Tzefat cemetery
Tzefat cemeteryKobi Finkler

Yaakov Shenkman, a researcher on the history of the city of Tzfat, spoke with Arutz Sheva about a special event that took place in the city in commemoration of the Unger family, murdered 80 years ago by an Arab gang that infiltrated the city.

A ceremony during which a renewed memorial plaque in honor of the murdered family was revealed saw the participation, among others, of Meir Hameiri - Head of the Association for the Veterans of Tzfat, former Mayor Zev Perl, Yosef Arye Fromovich - the caretaker of the synagogue where the father of the Unger father used to pray, Arye Buznach - a survivor of the massacre of Maalot, members of the neighboring synagogue, Shenkman himself and others.

The murders took place on August 13th, 1936, during the period of the Arab revolt against British rule – days characterized by violent attacks against Jews. “In the years of the revolt, 600 Jews were murdered and thousands were injured, pogroms happened all over Israel, roadside robberies and damage to agriculture were rampant. Tzfat was still suffering from the trauma of the Arab riots seven years prior, when 18 Jews were murdered in the Jewish Quarter and in nearby Ein Tina.”

Having learned the lessons of the previous riots, in which they were largely defenseless, the Jews of the city established a defense force that included improvised guard posts, smuggled weapons – even if not many, nightly volunteer patrols and an existing police station for Jewish police functioning under the auspices the British.

“In that period lived Alter Yechiel Tzvi Unger, a scribe by trade from Galicia, his wife Chaya Rivka and their three children, Rachel Shaindel (9), Avraham Yitzchak Yaakov (7), and Chava (4) - along with Grandma Ella Lipshitz.

“Alter Unger was a charitable man, collecting charity for the poor every Thursday, and the family would host those sick with tuberculosis who came to the city to heal. One night, British policemen were hosted by the family. At 8:30 in the evening an Arab gang burst into the Jewish quarter. For some reason, nobody saw them, and they continued to infiltrate the city […]

“They murdered the children and father in front of the mother and grandmother. The mother begged them to shoot her instead of her husband, but they shot him in the head, murderering him on the spot – he was only 36 at the time. The younger children were also murdered while the daughter Rachel Shaindel was seriously injured. She lay dying in Hadassah Hospital in Tzefat, which now serves Tzefat College. When she felt she was growing weaker, she requested a Hebrew Bible, so that she could die with it.

“She wanted to see her siblings and father, but they told her that they were sleeping, and she understood what had happened. The last sentence she had said to her mother was ‘mother, don’t worry – the Messiah will come. He must come. And then she died.”

The gang that committed the murder was attacked by Hagannah forces [a precursor to the IDF] that arrived at the area. In that group were also some Etsel [Irgun] members who participated and injured some of the murderers with their pistols. “The British made no efforts to ascertain who the members of the gang were. After a certain amount of time, the grandmother discovered one of the members at the market; she started shouting, but he was not caught. The mother would go daily to the graves until they decided that it was not safe to remain in Tzfat. She and the grandmother moved to Jerusalem […]”

Shenkman relates that the mother married a second time into the Rabinovich family of Jerusalem, and bore a son who is now a Belz Hassid who lives in Jerusalem. “He told me that the murders haunted her until age 70. Every event reminded her of how it was with her first family. When he would go visit her in her final years at the old-age home she would point to people who had lost their memories and note how lucky they were that they didn’t remember their past…”

The murder remained traumatic for the entire city of Tzfat. Shenkman comments on the words of Meir Hameiri, head of the Association for the Veterans of Tzfat, who said that for years he would look into the window of the house and see possessions and toys stained with Jewish blood. The house was abandoned, and nobody wanted to live there because of its painful and tragic past.

“There was a period when one of the tests of bravery for Hagannah recruits was to sneak into the Unger house at night and bring a scrap from there to the test examiner as proof that the recruit had, indeed, been inside the house. Later, the house became the location of a central Hagannah weapons stockpile.”

The Hagannah also used the house for an additional purpose: that of presenting weaponry on the front porch in order to prove to city officials that contributions from residents of the city were, indeed, going towards the obtainment of weapons and were not simply being pocketed.

“For years the house was neglected and destroyed, they covered it up with concrete and stones. In recent years, Mr. Rabinovich who, despite the fact that he did not know them, considers the murdered to be his brothers in the fullest sense sold the property to Ariel Malichi, who renovated the building while incorporating stones from the original building.”

Shenkman notes that today, Rabinovich has many grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and that this fact is a sort of fulfillment of his mother’s statement that from the remaining branch, an orchard would be built as an answer to the murderers.

“Last week, a ceremony was held marking 80 years since the murders. In that, Malichi fulfilled his obligation to Rabinovich to commemorate the victims in a fitting way. We renewed the memorial plaque of the house,” Shenkman says of the event marking the close of the saga, expressing hope that commemorating the memory of the Unger family and the tragic murders will cause people to remember “what happened there – and we hope that they will understand who we are dealing with.”