August 20, 1920: The tragic trip on the Ghazaleh train - told for the first time

Mendel and Aharon Goodman, on an official trip from Damascus to Haifa, escape Bedouin by dressing as Arabs, a saga which includes Rav Kook.

Chana Kotler ,

Mendel Goodman  (bottom left)
Mendel Goodman (bottom left)
Kotler family:

At the side of the "Jerusalem Tower" Hotel is a small, undistinguished street with a plaque informing the passerby of the name Angelo Levi Bianchini.

If it waa not for this plaque the events which occurred exactly one hundred years ago would have long been forgotten.

"The words of the tragic days on the Ghazaleh train have still not be told…".

"August 20 1920: I will never forget this-a red-letter day in my life…".

My grandfather, Mendel Goodman left a diary which records the following fascinating story. The account is confirmed by the Hebrew language newspapers of August 1920 . Some of the dispatches were written by his brother, my great uncle, Harry Aharon Goodman, later the British secretary of the Agudat Yisrael World Organization.

"About 5 o"clock in the morning Friday, 20th of August 1920, our train steamed out of Damascus en route for Haifa. Accompanying us as passengers were Abdul Rachman Pasha prime Minister of Syria and Cabinet Ministers.

"On board was Angelo Levi Bianchini, an Italian Naval Officer and member of the Zionist Commission.

(Bianchini came to Palestine several times to meet with Chaim Weitzman and members of the Yishuv. He won the confidence of many British Military Government and Arab leaders. In 1920 he was sent by the Italian foreign minister to examine the unsettled situation in Palestine.)


"The train rolled along long stretches of stony, lonely Hauran plains. At every station we passed, the train stopped and the notables of the district came out to kiss the hand of Abdul Rachman Pasha and a guard of honor in decrepit British uniforms stood to attention.

"When the train arrived at Khirbet Ghazaleh, a French officer in uniform who was accompanying the ministers put his head out of the window.

" A cry went out, 'There is a Frenchman. Fetch the rifles!' A shot rang out followed by another. The tragedy had commenced.".


Angelo Levi Bianchini

"Then I spoke to Bianchini. His face was as white as a sheet and his gestures showed he was agitated.

Bianchini murmured, 'I think they are looking for a Frenchman.' (Editor's note: France had been given control of Syria after WWI and was hated by the Bedouin) After he said these words he started to go to the corridor of the train.

"The shooting intensified. The bullets started to reach the passengers shattering glass in every corner. The Arab army officers who were on the train didn’t make any effort to protect the passengers. Soon we had visitors in our carriage. 'Hod Masari' (Your money or your life!) - We obliged them by handing over our money. Two English hospital sisters in the same carriage pulled off the fine chains around their necks. The visitors then departed from the train with their plunder.

"We were solemnly informed that our throats would be cut because we were thought to be French. To emphasize this rather startling threat, a lad of about 12 years old drew his fingers across his throat in a cutting motion gurgling at the same time . One man clicked the bolt of his rifle.

"We were then taken off the train and, on the platform, underwent a cross examination in Arabic which none of us could understand. With a few words in English we tried to convince them that we were not French. A French priest was dragged away and cruelly done to death in cold blood. Commander Bianchini, an Italian officer in Khaki drill uniform, as well-built a man as I have ever seen, was also taken away (and eventually killed).

"We were accompanied to the station buildings where we saw the notables and the President of the State Council. The Prime Minister apologized for any inconvenience caused. 'We have telegraphed to Daraa. Tomorrow the Sheikh will be here to settle the question.'

"We were all asked to go upstairs and we were pushed into a room. Our hearts were beating and we were shaking from the threat of death. We heard shooting downstairs and soon they were battering on the door..'Eftach!' (Open Up!) Soon the door was forced open and a 'Hauranese' burst in. His face covered with blood. 'You are Frenzori!(Frenchmen),' he yelled.

"Again, we heard the click of the rifle which always precedes the whistle of the bullet. With a cry we rushed from the room shielding ourselves with our hands as if to keep off the blow which we thought must fall. In another room we found a friendly Bedouin guard who escorted us through the village to 'The House of the Stranger' (visitor"s hospitality) in Khirbet Ghazaleh.

"We found about 20 refugees from the train who subsequently informed us of what had taken place. Ministers had been murdered together with several of the passengers. The train had been thoroughly pillaged.

"The evening sun was setting in a blood red sky as we walked out of our temporary asylum accompanied by Sheikh Rashid to the station where a merchandise train was waiting to take us away from Khirbet Ghazaleh. Trouble again began at the station between two factions of Bedouin. One group wished to detain us and another to send us away.

"Eventually the train steamed out of the station on the way to Daraa . We lay down on sacks of corn in the wagon. How happy we felt when Daraa was in sight. Everybody else left that evening on a goods train for Haifa. Only my brother and I were detained as we were about to enter the train. Again, the accusation was thrown at us that we were French. In vain we protested.

"We explained and pleaded with them that we were not. Did they not see that everything had been taken from us? Our money, our coats and caps.?

"Nonetheless, these Hauranese warriors grimly pointed their rifles and took us back to the town. As a sign of their anti-French feelings they went solemnly through our trouser pockets and took the only things we still possessed, a soft collar and tie and a box of matches.

"We were then marched to the police barracks to be cross-examined.

"We satisfied the commander there that we were British and not French and we were informed that next morning we would be allowed to leave for Haifa. The distance between us and Haifa seemed so close, yet there were hundreds of miles of Bedouin land.

"Never had we seen horrors that we witnessed on the morning of August 21st in Daraa the main city of Hauran. We were sitting alone in the police station waiting for a police officer to take us to the railway station for Haifa:

"All of a sudden there was shouting and shooting, people rushing to and fro. The mob attacked the police barracks. The police had deserted us; two Englishmen speaking no Arabic. What could we do? We managed to make ourselves understood to one man to take us to the Sheikh which he kindly did. On the way we were stopped by an Arab Bedouin with a scimitar pointed at our bodies.

"He compelled us to leave our boots. We were now left in our shirts and trousers only.

"At last we came to the Sheikh who received us warmly. His face showed he had nobility. He had a long black beard and a sword. He escorted us with 10 of his men. On the way we met different brigades of Bedouin who greeted us with peace. We continued on through the plains and the midday sun was burning above our heads. Down in the valley we saw a village where the huts were built of clay. We were taken to the 'House of Strangers' and food was given to us for three meals.

"We were taken to meet the great Bedouin Chief Emir Mahmoud Fauor.

"We knew we were safe whilst under his roof for he would protect us even with his life (Ed.note: Bedouin are bound to protect strangers under their roof.)

"However ,we dared not venture outside since it was too dangerous. Every kindness was shown to us by the Sheikh. 'A train will soon leave for Haifa,' we were told, but we knew it would be a while as the railway line was pulled up and the country aflame.

"Next day the Sheikh purchased some Arab clothing for us. He proposed we should travel across country to Samakh where we would be in British territory. (See group photo - Mendel is seated on the left)

"We started out about noon accompanied by the Sheikh himself and about ten of his Bedouin followers. We rode on through the plains beneath the burning midday sun and we were glad to get away from the town of robbery and pillage at Daraa.

"At last we arrived at Ramta together with Armenian refugees who had lived in peace in Daara till it was invaded. Now they had to flee, each man for himself. We continued slowly through the valley of Hauran. In the distance we saw Irbid. As soon as we arrived we saw a difference. Many people were dressed in European style and not everyone wore a rifle and bandolier We were among friends . The Mufti of the Kadi, a police officer and the notables came out to meet us. Half dead with fatigue and sheer misery and aching all over we were brought to a private house of Saleh- el- Moustafa- Tall.

Saleh- el- Moustafa- Tall

"From that horrible day in Khirbet Ghazaleh and the looting in Daraa my faith in humanity had disappeared. However, in Irbid I stood in surprise as they generously gave us all their help: a bed, shower and food [1] . Irbid is a town which must forever remain inscribed in letters of gold on the minds of all those who enjoyed its hospitality whilst fleeing from the bloodstained lands of the Hauranese.

"We started out at dawn on horseback, in a sense sorry to leave Irbid the 'Crown of the Hauran'.

"After many more hair- raising adventures we saw before us a long green strip of water:

"The Lake of Kinneret, Tiberias also Samakh the British outpost.

"'This is the land which I swore unto Abraham unto Isaac and unto Jacob'".

'In front of our eyes was all the Chosen land, the land of hope".

"It took us 7 days to do a journey of about half as many hours. Khirbet Ghazaleh and Daraa were a thing of the past.

"We had arrived home. Only a few hours separated us from the horrors of the past and in this short time we had passed the frontier which separates two distinct worlds: one, the irresponsible world of murder, pillage and crime; and the other, peace, good will, industry and cooperation ,the forerunners of a glorious future."

The story continues as Sydney Goodman, the son of Mendel , recalled his father telling him in his written version of these events:

"After further adventures the two brothers Goodman eventually arrived at Haifa [2] without passports or documents and dressed as Arabs claiming to be British. They were asked if they knew anybody who could vouch for them. My father (Mendel Goodman) could think of nobody better than Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook, Chief Rabbi of Israel who knew them well [3]when he was the Rav of Machzikei Hadass in London, one of whose founders was his own father (namely, my grandfather: Avraham David Goodman) [4].

When Rav Kook heard that my father had arrived without possessions at the port he said, "In that case they don’t have any tefillin." The tefillin were sent with the messengers who were dispatched from Yerushalayim [5].

It is recalled in the family that our father Aharon had had the zchut that HaRav Kook was his Sandak in London in 1917 used the same tefillin daily. He said his father had told him that what strengthened their Emunah during this ordeal was saying Tehillim.

We see from this story how over and over again the brothers experienced Divine Providence, siyata dishmaya, through the many miracles and the kind people who helped them along the way. That breathtaking moment when the brothers first saw Eretz Yisrael in the distance told them they had come home.


[1] As reported in the 'Palestine Daily Mail', 29th August 1920.

[2] As reported in the 'Palestine Daily Mail', 30th August 1920.

[3] "Igrot HaR'aya " Rav Avraham Yitzhak Kook num.תתקמא

[4] See Bernard Homa, "A Fortress In Anglo – Jewry p. 12.

[5] As reported in the 'Palestine Daily Mail', 24th August 1920.