeb Mansour.

2009

Dr. Judith Abrahami-Einat, 62, is Head of the Teaching and General Studies departments at ORT Braude College in Karmiel. She is also an internationally acclaimed expert on gender issues and advocate for gender equality, former Executive Director of the Israeli Family Planning Association, a founding member of a rape crisis center, and a board member of the Israel Women's Network.

She is also the niece of May Merimsky Weissenberg, the young South African immigrant fatally injured at her microphone at the start of her radio program on the Palestine Broadcasting Service on the May 17, 1939, 70 years ago, and eight years before Judith Abrahami-Einat was born.

The dining table in Judith's Raanana apartment is covered with files, pictures, newspaper clippings and correspondence about her long dead aunt. As she says, "I grew up in what I suppose was a classic example of a 'bereaved family'. This has been a constant shadow in our family's life. It was something I grew up with, something my mother used to tell her daughters about." When Judith's mother became elderly, she often asked her Filipino caregiver to bring down all of the material about her sister. "She asked her to take down the suitcase with all the papers. She had it all organized." When her mother died of Alzheimer's Disease six years ago, Judith inherited the papers, along with the task of keeping her Aunt May's memory alive.

Judith's roots in Israel are deep. She explains, "Both my parents came here as youngsters. I was born by chance in London. My mother came in the early 1930s from South Africa. My father came in 1918 from Russia. They met here and they married here, and my older sister was born here. And then in 1946 they traveled to England for a few years—I was born there—and they returned in 1953. And I have lived here all my life."

Both of her parents came from Zionist families and both were deeply imbued with left-wing labor Zionist philosophy. On her father's side were founders of moshavim, towns, and even the neighborhood in Tel Aviv where Dizengoff Center now stands. An uncle on her mother's side was one of the founders of kibbutz Maagan Michael.

And constantly looming at the edge of memory is Judith's long dead maternal Aunt May who, prior to the Merimsky family's immigration to Mandate Palestine from South Africa in 1934, had graduated university at age 21, been both a beauty queen and an actress, and had written several plays for the theater. After her arrival in Palestine, May was married to Julian Weissenberg, a German Jewish immigrant lawyer. The two had met when Weissenberg responded to an advertisement that May had placed in the Palestine (now The Jerusalem) Post, offering English lessons. Teacher and student married shortly thereafter. Weissenberg was at May's hospital bedside when she finally succumbed to her injuries.

Judith gazes for a moment at May's obituary in The Palestine Post and says, "She was at that time in charge of a program called "The Children's Hour." She was an expert in drama and elocution and she herself wrote scripts for the radio, not only for the PBS, but also for its parent BBC, which were performed on the BBC in England. She appeared each week with children, but that day one of the children happened to be sick. So on that day she opened the program by saying that the children wouldn't be appearing, and that's when she was killed. The children were saved that day. But May was killed, at the age of 26."

Judith relates that May's parents happened to be in Cyprus on that fateful day. "A second cousin of mine told me that she had heard from my grandmother that while she was in Cyprus and heard that her daughter had been killed she turned to a person there who was an Arab and said, 'Your people killed my daughter.' And the Arab answered, 'No madam, your people killed your daughter.'"

Following the bombing, the Merimskys became what Judith repeatedly describes as a bereaved family. "May, my other aunt and my mother were all musicians. My grandmother wouldn't let my mother play the music that May had played. Also, May was buried on the Mount of Olives. After 1948, my grandmother couldn't go to the cemetery because it was in Jordanian hands until 1967." And, as she was growing up, Judith remembers her grandmother virtually surrounding herself with May memorabilia—pictures, diplomas, certificates and so on.

Is Judith angry at the death that darkened the life of her family? "I'm hurt," she says. "The main feeling is pain, pain that such a tragedy had to happen. That the Etzel did this…that to me is very disturbing. I suppose if someone dies in war or some sort of military action, there's a feeling of compensation — the person died for a cause. I don't think that it was a worthy cause that she died for. She was a multi-talented, meaningful person. Her death was a total waste. I feel pain for myself and for my family. Alright, this happened in 1939, but this has always been such a central story to my family. They came here as Zionists. They came for a purpose. And this was always very painful to them.

The most painful part is that she was killed by Jews. There's no question that Etzel was involved. We know the people who were involved, and two of them—Yizhak Shamir and Haim Corfu—are still alive."

Particularly galling, Judith says, was the occasion in which she watched an Irgun member being interviewed on TV years ago, recalling the bombing operation with obvious pride. "I phoned the television station and complained. I told them he was a terrorist. These people were not ashamed. They said it was an accident and that she wasn't supposed to be there. The target was the children—primarily English-speaking children of British army officers. The Irgun said that the PBS was targeted as a symbol of the British Mandate, but they placed the bomb where children were expected to come, stand around microphones and do a radio program. If the children weren't the intended targets, they still would have been the likely victims."

Even before the bombing, Judith's family had little use for the Irgun. "The family was always Left — Hagana — and always against the far Right, because they were terrorists. I realize they thought they were liberating the country, but I don't care for their politics," she says. When asked whether the Irgun wasn't instrumental in driving the British out of Palestine and tipping the balance toward the creation of a Jewish state, she replies, "I realize that a war of liberation — or any war, including our last war — is fought with a combination of approaches and tactics. A variety of means is used to achieve the final outcome, but that doesn't mean that all the means are justified. I'm not saying that Etzel's tactics weren't effective, or that they weren't a part of driving the British out, but they weren't the only means, and I do not agree with their methods."

Asked whether or not her pain would be assuaged if a former Irgun member were to apologize for the death of her aunt, Judith replies, "No, I don't think it would. But it would be an extraordinary experience as I hardly think that any of them would ever express any regret. It would be very interesting to talk to them as people, and have them know what they did to a family, but I don't believe that they are interested."

Has this central drama in her family's life influenced her thinking about Israeli politics today? "I am very concerned about what is happening in Israel," Judith says. "I'm a proud Zionist. I'm very happy that my daughters are here and that my grandchildren are here. My father's family is very large, with four generations living here together. I'm very deeply rooted here and very unhappy about what is going on here now, and I was very upset by the violence of the recent war."

She is particularly interested in a contemporary problem: "I would like to see much better relations with our own local Arabs." Toward that end, she has been in charge of various programs, such as one that she spearheaded recently to link the women of Arab Tira and Jewish Kohav Yair. Judith plans to continue these projects along with her personal effort to keep her aunt's memory alive.

Listening to Judith Abrahami-Einat relate the story of May Merimsky Weissenberg, one detects a driving force that is deeper than just wishing to tell this dramatic story. "I feel an affinity between the two of us," she says. "When I started university, I studied English literature. I found that my grandmother had many, many books that I needed. Many of them were May's. She also studied English literature. I felt there was a sort of very eerie connection—the two of us studying English literature." Judith says also that of all her siblings, she was closest to her grandmother. When her mother died, it was considered just natural that she would inherit all the papers. She's been working on May's papers for about three years now and plans one day to hand them along to her two daughters.

"I don't believe in reincarnation," Judith says. "But I do feel sometimes that May is in some way living through me."

Dr. Judith Abrahami-Einat would like to hear from anyone who might have any memories or information about her family, the events surrounding the death of her aunt May, or anything else pertaining to her family's story. She can be contacted by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. 

 

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