Museum of Underground Prisoners is a museum in Jerusalem commemorating the activity of the three Jewish undergrounds -Haganah, Irgun and Lehi—during the British Mandate period leading up the establishment of the State of Israel.
The site includes: the prison cells, the escape room, the synagogue cell, the solitary confinement cells, the execution chamber, telling the sacrifice story of Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani and an information center.
The tour includes a film following a new prisoner at the prison, a visit to the escape room, the solitary confinement rooms and the execution chamber. The duration of the tour is approx. 1.5 hours.
The Russian History of the Building
The museum is located on Mish’ol HaGvura Street in a building in the Russian Compound that served as the central prison of the British Mandatory authorities. The Russian Compound is one of the oldest districts in central Jerusalem, featuring a large Russian Orthodox church and several former pilgrim hostels, some of which are used as Israeli government buildings such as the Museum of Underground Prisoners.
The building was erected as a hostel for Russian Orthodox Christian pilgrims towards the end of the Ottoman period. The Russian Compound, built outside the Old City, included a church, a hospital, and pilgrim hostels for men and women. The inscription “Marianskya women’s hostel” can be seen in Russian above the entrance to the museum.
The British History of the Building
In 1917, the British conquered Palestine from the Ottoman Turks. The Russian compound became a British security and administrative center known as “Bevingrad.”
The women’s hostel was transformed into the central British prison. With long hallways leading to separate rooms, it was an ideal layout for a prison. Over the course of the British occupation, hundreds of prisoners passed through its gates. Jews and Arabs were incarcerated together.
At the beginning of the Mandatory period, the population of the Central Prison in Jerusalem was 250 inmates. At the end of the period the number was about 500. In the beginning prisoners were kept in cells without any separation based on religion. Starting in the mid-1930s, the number of underground prisoners rose and they demanded separate cells. The British acquiesced to this demand and they were put into separate cells. Despite the tension between Arabs and Jews outside the prisons, the relations between Jewish and Arab prisoners were generally normal. In January 1947, the tension outside penetrated into the prisons and a general fight broke out that spread throughout the prison. This outbreak was called “The Grand Toshe”. Following this event, the prison was divided into two separate wings: the southern part of the prison became the Arab wing, and the northern part became the Jewish wing.
The legendary Jerusalem saint Rabbi Aryeh Levin, who would come there to meet with the prisoners on Shabbat and holidays.
While the facility housed many death-row inmates, members of the Jewish underground sentenced to death were executed in Acre. The British, fearful of the Jewish reaction to executions in the holy city, never used the gallows for Jews. In each cell, one prisoner was appointed supervisor and given a bed. Prisoners from the Jewish underground were put to work making coffins and gravestones for British policemen and soldiers who had been killed in attacks by Jewish underground groups. As the guards used to tell them, “What you start on the outside, you finish on the inside.” The wire fence, bars and inscription “Central Prison Jerusalem” on the door are from the British Mandatory period (1917–1948).
Members of the Jewish underground were defined as political prisoners and tried by military courts. Sentences were determined according to the severity of the crime, ranging from several months to life imprisonment or the death sentence.
During the 1947–1949 Israeli War of Indepence on May 15, 1948, the compound was captured by the Haganah with the assistance of the Irgun and Lehi in a campaign known as Operation Kilshon (Operation Pitchfork).
The building was used for various purposes after the establishment of the State including storehouses of the Jewish Agency. During the 1960s the Israeli government purchased most of the compound from the Russian government. In 1991 the building was transferred to the Ministry of Defense which restored the prison and turned it into a museum.
Prisons of the British Mandate
The Mandatory justice and law enforcement apparatus included civil and military courts, a police force (“Palestine Police”) and a prison service. Prison detention camps were established all over the country. The British served at the highest positions in the prison system.
Monument to Moshe Barzani and Meir Feinstein
Moshe Barzani and Meir Feinstein were buried on the Mount of Olives. IDF state memorials were placed on their graves after the Six-Day War. The original tombstones were brought to the courtyard of the prison where they stand as monuments to their memory. Menachem Begin, commander of Etzel and Israel’s sixth prime minister, requested in his will that he be buried beside them on the Mount of Olives.
Address: 1 Mishol Hagevura St, Jerusalem Russian Compound
Opening Hours: Sun to Thu 08:30-16:00 Holidays – closed